Trading Gridlock for Slow and Steady Rhythms

IMG_8206Driving back to my hotel after a day spent just outside Washington, D.C. at a work conference, I needed to get on the Beltway and go South. I had been dreading this particular stretch all day, knowing I’d be up against the D.C. commuters returning home in rush hour on a Friday, a Friday which, for many, was also the start of spring break. Not even on the Beltway yet, I could see its ripple effects on the on-ramps and even spilling up onto the highway where I was, cars already at a standstill.

Ignoring Siri’s insistence to get into the right lane to begin merging, I believed there must be another way. A slower way. I glanced at my anticipated arrival time.

6:09 pm.

I continued on the slow, steady highway, and sure enough, Siri rerouted — this time, to a toll road. Again, I held out for a slower way, and she recalculated, making small adjustments to keep my commute moving forward.

Suddenly and without warning, my lane became a right-turn-only lane, and I was forced to ease off of the highway onto a side street. My steady road had ended, and without knowing my way, I planned to make a U-turn, but Siri had other plans. She recognized another route, and I continued forward.

This newest route wound through sleepy neighborhoods, a mixture of older homes and McMansions, the off-street parking so tight, the roads appeared one-way. Still, I was grateful for this quieter unplanned route, and I continued to weave through the stop signs and quiet streets. Eventually, the road spit me back onto the main highway leading to my hotel, with only a stop sign against a steady stream of traffic in both directions, and with an additional two-way cross-street between me and the stop sign to the main thoroughfare.

Finally, my opportunity came, and I darted into the first available lane and then watched for opportunities to get over. I persisted and was soon swinging into one of the last parking spots in front of the hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief, my car finally in park, and glanced at the clock.

6:07 pm. Earlier even, than the Beltway would have delivered me.

The route I took had its own unique obstacles, but it was another way, albeit the uncommon way. And in this case, uncommon meant less-congested. When I felt gridlocked in traffic, I sought a new direction, a slower, quieter route.

I’ve been practicing this in my life for several years now as well, and I know this season with three little ones, working a full-time job, and now publishing my first children’s book will not last forever. I’m learning as I go, stepping out in faith. My responsibilities, while all good, do not leave wiggle room for much else, and that is both frustrating and stressful.

Tonight I finished Emily P. Freeman’s “Discern and Decide” course, one of her pre-order bonuses accompanying her latest book, “The Next Right Thing,” a national bestseller just days after launch. I loved diving deep into exploring the rhythms I’ve established in this season, reflecting on what is and isn’t working. I love the suggestions Emily gave for how to reflect on the past season. An avid writer, I didn’t think I needed this extra direction, but her practical suggestions encouraged me to reflect on things I might otherwise have missed. Breaking down my personal and communal practices, I was able to highlight rhythms to ingrain and rhythms to abandon. Instead of feeling guilt over the places where I’ve said “no” lately, I felt affirmed. My decisions lately have aligned with what I value most.

I fought for the space to have time of reflection this weekend. Here I am, at a hotel, sans kiddos for the first time in years. When I first asked if I could go on this work trip, I was met with resistance. My admin said there was no money. I decided to pay for it myself, and in the meantime, found funding another way. My husband, of course, was supportive of my going, but it meant a lot of sacrifices on both of our parts. I’d miss my oldest son’s school recital and my middle son’s soccer game, and I’d have to pump milk for the days spent away from my youngest. It also meant several hours of writing lesson plans for my substitute. Meanwhile, my husband was doing 100% of the things.

But I persisted, knowing I needed the time to slow down, and so here I am, relishing the white space I carved for myself. I’ve had time for uninterrupted thought, uninterrupted writing, and mostly-uninterrupted quiet. (There was that charter bus of middle schoolers just outside my door that pulled in and unloaded at 11:45 last night…)

Today I went to a huge shopping center and perused slowly — another luxury I’ve never had. At my conference today, I talked to an author I’ve followed for 13 years now. (Check out @counselorstation on Instagram today to see who she is!) I tried a new face mask. I moved slowly and finished entire thoughts. For once, I didn’t have to leave unfinished projects scattered around. I savored my coffee and strawberry crepes in a quaint little French cafe.

The small adjustments Siri made so that I didn’t have to join the gridlock on the Beltway are not unlike the small adjustments I make in my life to stay balanced, avoiding a gridlocked schedule but also recognizing that a kid-free retreat will not always be realistic. I learned from my “How Things Work” college physics professor that a bicycle can stay balanced on its own if it’s pedaled (he was making the point that it’s not all that impressive when people ride a bike without touching the handlebars). I like to think that pedaling with these tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments helps keep it balanced. Right now I’m pedaling between these two extremes, the gridlock and the quiet. And I’m finding where I can dip into each, covering my responsibilities and saying no as needed, while also taking time for self-care. But if I lean too far into either one, I become unbalanced and something major gets neglected.

