Turn It Off; Turn It On Again

Having fun with my mom

Having fun with my mom and the kids during Christmas break.

This year I had a Christmas break for the first time in years. I worked retail for eight years, so Christmas was never, ever a break for me. When we moved to Nebraska, I began working at a college. The offices are closed during Christmas, but I always still went to work at least half of the days while the rest of the staff was off because I was hourly and needed the hours. This year, I got put on salary, which includes some paid time off, including the week between Christmas and New Year’s!

Counting weekends, that’s eleven days of glorious sleeping in, eating Christmas food, catching up on all the stuff I don’t do during the work week. During this break, I began to see the value of rest. These eleven days were sorta like what happens when you call IT for help with your computer and they say, “Well, did you turn it off and turn it back on again?” And you sheepishly say, “Hmmm…what a novel idea. I’ll try that.” And that works.

Finishing Tasks

One thing I noticed about being off for this long was the ability to finish tasks. I  finished a writing project. My laundry basket was actually empty for a day or so. I cleaned the house more than once. I cooked enough food to feed us for just about the entire time on leftovers. These are things that often only get half done because I just don’t have time to do them. I do them in bits and pieces because two hours an evening isn’t enough to complete all the stuff I need to do.

Free Time

When I’m working every day, a weekend is spent catching up on things I didn’t get to do. Saturday and Sunday aren’t days off. They’re days doing other work. OK, so I’m not going into an office and sitting at a desk. Instead, I’m running around doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, doing errands. I feel very accomplished when these things are done, but often they’re done only in time to begin the next week. If I want free time to do any hobbies or even just read a book, I have to stay up and sacrifice sleep. With eleven days off, I got done with the tasks I thought were so important and even got to have free time! I spent hours crocheting and watching Netflix, and when my mom visited I got to spend time with her instead of going to work while she was here. After two or three days, I completely lost track of what day it was, and, while a bit disorienting, that feeling was so freeing! Not to have to remember whether today Hannah had piano or Emma had gymnastics felt so great. I had a vast series of minutes, hours and even days spreading out in front of me, free and unencumbered by the things that usually bind my time.

Rest

We hear all the time how good rest is for us, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I don’t think I really have a grasp on how important it can be and how not getting it can affect my relationships and my attitude. I don’t think most of us know that. We fill our time so we don’t have to spend that time reflecting. We don’t like to face ourselves in silence and think about things we’d rather forget. In some weird way, we like to give up free time because being busy makes us feel important and needed. I know that I feel guilty if I’m not filling up every moment with work, but I keep reminding myself that doing the things that help me feel rested is good work too. It’s important. It’s like hitting the reset button, turning my head and my heart off and turning it back on again. Sometimes that goes a long way toward fixing the things I don’t like in my life.

So here’s to resting, to taking time off work, to thinking about nothing! If this is an indication of 2016, it looks pretty good so far!

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The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

The Best Way to Travel with Kids

 

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

I’ve been a mom for almost thirteen years. All of that time, we’ve lived far away from family. That means that most “vacations” have been trips to the grandparents’ houses and have involved driving long distances with very small and very squirrely people. We’ve tried all kinds of methods to get from point A to point B without a murder/suicide pact, but I discovered the best one yet last week: travel with coworkers.

It sounds crazy, I know. In fact, before we left for our 14-hour road trip to ICOM (International Conference on Missions) in Columbus, Ohio, I dreaded the idea of packing my husband, my three children and myself into a mini van with my boss and another professor from the college where we work. I imagined hours of monotony infused with severe whining and me maybe doing something horrible like yelling at the kids while simultaneously trying to hold an adult conversation with a Ph.D.

My boy is the cutest boy.

My boy is the cutest boy.

As it turned out, though, I was very wrong about the whole thing. In fact, I hadn’t even considered the idea that the presence of outsiders might make our family nicer to each other. My children, being preteens and old enough to entertain themselves for longer stretches than 3.2 seconds, brought books, notebooks, homework (!), DS games, and they actually kept themselves busy about 70% of the time.

Of course, kids their ages are decent at being nice to each other, but sometimes they get tired and feel cramped and bored. When that happened on this trip, the children did something wonderful. Instead of yelling at each other and pushing each other around, they calmly (most of the time) expressed themselves and guess what! Having two extra adults in the vehicle proved wonderfully handy. Instead of Andrew and me shouldering the entire burden for entertaining and refereeing, whenever the boredom started setting in, one of the other grown-ups came up with something interesting for them to talk about or listen to or do. Imagine that! We brought a village in the van with us, and they helped us raise our kids for a few days.

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving...

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving…

One of the professors regaled us all with stories from his doctoral dissertation in literature, and that proved interesting and informative.  During the long ride home, in what felt like the middle of the dark night but really was only about 6 pm, the other one broke out in a narrative poem/story he recited from memory. Very impressive, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss.

