Author: Bethany

4Feb

Weekenders

(Weekend cuisine.)

My first waking thought on Saturday morning was a bad word directed specifically at my alarm clock. This is normal. However, the stabbing sensation behind my left eardrum was not. It seemed that the earache I’d been blurring out of my mind all week with over-the-counter painkillers and an unhealthy dose of denial was not taking no for an answer.

Spasms of pain radiated down my jawline and rear-ended each other in my tongue, which reacted to the trauma by playing dead. “Ah ink ah eeb a ahcker,” I beseeched Dan in the loudest whisper I could manage. “What’s that?” he asked, but by then, my swallow reflex had forced my throat to move, and I was busy crying. (Side note: Do you know how often our bodies swallow by instinct? I discovered thanks to the rusty jackhammer in my ear canal that it happens approximately 500 times a minute and that the more you concentrate on not swallowing, the more you feel compelled to. It’s like the yawn’s more addictive big brother.)

Through an attractive mix of tongue pantomime and bleating noises, I managed to communicate that I needed to see a doctor, and two hours later, I was hopped up on antibiotics and antihistamines and anti-inflammatories to the extent that I was finally able to drink my morning coffee. For lunch.

A few weeks ago, a sweet older lady at our church asked us if we still lived here, and I found myself explaining that while we are still living our normal weekday lives here, the weekends tend to find at least one of us sick. If it’s not two-day bronchitis, it’s a two-day flu, and if it isn’t the flu, it’s a two-day head cold, and if it’s not a head cold, it’s a two-day fever, and if it isn’t a fever, it’s a two-day adult onset ear infection. The Sickness Du Jour strikes on Saturday morning, lingers in our system through Sunday evening, and then vanishes by the time Monday morning dawns.

I know, it doesn’t sound credible to me either. If I hadn’t been the one lying around the house in various stages of facial distress all weekend, I would have thought we were trying to worm our way out of various social plans or at least our Saturday chores.

I have a theory about this though. I think our bodies notice how we push them so hard throughout the week—how we keep them up too late and strain them with long working hours and make them do horrible things like vacuuming and kettlebells—and I think they store up every molecule of fatigue for the moment of least resistance. They know we need a break, so they take it upon themselves to schedule one for us.

It’s crazy annoying, but I get the point. On the rare weekend in which nobody is bedridden, I pack every free minute with errands and home improvement projects. I don’t go to bed any more willingly now than I did as a five-year-old, and I guess a body’s got to do what a body’s got to do to get some rest. Multiply that by four family members, and we’re lucky we ever make it to church.

As much as I’d like to live by the mind-over-body principle and schedule my own sicknesses thankyouverymuch, my irritation at these mandatory time-outs softens when I consider how I would feel if they hit mid-week. Our bodies are doing the best with what they’ve got, and I really do appreciate their consideration in waiting for the weekend to break down. Even if it does mean sweet older ladies at church think we’ve left the country.

~~~

How does your body channel fatigue? Is weekend sickness A Thing, or is it just us? 

30Jan

Why I Swore Off Social Networking… and Came Right Back Again

Last week, the words wouldn’t come. I tried, planting myself in my computer chair and waging blinking contests with the cursor while time ticked away. I tucked a notepad and pen into my gym bag. I took inspiring books along on errands, just in case the orbits of opportunity and creativity finally decided to align while I was out.

They didn’t.

It wasn’t that daily life wasn’t providing enough material. On the contrary, my brain was wound so tightly with big decisions, big goals, big feelings, and the big events in loved ones’ lives that I felt like the first scattered trembles of a supernova. Writing is usually how I ward off eminent explosion, but the words wouldn’t come… and to be honest, my break from blogging felt a lot less like spelunking my way to clear-mindedness and a lot more like somersaulting through space.

~~~

One of the Big Thoughts I’ve been working through this month has to do with online community. I’ve always hated reading Facebook statuses like “I’m sick of Facebook” or tweets proclaiming “So long, Twitterverse.” Besides the obvious irony of swearing off social media ON SOCIAL MEDIA, those kinds of statuses make me feel personally rebuffed, as if those friends had grown disgusted with the idea of staying in touch.

