Monday, October 20, 2014

The Perfect Transition: Campfires, Marshmallows, and Putting the Garden to Sleep

Campfires are the perfect transition between summer and fall.  We gather around our fire pit during both seasons -- barefoot in the summer, bundled in the fall.  The key to a good campfire experience is patience.  You never rush the cooking of a hot dog or the roasting of a marshmallow.

No, you simply bide your time, rotate your skewer, and trust the flames to do their work.

See that sunburst in the background?  That's heavenly approval.

During these chilled October days, our yard slowly succumbs to the deepening autumn and we put our garden to sleep.  Our raspberry bushes no longer offer vibrant bowlfuls of berries like they did during the late summer months, and soon we'll cut them back. 

Our zucchini plants stop their production with these final offerings: two zucchinis (one the size of a club) that I'll eat with an end-of-the-season appreciation that comes with the sober knowledge that it'll be many long months until I can once again walk outside and pick a portion of my dinner from our garden.

In the meantime, we enjoy a different kind of harvest -- the weekend festivals at local farms where we take hayrides to pumpkin patches and apple orchards. 
It's so simple, these little moments that make up the seasons, these little moments that make up the fabric of lives that unfold in a small town. 
Just give me a campfire, and somehow everything seems right in the world.
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Life Margin Tip #4: Get an Aerial Perspective

I started this blog series about creating life margin mostly because I was failing to do so.  I've been burning the candles at both ends, holding too many irons in the fire, and trying to keep all the balls in the air.  (See?  I'm using three back-to-back idioms.  You know it's serious when someone does that.)

Given this overwhelming state of affairs, I've been searching for practical ways to reclaim some necessary open space in my life and schedule.  So far, we've looked at three key tips: 1) Seeking and Accepting Help, 2) Saying No, and 3) Knowing What Refreshes You.

Today I'm looking at a fourth and final strategy to reclaim life margin: Getting an Aerial Perspective.

Last week I had an afternoon meeting on campus.  Instead of snagging a parking spot an one of the lower levels of the parking deck like I normally do in the morning, I had to drive to the top to find an open space.  Way to the top.  Before rushing down the six flights of steps, I paused and surveyed the view.

It stopped me in its tracks.  I regularly notice the beauty of the campus, but this particular view was so pleasing, so serene, so calming.  I saw the traffic passing along the road from a distance.  I watched people gathering and talking from a distance.  I examined buildings where exams were being taken, papers were being submitted, deadlines were being established, and work was piling up -- both for professors and for students -- from a distance.

And from this distance, all the workings of campus seemed simple.  Because I wasn't in the midst of the situation -- because I was above it all -- I was able to see my world differently.

This moment tangibly reminded me of the benefit of shifting my life perspective, of moving beyond my pedestrian understanding of affairs where I see matters only from my limited human vantage point.  We're reminded in Isaiah that God's thoughts are not our thoughts and that his ways are not our ways.  His ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

Higher than ours!  He sees farther than we can.  He's able to discern the scope and scale and beginning and end in ways that we can't.  He's not overwhelmed by the details that threaten to overwhelm us.

At the same time -- and here's the beauty -- God isn't distant.  He sees our lives from that sovereign vantage point, yet he's available, moment by moment, for us to call upon when we're in the thick of things.

When I'm struggling, when stress weighs heavily, and when demands encroach on my life margins, I can't forget the most important factor: I can view these troubles from above. 

Thank you for joining me during this series on reclaiming life margin!

Creating Margin: The Necessity of White Space in Life
Now that We're Talking About Life Margin
Life Margin Tip #1: Seek and Accept Help
Life Margin Tip #2: Just Say No
Life Margin Tip #3: Know What Refreshes You
Life Margin Tip #4: Get an Aerial Perspective (you are here)

Airplane image complements of Grosler (

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Life Margin Tip #3: Know What Refreshes You

I haven't yet met someone who doesn't want to achieve a lifestyle where the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual components are healthy and balanced, like smoothly spinning gears.  That being said, I rarely meet someone who feels like she's regularly living that balanced lifestyle, myself included.  This lack of balance was my impetus for writing this post about the necessity of reclaiming life margin.