The best parts, though, were not related entirely to the children’s behavior. I watched us all together and I realized a few things.

1.  I enjoyed seeing my coworkers in a different and unusual setting. I see them at work, interacting with students and other faculty and staff, but I never see them on a ridiculously long road trip with children. They both have grandchildren of their own, though, and I got to see the grandfather come out in them. I like them better now, having seen how gently they treated my children. Like I said above, my children don’t get to see family very often, and this trip reiterated for me how God provides families for us when he leads us far from our biological families.

2.  Children spend more time with their parents than anyone, and I think that sometimes can get oppressive. They need other people’s input in their lives. Seeing other adults, listening to them talk, hearing the way they spoke to each other and to their own children on the phone during the trip gave my kids a different perspective, little glimpses of other ways to view the world. Not to mention that they listened to us converse about things other than what was for dinner and whether the cats and dogs will ever get along in our house. They got to hear about theology and literature and ministry and all sorts of important things that I know very little about and rarely discuss with them.

3.  My own behavior improved drastically on this trip because nothing will make you nicer and more patient with your children than having your boss sit there and listen to you talk to them. I realized how much my attitude affects the children’s behavior. The old saying holds some truth: “If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” That can go for Dad, as well, of course. One person can bring down a carload, and one person can build up a carload as well. I need to remember that in everyday life!

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year's ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year’s ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

So now that we have made it home and have managed not to do anything horribly embarrassing, we can be thankful for the experience. I think my kids will remember the time they travelled with the faculty! Now if we can just convince them to go with us on our next family vacation…!

What’s Your Goliath?

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

The Story

I left my father early that morning, carrying a load of grain, bread, and cheese for my brothers. My stomach fluttered with excitement at the prospect of being among all of those fighting men, armed and ready for battle. All of my life, I’d dreamed of fighting the Philistines, of being part of our great army blessed by God! I arrived at the camp just in time–just as the soldiers were lining up for battle.  Finding the keeper of the supplies, I left my donkey and his burden and hurried to find my brothers in the ranks.

I had barely greeted them when I heard the voice. It boomed out over the ranks, echoed off the hillsides. I craned my neck to see him. Anyone with a voice like that had to be big! I was not disappointed. He stood in front of his army, covered with bronze from head to toe and carrying a spear as big as a weaver’s rod. Its iron point alone weighed as much as a young sheep, yet he handled it with ease.

“Why are you lining up for battle? Choose a man to come and fight me…if you have any men that is!” His laugh rang out. “If he kills me, we will all be your subjects.” I heard his mocking tone.

“Why are you all just standing there?” I turned to my brothers. “Someone go and fight him!”

My oldest brother furrowed his brow. “Boy, go home to Dad. You don’t understand this situation. We can’t fight that giant of a man!”

“What are you talking about? I’ve killed bears almost as big as him. God is on our side. What’s an arrogant man compared to the Creator of everything?”

He shook his head. “Go back to your sheep,” he scorned. “You just came down here to poke your nose in our business and watch a battle!” He spun on his heel and walked away.

I turned to the other men, but they all averted their eyes, angry and embarrassed. One man put his hand on my shoulder.

“Come with me,” he said. I hurried after him to a tent in the back of the encampment. Guards surrounded it. Strong hands pushed me through the opening. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I heard a man talking in low tones to the one who had brought me. He turned toward me, and I saw that it was the king himself!

“You think you can defeat that giant?” he demanded. I swallowed hard, cleared my throat.

“I have been tending my father’s sheep most of my life. Sometimes a bear or a lion comes and carries away one of them. I pursue it, fight it with my hands, and kill it to rescue the sheep. If God can save me from a bear or a lion, he will save me from this Philistine!” At that moment, I knew it would be true. I knew God would save me, would save his people.

To my surprise, Saul agreed to let me try, even gave me his weapons and armor, but I felt heavy and uncomfortable. I chose to go out to face the giant as myself, not pretending to be a grown warrior. As we walked toward the field where I knew the giant waited, we crossed a stream. I stopped and chose my weapons: five stones. I put them in my pouch, rubbing my fingers across their smooth surfaces. In my other hand I held my sling.

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

The giant and his shield bearer approached as we stepped forward. I saw him stop, and a look of derision crossed his face. He threw back his great, bronze-covered head and laughed.

“Have they sent a little puppy to fight me?” He cursed me by his gods. “Come on over so I can feed you to the birds today!”

“You come at me with a sword and spear and javelin,” I called out. My voice sounded loud and strong. That man was no match for my God. “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today the birds will eat your flesh!” I felt the stones in my pouch. “Today all the world will know there is a God in Israel. Everyone here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves. The battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hands!”

