new year, new…weeds?

weeds-for-saleAs part of our 2016 New Year rituals , my family decided to spend our final day of winter break this week in the garden.  We made this plan expecting to uproot and discard leftover dead growth from last year’s harvest, and to cover the newly bare earth with a blanket of leaves.   Sounds perfectly lovely and symbolic, right?  What we did not expect was encountering a large distribution of healthy, deeply rooted green weeds that we would have to spend fully two-thirds of our morning digging up  – in January!

How do you think we responded?

Did we hunch our shoulders and give up on the task entirely in disgust?  Proudly, no.

Did we smile, inhale deeply, and plunge into the fresh challenge with optimism, gusto, and a deep appreciation for the character we were about to build?  Not exactly, though we may choose to remember it that way.

Did we procrastinate a little to assess and discuss the situation at length before digging into the unavoidable with a mild air of resentment?  Maybe some of us did…a little.

Here, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a composite outline of my mature and deeply spiritual thoughts as we bravely took back our land from the encroachers:

Not fair!  This is not okay.  Weeding is a summer activity, not a winter one; don’t you know that?  It’s January and this is ridiculous and I shouldn’t have to do it.  No.

Rats.  My kids are watching.  If I quit this, I will never get them to finish a chore ever again.  Where’s the stupid rake?

Sleet?  Really?  NOW comes the cold, dry, weed-prohibiting weather?  Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

Hey, that sleet is kind of pretty in our hair.

sandhill cranesWow, sandhill cranes At first I thought they were geese flying overhead, but that’s wrong because their calls sound like a cross between domestic turkeys and Julia Child.  They are really beautiful.  Happy travels, cranes!

How do I not have all of these weeds out yet?  I rake and I rake and I pick and I pick and still there are clumps, usually stupid tiny ones hiding under the rake marks, impervious to my might.  Get out, get out, get out already!

Aw, my girls are working so well together.  Look at them, filling that wheel barrow and encouraging each other and making jokes.  They’re going to do so great on their own someday.

-“All right, you guys, knock it off!”  Will they never develop the people skills to get through ONE DAY without arguing or having any meltdowns?  They’re never going to make it on their own.

Oregano is the devil.  It has overgrown the entire herb patch and I am going to break this rake getting it out of the ground.  Burn in hell, Oregano!

-[holds giant, basketball-sized Oregano root ball to the sky]  I did it!  I got it! I have emerged victorious from the trenches of war!  Away with you, vile foe, never to darken our dirt again.

That was fun!  Let’s all hug and go inside and chow down on some chili.  Maybe later, we can clean out the closets!

garden 01.16

 

ta-dah!

When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

https://i0.wp.com/www.drgreene.com/wp-content/uploads/Big-Heads-and-Baby-Falls.jpg

If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou

superpower of choice

It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. -J.K. Rowling

Comic-Con International is coming up this week and I am irrationally, inordinately, ridiculously SUPER-pumped for it…especially for some one who’s not even going.

I don’t know how it is that I’ve never been.  Comic-Con is a shining beacon of and for nerdom around the world. Teeming masses of fans, friends, artists, cosplay exhibitionists, geeks, gamers, and not a few of the just-curious descend upon San Diego every year to get the scoop on what’s coming up in all things story-related or comics-inspired.

It used to be overlooked at best and derided at worst twenty years ago; now a Comic-Con panel is THE place to unveil any project that wants to be cool (or at least, wants to make tons of money).  As with any gathering of thousands united around a single cause or idea, it definitely attracts its fair share of nutcases and extremists, but at heart Comic-Con is a giant, fearless celebration of imagination.

I LOVE IT.

