• Spread the Joy – Enjoying the Hard Life

    hardlifecoverBack in college I briefly dated a guy who taught me how to drive a stick shift. We borrowed my friend Romi’s little Ford Escort and drove around deserted back roads so I could practice. I was awful. My date was very sweet and patient but after several hours of me stalling at every stop and losing speed as I struggled to find the next gear and the occasional grinding, he finally said, “I don’t want to make you feel bad, but it seems like you should be catching on by now.”  Shortly after that, I dropped him off and drove back to my dorm without a single hitch. I never had another problem driving a stick shift after that night.

    The story always makes me laugh because it’s so typically me. It’s like I have to make every mistake possible before I can figure out the right way to do things. And then I’m golden. The downside is it’s probably best to steer clear of me when I’m learning something new. The upside is that on the other end, I can tell you about any mistake a person can make and how to find your way out of it. And it’s in this spirit that I wrote The Upside Down World’s Guide to Enjoying the Hard Life.

    If there’s a counter-productive, neurotic or unhealthy way to approach life, it was probably a habit of mine at some point in the past. In this book, I share 45 of my favorite ideas, practices and attitude adjustments which have allowed me to overcome my worst tendencies and enjoy my often difficult life. The essays are quick, easy to read, good humored and practical. No lectures or theological treatises. Just lots of ideas for how to be more mindful, self-compassionate, forgiving, happy, grateful and at ease with yourself, your life and the people in it. There’s even an index to help you find which essays to turn to when struggling with everything from anxiety to guilt to forgiveness to relationships and more. Continue reading

  • moon

    Pareidolia

    On a clear late summer night, the woman sat on the edge of a field outside of town to watch the moon rise. In another age, she would have been known as a seer among her people. But times have changed and there’s no demand for seers anymore. Instead, she spends her days performing the dull, essential tasks that modern life demands of us all.

    She has sought out a place as far from the city’s light pollution as she can get to, but she knows that what she sees is a shadow of what was there when she was a child, far from any city, watching the heavens traverse the sky above her.

    When she was young, she had found it a spooky to think that the beauty of a heavenly parade took place night after night long before there was any human present to appreciate it. And it would continue after humanity was gone. It is hard for a child to imagine a world which existed before their arrival and would continue after they had departed again. But watching those stars as an interloper just passing through allowed the woman make peace with the fact that the world was not for her. It has an existence all its own.

    The moon rose full and bright while the woman watched. It climbed higher into the sky, illuminating the only bank of clouds in the sky. As the thin clouds passed directly in front of the moon, the woman saw two angels bearing the bright orb of the moon between them. As she watched one angel became an eagle. The other soon morphed into a serpent opposite a lion.

    For a few moments, an array of creatures made their presence in the cloud known. The woman was so caught up in the display that it came as a surprise when the clouds began drifting away. Soon the sky would be entirely clear.

    She had looked deep into the cloud and been absorbed in the secret life it carried with it. She knew she would soon enough forget the details of this cloud – one of many she had loved. But for a few minutes, that cloud had been her world.

    The woman was no primitive. She knew that this was just a trick a person’s brain played – seeing faces on the moon and angels in the clouds. God wasn’t sitting around shaping clouds to send her messages.

    She knew this, but she never quite understood why this made the reality of it any less wonderous. That she had a brain which played such a trick. That something as simple as a cloud could make that happen was amazing in and of itself. The fact that sometimes her seer’s heart could find meaning in the convergence between the tricks of her brain and the randomness of a cloud just made it all the more magic to her.

    With her beloved cloud moving on and and the chill of the night breeze picking up, the woman packed up her seat to return to the house where her children were sleeping. Soon she would be asleep as well. In another time, her seer’s dreams would have been seen as valuable and sought-after. But we don’t live in those times. Dreams, like the visions in the clouds, are nothing but more tricks of the brain. And what could be the wonder in that?

    *Pareidolia is the technical term for our tendency to see faces or other known things in random things like clouds.

