Meeting the family

Why is it so terrifying to take someone to meet your family for the first time? We tend to forget how charming our dad can be, or how gracious our mom is, and instead focus on the bad. Sure, Mom’s a great cook, but will they think her spaghetti sauce is just weird? Dad’s funny, but will they get his sense of humor? Will my sister tell the story of why I was called Grace through my teen years? Will my grandmother, an interesting but spunky woman, start spouting harsh opinions of my guest’s weight, religion, moral values, or marital status? What if I turn back into the ugly me, the temperamental one, the one I keep hidden from most everyone else but that my family knows so well how to provoke?

It’s easy to forget that, besides the quirks and flaws and downfalls, there’s a whole lot more someone else could notice. Kindness, funny stories, quirky traditions, a sense of belonging. Unconditional acceptance, and a whole lot of love. We tend not to notice the good traits — they’re easy to overlook when we’re being analytical and trying to see things through a stranger’s eyes — because they’re an inherent part of who we are. We don’t think about the fact that the person we’re inviting to dinner already (presumably) likes us, and therefore will also recognize some of our characteristics in our family. After all, that family is the source, the raw material, which helped form us.

Sometime, when I bring a guest to church, I find myself feeling this way about my church family. Not that I don’t like you all, because I do. In fact, I adore you. All of you. I like our worship, I like our relaxed structure, I like they way Nathan preaches and the way Gran plays the piano and the comfort of hearing people pray aloud all around me and the way we flock to the altar when someone approaches with a need. I feel completely, happily, utterly at home. But when I’m sitting beside someone new, I start to worry. What will they think? Will they decide our worship is weird? Will they jump if someone shouts out a “hallelujah?” Will they see me raise my hands and decide I’m a freak?

God chided me once as I prayed for a friend who was visiting. As I said, “I’ll stop worrying. I give this to you,” He replied, “It’s not yours to give.” He’s right. After all, this is ultimately His house, not mine. I don’t need to defend anyone, just keep on loving them like I always have. The endearing qualities I notice every day are not cancelled out simply because my family might be a tiny bit different than the family they grew up with. I need to relax. My friends will see the good things in my family that I’d like to think they’ve also noticed in me. So I need to sit back and relax. And wait for my Father’s hospitality to make my guest feel right at home.

Writing Prompt - Am I a Writer?

In response to this week's (give or take) writing prompt, so thoughtfully provided by the Gentleman Savant. The question (in its short form, because my response is so long no one will read it anyway, especially if I add 10 or 11 lines of questions): how do you write? What process do you use? And do you consider yourself to be a writer?

Am I a writer? Good question. Sure, I write, but is that enough?

I would propose that it is not the act of writing that makes one a writer so much as the act of seeing. For me, it is all about looking at an image or event – in life, in my head -- and writing in order to allow someone else to see the same picture. Maybe it’s because I’m also an artist, yet I’ve noticed my inclination is to render a scene with words rather than with paint. The tools have always been there, and I have always been able to construct a sentence and quickly put down thoughts. But it took a certain amount of maturity to discover that I had something to say. Whether anyone wants to read what I have to say is another question, which I’ll avoid in the interest of preserving my fragile writer’s ego (and using backwards logic, I suppose if I have a fragile writer’s ego, then I must, in fact, be a writer).

Writing, to me, begins with recognition. Recognition that there is something valuable, something funny, something heartwarming, something quirky, something insightful, something absurd or something ironic – whatever the adjective, that there is something worth preserving. In my younger days, I tried to hold onto those moments with a photograph, but as an adult, I’ve discovered things that cannot be captured that way. The way it felt to hold my toddler as she sat on my lap, stretching her chubby arms up to wrap backwards around my neck, fingers locked, trusting, tender, still, my arms wrapped all the way around her tiny chest, fighting the urge not to squeeze her as thoroughly and tightly as my emotion would dictate — the absolutely heart-wrenching sweetness of the moment. Or the poignant beauty and sadness, all wrapped into one gigantic wave of grief, standing beside the tiny grave of my friend’s infant daughter, four women bonded by friendship and pain and compassion, dark dresses fluttering in the gusts of wind, damp, tattered tissues clutched in our hands, wondering how Tisha will ever bear to pull herself off her knees, rise up off the wrinkled carpet of Astroturf covering the clods of dirt that will soon envelop her baby’s body in the dark earth. How is it possible to walk away from that place? Literally or figuratively?