I keep thinking to myself, I wonder what Joss Whedon is doing right now?! – because you just know there’s something awesome on deck for the Avengers panel.  I also wonder how many of the attendees are rushing around in a tizzie trying to get their costumes together, how the convention center staff feels about it (anticipation or dread?), and how Zack Snyder can sleep after choosing to enter no presentation at all for Superman vs. Batman.  I am mystified by the games arena (haven’t played a video game regularly since Q*bert) and in awe of the vast array of panels open to the public.  As you can easily surmise, attending Comic-Con someday, somehow is way up there on my bucket list.

Naturally, all of this has me contemplating superhero stories yet again, and how they have grown so rapidly in resonance over the last decade or two.  When I was in high school, fanboys were fodder for bullies and snark, and fangirls were rare, mysterious creatures on par with unicorns.  Now, nearly everyone in the general population of America has a favorite superhero, and every personality quiz will at some point ask what super power you would choose if you could.  We have absorbed the stories (if not yet the fanboys) into mainstream culture and filter many of our own stories through their lens.

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to assess why super powers are so appealing; the answer is all in the origin stories.  A young, bullied nerd becomes an agile, cool, smart-mouthed defender of the defenseless.  A mega-rich, genius inventor of weapons is humbled and dons his armor to end war instead of equip it.  Two orphans – each alone in precise and excruciating ways – derive purpose and power in the very sources of their alienation; one finds the human connection that he craves, the other the isolation that soothes his scars.  It’s easy to find ourselves and fuel our ambitions in their narratives.

In this, the “real” world, I have decided that there is only one visible super power, and every human being on earth has been equipped with it from the first day they entered the atmosphere.  It is the power of Choice.

Choice is everything.  It determines the quality of my every day and the direction of my journey.  It gives me the power to soar over my circumstances or be crushed beneath them, to overpower resistance or be driven by it, to join the battle with the rest of the called or shrink and hide and lose both the struggle and the victory.

Choice determines the course of my adventures and whether they will even BE adventures, or merely an accidental series of unappreciated moments carelessly toppling over each other.

As with any super power, Choice can be used for good or for evil.  It can be mutated to generate toxicity in the form of Judgmentalism, which is the choice to condemn the way others use their power.  The only thing it can’t do is be eliminated, for even doing nothing is itself an act of Choice.

Choice is the greatest power in the world; all others are merely its fruit.

jammed

"you know, the best thing about a paper jam is that it forces you to open up the machine and look for what went wrong."

“you know, the best thing about a paper jam is that it forces you to open up the machine and look for what went wrong.”

Wherever there is a process, there will eventually be a jam.  Such is the nature of life in this fallen world, and I have mostly come to accept it so as to preserve what few full-color strands of hair I have left.

Some jams I am prepared for, because they kind of make sense and are part of my routine – like traffic jams.  Most of the time, I know what happened (human error) and whom to blame (all those other pesky humans out there).  Certainly, I do plenty of fussing and fuming while weeding my way through the mess, and it may put me in a bad mood for a bit, but I make it through and am able to move on until the next one.

In my job, however, I deal with a much more diabolical form of jam: the paper jam.  In this, I know I am wrestling with pure, insensate evil and there is no one to blame.  Even the machine seems mystified.  Sometimes it can direct me to the general region that is being affected by the jam, but beyond that, all it can do is blink its lights impotently at me and wait for me to set things right.

I can’t begin to tally the number of hours in my life I have lost to paper jams.  They come at the worst possible times – usually in a rush of work, and preferably with some one at my desk in need of the finished product (read: a fully charged audience).  There I’ll be, flinging and slamming each of the printer’s thousands of important drawers and doors, violently poking around its innards, smearing my face with unset ink and singeing my fingertips on the unresponsive rollers…all the while with an innocent, increasingly uncomfortable bystander to whom I must make encouraging small talk such as “Happens all the time!” or  “Almost got it, now!” or  “Would you like to go out for many drinks after work today?…Ow!” (jerks and reveals smoking, cartoon-flattened index finger).

