2015: Without complaining

2015: Without complaining

I know it’s been a long time. That’s the strange thing about a blog: even if I use it as a glorified journal, I still feel indebted to my few readers and mildly guilty when I fail to write for long periods of time. So. Sorry! And hello again.

Sitting in a professional development meeting yesterday, the idea was sudden and stuck. I’m always a bit late to the reflective train, it seems. Others are so meticulous in their reflection with thoughtful end-of-the-year lists and turns of phrase. I must be too busy too often because when I received all those posts to my email this year, I was in a frenzy of moving and travel and trying not to yell at my students every 10 minutes. Oddly enough, last year was similarly frenzied although the circumstances were different.

That sudden idea was this: Perhaps this could be a year of no complaining.

Of course, I’m aware that I will fail at this resolution as often as I succeed, but I sense the effort could be worthwhile. I think I’ll also take on Ann Voskamp’s Joy Dare and count 1,000 gifts. Seriously, why not?

Some micro cultures breed that habit of complaining. Teacher culture seems to be that way in my extremely limited experience. The teachers I work with on a daily basis seem to feel unappreciated by students, principal, parents, society. There is always much weight to groan under: another form to fill out, another confusing way to try and track teacher effectiveness, another test to prepare students for, students who don’t care, parents who don’t understand, legislators who are too far removed from the grind of education to form accurate policy. I am barely darkening the door of this profession, but I sense none of this is new. Better for me to choose rose-colored glasses from the get-go.

Choose to embrace reality and all it’s nitty-gritty beauty. Choose to welcome the bright and the shadow.

So there it is: a resolution for the year I’ll turn 30, 2015. A year without complaining. A year of daring to gather 1,000 joys, 1,000 gifts.

(81) a year ago today

A year ago today, we got up early in the dark, probably got coffee on the short drive from the hotel where I’d worked and where we’d spent the night and drove home for the last time. I remember stopping at the 24-hour Safeway for something, maybe cleaning supplies. He dropped me off and went to work, his last day at NAS Whidbey. I remember sitting on the floor in the living room for a while. We’d loaded the moving truck for hours the night before, just us and a few brave friends who helped wrangle furniture, even our small piano, into the 26-foot Penske truck. The loading ramp was narrow and steep. It had been drizzling rain. At one terrifying moment, I’d found myself braced on the ramp, the only one in place to keep the piano from rolling back down as the guys scrambled into the truck to pull it up from the other side.

On this morning, the living room was mostly empty. But there was still a lot to finish. I called a cleaning company and scheduled them to come clean the carpets that night around 6 p.m. Then the day was a scramble and a rush. My friend Jaimie came to help me clean the kitchen that Friday afternoon, January 25, 2013. She glanced around and said dubiously, “You’re definitely not leaving today.” Then she set about emptying and scouring the fridge. “Just don’t look,” she said as she threw away a bunch of perfectly good food. At that point, I knew I couldn’t care about everything and let it go.

Zack came home from work and a friend or two came by to help again. I was non-relational, cleaning the oven as I told them what was ready to be thrown into the truck. The rooms emptied out quickly. Most of the cleaning was getting done. The carpet cleaners came as scheduled and Zack went to get us Subway for dinner while I finished cleaning the kitchen. At the last minute, I realized I hadn’t cleaned the windows, but it was too late for that anyway. We walked on socks over the wet carpets. All the rooms, all the cupboards were empty. A note for our landlord and all our keys were on the kitchen counter. Of course there was one more cupboard in the laundry room with a few things in it. These were emptied into a grocery bag. Zack swept the garage floor and loaded all the trash bags that wouldn’t fit in the can into the truck.

We walked through one more time, then locked the doors and left. What a wonderful first home this had been! We stopped at the hotel where I’d worked and said goodbye. I had one last paycheck to pick up. And my boss let us throw our trash in her dumpsters. She offered to let us stay the night again, but we were anxious to just get going, even though it was late, maybe 10 at night. Then we were off, leaving behind our first home of a year and a half and on to make a new home elsewhere.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.” (from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

(77) adios, 2013 (part 1)

A dozen days in 2014 and you’re only just getting around to bidding goodbye to 2013, Anna?

