On Being Kind to Ourselves

To celebrate a special day last week, I gave myself an entire day of permission. I gave myself permission to do whatever pleases me, and to refuse anything that does not. This means I spent the better part of my birthday ignoring the dishes calling me from the sink and the silent washing machine begging to be put to use. Their voices shout, loud and demanding, so I filled the empty space with other people’s voices from the pages of a book.

I gave myself permission to read for an entire day while the kids were at school. In a manner befitting Marie Antoinette, a manner of utter indulgence, I drove to my local library and gave myself browsing rights with no time limit. I gathered an armful (eight, to be exact) of books I want to read and I brought them all home. One is a large, coffee table book of an artist’s rendering of the green pastures and white-capped mountains Switzerland. The thought of browsing through it page by page, allowing it to spark vivid memories of our time living there, gives me pleasure.

More than giving myself permission to enjoy the gift of time on my terms, I promised I would only say good things about myself all day. This played out in the battle field of my own head. I decided to reject every negative thought about my own shortcomings, every ugly thought about how frustrated I am with my meager accomplishments, every bitter word I speak about my own self. Not only did I reject these thoughts, I forced myself to replace them with a kind word, a gentle internal gesture of gratitude for the person I’ve become.

It was nearly impossible.

It felt more indulgent than anything else I experienced that day. Even the celebratory slice of carrot cake, thick with whipped cream cheese icing was easier to place in my mouth than a kind word about my own self. I hadn’t realized how ingrained the negative thought patterns have become. Why is it so hard to simply like one’s self and celebrate her? It feels undeserving somehow, and yet I am made in God’s image. I am known and loved by Him, and by family and friends too. Yet, it’s difficult to extend myself this same love, difficult to say “I am loved. I belong here. I have good and important work to do.”

I gave myself one day of permission to simply be me, to enjoy the things I love, to look in the mirror and call this creation good. It was such a small thing, but it shifted something hard and cold inside of me. Today, I want you to give yourself permission too. It may not look like an armful of books, or Swiss art, or carrot cake. But it should certainly begin with kind words of love for your self. Begin to cut new paths of good, gentle, joy-filled words about the inner person you know yourself to be. Become a raconteur of your life’s story. You’re the only one who can really tell it.

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***As I process my recent disappointments, I’ve received so many words of encouragement from readers and friends. At the same time, my inner dialogue has been harsh, filled with “if only” statements that never end well. I resurrected this post from the archives because I need the reminder to be kind to myself and to speak life to my own soul.

Maybe you need it too?

 

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How to Sit with both Sadness and Hope

 

“Grief may be joy misunderstood…” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It’s nearly autumn in New Jersey. I sit under a canopy of leaves and watch as a single orange-tipped leaf floats to the ground in slow motion. It’s a season of small, delicate deaths–where the joy of reaping a harvest mingles with the sadness of the ground turning fallow once again.

This summer, my heart cradled hope in full bloom, like a basket of fresh-cut flowers. Yet, autumn has ushered in a season of dying one small death after another.

After months of planning and preparing, I opened the door on a classroom of college freshman and stepped in as a teacher rather than a student. I soon discovered teaching isn’t a part of my natural skill set. Rather than opening the door to an assumed strength, I opened the door to a weakness–the kind of weakness that makes me want to cut and run. I died to the confident vision I had of myself every time I stand behind the desk and sweat through a session.

Despite this rough start in the classroom, my inner self hummed and painted blooms on the walls of my heart. I carried inside me a private joy the color of blush pink English ramblers. After years of writing and re-writing content, my book proposal had finally made its way into the hands of publishers months earlier. All summer, I waited for news.

I learned this fall that my book will not be published. Nor will the next book I propose. Or the next. The reasons are best left contained within a trail of sad phone calls and emails. Again, I died to the vision I had of myself holding a copy of my book and smiling for the camera.

As these dreams have died, I’ve spent countless hours trying to spin new ones. But, it is autumn. A single leaf drops to remind me. In my sadness, I have found myself drawn to the story of Sarah, a woman who longed for and dreamed of children to circle around her ankles and call her Mama. A woman who, in her weakness, began to spin dreams that were birthed in grief rather than joy. For years, God’s promise to her went unfulfilled. She dreamt in partial solutions, and Ishmael was the result.

In my disappointment, I have wanted to force an Ishmael into my life. I have turned in circles looking for partial solutions when the only answer is to sit with my sadness and wait. I sit with Sarah and watch autumn unfold as summer dies to itself. I don’t want to force an answer apart from the will of God, and so I pray for a spirit of steadfastness and resilience instead.

The joy Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of lies in the knowledge that autumn lasts for a season. Spring and summer will come again. Warm winds will blow and seeds will bloom, but first autumn and winter. First dying to self, first sitting with sadness, understanding the heart of Sarah.

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Letting Go as Our Kids Grow

 

Twenty four hours after pushing and groaning my way through her birth, I clicked the silver snaps on the bottom of my daughter’s onesie and wrapped her in a cotton blanket blooming with rosebuds the color of her fingertips. I slipped a matching cap over the dark peach fuzz of her head, and I cooed over her as we waited for her daddy to arrive and drive us home.

The two of us fumbled with the straps on the car seat, and I slid, tender and raw into the seat beside our baby. Side by side, apprehensive, in love, driving into the unknown.

I clutched the new car seat as my husband sped home. I had no idea then that motherhood is learning how to let go–from the first day to forever.