The steady rhythm of moving forward, listening for cues from the Lord, being open to consider unexpected opportunities, and seeking out those uncommon paths help keep me from falling. I’m grateful for it all.

My Writing Says it Best

My Writing says it best

A flame flickers behind the glass encasing the autumn candle nestled on the farmhouse coffee table where I probably shouldn’t be resting my feet. Worship music emits softly from the boombox radio on the bottom shelf of a curated bookcase, and the hesitant notes of my six-year-old’s piano lesson round the corner into this cozy nook where I wait for him to finish his lesson. I don’t want to rush it. It’s so easy to feel Jesus in this space. God doesn’t mind that there’s a lesson going on in the other room, or that I brought a book to read. He knows that I am a captive audience, thirsty for His own lesson. He chose to call me here, on this plush white couch, and put weight into the tears I’ve been holding at bay all day in what becomes a beautiful release.

Borrowing a phrase from a small counseling group I facilitated this afternoon with six-year-olds, today felt like a total “wipeout.” I missed every opportunity to ask for help, to vent — I couldn’t summon all my troubled thoughts and corral them into words in time for an adequate response that would do any justice to my feelings, so I pretended like everything was okay with a simple “I’m fine” or shake of my head. If I paused to collect my thoughts, I feared someone would find discomfort in the silence, jumping in to speak for me.

A note in my Bible beside James 1:2-3 presents the idea of “productive pain” — and God has a way of getting to my heart when I am hurting. In the same way that He makes His presence known when I need rest — when I long to, as Emily P. Freeman says, “sit down on the inside” — when my mind is racing. I need rest. Mostly though, I need solace.

solace | comfort or consolation in a time of sadness

I’m not good at communicating my inner world. Words are my most valued commodity and I have always used them sparingly and with great consideration. I calculate how every word is presented, I anticipate its delivery and reception before it is formed on my lips. I place a great weight on my words, because they represent the deepest part of me. And so in order for me to share my heart with someone else, I need a quiet place to stir my heart to form exactly what it is I’m trying to express. I’ve been misunderstood enough to know that I need to be earnest in my intentions, direct with my words, and honest with my thoughts. I’ve been told countless times, “You don’t say much, but when you do, it is so powerful.”

Sometime I just want to shake my own freckled shoulders and look into my big blue eyes: “Sweet girl, just SAY what you want to say instead of pretending like the status quo does not bother you. Your frustration later will not be worth it, the processing over and over how you should have responded, formulating better words with each new draft. Just say it. Just say it! Give feet to those precious wishes on your heart that don’t want to be camped there forever.”

I used to think that my biggest pet-peeve was a “story-topper,” someone who swoops in to tell of a bigger and better experience they had even as I stumble over my own storyline. Comedian Brian Regan jokes that he wishes he could just respond to those people with, “I walked on the moon.” Boom. Mic drop.

But as I get older, I begin to realize that this happens often between introverts and extroverts, when the latter takes advantage of a segue to have the floor and the former lets it happen, the ever-patient listener. I leave the conversation feeling used, a professional listener and an introvert by nature. I’m learning that my deepest thoughts require a time and a place — a quiet, slow, deep place– for me to draw them out in hopes that they will resonate and be validated.

Besides my husband, I didn’t tell anyone when I initially found my tumor last year. I’m fairly private by nature, but that’s because sometimes I can’t handle other people’s reactions on the spot. I’m also afraid of becoming an emotional wreck and losing my opportunity for authentic words, even though my emotions would represent even more authenticity. I don’t want to burden someone else with my troubles. I have a hard time asking for help.

I didn’t tell anyone the last time I changed jobs, either — at the time, I was reading through a Bible study that advised against announcing big prayer requests. (Seriously, it really said that.) Ever the rule-follower, I still hesitate to share big news. In the next few weeks, I’ll begin to hear back from several opportunities, ideas I’ve planted, so to speak, but in order to protect myself, I limit my sharing and thus can avoid having to follow-up with disappointing news if my ideas don’t come to fruition or aren’t accepted readily.

I was quick to tell three people when I first became pregnant in 2011 and then I had to relive the subsequent heartbreak when I had to tell all three people that I had lost the baby. My heart of hearts longs to spill forth, but I keep my circles small.

In my mind, it’s easier to present a tidy analysis after the fact, once I’ve had time for the dust to settle and to process my own experiences and feelings before I attempt to invite another person along.

