Alison Cook spoke at my church mom’s group last year and brought with her copies of her newly published book Boundaries For Your Soul which she co-wrote with Kimberly Miller. The subtitle How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies caught my eye immediately, but the book sat on my bedside table for months before I picked it up this fall. It’s a handbook, not a novel, so I wanted to be in a non-drowsy, calm state of mind to absorb the instruction.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid...for the Lord your God goes with you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Right, I reflected. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. This is one of God’s most repeated messages to us in the Bible -- Fear not, for I am with you! I wrote about it here when I detailed the lessons of the Mother/Daughter Retreat I attended in the spring. I understood this message clearly, and I thought I was doing a good job resting in uncertainty. I presented a smiling face to friends. At times, I confided my anxieties and was calmed by a friend’s prayer.
And yet, why did I get three new canker sores all at once, with more each week as the uncertainty continued? Why was I yelling at my kids more, especially when they asked me to buy things for them? Why was I stockpiling things for the winter -- like snowsuits and a new artificial Christmas tree -- just in case the money ran out? Why was I calling three different home repairmen in one week (carpenter, plumber, gutter guy) in order to fortify the homestead? Why did I bake up a storm and even briefly consider learning how to can applesauce? Why did I obsess over getting our appointments and flu shots squared away before the health insurance ran out?
Why did I feel the need to remind my husband we don’t have to tithe if there is no income?
Why? Why couldn’t I get a grip?
I picked up Cook and Miller’s book because I realized I was overwhelmed by fear and didn’t know how to handle it.
Cook and Miller recognize that we have different parts to our soul -- different ways to cope with overwhelming feelings, for example -- and that these parts don’t always work well together. The authors provide instructions for how to place boundaries around difficult parts of ourselves (the parts we might wish were different, like the part of me that wishes I could just handle the uncertainty) and appreciate how the parts are trying to work to our benefit.
“The goal is not to eradicate parts of your soul carrying anger, fear, sadness, envy, or shame, but to lead them with curiosity and compassion.” (43)
The authors devised a five step plan for how to examine the parts of the soul that are overwhelmed and how to bring those emotions before God. They call this “taking a You-turn.”
The five steps of taking a You-turn:
Step 1: Focus on an overwhelming part of yourself. (Describe it / picture it / recall past times of feeling this way.)
Step 2: Befriend this part you don’t like. (Ask whether you feel curiosity or compassion towards this part of yourself, and if not, give yourself grace.)
Step 3: Invite Jesus to draw near. (And if you can’t invite Jesus near, then why stops you? Listen to Jesus.)
Step 4: Unburden this weary part. (What fears do you have about giving up this burden? What do you need in exchange for giving up this weary part?)
Step 5: Integrate it into your internal team of rivals. (What new roles can these parts of you play?)
Through the authors instruction, I was able to “learn to speak on behalf of the part” of me that was afraid, and to “speak kindly.” (55-6) I was able to understand fear’s place. Most importantly, I was able to invite Jesus to be near.
I know in my mind that God is with me. I told myself I shouldn’t have to feel afraid. But thanks to that fear I made plans to spend more time with the family I was afraid to lose...and am now up-to-date on my tetanus shot...and I am able to better feel God’s presence in my life.
Because there’s a difference between knowing God says “do not be afraid” and actually going to God and telling him, “I’m scared.” I learned to invite him to sit with me in that vulnerable state, and to feel his comfort and reassurance.
“Our religious activities, or spiritual disciplines, on their own don’t change us -- they create an environment in which growth can occur.” (90)
If you’ve struggled with parts of your soul that have overwhelmed you or that you have wanted to change, consider grabbing a copy of Cook and Miller’s book. Let it remind you that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)
Serving in the classroom
Over the summer, my mother-in-law sent me Laurie Gelman’s book You’ve Been Volunteered. I laughed out loud as I read the title. Had I told my mother in law that this year, our sixth year at our local public elementary school, I would be serving as a room parent for the first time? Or that when my son’s teacher recruited me to the role she reminded me kindly though forcefully that this was a two year commitment now, okay?
