On Gym Culture

“Will you get out of my way?” snapped the elderly woman, gripping her kick board tight and kicking off from the wall.  Her eyes were twinkling; it’s hard to be taken seriously when your eyes shine with mirth.  “Maybe….” I grinned back, “If I feel like it.”  My answer satisfied her.

As she cruised past another elderly woman was using some foam weights, so I asked her if she’d show me how to use them.  She seemed genuinely surprised that a semi-young-whipper-snapper was asking her for help.  I got weights off of a shelf brimming with water aerobics gear and earned a laugh from them as I’d inadvertently chosen very large ones.  I tried to do the move she showed me of pushing them downwards and found myself lifting off my feet.  I had to move to deeper water to actually keep myself in the water.  These ladies were a combination of kind and cranky and very comfortable in their bodies.  They’re the sort that whips their suit clean off and towels-off fully nude in the middle of the locker room, while gals my age are huddling and covering and ashamed that we are not, after all, some kind of perfect.  I want to be like them.

It was different at my first gym.  I don’t know why some places have such a vibe, but it sort of oozed sexuality; there was strutting, long looks, bootie-shaking Zumba, and a lot of the women came to work out looking better than I’d ever look to go out.  I mean, hair washed, blown-dry, straightened, and then assembled into the most deliberate “messy bun”, and make-up so perfectly applied that they looked prom-ready from the neck up, and triathlon-ready from there down.  After their exercise the whole routine had to be repeated so that they could go out as perfectly as they entered.  Meanwhile I puffed and sweated away on the rowing machine, red-faced and with an honestly messy hairstyle.  I’m not mocking those women (nor the men who very much appreciated their efforts); I don’t feel like I’m better than them nor that I’m a shlub for not taking the same pains.  I’d just say that the things which were important to them in their gym culture were foreign to me and extraneous to what I was after.

There is something about a long-established gym full of old folks.  Our first time going my husband had emerged from his changing room before I had, and I found him enmeshed in a gossiping group of old ladies, crowded around a small table.  I smiled.

Now, there is a Zumba class, and at different hours of the day the crowd may be more young, restless, and on the hunt, but there has been, at all hours, enough of the oldsters around to balance things out.  It has the feel of an old country club with a few youngsters thrown in; a landmark of the community much like a diner in a small town; everyone knows, or at least recognizes the regulars and has something to say about them.  And of course they have a lot to say about the newcomers.

“Where did you come from?!” barked the elderly woman, her swimming cap adding height and severity to her expression.  I pointed to the lap lane next to us from whence I had just swam.  “You just APPEARED!” she cried.  “Someone has to keep you on your toes”, I said, winking.

I think I’ll fit in just fine.

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When Zondervan Called

It isn’t often that a publishing company gives this “author” a phone call.  For some reason or other I must have sent them an inquiry a few years ago, as they had my email address.  The charming customer service man asked how many manuscripts I had done or were in progress.

“Two are done, one in progress.”

“And are you looking to publish them….?”

“No, no, not really.  I am a most unmotivated writer.  My joy is in the writing, so…I’m already happy.”

“But your work…it could be shared more broadly, more people could read it, etc…Wouldn’t you like to see your work read by more people?”

“See…here’s the thing; it’s hard to entice someone with things that may make them happy when…they’re already happy.”

“Wouldn’t God want you to use your gifts for others?”

(to myself:  oh, I do believe He also delights in faithful obscurity)

Then the conversation got around to the real point; that I could get a discount on the membership for their Author Learning Center site.  That I could get tips there from pros and learn marketing strategy and how to promote my writing.  In only “fifteen minutes a day” I could be learning so much.  Perhaps.

“But, I’m learning Norwegian right now; that takes up my extra time.  My five kids need all the rest.”

He didn’t have a ready-made rejoinder for that.

I don’t believe that I’m a bad writer (likely wouldn’t do a blog if I thought I had nothing to offer), but I do grasp that I lack the ambition that my author friends have.  I have a knee-jerk reaction to promoting myself, marketing myself, and networking in general.  Writing is pleasant to me, so I write.

To hold my own published work in my hands…I don’t know.  I don’t know if that would make me more happy, fulfilled in a new way; I just don’t know.  Maybe it would bring a new joy into my heart; maybe it would tempt me to be insufferably proud and/or insecure.

I really loved rowing.  I really hated the regattas.  But, to be part of the club, I needed to participate in them and do my best.  Two times my double and I took second; once in the Chilean Nationals, and once in a regatta honoring the Chilean police force.  Then, in one of my last races, we won gold.  We pulled across the finish and realized all the boats were behind us.  There was a lift in my spirit; I was happy to have done well for my club.  I liked the joy of my team and friends.  But for me?  It really was better to set out for a good long row with no medals and no fanfare, quietly gliding over the waters next to pelicans and sea lions; working hard, but in obscurity, and loving it completely.

