Looking Back and Learning to Love Your Past Self

A few weeks ago, my husband decided to clear out the basement for the third time since we moved into our home nearly four years ago. As we began The Great Sort Out of 2017, boxes and bins I’d shoved and forgotten behind old picture frames and stacks of throw pillows made an appearance. We found our wedding album stashed away with the few photos left over from my childhood. On the highest shelf, we re-discovered three small, nearly empty bins I’d set aside for each of our kids’ keepsakes. I found most of their keepsakes–tiny pre-school t-shirts, stacks of drawings, and pottery pieces shaped like fairies or snakes–sitting in forlorn piles next to half-empty paint cans.

For days, I snatched moments here and there to flip through an album or rifle through old school papers with German vocabulary words from the kids’ school in Switzerland. There is nothing more bittersweet then realizing the keepsakes of motherhood are no longer of the fingerprint and ceramic variety, but rather memories you file away and watch unfold again and again from behind closed eyes.

As we shuffled things from one spot to another, I discovered a box filled with photographs I’d torn from my favorite home and interior design magazines. I began the collection fifteen years ago, long before Pinterest made its debut. We lived in London, and I was the mother of a toddler and had another little one on the way. I remember the quiet days of life with one child and an increasingly round belly, with the soft British lilt of cartoons on the tv keeping me company, while the rain tracked patterns down the windows. I sat with a cup of tea and a few biscuits, and every week, I carefully tore out sheet after sheet. Photos of baked bread, English gardens, and toile wallpaper rose up to greet me. With each page I saved, I’d planned for a life I didn’t yet live, creating a home I could only see in my mind’s eye. A home filled with children, home cooked meals, whitewashed french furniture, candlelight, and vintage china.

One afternoon recently, I gave myself the gift of a few hours with my younger, fanciful self, and I sat down to look through all of the paper and ink dreams I collected over the course of fifteen years. The memories hit me with a wave of longing for the girl I used to be, and with each turn of the page, I felt my affection for her grow. How rare and sweet to discover I love her and her dreams, however unrealistic. I never did bake that bread, and my version of an English garden exists only in my imagination. But, I see the current, middle-aged me sitting there beside her, in waiting. How unexpected to realize that she birthed forty-year-old me into being.

All of the worn pages my younger self tore out, all of the days spent dreaming of the future, all of the long walks to the antique shops to search for bargains, all of the recipes collected, the books read to squirming children, the tea cups filled to brimming– they created more than a few memories boxed in the basement. They created the life I wake up to every morning. Much to my surprise, my imagined-future became a living, breathing reality. The location is different than I expected, as are the ruts and detours we’ve encountered along the way, but the essence captured by my collection is alive in our home and our hearts today.

When the Results Aren’t What You Expected: A Labyrinth Walk

The first time I heard of a labyrinth walk, the idea peaked my curiosity. I filed it away in the part of my brain where I keep a small collection of things I want to experience someday–like photographing a hummingbird or growing a blowsy, lush rose bush with blooms the color of sunset.

I’ve yet to have luck with either the hummingbird or the roses, but my husband and I stumbled upon a labyrinth a few months ago while hiking on a weekend getaway. It sat tucked in the woods and wound around and around–a maze of brown and gray stone. The Lotus Labyrinth, so named for the inlaid lotus at both the entrance and exit, was set in a clearing, and surrounded by trees.

I pulled my husband towards the entrance, and we slowly wound our way towards the pile of stones in the center to the sound of the wind making music of dried leaves. Small signposts explained that upon entering, we should take note of any heaviness or emotional weight we carried. On reaching the center, we were to release the things that weighed us down, as if laying them down on an altar. Then, as we wound our way to the exit, with slow measured steps, we would symbolically leave behind the thoughts, fears, or false beliefs we had carried in.

My husband sped through the rest and sat down on a nearby boulder to wait for me. I took my time circling around and around, stopping to pray in the center, then circling back out again until my feet found the final lotus. I took a deep breath and surveyed my feelings. I felt exactly the same as when I entered the labyrinth. I had arrived carrying the weight of a few things, and I had carried them right back out again.

I didn’t experience a spiritual epiphany or feel God’s presence in any discernible way. My soul didn’t feel lighter, and my concerns followed me from entrance to exit to the hike home again.

My labyrinth walk comes to mind every so often, and I’ve asked myself if it was worth doing if I didn’t experience the peace it promised. It’s a small thing–inconsequential, really. But it brings to mind all of the small physical acts that I hope will bear fruit in the long term, despite their small beginnings.

The hug I give to my stiff and reluctant teenager. The quiet moments of prayer with no obvious answers. The folding of clothes that end up crumpled again. The pose of a warrior on the yoga mat with a persistent wobble. The chop and stir preparation for a meal gone in minutes. The phone call to an elected official who refuses to listen. The typing of words destined for deletion.

