Begin Again

I’ve done it again.

The thing I vowed to never do and the thing I knew was oh-so wrong, even as I found myself doing it.

My husband has left the house for a few hours to cool off and I sit alone shame-faced, tear-smeared, and utterly disappointed in myself.

Not but four days ago I remember writing in my journal how I was giving up being negative for the month of September. And now I am eating those written words like a bitter pill.

I screwed up… again.

I silently wish over and over that I could do tonight all over, to not be critical, to hold my tongue, to pray instead of voice my disapproval in such a nasty and disrespectful tone of voice…

Oh God, could I just start over? Please?

And it’s not until now that I remember the words of St. Benedict: “Always we begin again.” And I think about what it means, in my faith, to be born again.

So often I want the development of my character (and the character of others) to be a neat and tidy process. I want to look back and see a steady progression into a better person, more self-controlled, patient… (I could keep going).

But all too often I look at my journey and I see a tangle of stuff– good things and bad growing up together. One stupid habit abolished only to be replaced with another one, equally as detrimental. I see plateaus and back-slides and screw up after screw up– the same ones over and over again!

If I look at the world, I don’t often see much grace for this kind of messy progress or lack of improvement. If I look into myself, I don’t always see hope, especially when I’m here–sitting on the couch waiting for my husband to come home so I can apologize once again for being the way I don’t ever want to be.

But I do see hope in those words.

Always we begin again.

And I think of the way life is.

How trees say goodbye to their own leaves each fall, and how they start from scratch come spring.

How each January the first, most of the world makes promises and vows that are oddly similar to last year’s.

How, in the beginning, children need you oh-so badly, and then they grow to leave you and be needed by their own little ones.

How even though I’ve been born already, 28 years ago to my then 28-year-old mother, I was born into a different kind of life at age 20–a life that is now reminding me of my need for a kind of grace which I cannot get from the world at large.

Always we begin again.

I see that supernatural grace in the eyes of my husband, who knows Jesus, when he holds me once again. I see it when I wake up in the morning with the permission to be different, to “put on” the woman I know I can be despite the woman I was last night. I see it when I forgive my parents for the things I’ve vowed to do differently for my daughter. When I let my upstairs neighbor borrow my vacuum for the sixth time this week and patiently explain how to use the new washing machine (I’ve lost count of the number of times).

I see it in God’s love– a love like a kid loves a raggedy old stuffed doll to pieces. And I know that I am that ragged little doll. And I know He loves the stuffing out of me. It makes no sense. And that’s why it’s grace.

And I know that I must give myself this love-grace too. Otherwise, I don’t think I am ever really able to begin again.

So tonight I’m starting over. And when I screw up in this same way a few days, weeks, or months down the road, I will breathe deep, let go, and I will begin again.

Always.

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A Letter from a Self-Conscious, Sensitive, Formally Anorexic, First-Time Pregnant Mother

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t at least a little self-conscious about my body. Whether it was my hair, my skin, how big my thighs were, how small my breasts are, or the puffiness of my face when … Continue reading

“So what do you do?”: on work, Millennials, and identity

identity

It’s been well over a year now. I haven’t been a CPS teacher since June of 2015. It seems almost impossible, when I think of that young idealistic teacher setting her sights on her newly decorated classroom, nervously awaiting the first wave of Freshman to enter in and take their seats.

That girl was going to change the world. Despite all odds, she was going to stick with it and be strong. This was what she was made to do.

… Okay, so maybe I never really felt like that. But that’s what you think you feel when you’re a newly graduated education major about to become educator. You just assume that stereo-typical, overly-idealistic, “Freedom-Writers“-esque attitude that may or may not be around at the end of the first semester. You just do. Because, if you don’t, it is way too easy to admit that you’re discouraged already and are hoping and praying no one notices that you have no idea what you’re doing. And also because, every other young new-hire in urban education acts like they feel this way, so, I mean, what real choice do you have? So you convince yourself that you are going to change the world, one student at a time, and you put on your game face and you assume this attitude as who you are.

What a mistake I made in doing this. 

Because three years later, when I find myself utterly hating my job and myself, and feeling completely ineffective and drained, I decide it’s time for teaching and me to part ways. Yes, it’s only been three years. But I’ve been in romantic relationships for less time than that before I realized it wasn’t meant to be either. So, there.