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I know that the regattas taught me things I wouldn’t otherwise have learned…I am sure attempting to publish my works would do the same, but I cannot bring myself to strive for that, at least, not now.  There is nothing that compels me; no inner drive, no dangling carrot, no sense of obligation.

And so, I write here, obscurely and delightedly.

For the Mall Averse; Alternative Christmas Shopping Ideas

It isn’t just the crowds and the fluorescent lighting and the endless racks and piles of goods.  It’s the loudness of breathless materialism writ in bits:  Buy One Get One 40% off!  Stocking Stuffers!  Buy More, Save More!  Gifts Worth Giving!

Everywhere you look the signs scream, plead, and croon about how parting with your cash for this or that will MAKE your Christmas, just absolutely.  The stores are practically doing you a favor!  Huzzah!  Jump on the buying train with your shiny shopping bags bumping heavily in your hands; let’s ride to Christmas-topia!

Let me just let that train go past.  Okay.  I am not anti-presents; I love them, giving and receiving.  But, folks, the way we consume our planet’s resources is out of control.  I’m not saying there isn’t a time to buy something new; underwear for instance is usually wise to purchase new (although just today I bought 10 pairs of boxers for my sons at the thrift store as they were quite immaculate).  But to believe without qualification that the only decent thing to gift is a new product says a lot about our susceptibility to the Christmas-topia train’s siren call.  A price tag does not a good present make.  Given that, there are some good ways to buy new things; things that will last, things that support our local economy!  Okay, looking both ways before crossing the tracks, here’s my ideas for great, responsible, wonderful gift-giving this year!

  • Thrift and consignment shops!  It is amazing to me what you can find for very affordable prices in these places, including sports equipment, lovely shoes and clothes, antiques, home decor, and on and on.  Buy a whole outfit for each kid or assemble baskets along a theme; a real toolbox filled with tools, fishing gear, knitting supplies, mud pie making kit with pie tins and kitchen tools (alternately a play-doh tool set with rolling pin, cookie cutters, you get the idea), old time lady gift (antique purse with vintage hankies, a brooch, gloves, hat pin), a bundle of good records or books tied with a piece of jute, baby doll bundle (doll plus preemie outfits and accessories), or any antique items like vintage pyrex mixing bowls stuffed with homemade cookies!
  • Make it!  Give homemade candies, breads, cookies, knitted or crocheted goods, candles, soaps, lip balms in repurposed tins, herb vinegars, dried apples, homemade jerky, canned goods, dried herbs in decorative bottles, hot chocolate mixes, etc.  Pinterest is your friend here.  Look around your home, in your pantry, in your sewing materials.  Irreparable jeans make AWESOME pot holders that will hold up for years.  If you have woodworking tools, cutting boards, pastry boards, pizza peels, and cheese boards are all possibilities.
  • If you buy new, buy useful!  Don’t buy the play tool set; buy age-appropriate real tools for your kids and let them practice on a piece of scrap wood or stump.  Don’t buy a “play tent”, buy a real one.  Kids find the real stuff super fascinating; it doesn’t need to have a Disney character on it to make it “fun”.  Give the kid with a love of cooking real kitchen ware that is of good quality; that will last them a lifetime, along with cookbooks that they can understand (and coupons for cooking lessons, one-on-one with you!)
  • Buy from local artists, spas, and artisans!  Investing your dollars in your local economy is a boon to your neighbors, and it keeps small businesses in business.
  • Antique Shops!  Not only are you reusing rather than consuming, but your gifts will be unique and clearly time-tested to last.  Ideas:  vintage postcards that you slip into an antique frame, a bundle of old children’s books, pitcher and cup sets, anything Pyrex, old linens, lovely candle holders with a bundle of your own homemade tapers, cast iron pans, copper pans, whimsical salt and pepper shakers, etc.
  • Give experiences!  Museum, aquarium, and gym memberships are great ways to bless a whole family for a year!  Tickets to concerts, plays, operas, spa treatments, sporting events are also well received.  Homemade coupons for “Dinner for Two” dates, “Mommy and Me” outings, etc.

Beyond these ideas, make a habit of “preventative shopping”.  I learned this idea from the blog Miser Mom.  The concept is to go garage sale and thrift store shopping throughout the year, picking up items that will be useful later (shoes and clothes in the next size up for your kids) and gifts for others.  I have put this into practice and am no longer assaulted by the crisis of snow boot and pants and whatnot shortages quite as often.  I also have a “gift box” of sorts of lovely items of good quality for birthdays and holidays.  Spend a wee bit now to avoid spending a whole lot later.  It works.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add to it in the comments section.  Happy gifting!

