Stories from a life in progress.


I've spent an awful lot of today crying.

Sometimes you can't anticipate how something will take you, I suppose.  I'm never comfortable about money, but seeing a negative balance at my bank landed so much harder than I even would have guessed.

It's not the number with real impact, it's the negative.  It doesn't tell me I have a negative, it says I'm the negative.  Less than nothing.  A hole.  An emptiness.

This negative raises up such terror in me, a shrieking misery of longing and hopelessness that says "you are not worthy, you will never feel wanted, you will not succeed.  This world is scarcity and hardship and disappointment, and there's nothing more for you than to live a choking, tiny life, the one you deserve, until you grow sick and die of it.  Don't worry, you won't be missed."

Fear gets awfully melodramatic.

I know it isn't true.  But today only my head knows it.  My heart is really hurting, and I don't know how to bandage it up and make it feel better.

I'm praying a lot.  I'm crying to let the pressure out.  Sometimes I'm just sitting and not thinking very much, because I am all worn out with this.

I'm making myself say, "Let your will be done, Lord."  I'm adding, "... because I know your will IS ACTUALLY GOOD whether it feels like it every minute or not, and I trust in the end of this I'll see what you are doing."

I'm saying, "Please help, Jesus.  I have no idea what to actually ask for so just please help."

I have no idea what happens next.  You'll have to tune in next time, kids, and I'll have to stay tuned too.


Well.  So much for that.

When I wrote my post this morning, I anticipated being able to report that I had dealt well with my list -- if not everything finished, at least several hard tasks done.

Instead, task #1 blew up my entire plan by forcing me to look at my bank account, when I discovered I'm overdrawn.  That's when I went away and sobbed for an hour.  I'm done.  I can't cope with this, and I can't cope with anything else in the face of it.

I hate money.  I can't even say the word in my head right now without swearing.  ?!@#$% money.  Nothing makes me hate life more than this, and nothing makes me hate myself more either.

Hard tasks

Some days it's really hard to get up and going.  Today is one of those days.

Not because it's Monday, though that's a good guess.  It's because I booby-trapped my task list last Friday and now I have to deal with it.

Some kinds of tasks are just plain hard.  Everyone has their own set of hard things, the stuff that they struggle with or just plain don't want to do, for whatever reasons.

Hard tasks take extra energy to cope with, and I completely ran out of energy by mid-morning on Friday.  I kept picking the easy tasks off my list and leaving the hard ones behind, because I didn't have enough gumption left to deal with the hard ones.

I knew I was making a heck of list for Monday morning, and now Monday has arrived, and it was really hard to get out of bed today.  Not because I was specifically thinking about these tasks.  Because somewhere in the back of my mind I knew they were waiting for me, and it was easier NOT to think about them at all and to just pull covers over my head and daydream.

I'm terrible at facing hard tasks.  I am a past master at putting things off until they become irrelevant, or until they ABSOLUTELY MUST be dealt with and the stress of them finally forces me to cope.  This is a really bad idea for people who want to work for themselves.  It means never making any real progress.

I KNOW that, and now I have to work on changing myself.

I'm up.  I'm out from under my covers, I'm sitting at my desk and my task list is right beside me, on a pad of paper with a pen ready to mark things off.  I count five things that are going to be hard, each for its own reason.

Let's see what happens.  I'll report back tomorrow on my progress.  I don't expect a perfect score, but three out of five would be all right.

Here I go.  Wish me luck.

Surrounded by words

My bolt-hole office space, as I described before, is an unused room in my aunt and uncle's house.  It started out as a bedroom for one of my cousins, who is now living in the greater Philadelphia area preparing for a graduate school program in Music Therapy.

My cousin is a lovely young lady who I don't get to see nearly often enough, now that she lives hours away from here.  When she lived regularly in this space, one of the primary ways she decorated her walls was to cover them in quotations written out on colored cardstock.  She lives elsewhere now, but her quotations still live here, and I find myself reading and pondering several of them every day.

After a few days in this room, I teased my cousin that she should never let anyone she wanted to deceive into this room, because reading the collection of her quotations reveals too much about her character.  These walls tell you, for example, that my cousin esteems friendship and good relationships, that she is very interested in the idea of being true to your own genuine nature, that she believes dreaming and working to achieve dreams is important, and that she has a deliciously irreverent sense of humor -- not in any gross or offensive way, but rather in the kind of way that loves clever word-play and turning ideas on their heads.  (These are only a few of the reasons I love my cousin dearly.)

Because I know this collection grew over time, and because I know familiar things often stop having as much impact in our consciousness, I wonder if my cousin truly realizes how revealing her collection of words is about her.  Maybe she does, maybe not.  I wonder even more if I would be brave enough to make such a collection of words and display it where someone else could see.

