Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Secret of Being Content in All Situations

Moments before I photocopied the syllabus for one of the college classes I'm teaching this semester, I noticed one mistake.  Instead of writing due September 9, I had written die September 9.

The i and u.  So close together on the keyboard; so far apart in meaning.

I'm glad I caught that typo.  Clearly, I don't know everything, but I daresay it's not good to issue a death wish this early in the semester.  My students and I barely know each other in early September, after all.  (Perhaps later, toward finals week, would be more apt.  You've got to nail the timing on these types of matters.)

At any rate, the semester has begun, and my summer life already is transforming into my fall life.  Next week when my children return to school, the transformation will be complete.  We'll be a Family With a Schedule, rather than a family whose mother invents errands to fill up the endless wastelands of time that make up the bulk of days during the second half of August.

Yes, the pendulum is shifting: from summer to fall, from open days to structured time slots.  As I consider this, I wonder why I can't balance my life more effectively.  Why, for example, can't some of the school-year routine hedge in the openness of summer?  Why can't I borrow from the deep wells of summer freedom and reserve that refreshment for the desperate crunch times of the semester when I most direly need it?

It's famine or feast.  Too much time or not enough.  Too much structure or not enough.  It vaguely depresses me.

And then I remember a verse in Philippians where Paul writes that he has learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  In my comfortable middle-class American life I've never experienced this juxtaposition of plenty and lack with food; we're fortunate to always have enough.  However, I do experience it with time.

Time is the main commodity that I possess in excessive abundance (say, a full summer's day at home when there's seemingly nothing to do with three cranky kids), or the commodity that I lack (say, a fall weekday when I've collected 48 essays, am prepping for my next technical presentation lecture, and have to help my kids with their homework while getting dinner on the table.)

I've found both extremes to be challenging.  I'm not always content in any and every situation when I'm facing abundance or lack, yet Paul says he's learned the secret, which is revealed in the next verse:

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.

The ability to handle it all -- the ups and downs, the overwhelming abundances, the desperate needs -- can't be mustered up solely by ourselves.  Whether it's a day in August when I'm swarmed by my kids who are simultaneously intense and languid in their late-summer temperaments, or it's a feet-hit-the-floor-running, head-hit-the-pillow-still-thinking day in fall, the secret is the same:  

It is Christ who gives me strength.  I'd be wise to acknowledge this.

Robin, don't rely on your own strength.  The Lord has what we need to handle both the plenty and the lack in our lives.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

"I Could Win a Parenting Award!" (said no parent ever during the month of August)

If there was a month during which I would be least likely to receive a parenting award (if such an award even existed), it would August.

August is a beast.

I struggle to sludge through its hot and humid days.  I feel the looming weight of the semester ahead, yet I can't fully immerse myself in the preparatory work I ought to be doing because the kids, who feel the looming weight of the school year ahead (subconsciously, at least), are uncannily constant in their needs and intensified in their outbursts.

I've grown weary with applying sunscreen.  Popsicles no longer thrill me.  I'm mentally over the zucchini plants that keep producing like it's their job.  (Which, come to think of it, is their job.)  My emotional and physical reserves useful for outings -- to the pool, to the playground, to an amusement park -- have been depleted.  For three months I've uttered the sentence, "Close the door behind you," Every. Single. Time. my kids have entered or exited the house.  I have no desire to cook, anything, ever again. 

I daresay, I'm ready for fall.

When fall arrives, it brings with it the structure that we lack during these summer months -- structure that hedges us in (sometimes uncomfortably so), but provides boundaries nonetheless.

At this moment as I write, my children play outside with two of their neighborhood friends on our Slip and Slide.  They're soaked and covered with grass.  Based on the bubbles, I know they've snagged my dish soap to make the slide faster.  The entire scene makes me smile, but in a tired way.  I sense the clean-up ahead.  The grass in the bath tub, the dirty towels dropped on the bathroom floor.

This scene won't be happening in another month.  These seemingly endless, repetitive days actually will come to an end, so for now -- during this month of August -- we simply hold on and live them.

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Fifteen Years Ago Today

I look at those young faces and think, "If they only knew."  But, of course, there's no way for anyone to know what will come down the pike the next day, much less the next year or decade.

Fifteen years ago, we couldn't foresee the highs and lows, the career shifts, or the future children who would enter our family, one by one, and impact nearly all waking moment of our current days.  We didn't know the places we'd live, the stories we'd be able to tell, or the battle scars we'd have.  We didn't know how much of married life would be consumed with mundane tasks, like taking out the trash, or scheduling the next dentist appointment, or figuring out what to eat for dinner, or texting one more thing for the other to pick up at the grocery store on the way home.

Back then, we didn't know much about anything, really, except that we were ready to say I do.  So we said it.  And every day since then, we've kept saying it, even through inevitable frustrations and hurts, sleep-deprivation and sicknesses, conflicting schedules and busy lives. 

I choose to love him.  He chooses to love me, which is most profound when I'm not very lovable.  Fifteen years ago, all the moments in between, today, and as far as our eyes can't even see:

I do.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Simplest. The Best. The Aqua Bicycle.

When you have kids, a vacation to the beach with extended family is many things.  It's for packing too much, and stopping for bathroom breaks, and bringing an enormous bag entirely devoted to beach towels and fitted sheets, and figuring out the sleeping arrangements, and applying sunscreen -- lots of sunscreen, and letting the kids have juice boxes and candy AND ice cream later at night.

It's for periodic melt downs, and Yahtzee or Checkers games, and crowded beaches where the sand scorches your feet and you stare at the teens who just lay there  -- oblivious to everything but their tan lines and phones -- and you can't remember ever experiencing the stage of life when you were responsible just for yourself.