It is moments like these that I have to write. Not because of any particular talent with my words, but because I am an observer. A translator. (Does anyone else feel that way?) If I can ever take the poetic beauty I see in my mind and translate that into language that will evoke the same ideas in another person’s mind – then, only then, will I be able to call myself a writer without feeling a bit like an imposter.

When I read Stephen King’s book on writing, he said something along the lines of this: develop your characters, really figure out who they are, put them smack dab in the middle of a situation, and then write them out of it. I guess that’s sort of what I do, even though I write non-fiction. Know where I’m starting, and then write, waiting to see where I end up. Looking for truth. Insight. Resolution. I can write just about anywhere, noisy or quiet – in the coffee shop, listening in on other people; on the couch in the living room with feet up and laptop propped on my lap; sitting upright in front of the 30” monitor in my office; or by hand in my journal. Process: pen held between my teeth (I bite down when I concentrate, sometimes hard enough to split the barrel down the middle — but it also keeps me from eating the whole box of donuts I write about), general direction or outline already roughly worked out in my head before starting, and then just pour it out. I jot random thoughts and phrases at the bottom of the page until I’m ready for them. Writing by hand is fun for me because it forces me to edit as I go, but on the computer, I love to play around with the words, sounds, paragraphs, order, structure, etc. I remember the first paper I ever wrote on a computer, and it was like there was angel light projected from the heavens, shining down on that little mechanical box... so many choices, so many possibilities. No more retyping a whole page just to change two words. Ahh, the excitement of it all…

Or maybe I’m just a geek.

A geek who juggles the schedules of three kids, a husband, and her own clients. So I have never been in control of when or where I write… but for me, writing is my “me time.” I’m not official enough to justify setting aside specific times to write. I just take what I can get. And hope that someday people will take me seriously enough that I can call myself a writer without feeling the need to write nearly 1,000 words to justify it. (Is anyone out there still reading? Which makes me wonder… if a tree falls in the woods… if no one reads it, am I still a writer? Yeah, but probably not a very good one.)

Spiritual Nutrition

This past summer, my family went on a diet. Or, more accurately, made a lifestyle change. We started counting calories, but the key was learning correct portion sizes. For spaghetti, that is a cup. For vegetables, a half cup. It’s not enough to simply guess, because we will usually take more than we’re supposed to have. We think it doesn’t hurt to cheat a little. After a while you do learn how to estimate the serving size visually, but it’s important to continue to use measuring cups. Why? Because, over time, your perceptions change. One cup might expand to a cup and a half, because you aren’t paying close attention anymore, and you don’t have an accurate standard against which to measure. It’s been a while since you saw what a true cup looked like. An additional 25 calories isn’t much, but if you do that four times a day, you’ve consumed an extra 100 calories. You still think you’re dieting, and you wonder why your “diet” isn’t making a difference anymore.

How often have you heard someone order a salad, claiming to be eating healthy? It may have quality, nutritious ingredients in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Look at all that cheese, the meat, the high-fat dressing, and the enormous bowl it is in. I looked online before going to one of my favorite restaurants and discovered that my favorite salad there contains almost 1,000 calories – over 2/3 of my daily calorie intake. If I hadn’t looked at the store’s nutrition guide, I would have happily chosen it, and felt virtuous for doing so.

