Looking Back. Thinking Ahead.

I love the concept of a new year for a multitude of reasons.  It's an opportunity to get back on track with healthy habits.  It's an invitation to organize, reduce, and repurpose.  It's a fresh page on a fresh calendar.  But best of all, it's a clean slate mentally.  Technically speaking, tomorrow -- January 1 -- is merely the day that follows today, but mentally, it's a day full of promise.

As I'm looking at 2015 with hopefulness for what lies ahead, I'm also reflecting back on 2014.  Earlier this morning, I read through my blog posts from 2014.  What an extraordinary opportunity to review my life seasonally and remember moments I otherwise would have forgotten.

I've culled a collection of my favorites -- some encouraging, some humorous, some practical -- to commemorate the year, and I invite you to visit (or revisit) as many as you'd like.

The Antidote for Envisioning a Different Life
Life Will Continue Even If You Don't Get an "A"
The Adventure Waiting to Happen Right In Our Own Neighborhood
Days Like This In Pennsylvania, In Istanbul, and In Between
Recovering from the Birthday Season
When I Wouldn't Want to be Anywhere Besides My Backyard
The Happiest Funeral You'll Ever Attend
The First Mile is the Hardest
Giving New Life to an Old End Table
Creative Ways to Fill a Frame
Creating Beauty for Beauty's Sake
When Your Kids Remind You of Chickens
Just Say No
When You're THAT Mother (and when your kids are THOSE kids)
No Neighbors Were Harmed in the Making of This Blog Post

Thank you for your continued readership and support, my friends!  Remember, no matter where 2015 takes us, when we walk with the Lord, we'll never face a step alone. 

Happy New Year!

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The Morning After Christmas

It's the morning after Christmas.  The opened presents have been moved into piles, the few gifts designated for returns have been matched with their gift receipts, and the shreds of wrapping paper have been cleaned from the floor.  Space has been cleared in the refrigerator, and leftovers from Christmas dinner have been transferred neatly into Tupperware containers.  Our guests have left, the first load of laundry has been started, and it's just our family of five once again.

Back to normal.

The past week has passed in a blur -- closing the semester, getting sick, recuperating, holiday baking, last minute shopping, late night gift wrapping, welcoming family, attending Christmas Eve service, watching Christmas morning unfold through the eyes of my children who were hyped up on sugar and life, and navigating Christmas afternoon as new toys and games and books were explored.

It was a beautiful Christmas with family, and last night my husband and I turned into bed early, happy but exhausted.  This morning I woke and realized how quickly the holiday had passed, how abruptly everything had ended.

Even so, there's something wonderful about today.  The sun shines brightly.  I hadn't noticed the absence of sunlight during the past several days, but now that it shines I realize what I've been missing.

Baby, it's cold outside, but with that sunshine, I don't particularly mind.  Another day has dawned, and it's a new and hopeful one.  Christmas has passed, but warmth and cheer remain.

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I Know. I Love You Anyway.

My week hasn't gone as expected.  My semester has finally ended, but the race to the finish line resembled a limp more than a sprint.  I submitted final grades and processed my instructor feedback while lying in bed, coughing, feverish, and chilled.

Even though I'm slowly recovering, instead of experiencing happiness and closure with another semester in the books, I feel tired and deflated.  Most everything hurts.  Food has no taste.  Reading hold no excitement.  TV seems dull.  Mornings blur into afternoons, afternoons blur into evenings, and nights last too long.  I've fallen behind on laundry, cleaning, and meal prep.  I haven't finished Christmas shopping.  I haven't started writing Christmas cards.  I have no motivation.

This morning I laid in bed, looked up at the ceiling, and thought, "God, I'm a mess right now."

It freed me to admit this truth.  I know I'll functional normally again soon, but at the moment I have nothing great to offer.  I'm not productive.  I'm not engaging.  I pretty much I take up space and cough.

When many good things -- like health, energy, and my contributions to my family -- are stripped away, I'm reminded that I can't base my worth on my performance and productivity.  My performance, quite frankly, stinks.  And even if I was trucking along, doing my thing, crossing items off my list, and feeling with it instead of woefully out of it, I still shouldn't be basing my worth on my performance.

Performance is a poor measure of worth and significance.  It's subjective and fickle, likely to leave you tossed and adrift, anchorless and susceptible to either pride or shame.

So, as I looked up at my ceiling and thought, "God, I'm a mess right now," I sensed God simply say, "I know, Robin.  I love you anyway."

It's never been about what I bring to the table.  Whether impressive or lacking, my efforts and contributions never are the determining factor of God's love for me.  His love is relentless.  It's based on His performance of living, dying, and rising again, not my performance.