But now that I am no longer Hilary Swank, the dedicated teacher who is willing to give up her entire personal life in order to reach the “unteachable”, who am I? And why did I place my identity in such a fragile place as a 22-year-old hoping for the best in a toxic work environment with little to no resources or support?

I don’t think I am alone in this. I hope not. Because then this blog post is solely for my own benefit, which I guess is fine…

The Millennial generation, of which I am a part of, often gets a bad rap for being socially inept, obscenely selfish, and unable to hold down a job for more than a few years, much less have a successful longstanding career. Now, believe me, I could write an entire blog post on why I think this reputation has come about, and my response to it, but I’ll save that for another time.

I will say though, that after being laid off every single year I worked as a public school teacher, I was only able to successfully be rehired each time (sometimes the only rehire in the entire school), by working long hours, volunteering to lead professional development, obtaining outstanding evaluations, and sufficiently increasing my student’s test scores. I was able to successfully make myself invaluable to my Principal and co-workers, and I hardly think I could have been rehired each year without some level of social skills, strong work ethic, and an inexhaustible desire to keep my position. Just sayin’.

But the reason I mention the whole Millennial thing is because I think this reputation (specifically about the job/career piece) stems more from the changing times than from a character flaw spreading across the entire generation–which oddly includes 19-year-olds all the way to 39-year-olds.

According to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today will stay at one job for an average of only 4.4 years. And according to a recent survey of 1,189 employees and 150 managers, 91% of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for even less than that: three years. This means that most men and women of this age group will have 15 – 20 jobs over the course of their entire working lives. But this is due more to things like an unstable economy and technology replacing workers than to an entire generation of fickle people who can’t make up their mind about what they want to do with their lives… which is sort of how I feel, but which I don’t think is the norm.

This intrigues me for a number of reasons:

  • 1.) I have found that many people’s response to my 3-year “career” as a teacher is mixed. Upon examination of the different reactions, many people within my generational age group (20-something Millennials), seem to totally get it, while the majority of retired people (of the Baby Boomer generation) seem to view my short-lived career as puzzling, even if they act extremely polite about it all.
  • 2.) I have always been told that job instability on a resume could cost one a future job. From what I understand, “chronic job-hoppers” are often screened out, and recruiters instead seek prospective employees who seem to offer longevity.
  • 3.) From my limited experience, and from a bit of research, the average person gains a sense of identity from their work. The question we almost always ask a new acquaintance at a party is “so what do you do?”, meaning not “what hobbies do you have that make you happy?”, or”what do you like to do for fun?”, or even “what is your mission in life?”. No, this question invariably means “what is your job?”, which places a lot of importance on what we choose to do to make a living, rather than how we choose to live. I find this interesting coming from a generation that will ultimately answer this question of “what do you do?”, 15-20 different ways throughout their working life.

Okay so, that’s the end of the statistics and research part of this post. Back to the point.

I have been mulling over this whole  “identity thing” for a while now– really, ever since I quit my job last year. What are the elements that go into shaping who we are, and how is who we are perceived differently by different people, and do those different perceptions impact our identity?

As a Christian, I often remind myself that my identity is in Christ. However, I believe that God made each of His children to have unique characteristics and purpose, despite our commonality of contentment with our lives through His will. I know that I personally have discovered more of my true identity as I draw nearer to God, which I have done quite a lot since last year. So, although I know that my mission is the same as other Christ-followers in helping to bring God’s Kingdom here on earth, I know that God has equipped me to do this in a way that is true to my identity, and which will not be the same as every other Christian.

As a Millennial who has accepted the fact that job-hopping is probably unavoidably in my future, I am seeking ways to define myself verbally to others so that more of myself is revealed rather than simply what my job happens to be at that particular time. I know I am viewed differently now that I do no answer the question “so, what do you do?” with “I’m a High School teacher in the inner city”, although I do not think the core of who I truly am has changed much at all. How one makes money at a particular season in life, is not always an accurate reflection on who they are.

All this is rather complicated. And I find that it is made further complex by this new season in life that I now find myself approaching currently.