You can understand then why I cringed so violently a couple of weeks ago when I caught myself telling Dan, “I’m thinking of quitting social networks.” I could not have felt more hypocritical in that moment, but I had just spent twenty minutes reading up on the newest controversy everyone was talking about, and the end result was the same gritty black aura of criticism and outrage that so often descends on me when I click the Facebook logo. Wait, he said WHAT? How can she possibly think that? Oh no you didn’t just go there. Why would they think anyone wants to know THAT? What the hell…? I can’t believe…! Don’t get me started… etc. etc. forever and ever amen.

The truth was, I no longer liked myself on Facebook. I hated my immediate impulse to form judgments about my friends based on a parade of links, likes, and one-sentence status updates, and it stung to realize how much time I could lose in a day chasing down controversy. Beyond that, I realized how much of my self-worth I was hanging on that same haphazard system—tallying up likes, strategizing the best times of day to post links, and even brainstorming blog topics based on how much buzz they might be able to generate. I was basing my online interactions around seeking and withholding approval, and it was poisoning my creativity at its relational heart.

So I told Dan I was considering giving it all up—deleting my accounts, turning off blog comments, disabling social media plug-ins, and just creating in happy isolation. No more crowding my mind with others’ opinions. No more reliance on instant validation. If I were no longer networking, I would be free to publish my writing and then just walk away; the idea sounded glorious and not at all like previous friends’ decisions to swear off social media. After all, I wasn’t going to post about it.

~~~

Last week, I quietly stayed offline, alone with my Big Thoughts and the space to write about them without agenda… but the words wouldn’t come. What I’d thought would feel like freedom ended up feeling more like alienation, and it wasn’t validation I was missing; it was interconnectedness. It was Hey, I saw you’re having a hard week; can we bring over dinner? and Don’t worry; my babies went through that stage too, and I promise you’ll survive, and Wow, I never would have thought of things like that. I didn’t miss the controversy, but I keenly felt the lack of others’ worlds, your worlds, broadening and inspiring my own. Say what they will about how friendships conducted online are pale shadows of those lived face-to-face, social media protestors can’t explain away the very real and lasting value it has brought to my life.

In my disillusionment over the negative aspects of social networking, I had lost sight of the positive, and my week of distance sent me sailing straight into this: Encouragement matters, whether it is offered across a coffee table or across a series of IP addresses. If “encouragement” is too churchy a word (is it?), swap it out with “positive connectedness” or “affirming relationships” or simply “friendship.” The point is that what we have here counts, and while stats and retweets need to take on a much less important role in my life, that doesn’t mean the people behind them need to as well.

Author Emily Wieranga’s blogging resolutions ring especially relevant on this side of the to-leave-or-not-to-leave debate, where I know so clearly what I don’t want but so little of what I do:

“never write just for the sake of writing…
never not write out of fear of not having anything to say…
never comment on another person’s blog simply in the hopes of having them read mine…
continue to keep the comments section open, as a way to spark conversation”
(You can read the rest over on her blog.)

I suspect I’m signing myself up for a year-long, if not life-long struggle to find the balance between caring about the people in my community and not letting their opinions—even the validating ones—define me. I want to find that slim ribbon of perspective that lets me value your thoughts and learn from them and even catch ablaze on them without being consumed in the process. On the other end of it, I need to root my purpose for writing in something far deeper and more fundamental to my identity than what kind of reaction it will generate while still being sensitive to all of you who read it. Basically, my mindset needs to work on its fine motor skills.

~~~

Back in the early days of blogging (I started eleven years ago, which now seems positively prehistoric), I don’t remember any debate over authenticity vs. boundaries, apart from Dooce losing her job and advising the rest of us to “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.” In fact, I don’t remember any drama at all over post content; my blogging friends and I wrote 1) to flex our creative muscles, and 2) to be a community. We would get together at coffee shops and read our favorite entries out loud, then go back to our dorm rooms and blog about it. Some of us sported Blogger t-shirts. It was pretty awesome.