I could cry at this glorious truth, but it's never wise to cry when you have a nasty head cold. 

Emmanuel.  God with us.  Coming into mess and filth in a manger two thousand years ago, and still entering our messes today.

Image compliments of MTSO Fan (flickr.com)

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Be Nice to the Wal-Mart Lady

I'm in Wal-Mart this morning to pick up a few items, but I don't want to be.  The only place I actually want to be is back in bed underneath my covers. 

I'm wearing black yoga pants, my hair's secured in a sloppy ponytail, and I haven't even bothered to swipe on Chap Stick.  My eyes sting, my head hurts, my throat is sore, and the store feels entirely too warm.  The end of the semester has approached, and with it, a pre-holiday immune system collapse.

Beyond the occasional muttering of excuse me as I navigate my cart around another, I have no intentions of talking with anyone.  I'm banking on anonymity and disassociation from any human interaction in real-time, even as my thoughts -- jumbled as they are from lack of sleep and sickness -- seem to continually cycle back to a complex situation at work and a recent phone call about a family member's health concerns.

Alone with my congested thoughts, I wheel my cart to the self check-out.

But there's that employee, the one wearing the festive holiday sweater under her Wal-Mart vest.  She's determined to monitor and engage.  She stands beside me as I check out, telling me how to swipe the items across the scanner.  I nod silently.  She sees I've purchased masking tape and asks where I found it.

"The home office department."  My words come out scratchy, and they sound more like a question than a declarative sentence.  I'm find her question to be both obvious and odd, being that I'm the shopper and she's the employee. 

She reaches into my shopping bag and pulls out the tape as I'm waiting for my receipt to print.  "I thought it was freezer tape.  Are you sure it's not freezer tape?  It looks like freezer tape, but I guess it's just masking tape.  I never can find freezer tape." She continues the conversation with herself, clearly not picking up on any of my social cues.

I blink.  I don't want to be having this conversation.  I've never heard of freezer tape.  I don't want to discuss whether it might be located in the cookware section or near the aluminum foil in the grocery department.  I just want to reclaim my masking tape and carry my gallon of milk and bag of deodorant, toothpaste, and Tylenol to my car, drive home in the rain, and get back inside of my house so I can kick off my wet shoes, sink into my couch, and cough in private.

When I've put the receipt away, she's still holding the masking tape in her hand.  She hands it back to me with a smile.

I smile back.  A bit tautly, but I make the effort.

Maybe the one thing God wants me to do today is to be nice to the Wal-Mart lady.  Maybe the best way to spread peace on earth and goodwill toward men is simply to be gracious to the person who innocently annoys me by digging through my shopping bag and asking questions that seem unnecessary when I'm sick and tired and stressed.  Maybe I can get out of my own head long enough to think of someone else's problems.

"I hope you find your tape," I say.  She beams and reminds me to take my milk, even though I've already lifted it back into my cart.  And then I head out of the overly-warm store and walk back into the rain.

Image compliments of Iryna Yeroshko (flickr.com)

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The "Just So" Christmas

I'm not sure why I expected anything different, but decorating our Christmas tree was chaotic this year.  My husband carried the bin of ornaments up from the basement, and the girls descended upon it, grabbing, jostling, and announcing, "I remember this one!"  Ornament hooks spilled and embedded their way into the carpeting.  The lower half of the tree received 90% of the ornaments.

Partially through I considered that we should be more festive and less rushed.  I had forgotten to turn on Christmas music.  The rest of the house was a mess.  Everything was happening too fast.  Instead of being thoughtful and deliberate, we were colliding our way into Christmas.

And, realistically, I was the only one who was bothered by this.  Not my husband.  Certainly not my kids.  They were too busy hanging bulbs and angels, too caught up in the glittered and mismatched ornaments that they had made during Christmases past, too curious as they looked at Baby's First Christmas pictures and wondered which one was them.

No, it was just me.  In my mind, I had a picture of what a house should look like when a Christmas tree is decorated, and that mental picture didn't include a kitchen table that hadn't yet been cleared from lunch, or a sink full of dirty dishes, or a family room carpet that was in dire need of vacuuming.

Each year I somehow expect that I'll feel entirely prepared for Christmas each year -- that presents will be neatly wrapped in advance, and we'll host dinner parties where I'll wear something with exactly the right amount of sparkle, and I'll have uninterrupted time to reflect on the real meaning of the season in an organized and tastefully decorated environment.

That never seems to happen, though.  Instead, there are brief moments of Christmas wonder in the midst of regular life.  My kids pile onto the couch and we share one blanket as we stumble upon the second half of A Christmas Carol on TV.  I overhear my youngest talking to the Baby Jesus figurine in the manger.  We take a detour to pass the "crazy house" that has hundreds and hundreds of lights.

