Tag: Prioritizing


Conscience on a Ledge

Over the last few weeks, throughout early morning writing sessions, late night socializing, and the swirl of multicolored tasks that make up the in-betweens, my heart has had trouble resting easy. For once, it’s not due to any great dissatisfaction with life. My days tip more toward busyness than boredom, but I’m grateful for the creative luxury of molding my own time, for the daily check-up with my priorities. I’m happy with our family life too and our current balance between stability and excitement. Strong friendships are in the works. Opportunities abound. We can see the light at the end of the credit card statement.

However, my thankfulness and energy buzz have slunk away in shame following each new mention of Haiti. Stories like this and this, not to mention the news reports, aid auctions, and countless pleas for money, forced tragedy into my periphery. Millions without shelter or food or medical supplies… airports blocked, adoptions halted, supplies looted… impulsive relief groups stealing children… the chaos of some trying to do the right thing and others trying just to stay alive compounded with whether I should donate €10 with a text message or buy a cookbook or bid on a painting or empty PayPal’s pockets into any number of beseeching hands… I felt like I was examining calamity through a thousand microscopes.

Around the same time, a friend asked me to read her boss’s new blog exploring social justice issues like human trafficking, burdensome charity, and water allotment. Our church took up a drive to help impoverished leprosy victims in India. Compassion International brought bloggers to Kenya to report on local children’s living conditions and the need for sponsors. I heard the refreshingly-controversial Derek Webb’s “Rich Young Ruler”… and my conscience went into dizzy overdrive.

What am I supposed to do with the whole world’s sorrow at my fingertips?

It’s an honest question. I believe we humans were made to care, deeply, about each other. I see it as part of our divine imprint, the throb of compassion when we see someone in pain, the ability and drive to meet each other’s unique needs. Discomfort over suffering in our world shouldn’t be shrugged off easily; it’s what makes us humane. However, the accessibility of information makes it especially difficult for me to find my place among seven billion wishful thinkers.

Should we stop paying off debt, forget about retirement savings, and send the money to charity? Should we move back to the States where we could make a lot more and live on a lot less? Should we do away with date nights, family vacations, and birthday presents?  How can we possibly choose between the desperate situations stippling the globe?

My heart chimes in from time to time to talk my conscience off the ledge. It tells me that unfocused guilt is neither healthy nor helpful. It looks me in the eyes and says that I cannot cure the world and that even if it were possible, my job is not to do so. My heart is convinced that the needs I should be attending to belong to the people already in my life—a refugee mom at church without baby blankets, a lonely landlord eating supper alone, neighbors with health problems, a friend who’s struggling in her marriage, another caught in a messy divorce, yet another mourning the death of her child. Every day, I have opportunities to ease specific burdens, to spread kindness face-to-face.

This strikes me as true religion, every bit as significant as disaster relief for third-world countries. It’s how I can make a positive, lasting difference even with limited resources and my own family to care for, and it feels fundamentally right. So why is my conscience still crouched halfway out a windowsill obsessing about the wide, wounded world that needs a cure?


The Pursuit of Cobwebs

Last Friday, I scheduled my day to the minute in a desperate attempt to manage the ever-growing piles of more on my task list. I got the laundry sorted and washed and hung and folded—75 minutes total. I unpacked the suitcases from a week of overnight trips—35 minutes. I schlepped armloads of misplaced toys to the girls’ room, picture books back on shelves, plastic pineapples back in the pink bin—20 minutes. I cooked lunch—20. I washed the windows—30. I prepared side dishes for the next day’s Thanksgiving bash—90. I replied to an important e-mail—25. I transcribed piano chords in preparation for Sunday’s stage fright—50. I cleaned the kitchen, twice—25 and 15. I took care of the girls as practically as possible since every moment counted, and I kept my hands occupied with busy work during my hour of “down time” with Dan. I did not enjoy a single damn minute of that day. (I’m sure my family didn’t either.)

The weekend was too busy for me to process more than the immediate needs of each moment, but this Monday has been an empty four-lane highway on which I find myself… lost. No idea how to enjoy myself now that I have a little leeway. It feels like I have an eating disorder when it comes to time management… starving myself for relaxation and then binging on it, restlessly, resenting myself equally both ways. Of one thing I am sure: This is no way to live.

Not being able to marinate in my daughters’ scrumptious smallness because the house is cluttered? Not venturing more than a longing glance into the glorious, leafy backyard because my inbox needs taming? Denying myself the satisfaction of sitting down to write until my fingers feel like foreign languages because guests are slotted into our weekly calendar? Obeying the whims of the mundane and losing sight of beauty, of fun? No, no, no, this is no way to live.