A Tale of Two Kingdoms, or, Why a Conservative Christian Cried on Election Day

I rubbed tiredness from my eyes as they tapped red and blue-smattered digital maps and now and then cued the dramatic music for the next incoming projection.  A yellow checkmark shone beside the beaming candidate’s triumphal face, claiming another state, another trove of electoral votes.  There was disbelief, conjecture, and momentum towards an outcome radically different than expected.

When it ended I slipped into bed beside my sleeping husband, waking him.

“Trump won.”

“What?  You’re joking.  No way.”

“Yep.  Hillary conceded.  He’s going to be our President.”

“Wow.”

Then we lay in silence.

Tears came readily, for me, a pro-life Christian conservative.  Yes, when the power seemed to fall in my peoples’ laps.  The tears weren’t for Hillary, though I did feel sad for her own grief, having worked so hard.  I did not want her as my President, but I felt for her loss and frustration.  I grieved for the people whose hearts felt hope because of her support for the marginalized; I grieved for their fear.  You don’t have to agree to feel.  You can look into the eyes of those with whom you experience profound disagreement and feel compassion for their hurt, their disappointed hopes, their suffering.

No, I didn’t grieve for Clinton; I grieved for the Church.

History has taught me to grieve this; I cannot ignore it.  The government may or may not be improved with Christian morality legislated; this is complex and hard to quantify especially because Christian morality itself is interpreted so differently among Christians! Is it Christian to execute criminals?  Is it Christian to initiate war?  Is it Christian to tell non-Christians whom they can form a civil union with?  And clearly there are certain things that an effectively self-sustaining government must be ready to do that a good Christian could never do; we are constrained by the laws of another Kingdom which are incompatible with any earthly one.  How does a country operate in global relations if its beliefs include loving your enemy, blessing those who hurt you, turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor as you love yourself, not thinking only of your own interests, denying yourself, overcoming evil with good, welcoming the sojourners (immigrants and refugees), honoring them and caring for their needs without qualification?  History shows us that those who have attempted a Christian theocracy have either split their lives into two parts (public life and private life), or they have ignored the merciful and radically-loving commandments and used the Christian name to incite fervor and unity into their subjects.  Both distort Christianity.  When the Church and power hold hands, the Church loses, it loses its very heart and medicine.

Christianity is the path, the way, the hospital where our sin sickness is diagnosed and healed.  It is where we encounter Him, Christ, our very life.  Trying to make people behave like Christians through legislation ignores how each of us really experiences transformational change.  I would argue that we are changed by love, by humility, by joy, by good examples, by beauty, by heroes, by music, by art, by godly grandmothers’ prayers and the lives they led before us, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit’s work within us; not from top-down laws that govern our bodies but not our hearts.

Of course I want abortion to end, but I also don’t fool myself into thinking that true change will come if it’s made illegal.  Theft, perjury, child abuse, and rape are all illegal too, and yet how prevalent they continue to be.  Of course I don’t want to suffer persecution for holding on to God’s sexual ethics, but God never promised me a cost-free faith.  God does not say, “Make sure you don’t have to suffer for Me”; he calls me to suffer well for His sake, enduring.  We are to be the conscience of the nation, not the constable.

Which kingdom are we invested in seeing triumph?  And, importantly, at what cost?

“It has become more evident to me that we are to be given a great popular national Church, whose nature cannot be reconciled with Christianity, and that we must prepare our minds for the entirely new paths which we shall then have to follow.  The question is really:  Christianity or Germanism?  And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.”  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor who was executed by the Nazis

When I see that 80% of evangelicals rallied behind a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, and that they’d let him because he’s a “star”, and who laughed at his own failed attempt to seduce a married woman, and who mocked both prisoners of war and a reporter with a disability, I am sickened (especially when I remember how they eviscerated Bill Clinton for his moral failures).  I am also disturbed by Christians who found the life of the unborn an insubstantial reason to not support Clinton.  I’m disturbed that they could so easily brush aside some very real concerns about her integrity.  I have heard all the justifications about voting for a platform rather than a person, about how God uses sinful people for His purposes, and so on, but what the world sees is far different.  They see that our bar is extremely low for the person we want in power and hypocritically high for those we don’t want in power.  Character matters until it doesn’t.

How did I want this election to go?  My hopes weren’t pinned there.  My hopes were that Christians would vote for those who both represented what they cared about AND were capable and experienced people of sound character and integrity, even if they lost.  That they would be kind and warm to those who disagreed with them.  That they wouldn’t vote if there was no one they felt in clear conscience that they could affirm.  That they wouldn’t choose a lesser evil, but would rather choose good always, even if it meant abstaining from voting.  That in all things, that they were more invested in God’s kingdom work than in the power plays of Washington.  I wanted the Church to be the Church, a distinct and beautiful thing that reaches not for power but for the downtrodden and broken, embracing them.