You see, I found out in June that I am pregnant. And since then I have had this vacillating sense of what this means about my identity, as if the other stuff wasn’t enough to think about.

Don’t get me wrong! I am extremely happy and utterly ecstatic about this news! The baby was planned, and my husband and I are over-the-moon-excited. This is what we want. And yet, it’s difficult to imagine, or rather, realize, that my identity is now shifting due to another living being occupying my body. Already, this little creature is impacting who I am–what I eat, what I (don’t) drink, how often I eat, sleep, and pee, and what limitations my body has, even down to what positions I can comfortably sleep! These things are also not who I am, but I’m sure they effect other’s perception of me, and I know I personally am starting to see myself differently: as not simply a woman or even a wife, but as a mother.

Side note: this is totally the first time we will be sharing this news publicly online (for those that actually read this far), so please forgive the lack of cute announcement photos or “bump pics”– that’s just not our thing.

Upon reflection of the loss of my “career” as a teacher, the realization that my elder Baby Boomer friends and relatives  probably won’t fully understand the generation I was born into, and this growing child inside me, slowly becoming more and more a reality that impacts the way I do life, I guess the question I am really wrestling with is this: how do I apply a minimalist ideology to my ever-shifting and complex identity?

We live in a world where who we are is presented in so many public ways. To some extent, we can even control the public perception of ourselves by way of facebook, linkedin, “about me” sections in blogs, and other social media outlets. And sometimes these things do truly reflect our true selves. But I believe it also over-simplifies our identity. Which makes me wonder if having a minimalist approach to defining my identity is even realistic or possible.

Perhaps this continuous exploring, changing, and figuring out of one’s identity is simply a part of our work as people living in a complex and changing world. Perhaps finding our calling is more about finding the common thread in our motivation for life rather than what our work entails in the moment–public school teacher, fitness instructor, or stay-at-home-mom. Perhaps it’s less about saying nice phrases like, “my identity is in Jesus” and more about figuring out how God made us, so we can understand what that truly looks like in real life.

So when someone asks me that question, “so, what do you do?”, I think I’ll respond with something, well, not so minimal. Something like,

What do I do? I wake up every morning praying that I can figure out who I am so that I can live the way I will be most successful at bringing knowledge of Jesus Christ into people’s hearts. I try to eat healthy so that my baby can grow strong and develop good eyesight and a taste for a variety of foods, while at the same time, making sure I don’t throw up at Praise Dance rehearsal. I blog, but not as often as I would like, because I’m trying to balance sleeping 8-9 hours a day and helping my husband with his career, which often means hardcore napping, but also filming random auditions or promo videos at moment’s notice, or faxing in music contracts or mailing out posters in time for upcoming shows. I thought I was going to be a teacher for my whole life, but now I’m content with teaching fitness classes and preparing to be a stay-at-home mom in the not-so-distant future, and maybe homeschooling our kids–who knows!? I hang out at Starbucks and work on my book, I make color-coded lists and meal plans in my passion planner, I do my BSF lesson every morning, I go to MOPS on Tuesday mornings, and recently I started swimming laps since I can’t run while I’m pregnant. I do a lot of stuff, actually, and hopefully some of those things will give you an idea about who I am. But mostly, I just hope that you can be courageous enough to know that your identity is not always defined by what you do, especially what you do for a living, because it’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion, and I’m still shedding so much of who I thought I was in order to see who I truly am. 

But…that’s not really my initial idea of a “minimalist answer”. However, I do think it’s probably more genuine in reflecting my thoughts and feelings towards the question. And who knows? Maybe it will let people know what I actually do.

That was the question in the first place, right?

Am I really Enough?: Living life on the verge of doubt and learning to dive in deep anyway

“Shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about how we are, where we’re from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are … Continue reading

One Word 2016

My-One-Word-300x180“If you’re like most people, each January goes something like this: You choose a problematic behavior that has plagued you for years and vow to reverse it. In fact, you can probably think of two or three undesirable habits—make that four or five…”

These words can be found on the now wildly popular One Word Website.  And oh, how true they are. This time of year seems to be the time for a litany of imperfections to be perfected and a throng of promises to be made commonly titled as “New Year’s Resolutions.