Dixon is primed to have some fun with the new, younger parents, to send snarky emails and jokingly ask for bribes for prime parent-teacher conference times or a chance to bring a less cumbersome contribution for class events. It’s a great spoof (and at times only slight exaggeration) on what parents are asked to contribute to classrooms in terms of volunteer support.
As the school year approached, I anticipated my duties and hoped I would have the enthusiasm and technical savvy to follow through. What is the best way to communicate with parents anyway? Google docs? Google spreadsheet? Regular email? Paper flyers? Electronic sign-up services like SignUp Genius? And how often should I contact parents?
And then the fateful day arrived, the day my son’s teacher handed me a list of names and emails. My first task was deciphering handwriting and hoping I had the correct information. Then, I composed my first email as class mom.
Here’s something about me: I tend to pick up people’s mannerisms very easily. And apparently I can even pick them up through reading about them because as I typed out my first words, the voice that came through wasn’t my own but that of sarcastic and over-the-top Jen Dixon from Laurie Gelman’s imagination! For sure, the book was hilarious. But definitely not a rule to live by!
After a couple of revisions and three re-reads, I finally clicked send and held my breath.
Only two emails bounced back. Over the course of the next week I was able to correct the spelling of one.
Since then, I have braced myself to be the go-between for my son’s teachers and have looked for opportunities to serve the class. I signed up to help chaperone an apple picking field trip which unfortunately was cancelled due to the threat of the EEE virus. Going forward, I strive to inform the class parents of classroom and school-wide events to keep them informed and involved as best I can without inundating anyone’s inbox.
It’s a new type of service work for me. I’m in it for the long-haul, and I hope I can bring unity to my son’s class without any of Jen Dixon’s distracting antics! At the same time, I am eager to crack the cover of Gelman’s sequel.
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the requests flowing your way for how you can be more involved at your kids’ school, check out Gelman’s books and enjoy a laugh!
Choosing to press pause
Our location bounced around for awhile -- to a Sunday School room at a local church, to the school playground during fine weather, and finally to the school library at times when the weather grew colder. The school library has been a great space for us, for our growing group of fifteen to twenty children. With the school scheduled for reconstruction next fall, I have been anticipating a loss of space when our community shifts to an interim building.
Knowing this will happen, this summer I resolved to continue the group for one final year. I purchased a couple of books which outlined a new curriculum and prepared to make arrangements to schedule the next series of club dates.
But then August proved stressful and full of travel and family activities, and as we flew back into town the day before Labor Day, I felt like we hit the ground running. I didn’t have the mental space to focus on organizing the materials for the club.
So I let a few weeks in September pass, figuring others were likely in a similar state of mind.
One mom reached out to me and asked me when we were starting up, let me know which afternoons worked well for her. I thanked her for her interest and said I would be in touch soon.
But then I turned the calendar page to October, and began to march through the month. I picked my children up from the bus stop and watched them crumble to the floor from fatigue as soon as we returned home.
I began to realize that I was dragging my feet with no hope of starting the club. I felt badly about dropping the ball.
And then I started to look at the issue in a different way.
I thought about our original goals when forming the club -- to create a space where our kids could see that other kids at school also attended church, a space where it was okay to talk about God and Jesus, even in public, a space that reinforced our wishes for our kids to know and love God and each other. I wanted my kids to have that foundation.
I don’t want to rest on our laurels for too long, but I realized that I think we achieved many of my goals. My kids do have a foundation for faith. When they learn about the Big Bang in school, they come home with questions and we talk about how to make sense of science and faith. When they hear about non-Christian holidays, they ask questions about other faiths and how they differ from our own. They have started to notice whether kids they know go to church or synagogue or mosque or practice no faith. And our own church’s Sunday School curriculum and extra family events have become staples in their lives.
There is a quote one of my pastors has used over the years -- advice for parents and adults in general when approaching their spiritual life -- and that is this:
To be spiritual in natural things and natural in spiritual things.