We can apply all these concepts spiritually, as well. Sometimes we get busy and stop reading the Word, stop studying, stop questioning – not thinking anything has changed. But over time, we find that our judgment has slipped a little. What we used to know to be wrong doesn’t seem quite as bad anymore. That harsh line between black and white, right and wrong, blurs to gray. It’s like the extra portions — without the Bible to provides a standard against which we can measure our actions, thoughts, and attitudes, we feed ourselves all kinds of unhealthy things. Things we might even think are nourishing. We need to read labels, consult the guidelines. God’s Word tells us, clearly, if something is good or bad. We never have to wonder if we’re following a fad that will change. It’s the eternal lifestyle plan. And it’s always the perfect size.

Before and After

A little over a year ago, we bought an old house. We could see the potential, but the amount of work involved was overwhelming at times. Before we started, I took tons of pictures – every room, every corner, every angle. Now it’s (more or less) finished and I love to show it off. The people who are the most impressed are the ones who saw it before, with the faded wallpaper and gold, threadbare carpet where the clean, bright colors and shiny wood now exist. Sure, it looks nice enough if you don’t know what we did, but it’s so much better if you understand the magnitude of the changes, the turmoil and trials and extent of the process. Maybe that’s why I keep a small photo album handy when showing the house to someone new.

Looking back at some intense situations I’ve experienced, I’ve noticed the spiritual parallel to my photo album of home repairs. I could have kept everything to myself, not telling my friends about it until the end, when I’d already come through it all and triumphed and achieved the “right” result. After all, isn’t the finished product all that matters?

No. If my friends didn’t know about the situations as they were happening, they could not have required me to remain accountable for my actions. But it’s not just about accountability. I also wanted them to see the drastic changes God was making in me. Without firsthand knowledge, they might not truly believe it. And they certainly wouldn’t know how huge they were. I’ve never been after praise for myself; if anything, it’s dreadfully humbling to let your friends know how badly you have failed. But I do want God to get the glory for His mighty works. I want people to know that He is good and He is faithful and He does answer prayer. So I’ve had to allow people to witness the whole painful process… which, rather than highlight my many faults, simply makes the end result that much more breathtaking. And God’s mercy and kindness that much more miraculous.

Writing Prompt - "Me Time"

The latest writing prompt from the Gentleman Savant is this: What do you do to give yourself a private moment, a moment of self-reflection, just for you? Do you take in a movie by yourself, or walk the dog in the park, or do you get away from it all with a big chocolate milkshake? How do you take your ‘me time’, as they call it?

Time to oneself is critical. Without it, one cannot rejuvenate, relax, or decipher the events of the world and of life. So I work very hard to find that time. I don't understand all those folks who say they have no time, who think their families or work or other commitments take precedence over their own mental stability. It's really very easy. This is what I do:

Wake up, shower, wake up my girls. Check e-mail and answer a few quickly. Apply styling products, quick application of makeup. Open web browser; go to weather.com to decide what to wear and if my kids need sweatshirts. Looking at my calendar, I quiz the kids on their after-school whereabouts. I make sure my husband is gone to work (he walked out the back door at 7:30, but is he really gone? is his car still out there?). Fix breakfast for my 7-year-old, throwing together a milk-free lunch while it cooks (he's allergic). The kids -- all three of them -- leave for their three respective schools, with their respective start times, backpacks and lunch boxes in hand. (I drive the youngest.) I check my e-mail for the second or third time, make my morning call to my mother, answer a call or two from friends wondering if I want to meet for coffee. (Sometimes I go, and if it's Tuesday, I stop halfway down the driveway and run back in to leave a check and a half-Spanish, half-English note for the cleaning lady.) I frantically finish up the two ads that clients forgot to tell me are due today, and the three urgent requests for revisions to a logo, a poster, and a flyer in multiple formats. I answer a call from a friend asking if I want to meet for lunch at Little Mexico, my favorite restaurant, and before I agree, I call my husband to see what his lunch plans are. Successfully coordinating that and selecting a meeting time of 11:30, I walk into the kitchen. Oops, forgot my daily meds (allergies and rather-early-onset arthritis). Take those, wipe down the kitchen counter. Walk back through the sunroom, turning off the TV and lights left on by the kid, grumbling at the mess they left. Answer six more e-mails from clients and read the latest Gentleman Savant post. Check the other 5 blogs I read regularly. Revise one of the ads again and send high-res version to publication. Respond to the latest "ding" announcing more e-mails. Quit the mail program so I won't be interrupted right away. Lock the front door on the way to the living room couch. Collapse in relief. Take a deep breath, which is interrupted by my husband honking his horn in our driveway since it's already time for lunch -- and bounce back up, totally rejuvenated from the quality time I just spent with myself.