No matter how expensive, fancy, or durable the machine, all copiers and printers can get jammed, and usually by the smallest obstacles.  They are made to handle big jobs and adverse conditions, yet a shred of paper the size of a pencil eraser can shut them down.  Until the offending object is fished out and removed, that sophisticated apparatus – however integral to corporate function – is little better than a doorstop.

It occurred to me while resolving a series of paper jams at work this very day that having depression is a remarkably similar process.  Most of the time, through whatever coping mechanisms I have in place, the machine runs at peak performance, functioning and generating projects as needed.  But unexpected and seemingly innocuous things can work their way into the cogs and before I know it, production has shut down and my lights are all blinking like the deck of the starship Enterprise.

When that happens, the smart thing to do is to stop, locate the source of the blockage, and carefully address it in order to get things moving again as quickly and healthily as possible.  I almost never do the smart thing.

Instead, I  keep trying to force paper through the gummed-up works, all to no avail, and ruining whatever hope there was for those projects.  Where my body is clearly crying out for adjustment, reflection, and a little TLC, all my mind can see is inefficiency and a need for more power.  I ignore the warning signs, fight back tears, and try to muscle through.

Keeping up appearances plays a big part in this approach (a.k.a. denial), especially living in the South.  I could probably ask people for more time or even, you know, for help…but I don’t.  This is a culture of severe politeness and I do not want to force others to get messy with me.  Instead, I put on a chipper face, shoulder-down, and ask them how their day is going.

This isn’t wrong, necessarily; there is honor in serving and being considerate, and none in co-dependency or expecting others to fix me.  I wish I could find the balance, though, between being myself and being what I think others can handle / want to see.

Until I find that balance, if I disappear every once in a while, you’ll know why and where to find me: I’m probably at home, nursing my roller burns and fashioning those ink smears on my cheeks into war paint.

sweet

“I’ve been fighting to be who I am all my life. What’s the point of being who I am, if I can’t have the person who was worth all the fighting for?”
Stephanie Lennox

The first week of Lent is finished, and I am happy to report that it was largely a success.  My girls and I accomplished all of our goals and stayed faithful to the promises we made.  We supported each other in our different struggles and came away from it closer than ever.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is, Saturday sucked – like, a lot – and it was all my fault.  I was awful.  I was moody, depressed, and overwhelmed with every little thing my girls did or didn’t do.  I went to bed that night exhausted and on the verge of a significant identity crisis.  I was so distracted that I forgot to set my alarm and overslept for church the next morning.

Want to know what fueled this horrible, no good, very bad day?

I gave up sugar.

To be precise, I gave up white carbs (as per the 4-Hour Body prescription) because I know what a stumbling block empty foods are for me.  I use them to distract, divert, and procrastinate, and I always feel terrible later.  Since I am focusing on Hebrews 12:1 this Lent, casting off complex burdens with food seemed the obvious choice.

The initial results were devilishly easy on the physical side.  I have given up soda, junk food, and even this range of carbs before, each invariably resulting in at least one day of detox: migraines, fatigue, nausea, the whole bit.  This time, nothing.  My body felt fine – even good – the whole week.

Then there was Saturday.

I have to say it scared me a little bit and here’s why: What if I’m not the nice girl I have always thought I am?

My whole life, the words that people have used to describe me have always been along the lines of friendly, optimistic, helpful, sweet…  What if it turns out that I’ve just been hopped up on sugar for thirty years?  What if my soft, gooey center is vinegar instead of jam?

Turning to research for answers, I noted with dismay that identity crises go hand-in-hand with addiction.  Some addicts become addicted because of an identity crisis; others experience the identity crisis as a phase of recovery from the addiction.  The luckiest of all turn to addiction for relief from the identity crisis, then face a new identity crisis later during rehabilitation – a cyclical loop of uncertainty.

It will take some time for me to dig up my root causes, and I won’t bore you with my soul-searching here.  Suffice it to say that a new project as I press on through Lent is going to be reviewing who God says I am, meditating on my identity in Him rather than in human eyes.  I thought I already knew this.  Clearly, I have overestimated my depth of understanding.