It means integrating the spiritual and natural parts of your life so that they are seamless and flowing in and out of each other. It means you can pray several times a day, listen to praise songs whenever you feel like it, mention this week’s memory verse as it is applicable, and look for God working in our lives. We don’t have to place these things in a container that we call our after school club or Sunday School or Sunday worship service necessarily. For sure, these containers aid our understanding and provide community.
But God also allows us rest. In fact, he commands it.
I felt it was time for this after school club to rest for awhile. I made a hard choice. How often do we say no to something?
I decided to press pause.
And interestingly, since I did, I have thought of the children and families in our group even more. I have remembered to pray for them more often than before. I have reached out to see if I can help in any other way with their religious education, such as making sure families have children’s Bibles in their homes.
And I pray that we have the tools to continue to pray for each other, and to gather as we are able in the future, as Paul wrote in Hebrews 13:20-21:
“Now may the God of peace...equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Stalled at a metaphoric mile 3
In 2014, I bought a cup of tea at The Elephant House, the cafe in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling spent time creating her famous characters. My daughter read the Harry Potter series this summer, devouring the books quickly and then rereading her favorite parts. Later, she asked me if I knew of something similar she could read next.
I read the first book in the Alanna series last week and similarly found myself itching to get my hands on the second volume. I also read the author’s afterword in which she explains the long evolution of her project which involved changing genres (from adult to young adult), connecting with an important editor and resubmitting many revisions...all over the span of six years AFTER she had finished her first draft.
Learning about Pierce’s journey made me think of marathon running. Marathon metaphors are perhaps a bit overused, but I feel like I can speak from this place. I have run nine marathons in my life, and besides my current project, I have completed 2.5 manuscripts of memoir in the past (which I then tucked into a drawer).
I know there’s more to racing than showing up at the starting line and cranking out the miles (or pages). There’s the decision to begin the training, and then there’s the training itself. While the race itself takes several hours (okay, maybe over four hours if you’re an average on-again-off-again runner like me), the training requires months of repeated effort and the near daily decision to continue with the work. With writing, by the time you get to the starting line, you have done so much thinking and research and self-exploration, and you have tested the waters a little with first readers, and now, now you need to start running.
It’s a mental race as much as a physical one. Every time I train for a race, I grapple with the fear of failure. I debate whether to share my goals, adding up the number of people as I do tell who will now know I couldn’t follow through. Which is also why I have been tight-lipped about the fact that once again I am attempting to write a full-length memoir.
I have struggled with whether or not to dedicate myself to the process of finishing the current full-length memoir. I have been working on it for about a year now. Isn’t this just one more manuscript that I will shove in a drawer? Isn’t that the way this always goes? When I asked my husband those questions, he turned the question back on me:
Isn’t that the way it’s always ended up?
He made his point: I have to choose to change the story. I have to show up and write it, even if I fail (even if I am never published, even if I don’t make the local Starbucks Cafe or Cafe Nero famous by association with my name). Writing is in me to do.
I have done a lot of the training already -- I took a new class, I have cranked out 268 pages and counting, and I have a writing group for accountability and encouragement.
And yet, each time I sit down to write, I have to conjure up Brene Brown’s encouraging question from Daring Greatly:
What’s worth doing even if I fail?
A recent Boston Globe article featured the opening of an art show at the University of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. Avital Sagalyn is a 90-some-year-old artist who was always afraid that her work “wasn’t good enough”. And now, finally, she has her chance to share her gift.
I have always wanted to write -- novels originally, but somehow memoir seems to be my genre at least for now.
I feel like I’m at mile 3. I have hundreds of pages that need editing. And I have hundreds more to write. I know at some point I’ll hit the wall. I may want to duck out of the race at times.
But having experienced the glory of crossing that marathon finish line nine times, I really want to know what it feels like to cross the finish line of full-length memoir -- to have a manuscript completed and ready for submission.
While I have been shy about sharing, know that I can’t do this without you, without friends and family cheering me from the stands. Thanks for coming along with me on this journey. Thanks for reading!
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.