It's for finding sand in the nooks and crevices of kids' bodies, and tossing beach toys in the back of the minivan, and taking an outing to the water park where you count heads, and making sure everyone stays hydrated, and, of course, reapplying sunscreen -- lots of sunscreen.

It's not for rest.

Still, I often begin a vacation with the idealistic notion that I'll have time for quite seaside reflection, and I'll emerge from a perfectly angled adirondack chair into my non-beach life with significant life epiphanies.  This doesn't happen, but let me tell you about what did happen this past week.

I saw this bike left in the garage of the house where we stayed. 

Maybe it was the soothing aqua color, or the fact that beach terrain, unlike my central Pennsylvania mountains, is always flat, or that a one-speed bicycle with back-pedal brakes reminded me of childhood, but I immediately fell in love with this bike.

We took a few rides throughout the week with our three girls and four nieces and nephews, creating a von-Trapp-like trail that prompted more than one passerbyer to ask, "Are they all yours?" as they nodded to the seven kids between filling the gap between my husband's station in the lead and my position as the rear guard.

But the final night, through some configuration of circumstances that involved the adults jostling rides and taking some kids to mini-golf, I found myself able to steal a solo bike ride.

I don't remember what I thought about that evening, really, or whether I actually thought at all.  I just pedaled, following any route I desired.  I felt the humid air on my skin and beach breeze in my hair.

And when I stopped, it was here on the bay.

Later as I rode back to the beach house while the sky darkened, I took the longest route possible, not quite wanting the ride to be over.  Even with the adirondack chairs, the evening produced no significant life epiphanies, except perhaps that sometimes the best part of a vacation could be as simple as an aqua bicycle.

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Chronicles of an Indecisive Online Shopper

Once, while I was in the hospital, a nurse asked how severe my pain was on a scale of 1-10.  My brain nearly exploded.  I wasn't dying (at least, I didn't think I was), and I could probably tolerate more pain without dying (although I didn't want to), and I was coherent enough to understand what she was after (which indicates some presence of mind), but the question was enough to push me over the edge.

What if I answered too low and they offered to give me a measly Tylenol?  What if I answered too high and revealed a laughably low pain threshold?  What in the world did these numbers correlate with, anyway?  Was 4 even worthy of being in the hospital?  Would 10 indicate that I was actively being mauled by a bear?  Could I offer a fraction of a number, like 7 and 3/4 degrees of pain, because 7 just didn't seem to cut it, but ratings of 8 and above seemed like they should be reserved for childbirth or broken femurs?  Was it permissible to answer, "Stop pelting me with questions! Just help me!"

If, like me, your mind responds in this fashion when a nurse prompts you with a standard question, you're probably an over-thinker.  It's doubly troublesome if you're indecisive and waver in your response by answering the question with another question -- 6, no wait, maybe it's actually a 7?

I've noticed that the combination of over-thinking and indecision is particularly troubling when you're attempting to buy something, anything, online.  (Or when you're scrutinizing paint chips, but that's another story for another day.)  While recently shopping for an area rug to place in our newly-hardwooded computer room, I fell into paralysis at the sheer number of options, as if area rugs were grains of sand on a grossly expansive beach of Internet search results.

Even the available filters -- seemingly useful parameters like price, size, color, and shape -- didn't help as much as I thought they would, given that there still were thousands of choices available at my fingertips when they were applied.

Where was the filter titled "Things I Would Like, Versus Totally Not Like" that removed ugly options from the onset?  Where was the "Things That Would Look Good in My Specific Space and Compliment Things I Already Own" filter?  What about one that found "Products That Arrive At Your House Actually Looking Just Like They Look in This Picture" and ferreted out misleading results?

Our civilization has explored the depths of space, created new body parts with 3D printing, and produced marvels of engineering that defy human limitations, yet we can't fully help a girl out when she's buying an area rug.

With dozens of tabs open on my computer, I muddled through the task with great uncertainty.  I overextended my husband's patience with the number of times I uttered the words "area rugs" any given day.  I waffled.  I wavered.  I enlisted the help of a wonderful friend who probably didn't have time for any of this, but offered her thoughtful opinions regardless.

The day I narrowed my search to four solid choices, I walked away from the computer victoriously.  Later, I discovered that my oldest daughter accidentally closed those hard-earned tabs while playing a game.  (Cue me, silently screaming.)

Apparently, I find it much easier to shop at brick-and-mortar stores where I can look at items in person, buy them, take them home, and then incessantly deliberate about whether something works or not.  Clicking "add this too my cart" feels like I'm pulling a trigger; tactile indecision seems much friendlier than its digital counterpart.

In case you're wondering, I finally purchased a rug.  (And then, sadly, I shipped it back because it was entirely wrong.)  Even more skiddishly after this failed attempt, I initiated another online search and selected a different option.  Days later when it arrived from UPS, I unrolled it and then sighed a happy sigh of relief.

It worked.

It was the right size, the right color, and the right price.  It was a rug that I liked, versus one that I totally did not like.  It looked good in my specific space and complimented things I already owned.  It arrived at my house actually looking just like it did in the picture.  It deserved a small moment of silence.

I should probably conclude by telling you that years ago, when one of my daughters was very young and I was playing an opposite game with her, I offered the word "buy."  I thought that she'd supply the antonym "sell," but without a moment's hesitation, she smiled and offered a definitive response: "return."

I learned two things from this.  One, she's entirely pegged my shopping tendencies.  Two, based on her quick and firm answer, she doesn't have a hard time making a decision.

I should have her do my online shopping.

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