When I first thought of this question, "would I be willing to make a collection of words like this and let someone else see it?," I pondered it for at least a whole minute before realizing that I WRITE A BLOG ON THIS-HERE PUBLIC INTERNET.  I don't have a collection of quotations, I have a collection of essays.  Ones I've written myself, out of my very own head.  If someone wants to know who I am and find out what's important to me, they could do a lot worse than to read them.  It's possible that someone who reads my whole collection of words here might gain a clearer sense of my character and what's important to me than I have sometimes for myself.

Maybe I should ask someone to read everything here and analyze the results.  It might give me some of the clarity I keep looking for.

Mission statement

In the midst of fretting about not knowing what I'm doing, I've been doing some writing and noodling about what I want to be doing -- what I feel like my purpose and best gifts are.  One day last week I opened my journal and asked myself what I'd like people to say about my writing.  If I meet a reader for the first time in person, for example, what would I most like to hear them say about my work?

With barely any time for thought, I wrote down "Your writing makes me feel less alone."

A few other statements quickly fleshed out the basic idea.  "I feel like I'm hearing from a friend when I read your blog."  "I feel more loved now because of your writing."  "I feel more like God loves me now, because of how you write about him."

I put a big sticky-note flag on that page in my journal and I keep going back to look at it and think about it.  I noted a lot of the personal needs I felt last week and prayed about had to do with feeling lonely and wanting community for myself.  I half wonder if I'm not just looking for someone to love ME, in writing down these statements.

But then, that sort of ought to be the point.  From the very beginning this blog has been about telling stories from real life, about weakness and fear and not knowing what's going to happen next.  My very first post is about the Bible story told in Mark 3, where a man with withered hands stands up in front of his community and Jesus heals him.  I know my personal example in that story is the man with withered hands.  I'm supposed to stand up and talk about problems, so we can see what Jesus does next.

I haven't always done a good job of this.  One of my besetting, selfish issues is relying on my smartness to gain respect.  In practice this means I don't let people get too close.  I only speak up when I feel like I've got something clever enough to say.  That's a problem in multiple ways, but here's one:  when you feel lonely, it keeps you from experiencing love.  It makes you feel like you're only ever loved because you're smart enough -- so what about the days when you don't feel very smart, or do things that are really stupid?

I feel like I'm gaining a better sense of my mission now -- recovering the original reason I started this blog, remembering that I'm not supposed to say "look and see how clever I am, people" but "I've got troubles and I don't know what to do about them yet."  I'm called to stand up with my withered hands, my withered heart, my fears and uncertainties, so other people can see they aren't the only ones who struggle and so we can all see what Jesus does about it.

So maybe it's apt that I want to help other people feel less alone.  Maybe if I feel alone myself a lot of the time, that will help me relate to other lonely people.  Maybe talking about my own damaging habits and heart struggles will help me find change -- and maybe that will help other people find change too.

Once and done

I've been dithering about making a Facebook page for my writing for ages.  I've put it on my to-do list and then taken it off (or given up on lists completely), gone into Facebook to do it and then left before I started, researched pages online and gotten confused by conflicting advice, and overall have just not gotten to grips with this.

It's one example of a broad tendency for me.  I want to do things ONCE, and CORRECTLY.  I don't want to either feel like or look like a clueless goofball, so I dither.  I put off starting things.  I never get around to all the research I intend to do.  Doing the research makes me feel clueless, so I manage not to do it.

It doesn't help.  This is really not the way to go.

An iPad game, of all things, is pushing me on this right now.  I'm a big fan of NimbleBit and I play several of their games, including Tiny Tower, Nimble Quest, Pocket Planes, and Pocket Frogs.  I've lately picked up Pocket Trains for a new distraction.  I MEAN, challenge.  I MEAN, legitimate blog post example.  (I'm not really fooling anyone, am I?)

There's a tutorial at the beginning of the game to get you started, but I know this from experience:  the real way to learn the game is to get in there and try stuff.  Buy things.  Sell things.  Build train networks and take them apart and build new ones.  Spend money, use resources, and don't worry too much about wasting things.  It's the only way to really learn how to play.

Do you hear yourself writing this, Crispy?

Try stuff.  Use resources.  Don't be afraid to just start and learn, backtrack and learn, experiment and learn.  It's the only way.

What am I doing?

I'm in.  I've been accepted as a student at Evangelical Seminary in the Master of Arts in Religion program.  I have the opportunity now to study the Bible in-depth in a focused, academic setting.

At this stage I am unofficially-official.  I have received unofficial word (via email) that I'm accepted, but I'm waiting for the official word (via letter) to arrive.  Waiting impatiently, because I want to get on to the next steps and I don't even know what they are yet.

I'm excited.  It's good to have this big question mark settled.  I'm also gobsmacked, and more than a little daunted.  I feel like saying "what the heck am I doing?  Who thought this was a good idea??"