His face turned dark, and he rushed toward me. I ran toward him as well, pulling a stone from my pouch. As I had done hundreds of times, practicing in the fields with the sheep and even protecting them from bears and lions, I placed the stone in the sling. With one fluid motion, I swung it, released the stone, and watched as it sailed through the air and sank into the giant’s forehead. He toppled forward, falling face down onto the ground. His shield bearer dropped his shield and ran. I hurried forward. Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed Goliath’s own sword, pulled it from its scabbard, and cut off his head with it!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

My fellow Israelites flooded around me, yelling at the victory, and chased the fleeing Philistines. That day the dead Philistines were strewn all along the road to Gath and Ekron.

The king’s man found me again in the crowd and brought me to Saul’s tent once more.

“Whose son are you, young man?” he asked me.

“I am the son of your servant, Jesse of Bethlehem,” I answered. I saw a man approach from behind the king, carrying something heavy and bulky. Saul turned to him, motioning him to come closer.

“I believe these are yours,” he smiled, presenting the Philistine’s weapons. “I will remember you, son of Jesse.”

The Application

I wrote that for the class I’m taking, and I had so much fun imagining the scene, wondering about what David must have thought. I can still close my eyes and see that dusty field, a hill on each end, with fighting men assembled and a loud and scary voice paralyzing the army with fear.

I have always liked to write. As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued with words and stories and how people put words together in specific ways that make their stories come to life. Even as a child, before I could read, I made picture books with scrap paper my grandpa brought home from work, binding them together with bright red yarn. Words make sense to me. I love telling stories, either in written form or aloud, and I work hard every day in the office to shut my mouth so I won’t drive my coworkers insane with the funny things I think of to tell them (If you work with me, just allow the rest of the world to think I am successful at this endeavor, ok?!).

Today I listened to a speaker talk about how we need to find our core identity and let God work in that, using us in the way that he’s made us to be used. He said a lot of great stuff that I hope I remember, but one of the things that stuck in my mind dealt with how people resist changing. They resist stepping into the unpredictable to become awesome and instead stay with what is predictable, where they are just ok. They like the security of the predictable, even when they have a nagging feeling that it’s not really what they were created for, not where God can use them in great ways.

I think that’s a little like David and Goliath. David had a choice that day on the battlefield. He was young, untrained. Absolutely nobody expected anything from him. They definitely did not expect him to step forward and fight the giant that had seasoned warriors shaking in their sandals! He had the choice to stand in the safe predictable-ness of the crowd and be just ok or to step forward into the unpredictable awesomeness that God had planned for him. One little stone stood between him and God’s will, and he chose to step out.

What is your Goliath today? What’s blocking the road to what God has in store for you? I ask only because I’m willing to share my own roadblocks. My Goliath comes in fear of letting go and forgiving people who have hurt me in the past. My Goliath comes in fear that I won’t be good enough, that my writing, which I think may be part of what God wants to use in some way, will stink, that people will read it and think, “Whoa! Better stick with your day job, honey!” My Goliath comes in fear of not measuring up, of stepping out on faith and trying to forgive or trying to love more or trying something that leaves me vulnerable and then falling flat on my face and making a mess of it all.

What Goliath is standing on your battlefield today? Are you ready to reach down and pick up that smooth stone God put just within your reach?

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

 

I Was a Cemetery Telemarketer

This looks all too familiar.

This looks all too familiar.

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. I had a traditional library job in high school. I spent hours shelving and organizing books. Hated every minute of it. The only thing good about it was the hours. I only worked 4-6 a week, so I spent a very small amount of time in there. I should have liked it. I thought I would because I love books. I just don’t like that super-quiet atmosphere with repetitive tasks, and, honestly, the people I worked with were a little odd. I went back to that library a few years ago, about 20 years after I quit, and I understood why I didn’t like working there. It wasn’t one of those fun libraries where kids play and enjoy the books and story time and all. It was one of those libraries where, when your cell phone rings because you accidentally forgot to turn it off, the entire place turns and shushes you. No thanks!

Maybe if my library looked like this one at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, I would have enjoyed it more.

Maybe if my library looked like this one at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, I would have enjoyed it more.

So I decided one summer during college to do away with the boredom. I got a job in a cemetery. Row after row of graves has got to be more exciting than a library, right? I came home for the summer and spent a couple of weeks looking for a job. Any job. I had no luck until a desperate employer jumped at the chance to get a naive, poverty-stricken college person in its grasp.

Not really the cemetery where I spent my free time that summer. I'm not including pictures of that one, mostly because I did not care to take any!

Not really the cemetery where I spent my free time that summer. I’m not including pictures of that one, mostly because I did not care to take any!

My job was telemarketing. That in and of itself is weird. When I tell people I was a telemarketer for a cemetery, they look at me like I’m nuts. What was I telemarketing? This particular funeral home/cemetery offered a free burial space to every person. That’s right. Free for the taking. They really did give it to people, too. There was a catch, however, since there’s no such thing as a free lunch…or a free cemetery plot. They sent a representative/salesperson to the house to deliver the deed to the property, and that person tried to sell more. Who doesn’t want a plot next to them for their wife or husband or cat? And if they’re getting a free plot, don’t they want to buy a headstone as well?