Coincidentally enough (if you believe in such things), I just happened to see Flight this weekend in my race to be fully informed before the Oscars, and this struggle is brilliantly portrayed therein by Denzel Washington.  The question of “Who am I?” is a recurring theme in his life and the life of others who struggle around him through the story.  It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure, but I am encouraged knowing that I’m not the only person to wrestle with such seemingly elementary issues.

Today, I am thanking God for movies, long baths, my family’s gracious patience, and especially Sundays!

fallow ground is HARD

Hosea 10:12

It’s the first Monday of the New Year – how are those resolutions coming? 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the people I know tend to fall into one of three categories:
1. The super-disciplined, who can and do make self-improvements on a regular basis regardless of the season.  These guys see goals as personal challenges, and weakness as a nemesis to vaporize.

2.  The adamantly content, who spend the first week of every new year actively and loudly eschewing resolutions.  They know that they’re not going to change, so they’ve decided not to want to – and they really want you to be free as well.

3.  The earnest but struggling, who go through a self-imposed cycle of shame every year.  I tend to be among them.  December 31st, for me, is a day of hard assessment.  January 1st brings elated motivation and an illogical sense of optimism.  Then somewhere around January 15th, when all of my efforts have come to few if any visible results, I begin to slip.  By February, I am publicly mocking myself so that everyone knows I failed again – but I’m really okay with it!

That’s because breaking up my fallow ground, as the Bible puts it, is hard work.  In fact, gardening is the perfect metaphor for my efforts, because it is equally deceptive.

Gardening magazines and books all feature lovely, idyllic photos as their centerpieces, don’t they?  Most display peaceful images of cultivated yards complete with bright, healthy blooms and lush greenery, outdoor furniture staged in relaxed positions, and perhaps even a bonus water source or bird house.  Catalogs of gardening tools show us smiling ladies patting the dirt with grace and surrounded by shiny, clean instruments – all artfully arranged to demonstrate how simple and rewarding the task is.

Lies.

I’ve seen farmers and gardeners at work, even helped a family member or two with their horticultural endeavors, and it is not pretty.  The picture we should see, if some one truly wanted to prepare us, would be of a profusely sweating gardener, gritting her teeth, armed head to toe with heavy duty garments and implements.  Her skin would be sunburned and spotted with calamine lotion, her hair a tousled mess under her protective headgear of choice.  She would look more like a soldier heading into battle than a relaxed grandmother.

We rarely see pictures of the work, only of the results.  Therefore, our expectations are skewed and when we don’t see those results right away, we believe it’s a personal failing.

There is good news for us, and bad news, and they are both the same: It’s supposed to be hard.  People, like plants, don’t grow overnight, and we need a lot of help and cultivating to come out right.  We will do well to stop comparing ourselves to the rest of the world’s yards and instead dig in where we are.

To that end, here are three resources I am using to stay motivated in the battle.  I pass them on, hoping you will find encouragement, too.

1.  Almost anything that Steven Pressfield has to say, but especially his book called The War of Art.  Best quote:  “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.  Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

2.  I am reading the Bible all the way through for the first time in about 15 years.  My aunt gave me a wonderful schedule for doing this, available by subscription through Samaritan’s Purse.  Instead of slogging through chapter by chapter in order, it breaks it down into different sections daily (Tuesdays are history, Thursdays are poetry, etc.) – so much more conducive to success.  You can find a similar breakdown here.

3.  Tim Ferriss is my go-to guy for goals involving radical life changes / pursuits.  He’s a maniac for health, and his approach is not for the faint of heart – but if you can stick with it, it will get you where you want to go fast.

Here’s to a productive 2013 for us all.  May we yield at least a few blooms or fruits for ourselves and our loved ones by the end.  If so, all that sweat and grime will be totally worth it.