Yeah, I know, it’s a travesty.

Social media and news media seemed to mostly cram this reflective farewell into the busy week between Christmas and New Year’s. I was by turns nostalgic and tormented during that time — what did 2013 actually hold for me? what did I do? who the heck was I? — but read a blog post that helped me allow myself a little extra time to reflect and then post about it. So here I am, with both feet in the New Year and glancing over my shoulder at the old. What was that year all about?

A married girl living the single life

It is decidedly weird to be married and not living with one’s spouse for an extended period of time, which was the case for us basically 10 out of 12 months of 2013. I could not be more relieved to have gotten the majority of this tour of duty out of the way. In some ways, it was worse in the anticipation. But honestly, there were times that felt just as bad in real life as I’d anticipated it feeling – this might be a first for me (realistic expectations? what?!). The few weeks right around our 2nd anniversary in May were the worst, I think. I remember feeling so emotional and lonely all the time. And then it got a little easier. I’ve learned that marriage is about living the mundane little things of life together and so when you’re 10,000+ miles apart, you talk about the mundane little things of life in lieu of sharing them. And it’s pretty mundane sometimes. But when I got frustrated about this initially, he gently reminded me, “hey, isn’t this small stuff important in our life together?” News flash:  Living apart does not automatically push your daily sorts of conversations onto an ethereal and deeply meaningful plane. Living apart mostly seems to mean that you get to practice caring about stuff and hearing about stuff you can’t really picture and you’re not really part of.

On the bright side, sometimes it’s fun to be independent. And I imagine he probably didn’t mind missing out on some of my fun emotional roller coaster/mood swing moments. Instead he could hear about it afterward (“yeah, I was a little upset yesterday”). I can rush around in a flurry without disturbing his peace and quiet.

On the difficult side, I can’t reach out to grab his hand when I feel frustrated with him to remind myself to settle down and that I love him. And when he’s feeling down or lonely, I can’t do anything except say, “I’m sorry, love.” No hugs, no back rubs.

A motherhood internship

Seriously, who gets this kind of opportunity? I’ve had copious practice changing diapers, packing a diaper bag, buckling and adjusting car seats, and running errands, cooking and cleaning with a tiny companion. I’ve discussed nap schedules and introducing solids and teething and discipline techniques. I’ve been sent to pick up diaper rash ointment and teething medicines at the drug store. And I’ve watched and learned as my sister and brother-in-law have tried many different ideas to help my niece sleep longer or have taught her the preliminary essentials of good behavior. I’ve seen how terribly tiring and difficult the journey of parenting can be sometimes and yet how much joy this small human brings to the world. I don’t think a person ever feels ready to become a parent. But now I do feel somewhat prepared.

Community is messy and beautiful

The first several months of living with my sister and brother-in-law were especially messy, although now we find ourselves in a very natural rhythm with each other. I am deeply grateful for this God-given chance to know them on such a deep level. If I had lived alone this year, I would have been able to be selfish all year if I’d liked. But living with family has stretched me to practice setting boundaries while giving me ample opportunity to give and love in absolutely simple and practical ways all the time. I imagine this will smooth the transition into living with my husband again as well. I will miss the fellowship, the sharing of burdens and also the access to my sister’s wardrobe (!) when I move.

A different way of doing church and living faith

I knew coming into this year that it might be a little challenging and strange living with an Orthodox family. I did not anticipate that Zack and I would embrace Orthodoxy and decide to become Orthodox. I am still surprised by this, I think. At first, I just went to church with my family because I had no friends and didn’t have anywhere else to go. It just seemed practical. Then I took a bit of a step back in the summer. I still had a lot of questions, but I felt somewhat less interested than I had. And then fall rolled around and I continued going, more of my own accord. And for the first time in a long time (years?), I actually wanted to go to church.