When the results hold no promise, these become small acts of obedience and resistance. We resist the urge to allow life to happen to us. Instead, we press on and create our lives out of these small acts strung together with purpose. We obey the needs of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits, and we acknowledge there will be disappointments. The act itself is rarely pointless, rather it points to something bigger.

If I walk a labyrinth again, I will enter it knowing that the action speaks more than the end results.

When You Don’t Want to do the Dishes

“A sign hangs on the wall in a New Monastic Christian community house: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”” ~Tish Harrison Warren in Liturgy of the Ordinary

I sigh when it comes time to pull something edible together for dinner–my recipes spin on an endless repeat. I huff over the chopping, the stirring, the clatter of dishes on the table. I exhale forcibly when the meal vanishes into empty stomachs after only ten minutes of spooning and plate-scraping. My sighs deepen when the kids stack dirty dishes in crooked towers next to the sink, while my hands prune in hot, sudsy water for the next thirty minutes.

My husband senses my dragon breathing may set things alight in the kitchen, and he offers to wash the dishes from his place on the sofa. I reject the offer because he worked twelve hours in the office and suffered a hellish commute in both directions. This is my J-O-B, I tell him. This is what I do “for a living”. My words leak sarcasm. He sighs then too, knowing this is a broken record I play when I feel particularly frustrated. He returns to his prone position in the living room, and I mumble under my breath while the water scalds and my evening’s work swirls and disappears.

This scene repeats itself  in various house-keeping, kid-raising situations in my home. The sighing, the offer of help, the rejection, the complaining. I’m not proud of it. I know my choice to stay home is a privilege–a choice many women would love to make. But, I still dream of the day when home management becomes a side gig, and my writing career takes center stage. There is a hole wormed out in the deepest parts of me that aches to be filled with something more “important” than the endless stream of household chores.

In that hole, lies a deep tension between my everyday duties as a mom running a home, and my desire to do more with my life than run a chauffeur service. I want the work of my heart to matter more than the daily work of my hands, and therein lies the problem. I have swallowed the lie that one is more important than the other, the lie that I must choose between this or that, when instead I should embrace both/and.

My home life and my work life hold equal value in God’s economy, and both require me to steward the gifts God has given me. Acts of service, whether through folding piles of laundry or writing words of encouragement, sculpt and shape me into spiritual maturity. Both home-keeping and writing hold weight in the world because I am created to serve through both, and neither form of work is holier than the other.

I wish someone had told me this when I struggled as a nurse in my twenties, as a young mother of littles, and later as a writer. I wish I had realized that my work changing the diaper of my own child was as holy as changing the diaper of an elderly patient. My work raising our kids while my husband finished his graduate studies was as holy and necessary as the work I complete for my own master’s program. My work feeding and keeping bodies alive is as holy as writing words that feed and keep souls thriving.

I wish someone had told me that in the tension-filled hole, I will find the holy.

The New Monastic Christians have it right. We all want to do work that is meaningful, noteworthy, and life-changing for God’s kingdom. But the real revolution is learning to see that faithfulness to the small, daily acts of service are the building blocks, the DNA, of the larger work at hand–to join God in what he is already doing through our lives.

In my life, the most revolutionary thing I can do right now is find the holy while I wash the dirty dishes and when I write stories, while I listen to my kids talk about their day and when I sit in the quiet and read poetry. As I shift my view to one of inclusion rather than exclusion, I find more joy and contentment in my daily life. God reveals himself in the daily liturgy of laundry and in the crafting of lines.

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Have you felt caught in this tension too, seeing one form of work as better/holier/more life-changing than another? You’re not alone. What would it take to reframe the way you think of your everyday work?

Katharina & Martin Luther: A Book Giveaway

**This giveaway is now closed. Congrats to our winner, Michele!**

When Michelle told me she was writing a book about the marriage of Katharina and Martin Luther, I imagined her sitting among stacks and stacks of dry historical documents in a library carrel, possibly stress eating chocolate. I saw her sitting in the center of a swirl of words written by men for men about the historical significance of men. I couldn’t fathom how she would find enough material to write about one woman’s experience during the Protestant Reformation–even if that woman was a runaway nun married to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

Very few of Katharina’s own words and letters remain, but out of the copious amount of Martin Luther’s writings and those of his followers, Michelle weaves the strands of Katherina’s  life together to create a fascinating story. Michelle manages to capture the essence of  their marriage as seen through the eyes of observers in their home and through Luther’s private letters. It is thoroughly researched, thoroughly educational, and thoroughly entertaining.

Katharina lived in a time and place when women, however smart or strong-willed or educated, were treated as second class citizens. Marriage and motherhood were their highest (and some would argue, their only) calling. And yet, Katharina influenced her husband and their household in innumerable ways. She was a revolutionary ahead of her time who would not be silenced. When confronted with circumstances beyond her control, she looked for ways to circumvent them. When she encountered error or false speech, she spoke truth. Where she saw opportunity, she reached out and grabbed it.