I suppose it's nerves; graduate school is a big undertaking.  It will soak up a lot of time, work, and resources.  But the nerves too easily become actual fear.  I feel like I haven't justified it well enough.  I feel like I should have a much clearer plan for what I'm studying and what I want it to do for me once I graduate.  I'm not sure any more if I've chosen the right concentration.  I'm just not sure about anything.

Similar fears echo elsewhere in my life.  Now that I have new, lovely office space to work in, free of helpful distractions, I've not been able to avoid the simple fact that I have no idea what I'm doing.  I don't know what to sit down and work on every day.  I don't have a plan.  I don't know how to be a professional writer.  I don't know how to make this into my career and living.

It's terrifying, and so far I haven't done a great job at facing it.  I've felt all locked up, no idea what to write about, no idea what decisions to make, or where to find guidance, or that guidance is even available.  (It is, but fear doesn't see that part.)

There's a good part to all of this uncertainty.  It's making me search for Jesus.  It's forcing me into fervent prayer, sometimes desperate prayer.  It's making me come to grips with how badly I want to be a competent, respected, modern professional, when that isn't what I need most and deepest.  What I need most and deepest is to realize what I've already got -- a place in God's family, all the promises of guidance and care written out in his book, love and life that will last beyond any modern competency, respect, or professionalism.

If I had a clear plan right now, I'd follow it -- eagerly, single-mindedly, selfishly.  I know I'd run after it and leave Jesus in the dust, and after wasting time, days or weeks or months, I'd come limping back when I got to the end of my ideas and realized there's nothing there.  If my future is veiled right now, it's a blessing, even though it doesn't feel like it.  It's making me stick close to the one with the REAL plans, the one who is preparing good work for me, work in which I will be made more real and alive at the same time that I serve other people and help them become more real and alive too.  This is what I really need.


"On the following morning Caesar dismissed his clients after the dawn ritual and walked alone down the Vicus Patricii to the suite of rooms he rented in a tall insula located between the Fabricius dye works and the Suburan Baths.  This had become his bolt-hole after he returned from the war against Spartacus, when the living presence of mother and wife and daughter within his own home had sometimes rendered it so overpoweringly feminine that it proved intolerable.... Being a true Roman, he had not attempted to reorganize his domestic environment by forbidding noise and feminine intrusions, but rather avoided them by giving himself a bolt-hole."
Colleen McCullough, Caesar's Women

I'm not Roman (certainly not a Caesar of the Romans), not Italian, not even European.  I am not in need of an escape from any sort of "overpowering femininity."  But these words from Colleen McCullough's historical novel about Julius Caesar's political career are the ones that come to mind today.  For my own reasons, I'm making myself a bolt-hole.

I share a home with my parents, and we often share it with some of their grandchildren, and the grandchildren are awesome in every way kids can be, but they bring their normal share of kid noise and chaos.

More than that, working out of one's living space makes its own set of distractions.  When one tries to work in the same space as all of one's toys, sometimes work loses.  Some people have the kind of discipline to ignore everything else and focus on the work that needs done; as yet, I'm lacking in that sort of discipline.

As a result my life feels like a bunch of tangled string.  I am pulled in too many directions, and the pulling creates knots, and the more I get pulled, the tighter and more painful the knots become.  If I'm at home when kids are there, I feel obligated to help take care of the kids (at the expense of my work).  If I'm taking care of the kids or playing with them, I feel guilty for neglecting my work.  When I do work, I wonder if I should be helping with basic chores for the house.  No matter what I do, I'm doing something wrong.

I end up not working at anything because I'm not sure what to do, and then I feel like a failure everywhere.  I think all the pulling makes me more tired than I should be.  I know feeling a lack of progress makes me tired and frustrated.  That's the space I've been in for too long.

So I'm making a bolt-hole.

One of our neighboring families is a lovely aunt and uncle, people who are friends and mentors for me as well as family.  They have a beautiful house with extra space.  One of their open rooms has three gorgeous big windows to let in the light and a nice big desk.

I have office space outside of my house now.  Outside of my house, away from kids and parents, away from my own toys and distractions.  I have the opportunity to build a new routine of work:  getting up in the morning, GOING to a place, DOING the work, putting it away and coming home.

I can't leave all distractions behind, because I carry the source of them with me.  It's not other people or things who distract me, it's I myself who permit I-myself to get distracted.  But I hope removing myself from the sphere of habitual old distractions will help me concentrate and learn better discipline.

We'll see how it works out.  I know I have work to do, work to build my career and work to build my character.  I have a new desk and a new room as tools.  Watch this space.

I'm back

"Well, I'm back."

Those are the words of Samwise Gamgee when he returns from the Grey Havens, and Sam's words end the great novel of J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and they are the words which come to me now, sitting down at my computer to write after a too-long time away.  Well.  I'm back.