To this end, each day this week on the blog I've been exploring how I can create the open space I need to thrive.  (If you're new or if you've missed a post, let me invite you to check out the first two life margin tips: 1) Seeking and Accepting Help and 2) Saying No.)

Today we'll look at a third practical tip: Knowing What Refreshes You.

This tip sounds unnecessarily basic, doesn't it?  But how many times have we stumbled upon a spare hour and wasted it by mindlessly scrolling on Facebook with a vague sensation of discontent instead of using that hour well?

Simply put, I'm not always in tune with what I really need.  Sometimes I eat because I'm bored, not because I'm hungry.  I watch TV because I'm too tired to do anything else, when perhaps I should just go to bed and get a good night's sleep.  I fritter away small segments of time and reach the end of the day, unsure of where it all went.

Now, today's tip is not about squeezing more activity into our days or increasing our productivity.  Rather, it's inviting us to assess whether we're building life-giving elements into our schedules, those endeavors that invigorate us.

I've taken inventory.  I know what refreshes me.  Writing regularly, whether in a journal or on this blog, transforms my swirling thoughts into a coherent shape and brings clarity into my life.  Exercising boosts my mood and physical health.  Spending time outdoors draws my attention to nature and breaks the constant pull toward a screen-saturated lifestyle.  Immersing myself in a DIY project lets me tap into creativity.  Spending time praying and reading devotionals in the morning brings hope, lifts my spirit, and grounds me for the day ahead.

And I didn't even mention organizing closets.  Oh, I love a good hour of closet organization!  Don't get me started!  The more ordered my space is, the more ordered my life feels.

Beyond this, the older I get, the more I need adequate sleep each night.  Gone are the days when I could stay up until one or two in the morning and still function the next day.

These are the things that refresh me. 

Of course, I'm not suggesting that I don't occasionally crash on the couch at the end of a tiring day and mindlessly watch back-to-back episodes of Fixer Upper or Chopped, staying awake against better judgment because I "need" to see the final house transformation or learn which chef's dish is on the chopping block. 

I still do that.  (Have I ever told you that I once watched four-and-a-half successive episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on a particularly weak-willed Friday night?  I'm not proud of this fact.)

I'm learning.  I'm learning that establishing life-giving elements in my routine, even if that routine seems impossibly full with work and responsibility, increases my sense of life margin.  (Case in point: although it sounds counter-intuitive in terms of time expenditure, I often feel less harried on days when I take the time to blog than on the days when I don't.)

Today, would you take inventory of what refreshes you?  Do you thrive when dinner is prepared early so you're not scrambling at 5:00 in the afternoon?  Do you need to call a friend or schedule a date night with your spouse?  Do you simply need to pamper yourself, like getting your hair cut or your nails done?   

Take inventory, and then take action to build these life-giving elements into your schedule, even if in small increments.  Sometimes adding good things can expand your life margin, too.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life Margin Tip #2: Just Say No

For the past several days, I've written about reclaiming life margin, that open space in our lives and schedules where we have room to breathe and be.  I'm on the hunt for practical ways to find balance, which prompted yesterday's post about seeking and accepting help, my first tip for expanding life margin.

Today I want to explore a second useful strategy: Saying No.  (Seriously. We can do this.)

Contrary to how we often use the word, no can stand on its own as a complete sentence without explanation, guilt, or capitulating.  We're allowed to say no.  We reserve the right to guard our time, which is a valuable form of currency.  Once time is spent, it's spent.  We don't get it back. 

Recently I was asked to speak at a mom's group, which is something that I love to do.  I considered my schedule and knew that now wasn't the best time to accept more responsibility.  When I declined the offer, the world didn't end.  I didn't wither under anyone's judgment.

We say yes out of a desire to help and serve, which is admirable.  Occasionally we say yes out of habit.  But sometimes we say yes for less desirable reasons like feeling pressured, wanting to avoid disappointing people, or fearing that we'll miss out if we say no.