She is exactly the kind of woman I want my girls to become. Women of valor, of truth, of resistance. Women who work tirelessly, who rise early in prayer, who serve and love and speak light into dark places. Women who are not bound by the words with which men label them, but who rise above those words and recognize themselves as Beloved, Chosen, Accepted, Free.

We live in a time where the messages my girls receive about who they are and their value as women is conflicted and confusing. A time when misogynistic speech rings out from the highest offices, and boys in the classroom repeat what they hear our leaders say. They sit in the middle of a swirl of words spoken by men for men about the significance of men which informs their view of the world and their place in it. They need women like Katharina, who lived in far more challenging circumstances, to speak to them today.

I’m so grateful Michelle sat surrounded by stacks and sifted through the mountains of words. I’m encouraged by Katharina and Martin’s story, and I think you will be too. In honor of strong women everywhere doing hard things, I’d like to gift one reader with a copy of Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk. It’s the story of two imperfect people resisting the establishment together for God’s glory. I can’t think of a better time to read it.

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I’m giving away one copy of Michelle’s book, and I would love for you to have it. To enter the drawing either leave a comment here on the blog, or on my Facebook page. In an entirely unscientific method, I will choose one name out of a hat and notify a winner by next Monday, Feb 6th. Happy commenting!

Friendship in the Internet Age

Three times, I attempted to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City with a friend before we succeeded. Twice we drove in, sat in traffic for a few hours, then navigated around construction zones, only to find lot after city parking lot full. The third time, we rode the train to Penn Station, then wrangled our way downtown amidst the crush of Christmas crowds. We layered ourselves in denim and cotton, wore our heaviest coats, and exhaled great puffs of breath like smoke into frigid air. We arrived early and killed time over croissants in a coffee shop with bare bulbs, brick walls, and coffered ceilings.

I realized on our third (successful!) attempt at making it to our destination, that the journey together was more important than setting foot in the museum. Uninterrupted travel time, a few consolation lunches, and time together over steaming mugs of tea gave my friend and I the chance to peel back the polite layers. We experienced frustration and disappointment. We talked about the struggles of marriage and raising kids and how to sustain our art. And we survived my attempts at navigation in the concrete jungle of NYC. This particular map-reading disability has strained my marriage on more than one occasion. A friendship that survives my neuroses, complaints, and inability to understand simple directions is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–a mythical treasure.

After warming our bodies with pots of tea, and our souls with talk of city life, we wandered over to the Tenement Museum. We settled on the Shop Tour, and the guide walked us through a shop front in one of the original tenement buildings, formerly inhabited by various immigrant groups new to New York City. We stepped back in time from the bright cold of Orchard Street into a dim room with a dark wood bar, barrels and taps, and brass instruments hanging behind them. Tables and chairs sat scattered about the room, and adjacent to the pub, was a tiny kitchen with a pot-bellied fire and bratwurst dangling from thin white string strung across the ceiling.

While the store front evolved over the years taking on many different faces, the original shop was a community pub run by a newly wed couple who arrived in New York as children from Germany. As we listened to the docent tell their story, it became clear that the pub served as a hub for the entire neighborhood. It was a gathering place for families, neighbors, and co-workers to share a drink, eat a hot meal, enjoy music from the homeland, and strengthen into a community. I imagine friendships were forged over a pint of lager, business deals confirmed over handshakes, and love blossomed over bratwurst.

We’ve come so far from these tight-knit communities, and we’re poorer for it. There are no family pubs, no community hubs in my corner of suburbia. My friend and I live 45 minutes apart from one another, and it takes highway upon highway to see each other in the flesh. It takes every bit of intentionality and planning we can muster to spend half a day visiting our nearest big city.

The Shop Tour reminded me how much we need each other, what community can and should be, and what community looks like today. Today, it looks like fruitless driving adventures and museum visits and coffee shop chatter. On the return train, we bumped into my friend’s real-life neighbor. We chatted on the ride home, and she asked how my friend and I met. We looked at each other for a split second, and then I laughed when she said, “We met on twitter!” How very 21st century.

The tour stirred up a sense of misplaced nostalgia in me for the past (if only we had a corner pub, a Luke’s Diner, a Central Perk, a Community Congregation), but it also encouraged me to appreciate the ways we go about community and friendship today, and examine how I can do it better. More than that, it helped me appreciate the gift of finding a friend who will  plan multiple days out together with varying degrees of success. Who puts up with my particular brand of crazy. Who tells me the truth about herself and doesn’t look away from the truth she sees darting behind shadows inside of me. We met online, and she’s become one of my most faithful and dearest.

Something in me still longs for the promise of days when creating community and cultivating friendships meant spending an evening cozied up with a glass of wine, or an afternoon unfolding over cups of fragrant tea with endless refills. I can keep searching for these opportunities to take part in what once was, but I must also embrace what is. What is friendship today? How can I create physical space for it in a life often conducted online? I’m carrying these questions with me into the new year, and I hope the new year will unveil a few answers.