Today, blogging has the potential to be so much more—income, book-fodder, recognition—and it’s easy to absorb the idea that those outcomes are the reason we’re here. The pressure is on to come up with exceptionally written, SEO-friendly posts in our signature styles for our chosen niches with enough punch to go viral and enough relatability to attract loyal followers (ideally those in the publishing industry). Blog traffic isn’t just a perk, it’s the point, and though all our efforts are focused on readership, we miss out on community.

That’s both why I decided to quit social networking and why I came right back again. Here, as in my face-to-face world, relationships mean nothing without authenticity, and authenticity has no strength apart from relationships. Blogging simply doesn’t work for me without both factors. As appealing and praiseworthy as the life of a technological hermit may seem at times, it isn’t the route I’m meant to go, and now that I’m acknowledging that, now, finally, the words are coming back.

~~~

How do you feel about social networking? Do you think it’s necessary for a successful creative life? 

18Jan

Grace as: Winter’s Skin

The air sinks its teeth into my cheeks the moment I step outside. Clouds are skating across a slick white sky, and the mud still smells faintly of snow. I don’t want to be out of doors. To be honest, I barely want to be out of bed. Some ancestral instinct in me beats to the tune of hibernating bears, and I would sleep the winter away if I weren’t wrapped in skin instead of fur, if these lungs didn’t ache to be filled to capacity.

I’m only human though, and that’s why I find myself out in the live of winter, my feet shivering in a pair of RealFlexes. I need to remember how to breathe.

In the past, I’ve pounded my feet against the trail visualizing inches of my waistline trampled underneath. Other times, I’ve trained for shock factor, imagining how those who really know me would react if I could complete a 5K. (For reference.) I’ve chased endorphins and given up when life has crowded too close. I’ve run to blow off steam and run to spite myself and run to prove something and run to change everything, and only today am I running simply to feel alive.

Winter skin

There is no agenda except for this, the ice-tipped air driving dust out of my bronchioles and startling my circulatory system awake. My face tingles in its own personal sleet storm and then, as my feet find their rhythm and my heart shakes away the last vestiges of hibernation, begins to warm. I remember what I’ve learned about myself over the months on this very trail—how my natural reaction to exercise is panic, how I have to unclench my fingers one at a time and coax my lungs into exhaling with promise of unlimited refills. I remember how to let it all go every other step and trust that there will be enough for the one after.

I run until my lungs and my heart and my winter-flamed skin understand this as grace.

“and she’s glowing with her light
she’s glowing with her light
embracing her strength with her final bite
winter is winter is winter is
here.”

 ~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via Twitter, RSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

Grace as: Role Call

17Jan

Lightening

I’m startled by my own weight when the alarm rings and dragging myself up through gravity feels like dueling a rip tide. This isn’t the kind of heaviness that spins the needle on our bathroom scale, though I’m surprised it doesn’t; it feels so tangible, a lead apron clinging to my bones.

I don’t need a scale to tell me I’m off the chart in soul-kilos though. I recognize the heft of each and every piece in this baggage set—

fear of who might be lurking on the other side of a shadow

anxiety over a future that refuses to be planned

disoriented terror that flits from potential disaster to potential catastrophe

every opinion formed about me that I’ve accepted as my identity

every opinion I’ve formed of others that reflects more on myself

dependence on a houseful of breakable, stealable things

my list of wants and the moving target at the end

this worry I carry around like a custom-fitted brick around my heart

stress, stress, stress

and my arch-frenemy, the compulsion to Fit In

They’ve traveled with me into the new year, and here I am, startled by my own weight when I try to lift myself out of bed, up from the table, off the sofa. It’s too much, it’s all too much, and the truth I’m trying to lift my head enough to see is that not a piece in the set is mine to lug around.

I’ve been wrestling with my “one wild and precious life” more than usual lately, and some Big Thoughts are coming to the surface, some surprising twists of perspective that I need to spelunk properly before I share. If I’m a little quieter than usual, that is why; spelunking is a mysterious and silent art, after all. I do know this though—each step back to take in a new angle is a step closer to returning a lighter woman than before.

15Jan

Life, with Style