As I stepped across the threshold of our little brick house on Sunny Hill Lane, I held my baby wrapped in rosebuds, and I waited for someone to stop me. Someone older and wiser would surely step in and save this child from the imposter posing as her mother.

I had never felt so disoriented or disconnected from my own life with its new responsibilities, its new role, its new body. Overnight, I became someone’s mother. With two steps and the creak of a screen door, we entered our home as a family.

I had no idea what I was doing. Eighteen years later, I still don’t. Give me a toddler, an elementary aged kid, a middle grader, and I can advise you on the joys and pitfalls of each stage. Give me my own child, now posing as an adult and living in another state, and I am once again an imposter. I slip through the screen door and feel my way around the new shape of our family.

My rosebud baby is in full bloom–a garden of soft-petaled roses. I watch her unfold from a distance. At the sight of the small, empty well on the right side of her bed, I pick my way through thorns and velvet. There is a daughter-shaped space in every room. Her laughter lingers like smoke in quiet corners.

I miss her.

I realize now, she’s been preparing me for this from the first car ride home from the hospital. From the first time she ran in the opposite direction when I called her name, the first time she slept at a friend’s house, the first time she drove away with a driver’s license burning like fire in her pocket.

Until she’s a mother herself, she won’t realize the exquisite joy/pain I feel every time I pass by a mirror and see the shape of her eyes looking back at me. She doesn’t know that while I practiced letting go, I never stopped carrying her inside of me.

Transitioning Well with the Change of Seasons

I woke with a start at 4am this morning. The coming week is pregnant with change, and by four in the morning, my overloaded brain, heavy with the weight of all the unknowns, could no longer rest. It spun and twisted around each anxiety that I haven’t given myself the space to process.

It reminded me of the final days of my long ago pregnancies, when my body couldn’t rest for all of the life humming beneath the surface of my skin. In the quiet hours, I traced the shape of elbows and feet sliding under the surface of my belly, as my baby rolled and kicked in anticipation. Soon, the womb would give way to the wide-open world. Soon, lungs would expand with oxygen and limbs would feel the brush of air. Soon, freedom, space, room to breathe.

Within the next week, my oldest daughter will leave for college, I will begin a new job, and my youngest will begin a new school. The days are ripe, heavy with the impending change, and I have filled them with lists upon lists of things that must get done. As I’ve run from one task to another, I feel the tug of my soul, pulling against the weight of my to-do lists. I worry that I’m not ready in the ways I should be. I feel unprepared and unfinished.

My schedule is slowly sorting itself out, but my soul is just beginning to whisper hints of what it needs to survive in this new space. I asked a friend how she transitions well as she gives birth to a new season, and tears welled up in my eyes at her reply. She said “by stopping”.

How simple and yet, how impossible this sounds. How does the soul stop when the schedule requires us to keep moving? My friend suggests we give ourselves the gift of time. Time for thought, reflection, and acknowledgement. Time to ask ourselves all the questions that bubble to the surface.

At four a.m., time is what my wide-awake soul craves.

Somehow, I expected myself to enter this new season fully ready. But, as every mother knows, all you really need to grow a life is time led by the hand of love. So, I’ll give myself space to trace the lines of impending change as it moves beneath my skin. I will ask myself all the questions that accompany it. And I will trust that breathing space will arrive, as it always does, when giving birth.

Scripture as an Antidote for Despair

I am a glutton. I have gorged myself on the news, on social media, on outrage and hatred and lies and righteous anger. Consuming all of these words as I scroll and click has cost me words of my own. I am full on a steady diet of rage, and it has stirred up both the holy and the unholy in me–neither of which I’ve been able to express in a way that inspires hope rather than despair. If hope is an anchor for the soul, then the rope tethering me to hope is worn and frayed.

I could choose to turn off the news and shut down social media, but I know in doing so, I risk becoming apathetic towards evil as it crawls out and raises its middle finger to the light. And so I read, I watch, I absorb because it is the bruised places which create the most tender hearts.

In my effort to understand and grow tender in my hardened places, I can’t purge everything I’ve consumed. By rejecting what I’ve read and seen, I would become the priest and the Levite who walked by the bloody and beaten man on the road to Jericho, averting their gaze.

But, while I carry these hard things inside of me, this steady diet of despair keeps me from envisioning a future where we love our neighbors as ourselves. My vision for a world where we fight racism and we right injustice and we repent of our sins is clouded.

I need renewed sight, and so I return to the scriptures where I meet Jesus all over again. I meet the man who flipped tables at the evil found in his Father’s house. The man who drew letters in the sand and who refused to cast the first stone. The man who turned the other cheek. The man who called religious leaders a brood of vipers and who called entire cities to repent with sackcloth and ashes. The man who healed.

In the scriptures, I meet the Jesus who died on a cross and calls me to pick up my own. As I sit with his words, I begin to assume his vision for equality, justice, and peace. I am able to release my flawed vision, driven by my emotions and outrage, and assume a vision driven by a God who is Justice, and whose very name means Peace.

If you find yourself full on a steady diet of despair and rage, don’t turn away from the hard things. Don’t cross the street and look the other way. Instead, meet the face of injustice and hate with the words of Christ. Not the words of someone talking about Christ, but the words of Jesus himself. Allow him to renew your sight, uncover truth, and stir up a vision where we recognize the face of God in every person we meet.