And yet… I have no protocol in place for reigning in a full schedule. After all, like I frequently grumble to my husband on gorgeous Saturday mornings, someone has to do the dishes. Now that our lives have taken a turn for the normal—stuff to do, places to go, people to see—my inner perfectionist is stretched just as thin as my inner hermit. I can’t manage it all, and I suck at the pursuit of happiness; my priorities always seem to end up in favor of the tasks I enjoy the least. (Why does this happen, I ask?) It seems responsible, I guess, to dust cobwebs from dark corners when I really want to be painting with the girls.

But continual productive grumpiness is availing me nothing, and really… Responsibility is simply no way to live.


Malady Du Jour

Today’s malady du jour: vertigo. I woke up this morning to a head skipping like a scratched disc, waves of dizziness repeating ad nauseum. The doctor, diagnosing by phone as I was in no condition to leave the house (or, um, the bed), suggested it might be an inner-ear infection, which I want to make sense. I could use some extra sense right now, and perhaps a mysterious bug caught in the mazes of my head can explain the host of physical-mental symptoms I’ve been muddling through. Like headaches, great and small. Backaches. Stomachaches. Leg-aches. Heartaches. Draft folders crammed with half-written e-mails and blog posts I can’t seem to finish. Telephones ringing off the hook while I put another pillow over my head. Panic attacks. My body closing in on me until I have to force each breath. Loss of appetite. Loss of motivation. Loss of that little  somethin’ somethin’ that used to add sparkle to my days.

“It’s probably a milk allergy,” assured one friend. Another one told us of an endocrinologist where I could get my thyroid checked. Another friend suggested I ask for antidepressants, while yet another one told me about some great counseling services… 6,000 impossible miles away. Suddenly it’s not just the vertigo making me dizzy as I spin through the options and consider the frightening subjectiveness of medical diagnoses. I start to feel claustrophobic at the thought that I live in a non-English-speaking country, but I should be honest: I wouldn’t know where to start looking in the States either.

I go to the doctor in a few days, and I desperately want to solve myself before then. I am reluctant, embarrassed, to explain the multitude of ways in which I am sucking right now, and I would love to tell him, “Look Doc, I seem to be suffering from a food allergy. Please to medicate.” Doctors appreciate it when patients diagnose themselves, right?

The one good thing about this prolonged mystery illness is that, as it slowly drains the color from life, my priorities come into sharp black-and-white focus. I may not be able to accomplish much right now, but I can snuggle my girls for a long afternoon nap… and realize how much more important that is than cleaning or shopping or worrying about everything I’m not getting done. The world won’t stop if I’m unproductive this month, and perhaps marinating in the love of my sweet family may be my best treatment plan.


The Death of Chipper

My mental dialogue lately has been about as opposite from chipper as possible. (In fact, I completely despise the word “chipper” and would love nothing better than taking a sharp, rusty eraser to it. Case in point.) I’m partially proud of myself for not letting this negativity spill over onto my blog and partially guilty for not having the balls to write through the rough times. Either way, I’ve missed you, sweet Internet.

I seem to have come down with a raging case of Incurable Motherhead that has left me flat on the freshly-scrubbed bathroom floor wondering if I will survive the month. The choices do not look good from here: 1) Live in abject squalor, forego cooking, and largely ignore my family so that I can make a foray into the world of writing… or 2) Continue to be a tolerable housewife and mommy while stifling 97% of creative impulses because free time? Doesn’t exist so much.

You mamas whose children are finally in a less-needy stage of life—Was it this hard for you? I feel terrified that if I give up on my daydreams now, I won’t be able to pick them back up once life has settled enough to allow for them. I’m likewise terrified that if I don’t find contentment now, my girls will grow up with an aloof and unhappy mother. Occupied, distant, unfulfilled, absolutely not the kind of parent my little girls deserve.

And now you all need antidepressants. Apologies.

I’m unsure where to go from here—should I redirect my lagging energy away from cleaning or blogging or venturing out of the house or occasional grooming practices?—but I assure you: it will not involve the word “chipper.”


A Vote of Conscience

Dan and I had no illusions when he started graduate school a year after our wedding. We knew there were no savings accounts in our immediate future, no working fancy cars, and certainly no cushions of wealth to fall on if things grew tight. However, we were excited for his opportunity to get a degree in a field he loved, and his stipend provided for our few needs. There were only two things we could not purchase on our own: a house (mortgage payments would be far more affordable than rent, plus they would be an investment rather than a complete loss) and health insurance. I even took various jobs I hated to help out, but it wasn’t enough. That time was very frightening for us; a new baby was quickly on her way, and we lived in a moldy one-bedroom apartment without the thousands of dollars needed for health insurance.

I cringed the first time I walked into the social services building down the street. Waiting rooms were crowded with regular people, all looking carefully down at their shoes, and I felt embarrassed by my decent clothes. At the same time, I wanted to shout to everyone in the building that I didn’t belong there. Dan and I weren’t poor; we just didn’t have any money. I wanted everyone to know that we both worked, very hard. We weren’t like everyone else in the building.