At the gym I work at, we have an expectation that the Monday after January 1st will be crowded with people who have vowed to “get their life back together” by coming to cycle classes and pumping iron in the weight room. My boss tells us to be ready for the New Years crowd, but we all know that that crowd will disperse by mid-February.

And so it seems to be the case with other new years focus on problematic areas in need of correction.

Workout regimes fall to the wayside, diets are broken, cuss words are spoken, and those pictures we told ourselves we’d finally take or put into photo albums remain caught behind lenses or just not taken at all. It seems that the juggling act of trying to improve different parts of our already messy and chaotic lives is just too hard. How can we stay consistent with self-improvement when our focus is split into fractured pieces– our work life, our love life, our families, our personal fitness goals, our dreams, our desires for a better “me”?– it seems impossible to focus on all of it!

The idea behind Mike Ashcraft and Rachel Olsen’s “One Word” philosophy is that we can do something about one thing this year instead of nothing about everything. They encourage you to boil it down to just one single word, to move beyond the cycle of long lists of changes you want to make that never get tackled.

“This process provides clarity by taking all your big plans for life change and narrowing them down into a single focus. Just one word that centers on your character and creates a vision for your future.-myoneword.org

I was first introduced to this idea by one of my best friends, who told me that God always gave her a word that He used to teach her through each year. I thought I felt God using specific words to teach me as well, but I never formally chose one single word to keep my thoughts tethered to during these lessons.

Finally, I was encouraged by another friend to actually pick my “one word” last year, and, although I don’t think I lived it out perfectly, it was helpful to have one theme to keep coming back to  throughout 2015.

My one word last year was “Slow”, which came, unknowingly at the time, during a year that would prove to be chaotic, shifting and a complete whirl-wind.

Having to keep coming back to the word “Slow” kept me grounded during times of change, patient during times of waiting, and calm during times when I normally would have lost my head.

This one word reminded me to breathe when I wanted to just walk out of my classroom full of students and never go back. It kept me patient when our heater wasn’t working in subzero weather and when water leaked all over the floor, pulling up the tile and making it impossible to walk anywhere without slipping or getting a shoe-full of dirty water.

This one word kept me from making hasty decisions when we were house-hunting, and kept me silent when I normally would have exploded with frustration at husband’s and my disagreements.

It kept me patient and plodding along as I trained for my second marathon, restless to race through a long trek that was going to take more out of me than I expected.

This one word kept me from jumping to conclusions when misunderstandings with family and friends arose. It kept me patient and prayerful when I got the letter in the mail that I was no longer employed by CPS, and it kept me hopeful and trusting when I still didn’t have a position number or a paycheck as 109 students met me in my classroom on the first day of school.

“Slow” kept me restful when I was sick and itching to get out of bed and get back to work.

It kept me patient with myself and determined when I was so depressed that I dreaded getting out of bed in the morning to go to a job that I hated.

“Slow” kept me patient with myself during the ongoing transition into working with my husband at a job I had no idea how to do. It kept me calm during times when I felt frustrated with my lack of progress, reminding me that this might be a slow process, and that it was more than okay.

“Slow” also showed me areas in my faith walk that I had skipped over, impatient to grow in places where God had not yet given in the increase for lack of my quiet and calm attention. He scaled me back with “Slow” so I could be nursed in areas I needed to mature in, a slow process that I couldn’t rush through no matter how determined or strong-willed I was.

I’m not saying I did it perfectly– there were plenty of times I flew off the handle and was completely out of control when I should have been slow and calm, as my husband, friends, and students will be quick to tell you– but this word “Slow” helped me keep it together more than I normally would during a year when I needed to rest, have patience, refrain from rushing into decisions, be extremely calm, and have painstaking endurance.

“Slow” permeated into all areas of my life– my personal life, my relationships, my work, the forming– or rather, the unraveling– of my identity, my faith walk, and even my health.

Rock4And so this year I trust that the word God is giving me will be perfectly designed to get me through 2016, even if I do not live it out perfectly.

As this new year was approaching I began to ask God what word He wanted me to focus on. Over and over again I kept hearing one word repeated to me, but I didn’t want to listen. You see, it was sort of a scary word for me, and I was hoping that it might be something else. 