I worked in the evening. You know, the time when most people are sitting down to eat their dinner or watch their favorite tv shows because that’s the prime time for telemarketers to strike. I had a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers. These came from some mysterious giant telemarketing phone book and were listed not alphabetically, like most phone books, but in numerical order. Because of this, we could see where numbers were skipped. We knew they were left out for a reason: the owners of the numbers had requested that their numbers be unlisted.

I see some Cyrillic writing, but I didn't take this in Ukraine. It's cool, though!

I see some Cyrillic writing, but I didn’t take this in Ukraine.

That’s right! These were the days before Do Not Call Lists. Bet you always wondered how telemarketers got your number when you had an unlisted number, didn’t you? Now you know. We were a tricky lot because we went down those lists and wrote down the ones that were skipped and called those, too! Yep, we were those people.

I can still remember the first part of the pitch. “Good evening! This is Laura. I’m calling from [insert cemetery name] to tell you that you have been chosen to receive a free burial space. Do you own your own burial spot?” Intense pause filled with anxiety for me because this is where the gentleman or lady of the house reacted to my ridiculous question. There were a few different answers that seemed to surface often.

1.  The person politely said, “No thank you,” with uncertainty and enough of a pause to allow me to jump in and continue with my spiel…which I don’t remember because this happened so few times that I did not bother to memorize it.

2.  The person slammed the phone down, possibly cursing at me.

Scary cemetery! No way I'd work in THIS one!

Scary cemetery! No way I’d work in THIS one!

3.  The person began a tirade that elicited such comments as, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir! I did not mean to interrupt your dinner. Have a good evening,” and ended with me slamming the phone down, possibly silently cursing him.

4.  The person said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Mr. Jones is not here. He died last week. We’re still cleaning out his house and haven’t had the phone disconnected.” This happened too often to be true.

I worked with two other women. One was about my age, and that was her real job. For me, it was just a summer job, but for her that was it. She spent every evening there, and that’s how she bought her Maybelline cosmetics and her hair products. She was nice enough, but she was quite a bit bigger than me and tougher than me, and I tried not to make her mad. She got mad at people a lot and told us all about it every night.

The other woman was a lot older than me, or at least I thought so. She was probably only like 29, but she had already been married and divorced. She had another job during the day and just worked there because after her divorce she had no money and no social life. I liked her, but I also felt a little sorry for her because…cemetery!

Sometimes weird things happened when I called people. Once I went through the whole thing and the person just stayed on the line. She didn’t hang up and was polite. The longer I talked, the more excited I got. Maybe this person would actually want a salesperson to visit her and deliver the deed. However, I began to feel ill at ease when I asked the person if she would like the representative to visit and silence ensued. Then the voice said tentatively, “Laurie?” I knew that voice! That voice belonged to none other than my own mother! I had called my own mother accidentally because she had just moved and her new number had not yet been listed. She was one of those people with unlisted numbers, and I didn’t recognize it!

Imagine lugging a bunch of these around in your car all summer! Fun times!

Imagine lugging a bunch of these around in your car all summer! Fun times!

The cemetery wasn’t my only job, though. I had a second job that summer. This was a long time ago, remember? At that time, everyone needed phone books because they didn’t have internet and smart phones to look up numbers for them. In addition to the cemetery job, I had been recruited by a woman I knew from church to deliver phone books out in the country around my house. She assumed that since I had grown up in that area of the countryside I knew the roads, their names, their numbers. The other people working for her had trouble delivering to those addresses, so she loaded my very old, very hard-to-drive car down with heavy phone books and handed me the list of impossible-to-find addresses. I had just learned to drive a stick shift car, and this old car took most of my strength to shift. I spent every morning wandering lost down country lanes frantically looking for unknown addresses. When I finally found a house, I would carry the phone book up to the door and leave it somewhere they’d find it. Most of the time, I never even saw anyone.

The weirdest thing that happened that summer occurred when the cemetery job and the phone book job intersected. I delivered phone books to homes along a route every morning one week, and somehow in the evenings got the same exact list of addresses and phone numbers to call! I wanted so desperately to tell the rude people I called, “Oh, hey! If you want your phone book, check your back door. I left it on the back step this morning when I delivered it to your house!”

I sometimes think about that job now. It feels like a dream. I never worked there again or even went there again after I quit at the end of the summer. I went back to college and every summer after that went to Ukraine to work. I never had to hunt another summer job, thank goodness, because I never really liked the cemetery all that much. I’m glad I did it, though. It makes for an interesting story!

Anybody else have weird jobs before? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!