Zack wanted to become Orthodox after attending church just 3 times and talking with Father Justin for an afternoon while he was home on leave in October. Then he tossed the ball into my court as he often does. Even though I’d been here for virtually a year at that point, I was thrown off balance by his sudden change of heart. Yet “is anything impossible for God?” I recognized that this could very well be the answer to a prayer I’d been praying since we’d met and I couldn’t justify any alternative other than joining God where He was working and walking with Zack into Orthodoxy.

This has changed the dynamics of our long-distance relationship by giving us prayers to say together, a spiritual book to read together and discuss. I can share everything I’m experiencing with Zack and he wants to hear about it. He isn’t surprised or concerned when I describe going to church several times a week. He’s just sorry to have missed it all. I never in a thousand years anticipated this as an outcome of this year.

And a few more things…

I started a new job in April and struggled with it and against it all year. I’m still don’t really like it and find it frustrating and hard, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately that it’s time to move on from not liking it. Looking back, it’s been a unique blessing this year, giving me a lot of flexibility alongside a decent income that I couldn’t have had otherwise.

I climbed a big mountain. I went on several road trips, collectively driving through Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. I planted a garden and grew tomatoes successfully, maybe for the first time in my life. I realized that I love having friends over for meals and know that I want to do that more often.

Wow. What a year.

There were many things I didn’t get done that I expected to or wanted to, but after listing all of this out, maybe I understand why I felt so busy.

More reflections on lessons learned and in process to come…

(76) the thing about Christmas

The thing is this: I just don’t feel ready for Christmas. I’m unprepared.

I’m listening to the music and everything. I’ve been to a couple Christmassy concerts. I’ve walked in the snow and marveled at the lights. I’ve even been participating in the Nativity fast as a means of preparing.

And yet…

Only very recently did I realize that Christmas actually wasn’t 3 weeks away anymore, but rather next week. In my mind it had been 3 weeks out for a while and I guess I expected it would somehow continue to be 3 weeks out forever and ever amen. Not so however. Which led to a small fantasy world (the fantasy world in which Christmas was perpetually at a distance) breakdown. Because I’m unprepared. Christmas cards hadn’t been written. Gifts haven’t been collected and wrapped and mailed. Baking hasn’t been done.

Then I went into philosophical freaking-out over-analyzing mode (oh-so-difficult to imagine me plunging into this, I know), because one of the Big Problems is that I don’t actually know why we buy all these gifts. Part of me felt anxiously compelled to rush out (or online) and quickly buy and mail! But the louder part was just confused. Remind me again, what exactly is the point here?

I realized that I know what I want the gift to communicate. I want it to say to the recipient: I love you, I’ve been thinking of you, even praying for you all year, then I saw this goofy little thingy-bop and it made me chuckle and I hope you’ll at least smile, maybe not because the gift is all that great, but because now you know for sure that I was thinking of you.

All of that in a silly little gadget that they might not even need. All of that somehow communicated unspoken in a thing – just how plausible is that really?

My motives are cloudy. The cultural tradition of gift-giving is muddied with materialism. And I live in a peculiar situation among the majority of the world in that most of the people I would give to don’t actually need anything, not really. Which makes it all seem kind of empty. And at this point, it seems too late anyway. I’m just letting it go for now. I’ll try to explain my conundrum in person to the affected parties. I anticipate that everyone will let me off the hook this year, excuse what feels like a moderately messy failure to me. Maybe if I just plan ahead, if I started thinking about this in July next year…(although this is ironic, since I have actually been thinking about this Christmas gift conundrum for a couple months at least, but took no action because I apparently was in denial that Christmas would tangibly come).

I am actually stuck at this point in the story right now. I’m writing this from the middle of it, not at the end when I can sum everything up in a brilliant one-liner. But here are a few things I’m gleaning today:

I think the so-called Christmas spirit might be more of a way of living to practice (one of generosity, compassion and unconditional love), rather than a transient wave of emotions. Which means that I can practice living the Christmas-way anytime. And this also means that it is fully unsurprising if it is, in fact, difficult to practice this Christmas living. It seems that all good practices are difficult along the way.