But as I scanned my journals, BSF lecture notes, written prayers, and even the songs I had been listening and dancing in worship to, I knew that this was the word He was giving me.

 My one word for this year is “Surrender”.

Is there a more important word in the life of a Christ follower? But even more personally, is there a more important word in the life of a control-freak, type-A, worrier like myself?

I think not.

And so, as I look towards the year ahead, there are definitely some big decisions, plans, and changes coming along down the road. And I’m going to need to surrender all of them to God. 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t do anything about anything or have no part to play in what happens. It just means that I will take every thought, decision, action, and plan captive to Christ Jesus, and be obedient to Him and Him alone. It means letting go of expectation and preference so that I am I indifferent to any choice that is not Jesus-approved. Surrendering my plans, my dreams, my body, my mind, my desires, and my plan to Him and allowing God to really take control of where I end up.

Hm. Sounds a lot like what it means to follow Jesus doesn’t it? I should probably have been doing this already…

But to have a whole year to focus on simply surrendering… is a little scary because it requires complete trust in what I cannot plainly see. (That’s what faith is isn’t it?)

I remember when I first became a Christian about 6 years ago, laying in bed imagining what my life would be like, and God clearly spoke to me saying, “Claire, your life is not going to be anything like what you can dream up right now.”

I still believe that is true today, and that no matter how many times I envision the future, my life is not going to be like anything I can imagine.

And so far, that has proved to be true.

The thing that makes it less scary is that I wouldn’t change it for the world. So I guess I can trust Him, can’t I?

I know I have little hope of living out a long list of resolutions that I might want to make– get up every morning at 5:30am, workout everyday, get certified in 6 different fitness formats, master html and photoshop, open up an online store….. I could go on.

But I can do my very best, with God’s help, at living out one word to the best of my ability, and to allow it to permeate all areas of my life.

And with a word like “Surrender”, I guess I have no choice but to let it control everything I’ve got.

What’s your “one word” for 2016? I’d love to read about what word you’re going to live out this year!

On Pouring Into Others: a privileged girl and a dying man

refill

This sign hangs in my little make-shift office that is in reality just a corner of my dining room blocked off by bookcases and a paneled screen.

I often look at this sign as a reminder that I need to take care of myself SO that I can take care of others. “Put on your own oxygen mask first”. But today I am wondering to myself if I use this as a justifier.

How do we know if we are really pouring into others? 

I get up at around 5:45am and have my quiet time with God. I eat some zucchini bread with some coffee while reading and journaling out my prayers. I do my p90X workout at 7am, then clean the kitchen until about 8, then work on some marketing projects for our family business. Around 9:30 I step out of my little oasis, my safe-haven of a home, and rush off to the Kroc Center to teach my weekly PiYo class.

On the way I see people. I see a man sleeping on the sidewalk near a gas station, a tarp covering him. I see women walking with their children all bundled up, trying to catch the bus on this blustery cold day. I see men with cardboard signs making their way to the busy intersections near the highway, trying to gain the sympathy of passer-bys.

I teach the class to about 8 participants and we have a great workout and prayer time after; specific prayer is requested for our neighborhoods that are riddled with gang violence. After that, I drive home, get out of the car, and I see my neighbor. I yell his name and he immediately turns directions to come towards me.

(I’ll call him Leo, but it’s not his real name.) Leo lives in a little house across the street from me– lived there for a long time. Leo is about 45 years old, but he looks over 60. Leo is dying of lung cancer.

He’s completely drunk, as usual, but I stand with him by the curb and listen to him talk for a good half hour, making sure he’s not in the street when cars drive by. I don’t really know what to say or how to help him and it makes me feel helpless.

His mind wanders, and he keeps talking, but I’m not sure about what. The alcohol is making him slurr his words and the man has only a few teeth left, so it’s hard to understand him. I recognize the hurt in his voice. I have no idea what he’s going through right now– to know that he’s dying and to know that he could have prevented it–but I can imagine.

I can imagine and it brings tears to my eyes. He tells me they will take him to the hospital soon, but until then he keeps staying with friends and family because he doesn’t want to stop breathing in his sleep and lay alone in his house until someone finds him. He wants to be found by friends. This is where I start to cry.