We’ve been an exclusively freelancing family for a year now—not a drop of guaranteed income since December 2011—and just to write that requires a deep breath and several pinches on the arm to verify that I’m still here, that we’re still here. It doesn’t seem possible. We’ve had nothing more substantial to stand on than the prismed airstreams of faith and hope and inspiration, and I’ll be honest, the hardest part of our year came after my post on accrued miracles.

We landed on the doorstep of 2013 as shaky and windswept as if we had been flung off a roller coaster, but just as exhilarated too. For all the instability of this lifestyle and the havoc it wreaks on my imagination, we feel like we’re en route to our best selves, and that’s been enough to overrule surges of panic and impulses to snatch up ill-fitting jobs. We pray like schizophrenics, listen to heart-nudges, eat lots of soup, and try to keep our forward momentum into new realms of possibility. It’s a morale-saver, that possibility.

It can also be a soul-snuffer, at least where my manic work philosophy comes into play. Without a clearly defined workday or bite-sized goals, I view all that possibility as my direct and urgent responsibility. Must! accomplish! All The Things! NOW! Inevitably, after three or four days of frenzied work and no play, Jack isn’t simply a dull boy; he’s a burned-out, scary-eyed, hormonal mess of a zombie housewife.

(This is what happens when a lover of hyperbole is allowed to freelance.)

I’ve always been quick to prioritize the life out of my time, though I know well how it leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and burnout and despair and snooze button abuse, followed by a reluctant admission that my brain belongs in rehab and a resolve to do better (which I add to my to-do list because I’m also a lover of irony). Really, though, that is my mission for this year: to put the life back into my lifestyle. To recondition my sense of accomplishment and let myself feel happy dammit!, even if the only thing I’ve managed to do in the day is love well. To choose margins for my time instead of wallowing helplessly in too-much-to-do. To care for my physical, spiritual, relational, and creative self, you know, on purpose.

This is probably the hardest resolution I could make for myself right now. I’m more comfortable with sacrifice than I am with solace, and I’ve adopted versions of this goal in the past without it sticking any better than my resolve to give up sugar (I tried that once in high school for a whole day; I know better now). I have to figure this out though if I plan to enjoy our second year of freelancing adventures.

Which I most absolutely do.

10Jan

Anti-Anxiety Meditation

This is what we opened our front door to when we arrived home after a family Christmas in Milan.

Our Christmas tree shoved to the floor, the window frame behind it ragged with crowbar marks, and every top drawer in the house pulled open. Our house, along with several others in the neighborhood, had been targeted by burglars while we were away.

After a panicky inventory, we were dumbfounded to discover that the thieves hadn’t taken a single thing from our home, not even Dan’s expensive work computer. (Let me tell you about gratefulness…) However, the post-home-invasion experience isn’t as much about what the intruders take as it is about what they leave: their invisible fingerprints on our underwear, their shadow-selves around each corner when the lights go out, and their harmful intentions toward us lingering in the air.

This is the first house that I’ve felt safe in, ever. I’ve lived in fifteen different homes to date, and this one—this gated, shuttered, dog-guarded, and triple-locked third story refuge—is the only one that never pricked at my fearful imagination. Until we got home from Christmas break, that is. Now, I am noticing the odd creaks and squeaks of our house as I have never noticed them before; the groan of a radiator is an intruder, the rattle of wind against the shutters is an intruder, even the spin cycle of our washing machine is an intruder (brandishing a weed whacker, perhaps?). Everything from our coat rack to my rocking chair catches my peripheral vision at night with an icy splash of fear, and even as I’m checking the locks for the fifth time before bed, I know they offer no assurances. Our safe place no longer promises safety.

My mother-in-law, who’s been through this herself, shared the comforting perspective that the burglars now know we don’t have what they’re after (gold, jewels, cash, anything that would look right on the set of Downton Abbey) and won’t be back. From a rational standpoint, we really don’t have anything to worry about. Yet anxiety doesn’t always see things from a rational standpoint. It sees things more from the standpoint of Oh God it’s dark outside and bad guys could be hiding below our balcony preparing their grappling hooks right now and we’ll probably all die in our beds tonight.