Christmas will never slow down for us.  It's never going to be "just so."  I'm the one who needs to slow down and discover those moments of holy wonder, reflection, and worship right in the midst of regular life.


A Lazy Girl's Guide to Ironing

We all hit stretches of life when multiple deadlines, events, and obligations coalesce at once, creating a particularly frenetic daily pace.  I'm there right now.  I know I'm going to make it, but I find myself weary with the most basic tasks, like getting into the shower, or getting back out of the shower, or remembering whether I actually washed my hair or whether I just thought I had washed my hair while I'm in the shower, or putting on clothes, or making myself presentable in the morning. 

On days like this, I seek shortcuts to make even the smallest tasks easier.  Take ironing, for instance. 

When it comes to ironing, I'm admittedly lazy.  Thus far in life, my primary two strategies to make ironing easier could be broadly categorized as avoidance: 1) I don't buy many clothes that require ironing, and 2) I try to reach the dryer immediately after the cycle is done so any slightly-wrinkled clothing can be shaken into submission and declared good enough.
Maybe you're like me in this regard.  Maybe you use your iron to seal kid's crafts with melted beads more frequently than to press button-downs.  Maybe you live in knits and jeans and yoga pants. 

But, despite our best avoidance efforts, what if there's one persistent wrinkle on an otherwise acceptable garment?  What if a shirt's collar or a skirt's hem needs a simple touch-up?

Well, if you're anything like me, these minor dilemmas provide the perfect time to rethink what we mean by the word iron

On more than one occasion, instead of dragging a cumbersome ironing board from the laundry room, I've headed to the bathroom, heated up my curling iron with the click of one button, and run that iron down the crease.  It's that simple.

Real ironing?  Ain't nobody got time for that.  But using your curling iron in a pinch?  Well, that's a lazy girl's guide to ironing.
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The Student Who Stayed Behind

As I gather my belongings at the front desk after all other students have left the classroom, one student stays behind.  He holds his baseball hat by its curved brim in one hand and lightly smacks it into his open palm before he speaks.

"Now that all of your grading for me is done," he begins, "there's something I'd like to tell you."

I'm accustomed to students making appeals at this late point in the semester.  So accustomed that I warily scan my inbox for messages with the brief, yet telling, subject line that reads Final Grade.  (If only students consistently demonstrated as much rhetorical vigor throughout the semester as they do when they're requesting extra credit at the end.)

But this student wasn't making an appeal for me to consider his grade more favorably.  He was simply taking a moment to thank me for turning a class that many students dread -- a class that he had avoided for seven semesters, in fact -- into a rewarding experience. 

"You should know that you're the best professor I've had."

In that one moment, I'm filled up so deeply.

Fifteen weeks ago before the semester began I visited this classroom, then empty, to scout out the layout.  I had stood at this very spot and read aloud from my roster, calling out the name of each student, praying for their studies, for their physical and emotional wellness, for their choices, for their futures, and asking for the wisdom necessary to offer the most fitting instruction, encouragement, and correction into their lives.

In the weeks that have followed, I've planned lectures, and taught classes, and offered feedback, and assigned grades, and doubted my efficacy, and held small philosophical debates within my own head ("what is a B, exactly?"), and poured out energy and time and concern and love because I don't merely want to teach a public speaking course; I want to create better thinkers and communicators.  I want to impact lives.  I want students to know that even on a campus of over 40,000 students, they're seen.  They're heard.  They're known.

And that's exactly what this student did for me, with his baseball cap in hand.  Once again I'm reminded why I do this job.

Image compliments of Max Klingensmith (Flickr)

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Finishing Strong

This past Sunday evening I found myself succumbing to melancholy.  We had just spent a wonderful time with family for the Thanksgiving holiday, and for several days I mentally had separated from work long enough to ponder more pressing life matters, like what's the best method to crimp pie crusts, and how I should approach Christmas decorating, and why Black Friday is creeping into Thursday, and whether I should purchase a new comforter for my bed, and what room of my house I would choose to renovate if the Property Brothers just happened to offer their services for free.

But when Sunday came, these frivolous thoughts were replaced with thoughts about the final three weeks of the semester and the lectures, meetings, and grading that accompany them. 

Oh, real life.  You hit hard.

Still, after ten years of teaching at the university I've worked through this cycle enough times to realize one thing: starting again is rarely as bad as thinking about starting again.  It's the mental game that gets to you, the overcoming of inertia.

Life is just one long series of overcoming inertia, isn't it?

I'm heartened by the email I received from a colleague today reminding me to finish strong. So, for these next two and a half weeks, that's what I plan to do. 

Just finish strong.

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