And I was reminded of two iconic Christmas figures as I sort-of trudged home from the store tonight, wrapped up in angst about all this:  Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Both stories are about someone missing the point of Christmas and then coming to his senses and finding joy. I do not enjoy being challenged to embrace joy when I’m in the middle of a good sulk. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I enjoy sitting down in my distress. But do I really want to join the ranks of those missing the point? Maybe all I need sometimes is to step out of my distress, throw my energy into loving and expect to see the big reality of God bursting the seams into my mundaneness.

Which brings me to this last thing, a quote that our pastor sent out tonight that is somewhat overwhelming, yet also makes all my words and worries seem small in the shadow of what is Really Going On Here in Christmas:

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him…

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.”

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

Come, let us observe the Feast.

Yes. Let’s do that.

(67) live well in the chaos

“All deaths were accidental, or none was, for disease was just as random an accident as injury, and all die. None died prematurely, for death battened on only the living, and all of those, at any age.

“It was all the same and predictable except in detail, whether a heart collapsed and seized in an old woman, or a runaway buggy crushed a growing boy: the people took the boy’s death harder, for they longed to have him with them longer, and to see him grown and fruitful. They were not ready for him to die, but they knew for a fact that death was ready. Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak–but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.”

(from The Living, by Annie Dillard)

 

I woke up Sunday morning to a Facebook post sharing that the baby daughter of an acquaintance had died Saturday night. She was only about 4 months old, I think. Her mama and daddy are both active duty Navy, which is how we know them. Grief for this tiny life, seemingly extinguished too early, was overwhelming all day Sunday. In church, I rocked and remembered their names. And I remembered the other children I know and have known who struggle so valiantly. Why do some live and others die? Annie’s words rang out in the confusion, “not really early, just soon.”

What really makes me crazy is the need to keep living, keep going, when I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that things are falling apart. How can I sit still and type nonsense when a child is gone and parents are empty? How can I focus on work that feels meaningless and continue to eat regular meals when, at any moment, grief will rip through the world again?

Where is Jesus in this painful, beautiful, bittersweet, piercingly captivating life that we are caught up in? Where are You? I know that if we could just catch hold of the hem of your clothing, we would be healed (Mk 5:28). And healing is what we so desperately need. Maybe not healed from the brokenness, but within it, because of it. Healing is what I need.

I want so much to figure things out. I want to know “how” to live well in what feels like chaos. But You aren’t giving me any how. (And I hate this, it infuriates me, but I sense You are holding on to me even when I’m wrestling with a question You don’t seem inclined to answer). The only how is  to love and keep loving even when I weep over a child I never knew. And to keep living faithful to you, even in ridiculous jobs. Maybe the healing is already here in the brokenness. That would be so like You, I think, to hide Yourself here in the middle of our mess.

(65) thoughts while traveling by bus

It has been about a month since I’ve written here and almost that long since I’ve written at all, I think. I just haven’t known what to say. Or maybe I’ve just been talking so much I haven’t had any words left. That seems unlikely. Or maybe I’ve been listening so much, I haven’t taken time to think. That seems more possible, given my current occupation.
I’ve been doing a lot more thinking out loud lately, I think. More than usual? And my words sound loud and tumbling and repetitive. Like I’m fleshing out the same issues as always. The endless processing doesn’t resolve the angst as well recently as it has in the past, it seems. I might be making that up.

***
I’ve taken up amateur couch-surfing of late, spending the last 9 nights in 4 different homes. Most recently, I was on an air mattress on a playroom floor. I turned over last night and a small toy car tumbled out of the bed and scooted away.
I notice how different relationships bring me out of myself differently. Is this normal? I imagine it must be. But the “who am I?” question slips in and out of my thoughts. If I am a bit of a shapeshifter, adjusting diet, habits, language, in different groups of friends and acquaintances, am I still an honest person, a person with integrity? Is all of that still me?