At this point in my life, I've accepted that I'm going to disappoint people.  This is inevitable, so I simply need to choose the right people to disappoint.  I'm going to miss out, so I want to miss out on those activities that aren't essential.  The challenge, it seems, is having the wisdom to discern the difference, which is why I often pray in alignment with Psalm 90: "Teach us to number our days so we might gain a heart of wisdom."

I want to say yes to the opportunities that are best, not simply the opportunities that present themselves.  I want to show restraint and not crowd my days with tasks and activities that might seem urgent, but actually aren't all that important.  Besides, sometimes God simply calls us to rest so we can regain our focus and strength.  (You see the cycle.  To say yes to rest, I have to say no to something else.)

Practice with me, would you?  Just let the word roll off your tongue:  No.  No.  No.

Perhaps you need to say no to cooking dinner one hectic evening and order take-out instead.  Perhaps you need to say no to an invitation to volunteer, a request to take on a project, or the self-imposed expectation that you must sew your child's Halloween costume.

Your world won't end if you say no.  On the contrary, a healthier life margin likely will begin.

Today's action step: Reclaim some necessary life margin by saying no. 

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Life Margin Tip #1: Seek and Accept Help

Whether I'm thinking about carrying all the groceries from the van into my house in one trip, increasing the number of courses I teach, or tackling that final load of laundry for the evening, I generally have a "can do" attitude.  Normally this is an admirable stance -- one infused with gumption and optimism, right along the lines of Rosie the Riveter's "We can do it!" and Bob the Builder's "Can we fix it? Yes we can!" 

The problem, of course, is that sometimes I can't do it.  I can't add more to my schedule.  I can't take on more work.  I can't pour out when I'm empty myself.

We all recognize the importance of life margin, so this week on the blog I'm exploring how I can practically reclaim some "white space" in my schedule and life.  (Friends, I need it, and based on feedback I've received, it's becoming clear that some of you are in the same boat.)

So, without further ado, let me share the first strategy I'm implementing to improve my life margin: Seek and Accept Help.

Two weeks ago I placed a desperate call to a young woman in my church and asked if she could babysit for the afternoon.  I was treading water with work, staying up late each night to grade, and convincing myself that what didn't get crossed off the to-do list today would surely get done tomorrow even though I knew the mushrooming tab of "tomorrow's work" was larger that I'd be able to pay.

This lifestyle has taken a toll.  Physically, I'm burned out.  Mentally and emotionally, I'm spent.  Relationally, I'm not the best wife, mother, or friend that I could be.

But my pride balked at admitting defeat.  Since the birth of my oldest daughter (now nine years old), my husband and I have worked opposite schedules and juggled childcare primarily by ourselves.  We've managed for nearly a decade!  On top of that, this is the last year before our youngest daughter enters school.  Can't I just keep going?  Can't I just suck it up for one more year?

I honestly considered those questions.  The answer was NO.

I've finally accepted my limitations.  I've acknowledged that I can't healthily finish my work unless I call in childcare reinforcements for at least several afternoon hours each week.  I've also accepted that there's a trickle-down effect; I can't be the the type of mother I want to be (patient, thoughtful, fun, creative) if I'm continually frazzled and overworked.

Perhaps most importantly, I'm accepting that there's no shame in this.  It's okay to seek and accept help.

Which leads me back to my babysitter, whose name just might be translated "lifeline."  She's going to watch the girls on Wednesday afternoons so I can work, uninterrupted and without guilt.  I gain time.  My girls gain a few hours with an awesome young woman.  (Incidentally, I used to babysit her when I was a college student, which boggles the mind.)  My babysitter gains spending cash.  Win-win-win.

It's a small step, but I feel more hopeful when I enter the week simply by knowing that I've scheduled hours when help is on the way.

What about you?  Do you ever find it difficult to admit that you need help?  What's one area where you could seek and accept help this week to improve your life margin?

Image compliments of Patrick (

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