I haven't walked to the Havens, nor halfway across Middle-Earth, but I'm weary.  I've been working on hard things for the past month, and that makes me weary. I've had long stretches when I couldn't work at all, and that makes me a different kind of weary, weary and frustrated.  I've been muddling through conflicts with my family, and that's different again, making me sad and scared and weary of uncertainty.  I'm bored with the season, bored from a lack of color in the world and a lack of new things to see or do, and that creates yet another kind of weariness.

It's not all bad news here.  A lot of the hard work I've done was necessary to assemble my application for seminary, which is now submitted and in the process of evaluation.  In the way that hard times can make for good change, I'm using conflict as an impetus to edit my life in specific, important ways.  I'm looking for new things to try, or at least I'm just leaving the house more, to escape the gloom of late-winter blahs.

Not many pages before the end of Tolkien's book, Frodo Baggins tells Sam some other words which pierce me now:  "You cannot always be torn in two.  You will have to be one and whole, for many years.  You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do."

I feel like I've been torn for too long, pulled by too many conflicting responsibilities and guilts, and that makes me the most tired of all.  I can't be torn in two anymore.  I wish to be one and whole, to stop being pulled in too many directions, to focus and make progress on what I choose, to build my own career and my own life.

I'm back.  I'm back at my desk, back at my keyboard, back assembling words and carving ideas into new shapes.  I've been distracted, I've been frustrated, I'm still swamped in uncertainty, but I'm here.

Rowing out

My head is full of water metaphors lately.  On my tai chi teacher's blog, I'm in the middle of writing a series about habits and change, using rivers and unusual phenomena like tidal bores as jumping-off places.  In response to my frustrations of last week (actually frustrations which have built up over many weeks and months), I'm thinking about ocean rowing.

I was introduced to the idea by a podcast series from 2008, recorded by rower Roz Savage with on-land host Leo Laporte during the first leg of her solo row across the Pacific Ocean.  (Yes, you read that right.  Solo. Pacific Ocean.  ROWBOAT.)

It's been years since I listened to that podcast, but one part of the story is coming back to me now, the part which feels like the metaphor I need.

Getting away from shore is always an issue for human-powered craft.  The waves want to push you back in.  It takes some focused work to do it, whether you're rowing a boat or paddling a surfboard.  If you try it at the wrong time and place, you don't have a chance -- you're not going to beat a strong incoming tide.

Worse than that, Savage started her run from San Francisco.  At that latitude, the prevailing winds blow east, not west -- winds strong enough to blow her right back to California.  A sailboat can take some advantage of headwinds to go forward.  A rowboat can't.

Savage's first day blog report notes that it would take at least some 200 miles of progress before she would reach a latitude where the winds would start to help her.  Until then, it was constant work to go forwards, often in the very teeth of headwinds trying to send her backwards.  It was not uncommon to gain miles of progress in a day and then lose miles while asleep, even with a sea anchor to help maintain her position.  And there was nothing to do about it but sit back down and keep rowing.

It's a potent, daunting image.

As a metaphor, it's showing me two things.

First is that beginnings are hard.  They take extra time and work.  Getting out past the surf, out past coastal currents and adverse winds, out into the deep is just plain not easy.  Steady, constant, focused work is necessary to do it. 

Sit down and row.  That's all there is, but that simple thing is utterly essential.

Second is that external conditions matter.  Savage couldn't just pick a day and start.  She needed to get everything ready, and then wait for her chance -- several days of light winds to give her a fighting chance to get underway.  Once she knew the day, she also needed the right time -- middle of the night at slack tide.  Until the tide stopped coming in, she couldn't even row out past the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone into open water.

"Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.  Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain."  (Ps. 127)  Unless the LORD calms the winds, the rowboat doesn't get going either, I suppose.  And If the LORD doesn't foster her success, a writer won't succeed. 

The modern story of "you can make your own success!" is at least half fiction.  External factors can't be handwaved away.  You have to find the right way to work with them, to get them on your side so you have a chance.  Even then, there's no guarantee they won't roll you upside down and break all your stuff.

I think it's time for me to focus and get to work as a blogger.  This is what I want to do, and I think it fits into the bigger story of what I am made for.  I am tired of feeling like I paddle out just to get washed back on the beach.  I see that I need to apply more focus and stay aware that the work is hard but necessary.  

I also need to be aware there are no guarantees I'll get anywhere.  I can produce work, but who knows what it will ultimately add up to?  Work is necessary to starting something big.  Other things are necessary too, things outside of my control.  This is not a reason to give up and stay home.  But forgetting this risks disillusionment and disaster.

I'd like to row out.  I'd like to get properly underway.  Time will tell where I end up.  But I want to go.