***
I think I want a cause. Something to really work for. Like immigrant and refugee rights. Or something. Maybe what I really want is some direction. To move consistently one way.
This thought is sparked by just listening to a couple podcasts. I annoy myself by caring about the cause of the oppressed, but apparently not enough to do anything tangible, even to do the research to learn more.

***
This seat is unbelievably uncomfortable. Only 99 miles to go…

(58) death/life, life/death

On Friday, I found out that my college roommate’s 9-month-old son was undergoing a heart transplant that morning. My own heart was heavy, torn between grief for the donor’s family and hope/fear for my friend’s family.

Thousands of miles away, the even-younger son of the sister of an acquaintance of mine (a.k.a. we do not know each other, but I have been following their story via Facebook) is struggling to survive. Oddly enough, he was born with the same rare heart condition as my college roommate’s son. Sadly, he has not done quite as well and his parents are facing decisions that range from terrible to worse.

Almost once every week or two, we will get texts that Grandpa is going to the emergency room again. I remembered him today, taller than me, driving Grandma to all the piano recitals, taking us out to dinner. He was a bottomless font of perseverance, strength, opinion, and of course (it seemed to us), money, supporting us as we learned piano and traveled the world. He allowed us to play with him, he allowed us to move him with our music. He would listen with eyes closed, but would always insist that he wasn’t asleep, just listening. And when he met my future husband, he was one of his biggest fans right away, making him feel right at home in the family. But that person I remember already seems faded and frayed, difficult to detect in the person now struggling to keep breathing and maneuvering the bottom floor of his beautiful home in a power wheelchair.

And the work I am now doing often feels overshadowed by death and suffering, as I transcribe details of patients’ lives and medical histories.

***

Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Pascha (Orthodox Easter). As the priest reminded us many, many times, the crowds of Palm Sunday quickly dispersed, abandoning Christ until only a handful of disciples remained to witness his death at the end of the week. “Don’t desert Christ,” he admonished the congregation, “Walk with him faithfully through Holy Week.” On Thursday evening in church, we read every Gospel reading pertaining to the Crucifixion. The priest carried the large cross from behind the altar into the center of the church and hung the icon of Christ upon it, then we were invited to come and kiss His feet. On Friday afternoon, we were there when the priest removed the icon from the cross, wrapping it in a white cloth. By all appearances, death had swallowed up Life.

But Saturday morning the church was brilliant in white. Because even though Christ’s body still lay entombed, He was already trampling the gates of hell. Life has defeated death.

Skip ahead to today.

In the brief memorial service that followed liturgy today, the priest reminded us that even as we grieve the loss of those we love, we are passionately hopeful. Christ’s resurrection changes everything – even if I forget to live as though this were so.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24 ESV)

***

I feel as though we are left living in a strange space between death and life. It feels overwhelmingly narrow and dark, living in this cycle where all life ends in death. And yet…

It also feels incredibly expansive and blazing with hope, for we are living toward a death that is swallowed up in life.

***

My heart is still heavy. All the words of truth in the world could not heal the grief of having to decide if it’s time to bring your little one home to die. I am empty of reassurance for my grandpa as he faces the reality of his own end of what is known.

Somehow it is reassuring to me that the Gospel reading at the final service of Holy Week, on Pascha Sunday in the afternoon, after everyone comes back together one last time after celebrating the Resurrection at midnight Sunday morning, feasting until the wee hours, and going home to rest, ends with Thomas saying:

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20:25 NIV).

I do not know why this is the final Gospel reading of Holy Week.

But somehow, it reassures me and fans my little flicker of hope. After all of that, Thomas? You’ve been with Christ in person, your fellow disciples have seen Him alive again, and still you doubt? And yet, Thomas became the apostle who carried the Gospel to India and died there. Maybe I am reassured because I feel so small to be entrusted with such a vibrant hope of victorious Life. Maybe I am reassured because I too have tasted this Life-that-swallows-death and yet I do not know how to live honestly and hopefully here in the shadowlands.