  • irish proverb

    Bloggy Linky Goodness

    OK, my week had eight days in it this week. But it’s a holiday, so you won’t notice anyways and we’ll just keep it to ourselves, k? BTW, can anyone tell me if hyper-dramatic 6 year old girls ever work the histrionics out of their system. Or is this just our ramp up for her teen years? Cuz if she keeps this up, her bedroom door might end up as damaged as mine is from all the slamming. Although maybe that would help – I haven’t slammed my bedroom door in ages because it’s completely borked now. The doors in this house just weren’t built to stand up to a woman with a difficult marriage and 5 or 6 kids. IJS

    So moving on . . . it’s Bloggy Linky Goodness! I know you’re all so excited. And really impressed with my semi-consistancy with getting this up 6 whole times now. This is amazing stuff from the woman who forms tendencies the way other people form habits. Well, I do have one habit – I read everyfreakingthing. Which is good for you because now I can tell you which things out of everyfreakingthing are most worth reading. Here goes: Continue reading

  • grocery

    Mary the Grocery Store Lady and Me, Me, Me!

    Last night I went to the local grocery store and saw that Mary had dyed her hair. I was a bit surprised. Mary never struck me as the hair dying sort. The cigarette smoking, beer drinking with her family sort, yes. Mary works overnights at the local grocery store and she kind of intimidates me. She’s not like the nice, cheery ladies who work during the day. Mary doesn’t look at you and she doesn’t care if you found everything you were looking for. She wears prescription sunglasses inside, is thin as a rail and moves like a man. I always think she hates me but I’ve watched her with other people and either she hates them too or that’s just the way she is.

    I always try to talk to Mary. I hate how unfriendly people are around where I live, so I make a point of talking to people when I’m out. It’s my little protest. And I just think it’s right to be friendly. However, I’m actually pretty shy and easily intimidated. So when I run into someone like Mary I have to work up the nerve just to say “hi” and ask how it’s going. I don’t always make it. I feel like she’s so fiercely determined not to look at you and keep her mouth set in a straight line because she doesn’t want anyone to talk to her. But if I don’t even try to talk to her, I’m convinced that she thinks it’s because I’m a stupid, fat cow who thinks she’s to good to talk to a person like her. Which right there is a good demonstration of why it’s not healthy to try to put yourself into the head of a stranger. You’re just making crap up. Continue reading

  • counting change

    Am I Still A Good Person if I Can’t Pay the Bills?

    My husband wouldn’t want me telling you this, but I’m sitting here waiting for water to heat up on the stove so my girls can take a bath. Because the water heater broke last week and we don’t have money to replace it. It joins the washer, dryer, 6 car tires, van, sedan, kindle, 3 DVD players, dishwasher, computer and 4 kitchen chairs that have broken in the last year. The upside is that we don’t have to worry too much about paying our past due gas bill for a while longer. Which is good because we don’t have money for that either.

    But my husband wouldn’t want me telling you all this because also like many of you, he is ashamed of having money problems*. Because of course, good, decent, hardworking people don’t have money problems. I mean, we’re happy to provide immoral lay-abouts with a bit of help so they don’t starve and make us feel bad. Or go feral and take all our stuff - not that we look down on them, mind you.

    But for me and mine, we pay our bills on time and keep the house in good repair and provide our kids with good educational opportunities (more than one kid I know learned to read while playing Pokemon video games after all). Not that we think we’re better than anyone else. But that’s just the sort of people we are. Good people blessed with good lives.

    Because that’s how it works. Except a lot of you reading right now know from experience that’s not really how it works – even if you wouldn’t actually admit to a couple thousand people that you’re heating water on the stove because you can’t replace the water heater. Or pay the gas bill. That would be too embarrassing.

    Problem is 25% of homes are in some stage of the foreclosure process right now. 1 in 5 working Americans are working part-time because they can’t find full-time work. The length of unemployment for those who have lost jobs is longer than since the Great Depression. Wages have been stagnant for the last 30 years and even the advantage of having a college degree is shrinking. I’m not the only one who can’t afford to replace my water heater.