Last night at our local English as a Second Language program I sat down and played a board game with two young Muslim girls, their hijabs framing their playful, beautiful faces.  Their mother was in class, learning the language of her new home.  We laughed together.  I was so glad they’re here, and I hoped that their bright joy wouldn’t be stomped on by the hate and fear of my fellow Americans.  I stopped by the home of one of our Indian students, enjoying their delicious food and warm hospitality, laughing together, hugging them both as I left, saying “May God bless you, Mamagi (Mother, with respect).  May God bless you, Papagi (Father, with respect).”  These experiences were a balm on my raw heart.  Here was the kingdom work that I could be a part of, each connection a vote for love and compassion.burden

 

 

Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

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This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.

Beyond Hurry

Time moves plenty fast without our assistance.

I turn around and my son is two inches taller, the weeds I just picked have resurrected and are going to seed, and the pie I pulled out of the oven is polished off, only crumbs remaining.

I walked into a pharmacy on Halloween and found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a  life-size Santa.  I’m sorry, has Thanksgiving passed?  Have we decided that Fall ends in October?  Before the leaves have completed their magnificent show?  Before the silly roses even quit blooming?

I can’t blame the shops, though.  They wouldn’t do it if this wasn’t what consumers responded to.  So my question is, why are we in such a hurry for the next thing?  In my previous post, The Looser Weave, I spoke of my own reticence to wrap up my childbearing in a tidy yesterday box, and apply my expectation towards the next thing.  I shared, “What am I saying…only this; I’m not eager to hurry away, to go on to the next thing.  I am in a garden and I haven’t exhausted my wonder at all the flowers.”

I am glad to both enjoy my daughter’s entry into her teens and my baby learning his first words, simultaneously.  I don’t mind our vehicles hosting both strollers and soccer balls.  There is something quite magical in seeing the delight and wonder in my oldest child’s eyes when she holds her littlest brothers, and I can point out the things they do that she also did as a babe.  It opens to her the wonder of her own yesterday.  She reads to them and I hear my own voice in hers, the way I read to her.

What is to be gained from hurry?  It seems the logic is that I’ll power through tons of work/things/activities so that I’ll have time…for….more…what, more work/things/activities?  Why not enjoy fully the time we have now?  Can we not resist the pull of cramming our days breathlessly full and aiming them at a mythically less-busy future?

“…if the devil can’t get you to sin, he’ll keep you busy.”

-Anne Lamott

“Busyness is not of the devil; busyness is the devil.”

John Wesley

“Busyness acts to repress our inner fears and perpetual anxieties, as we scramble to achieve an enviable image to display to others. We become ‘outward’ people, obsessed with how we appear, rather than ‘inward’ people, reflecting on the meaning of our lives.

Busyness also seems to be a determination not to ‘miss out on life.’ Behind much of the rat-race of modern life is the unexamined assumption that what I do determines who I am. In this way, we define ourselves by what we do, rather than by any quality of what we are inside. It is typical in a party for one stranger to approach another with the question, ‘What do you do?’ Perhaps we wouldn’t have a clue how to reply to the deeper question, ‘Who are you?’

– James Houston

If my life is too busy to…

  1. cook with my children
  2. take Sunday as a true Sabbath, a day of delightful rest
  3. create for the sheer pleasure of creating
  4. snuggle on the couch with my baby
  5. cook nourishing food for my family
  6. pray
  7. examine the eyelashes on my sleeping toddler, memorizing the way they lay on his cheek
  8. linger
  9. play
  10. respond to sudden needs of family and friends
  11. breathe
  12. read
  13. enjoy, while still hot, my morning cup of coffee
  14. have talks and dates with my children, one on one
  15. learn something new, like a language or a craft
  16. give of my time to others
  17. find a stream and sit beside it in thought
  18. care for the animals and plants under my stewardship
  19. talk with my husband in long meandering conversations
  20. respond to a gorgeous sunset with a walk to enjoy it

….then I am too busy, and something has to be reevaluated.  Emergencies excepted, of course, but I find many are living in emergency mode…all the time.  That is exhausting.  What is the cost of this?  What is the cost of a rest-less life?

I heard recently the story of a man who had filled his life with hurry and noise, constant distraction.  He was also deeply unhappy.  As an experiment, while driving, he shut off the phone and the radio and drove in silence.  It was uncomfortable, this silence.  Tears began to well in his eyes as raw emotion, that had been tamped-down by distraction, reverberated through him.  He pulled over his car and wept.  Hard.  When the weeping subsided he felt lighter and better, more human.  I can’t help but hope for the same sort of breakthrough for our harried culture.

Then, maybe, just maybe, we can celebrate the seasons in the actual seasons, and Santa can come flooding into our stores in December, when we are ready for him, when we have let time flow at its own pace; when we live less in tomorrow than in today.