He reflects on his children. His wife. He hopes he can kiss her again in heaven. He tells me in one breath that he is so angry at himself for doing this to himself, and then in the next that he has no regrets and that he’s happier than he could hope to be.

He smells like cigarettes and liquor, and I wonder if he will remember this conversation. I hope he will remember the hug, the warm smile in the bitter cold wind, the patience with which I try to listen to him. I hope… I wish he would surrender this habit of cigarettes and booze. I wish he would try to live out the rest of his short life in sober consciousness, with intentionality and dignity. I wish he knew something other than drunkenness and a chemical high.

I wish I could encourage him to change now, to let him know that it’s never too late… but… it is too late, isn’t it? He’s going to die. Soon. What would I do? Would I change? If there no hope for a future improved by my choices? Would I even try?

I suddenly want to leave, and I feel so guilty for it. But it’s cold and my ears are starting to go numb, and I really can’t understand a lot of what Leo is saying. Still, I listen intently. This conversation is making me so sad and I can’t do anything about it. But he seems comforted just talking to me, so I stay and I listen, and I pray…

Lord, please give me the words you would have me speak.

Nothing.

Lord, please show me what I should do.

Nothing.

Lord, work through me so that I can help this man.

Nothing.

What the heck? God, why can’t you use me here? I’m right with him! I can do something, can’t I?

But God didn’t have anything else for me to do. There was nothing of myself that I could pour into Leo. There was nothing I could change in him. There was nothing I could say to make it better. My cup, regardless of whether it was full or not, was seemingly not pouring into any of the people around me who seemed so desperately to need filling.

And even now I ask myself, why? Why couldn’t I have helped? Why couldn’t I have done something?

I think the answer is a little more simpler than I usually like: I am incapable.

I don’t really know if Leo simply needed someone to talk to, or if there was something that he needed to hear in that moment. All I know is that I didn’t do any “pouring into”. All I did was listen to him speak, simultaneously listening to the quiet sound of my heart breaking.

I go inside my warm home with quaint decor and a clean kitchen, with two cats sleeping on the chairs and reminders to “do all things with love” on the walls. I feel utterly guilty for having what I have, living how I live, and owning what I own.

I only hate my own privilege when I can’t seem to use it to help someone who doesn’t have it.

My cup– if we’re going with this whole metaphor thing still– feels completely drained dry after my interaction with Leo. I’m emotionally exhausted, guilt-stricken, and heartbroken for my neighbor, and for this community at large.

“It is not selfish to refill your own cup so that you can pour into others. It’s not just a luxury. It is essential.”

But to refill my cup would, in fact, seem selfish–like a luxury. In fact, most of what I did today– the quiet time, breakfast, workout, job, cleaning, and marketing work– it all seems like luxury compared to what I see when I look outside at this dark and hopeless part of the city that I’ve now been calling home for the past 3 years of my life.

“Put on your own oxygen mask first!”

–I’ve been told to do this, but it doesn’t seem right. Not when people are sleeping on sidewalks and sleeping at friend’s houses because they might die in their sleep.

No it doesn’t seem right when there are people in need everywhere and when it’s really hard to know if helping is helping or if helping is hurting… a lot of things seems pointless and stupid when looking at the heartbreak that surrounds me.

This world isn’t fair. I believe that this outrages God more than it could even outrage us.

And I believe that God loves Leo and the homeless man at the gas station and the bundled up mommas and their little sweet babies and the men standing at the intersections with signs. He also loves the drivers who pass them by and the ones who roll down their window to toss them some change. He even loves the helpless white girl who doesn’t know what to say to a dying man.

This world is dark, riddled with guilt, and it’s so sad. But the beautiful thing is that God’s cup never runs dry, and he continues to pour it out in the form of Christ’s blood. It doesn’t always look like I think it should look, at least not on this broken side of eternity.

But it’s like Leo said to me today, “Oh I believe it’s going to be much better after death Miss Claire. I do. I just don’t know what it will hold, and that’s what scares me, but I believe it’s going to be better than this…I do believe that…”

I do too Leo. I believe it will be a time and a place where all of our cups will runneth over.