    More and more people are going to have to actually deal with the discomfort of being one of “those people”. Which if we do it right means more and more of us are going to have the glorious opportunity to overcome with our unhealthy attitudes about money. OK – “glorious opportunity” is pure snark, but as a culture we really we do have a problem with money and we truly will be the better for dealing with it. Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to do that until we’re forced to. I know. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty.

    Over the weekend I heard “Letter To My Dissatisfied Daughter” on the radio. It was written by a woman to her teen daughter begging for respect rather than condemnation after several years of unemployment for both her and her husband. She speaks about the shame of not being able to take her places or let her do the things other teens are doing. And of the shame she experienced while having to fight for welfare benefits and ask grandma for $20 for gas. Her daughter sounds like a brat, but I can totally relate to this woman. I suspect that more than a few of you can as well.

    When we experience money problems and have to say no to the normal things our kids want because we can’t afford them, we do tend to feel shame. And seeking government assistance is fine for other people who can’t do better, but not for people like us. Culturally, we have a very strong life script that we have an obligation to provide our kids with a decent (read materially abundant) life and that people who fail financially aren’t just failures monetarily, but as human beings as well.

    We insist that we know that money isn’t everything and that we don’t really look down on those who are struggling. But when our turn comes the reality of what we think in our heart of hearts comes crashing down on us. The reality is that we do judge lives and worth according to financial measures. It’s something we don’t have to really wrestle with when this means that we feel just a wee bit smug and secure because we have good lives to affirm our status as good people. But when we can’t pay our own bills or provide our kids with a new pair of headphones when they lose or break their old ones, we don’t just accept it as part of life; we feel shame about ourselves and our lives. It’s an un-Christian, un-Godly standard that many of us are now getting the chance to wrestle with.

    When we’re financially OK, we tell ourselves that we’re OK because we work hard. But a poor African farmer works hard too. So does the waitress at Denny’s. So do a lot of people who are failing financially. Heck, there are a lot of people who can only dream of having the ability to work hard due to illness, injury and disability.

    We tell ourselves that we’re OK because we made good choices, but a lot of people who are fabulously rich have made awful choices. And a lot of people who made bad choices did so when they were too young or damaged to do better. And a lot of people made normal choices that just turn out badly. (The last time we took out a car loan, it was for a small amount, for a short time and we ended up locking the car in the garage to keep the repo man from taking it before the loan was paid off due to the third job loss in four years. My husband’s an accountant. It’s hardly a line of work with a lot of instability.)

    As the bible says, “God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the good and the evil alike.” When we are blessed financially, we are blessed. When we are not blessed financially, we are blessed. There’s no morality to financial well being per se. The challenge for our times is to let go of our insecurities and the sense of worth we are getting from money.

    For a lot of people, it’s not just the money – it’s the willingness to work that we hang onto as a marker of ourselves as decent human beings. I once had a temporary job cleaning port-a-poties and that didn’t phase me in the least. Turned my stomach a bit while I was doing it. But not only did it not make me feel bad about myself, I’ll brag about having done it now. Now having to go to a food shelf? That took gumption and lots of deep breaths.

    Hard work and a lack of pretension are good things, of course. But as Christians, if we really believe that we are called to be humble servants to the “least of these”, we need to be open to sometimes being the “least of these” ourselves. If we can’t accept this – if having to take food stamps or seek help is a threat to our sense of ourselves as decent people, then we need to face the fact that we have an identity which is built on a lot of things other than ourselves as children of God.

    The reality is that God may allow us to learn what it’s like to be among the least of these for our own good. When we accept and understand ourselves as the least of these, then our service becomes less top-down and much more compassionate service between equals. I think that’s how God wants us to serve.

    It is humbling to become the least of these, but isn’t that what Christ did for us? He went from being God to knowing the joys of the stomach flu. If he can do it, then we’ll be OK with our much less dramatic humbling.