But of course we were. The more I looked around, the more I noticed young mothers struggling against tears as they asked for food stamps to feed their children. I saw impoverished elderly couples applying for help to pay their outrageous prescription bills. I ran into our next-door neighbor wearing his best suit, hoping to find a better job than his one-car taxi business so he could work his way out of bankruptcy. Not one of us was sitting around thinking Ahh, this is the life; the government takes care of me, and I don’t have to do a thing! We were struggling, all.

The day Natalie was born, she had to have surgery, and the initial bill was $80,000 (not counting the next eleven days she spent in the NICU). Because of Medicare, we did not have to pay a penny of the bill that would have derailed our entire lives. Several months later, we were able to purchase a little three-bedroom house with a closing costs loan from the government (which we have since paid off) and start saving on mortgage, utilities, and transportation. We survived those few years because we were not alone in the world; we received enough help to get us on our feet, and with his graduate degree, my husband is able to have a good job that he enjoys.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard family and friends say that Democratic policy will just lead to rampant laziness and teach people that they can get away with sitting at home all day, mooching off the government. They are outraged that Obama wants to raise taxes on the rich to provide health coverage and better education for the poor. Where did your kindness go? I want to ask them. We used to be some of those poor, and our lives are immensely better for the help we got. Poor does not mean lazy. It does not mean criminal. It simply means “needy,” and why would anyone want to deny help to the ones who need it most? Would you really horde your $250,000 salary if it meant that babies would starve whose parents couldn’t afford college educations to then get good jobs? Would you prevent “socialism” if it meant that people could not pay for emergency room visits or medicine? Would you deny help to “the least of these” in order to teach them an irrelevant lesson about responsibility?

I voted with my conscience this election, and I’m deeply grateful that our future president and his lovely wife understand the power of kindness. Wealth and foreign control pale in comparison to the worth of people, and the hope this election has brought is not to be taken lightly. Even on the blazing-hot abortion issue, I am supporting Obama, who not only has a plan to decrease abortions by 95% but (more importantly) will be increasing the government’s humanitarian work to prevent countless unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

People matter more than money. Kindness matters more than fairness. Opportunity matters more than tradition. This is what I believe with all my heart as a mother, a friend, a citizen, a Bible-reader, and an unaffiliated voter, and this is why I am awed by gratefulness for the next president of the United States.


Worth [very nearly] 1,000 Words

If my week were a photograph, it would show a tiny corner kitchen. Crusty dishes swell like a wave out of the sink–a new black plate already chipped on one side, five (thousand?) saucepans stacked like Russian nesting dolls, a spaghetti server caked with dry tomato pulp that might as well be rubber cement for how easily it will come off. Brown-rimmed coffee cups lurk on the stove, under the dish towel, behind the water filter–self-medication for restless naps. That filmy tangle of plastic wrap in the corner is left over from Wednesday, when it shut out air from my morning and stuck my afternoon in all the wrong places. That gummy wad of Cheerio crumbs, smashed peas, and stray Playmobil pieces? Used to be the floor.

In the high chair, just visible to the side, sits a tired baby adorned head to toe in rice mush. Her cranky pout could be due either to boredom or to the angry red hives popping up around her mouth from tasting formula. From where I stand, it looks like a prescription: Exclusively breastmilk, five times a day, until college.

I am the one crumbling by the sink with stringy hair and yesterday’s makeup, looking exactly like those moms I used to pity. That white patch on my shoulder is spit-up, naturally, and that green glint in my eye is all the bad words I want to say…

…but won’t because of the short girl tugging on my shirt. It’s not evident from the photo, but she is chattering in Ancient Mongolian: “Fleeshle waboom botchgoin mickaiwogo toks meegwam clombish lobblelobblelobblelobble popcorn for breakfast?” She may have been wearing those stripey pink socks for three days straight now, but her mother declines to comment.

The photo shows grease splatters on the range hood, rainy pockmarks on the window, and dust bunnies curled in the least-reachable corners. It shows the nuclear fallout from last night’s souptastrophe. It shows the disparity between sticky note to-do lists and hours in a day. What the photo doesn’t show, however, is the front door, just out of sight around the corner. It doesn’t show the moment tonight when that door will open and my husband will be home again. It doesn’t show Natalie shrieking “DADDY!!!” (in English, praise be to Webster) or Sophie bursting into giggles or me sinking into his arms like a damsel quite suddenly out of distress. It doesn’t show the dirty dishes fading into the distance or smiles eclipsing my lack of makeup… but who cares? This is the point when I tear the photo into Cheerio-sized bits and toss it into the mess that used to matter.

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