Anxiety is clearly not helping the situation. It offers no constructive advice, only helplessness and an unfocused panic, and I know that my task is not to indulge the anxiety by barricading our house or stocking up on defense weapons or living in suspicion but to counteract it—to refuse to hold onto the shadows and harmful intentions left by our intruders.

In light of this, the girls’ perspective is pretty awesome. I was worried how Natalie and Sophie would react to seeing evidence of thieves in their own bedroom. I’d braced myself for tearful bedtimes and nightmares and wondered how in the world I could assuage their fears when my own were so pronounced. However, I’d underestimated their generous little hearts. “If the thieves come back,” announced Natalie, “we’ll just invite them to stay for breakfast.” “And then give them two euros!” piped up Sophie. Not a trace of fear. In fact, I think they’re sort of hoping the thieves come back.

While I do not share that particular hope, my girls’ idea of repaying harm with kindness is straight out of Jesus’s teaching. I told them that yesterday, and Sophie grinned. “I love Jesus,” she said. “Me too,” I grinned back, getting the first hint of an inkling how perfect love really might be able to cast out fear.

9Jan

Pea Soup

(#nofilter #really)

In some moments, merging back into everyday life after a vacation feels like cliff-diving into the Baltic Sea after a six-course dinner. Other moments, it feels like getting lost in a pea soup fog. Sometimes it’s more like venturing into the Himalayas on foot while other times I might as well be sleepwalking in a corn maze.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the energizing whirl of holidayness putters out—at approximately 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s when one of the grownups suggests another party game and the rest look desperately at their five-year-olds who have turned into tireless vampire Energizer bunnies and refuse to provide an easy excuse for their parents to head home to bed—I suddenly find that the previous year has left me about 3,000 hours short on sleep and go into a week-long coma. Once I wake up, my annual Simplify! Simplify! craze kicks in, and if there are not at least five full recycling or give-away bags when I’m done with a room, it isn’t done. I organize and dust and IKEA the hell out my workspace so that I can take on 2013 with no holds barred…

…and then I sit down at that freshly de-cluttered workspace and realize I have no idea what I’m doing there. The new year is just too big, its goals too daunting, its tempo too unfamiliar. I don’t know how I can possibly catch up from those few weeks away from my daily routine, much less make inroads into the here and now, and the Type A fun of tying the old year into the new with summaries and resolutions seems like a luxury reserved for people who don’t lose perspective two minutes into vacation.

Unfortunately, my perspective is 97% tied to how often I write (the other 3% is caffeine), and I have never in my life managed to keep up a steady flow of words when in vacation mode. There are so many other things to see and do, loved ones to spend time with, and comas to enjoy. Without really meaning to, I’ve neglected to tap into my own thought life for over two weeks now, so things have gotten pretty discombobulated up in here. Words have been coming to me by the pageful in dreams, but they always white out the instant my alarm clock vibrates to life, and I don’t quite know how to be myself without them.

Is it okay to be admitting this? I have visions of this blog as something beautiful and significant (as does every blogger, presumably) with each paragraph carrying its own weight in purpose, but this sentiment tends to cripple more than inspire. It’s why I’ve been circling this page for days, swooping in occasionally to peck at a stray sentence but never alighting on anything meaningful enough to settle into. It’s also why I’ve treated my husband to a Disparately-Eyebrowed Stare Of Incredulity every time he’s suggested I slip out for half an hour to blog. You don’t just create something brilliant and insightful from pea soup fog in half an hour, see, and sitting down to write when I’m short on words and time and a sense of self all at once is a fairly certain recipe for despair.

This is my best idea on how to reclaim my non-comatose writerly self though—digging back in for authenticity and legible sentences even if though they’re not going to win me a spot on HuffPo, even if though they’re not the deep and heavy and beautiful things I wanted to articulate, even if though I’m too busy for this and January feels like an ice-shocked Scandinavian sea and I’m more tempted than you know to adopt hibernation as a viable lifestyle. I’m here despite all that, and I’m declaring that, as imperfect a first-post-of-the-year as this may be, it totally counts as taking on 2013.

~~~

Does your back-to-work routine also include flailing and spluttering and ruing the day of your birth? How are you getting along with the new year?

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