Just ask anyone: Working from home allows you to relax, work in your pajamas, enjoy the silence and find peace. What a great opportunity for a professional who also happens to be a mother. Going into work at an office can be rather stressful, they say. I can see that. What with the time alone in the car during the commute, with no one arguing over radio stations or if someone is touching them. And that whole working-for-eight-hours-without-the-distractions-of-maintaining-a-household? How does one ever focus?

As for me, I find no need to make time for enriching, restoring activities. I get all the peace I could ever want right here at home.

(But when that doesn't work for me, I shut out the world and hole up in my funky, comfortable chair, the one with the big swirl pattern all over it, in the corner of the living room by the enormous front window. I open one of my beautiful journals, and hand-write page after page with blue fine-point Tul gel pen in careful handwriting on the lovely smooth lightly-lined pages, waiting for God to speak, waiting for Him to calm my soul and soothe my spirit and make me whole again. I write to discover what I believe. I think someone much more famous than I said that originally, but I find it to be a monumental, fundamental truth.)

Thursday Writing Prompt

In response to the latest Gentleman Savant Thursday Writing Prompt: What is the best compliment you’ve ever gotten in your entire life? Alternately (or in addition), tell us about the most backhanded or worst compliment you’ve ever received. Was it the fact that it came from a certain person that made it so good/bad? Or was it the culmination of events leading up to it? The world wants to know!

Apparently I have issues. Self-confidence issues. You might not know it to look at me. If you were around me, you'd think I think the world of myself. But apparently I rarely take a compliment at face value.

Take, for example, the time I was backpacking around Europe in college. I was young, thin, fairly physically fit. (It's from walking up all the stairs, I'm convinced. Could not the ancients have invented some kind of pulley elevator or the like? But I digress.) Somewhere in Italy, a man walks up to me, points to my calves, and asks if I'm a football player. He smiles, winks. He probably thinks I'm hot, this young, naive, redheaded American girl (because I think they think we're all rather easy. I digress again.). I run off to my boyfriend, devastated. I think he laughed. I'm humiliated, searching for a pair of long pants to cover my shamefully large calves. (Actually it was too hot for jeans, so I didn't actually change. But bear with me for the purposes of this story.) It takes a while for it to sink in that the only people who mean "football" when they say "football" are Americans; I'm picturing giant men with shoulder pads and helmets and thighs two feet across, but he's talking about soccer. Soccer players who are not huge, but who have lovely legs. It was probably a compliment. Muscles and all. But what I heard? Look at your big honkin' legs.

I forgot about that right away, and in my well-adjusted way moved on with my life. For 20 years now I've hidden my calves whenever possible. On the rare occasions I've exercised, I've avoided any heavy weights and worked on high reps with low weight to tone without adding bulk. (OK, so that was only three times, so it probably didn't matter much.) But I finally got over it... and I have proof. Just three weeks ago, when working with a trainer at our local gym, she sat me down at this weight machine. I don't know the name, but it's the one where you sit down and put your feet on this vertical platform in front, and push with all your might. Since she knows I don't work out, she tried to start me with 75 pounds. Oh, no, that would not do. I had to show off a little. I did 150 without flinching. She was shocked. Proud. I think I saw tears in the corners of her eyes. For once I was proud of these legs of mine. But I'll never change my mind about shoulder pads. Adding foam to increase the bulk of a woman's silhouette? Crazy. No, shoulder pads are most definitely not gonna happen. Not for this linebacker.