I know, I know –this muddy thinking is all kinds of wrong. It isn’t healthy.

This raw place I require to process comes only in deep introspection, and it’s hard for me to get there in my everyday life with the constant noise at home and at work. After all three boys are asleep, I’m physically exhausted, my resources drained even when my heart is ready for a slow opening. I long to spend time pouring over my thoughts the way apple cider is best when mulled slowly over an open flame.

mull |

  1. think about (a fact, proposal, or request) deeply and at length.
  2.  warm (a beverage, especially wine, beer, or cider) and add spices and sweetening to it.

A text from a friend today had me in tears. “If you need someone to talk to, I’m all ears.” Its sentiment was sweet, simple, and affirming. Those words were life-giving as I pondered how I could even begin to summon all my fears into a coherent stream of thought. In her offer alone, I felt validated. Even as I fear that it would cheapen my thoughts to attempt to explain them. I fear I’d lose confidence unless I had the proper space to rehearse, and knowing I can’t do that leaves me frustrated with myself, even as I know my gift is in my written word.

I’ll admit, in my anger today, I did not have immediate access to what helps me best cope. I was standing in the misty rain, replaying the day’s criticisms and frustrations and feeling ashamed. I had my son with me and 100 sets of eyes driving past me, and it took every once of professionalism I could muster to stand there and pretend that I was okay, to go through the motions of my job and act like it’s all okay when my inner world was a fiery chaos — everything I’ve been keeping inside for a very long time. Too much to even relate in a single blog post.

And I need a break so desperately. To plan my next steps. I need a spiritual retreat where I can listen to God and just be with Him. Even though I know it is not God that has taken a step back from me, I blame myself for refusing His persistent call over the past few years. I know I’ve been too far from Him lately. Burning the candle at both ends, I give, give, give, but filling myself with Him feels too selfish, too indulgent, even though I know it’s ridiculous even as I type those words in this vulnerable place. Lately I have put my focus on what comes most easily and yields results most quickly, instead of allowing space for His slow process.

This afternoon I finally arrived home with my oldest, who, luckily, thrives on routine and sat right down to finish homework and squeeze in one last practice before his piano lesson. I had already arranged for my husband to pick up the younger kids from the sitter, so I stole a few minutes to myself in an attempt to reset my surly attitude. I set my campfire mug of hot pumpkin coffee on the side table I procured from HomeGoods for such a time as this and collapsed into my favorite paisley chair in my library. I adjusted my earbuds and accepted the invitation of my Bible’s pages, my pen poised over blank pages of my own. This was the fastest path to damage control I knew in this season. It also happens to be my favorite.

I may not be the best at thinking of my feet, but I know recovery. Perhaps that is why people expect so much of me– I can present a neat package if left alone. I’m constantly wondering whether I set the bar too high for myself. I get so jealous of young moms who already have the wisdom to recognize when they need a break, but even moreso, when they give themselves permission to take it and embrace it fully and unapologetically. I question why I can’t do that for myself even as I feel like I juggle more and more despite my best intentions to simplify life with three little boys. I have had such a hard time this year articulating this sentiment without hurting someone’s feelings, but I saw it written best here:

“To protect your energy it is ok for you to say no, and have it not be because you are too busy, but because you don’t want to be too busy” (@mamabirdandco, Instagram post 10.6.18).

Last year I went to The Homestead for four days and took my nursing baby with me. It was for a work conference, and I carried him in my Tula to every session. That was the closest I’ve come to alone time. But a solo retreat sans babies? A girls’ weekend? A vacation with just my husband? I feel like I could have never treated myself to such indulgences — I’ve been pregnant, miscarrying, or nursing with no break since June 2011 and have not had a weekend to myself, although I desperately need one. It’s taxing for an introvert like me, to be so needed by little ones, physically, mentally, and emotionally, no matter how accessible and approachable I seem. I dream of places I might go on a solo retreat once I am able, to stake out a table in a small European cafe to write or explore the cobbled streets of faraway places.

As a mother, I am always responsible for someone. I may be in my library with earbuds in, but I’m aware of what my son is doing in the next room and the reality that my younger boys are both still at the babysitter’s. I know I’ll have to wrap this up in about ten minutes to rush off to the next thing. I am always, always responsible. It seems to come with the territory. At work, even if I want to take off any amount of time, I have to write substitute plans, which takes hours and is usually not worth the advance effort — ask almost any teacher!

“What if?”

I spend a few minutes allowing myself to entertain dreams onto the fresh thin lines of a new set of mini notebooks, four bound together in one unit by camel-colored leather branded simply with the word “Notes.” I write out the most audacious of thoughts, in rambling form, to think about later. Seven ideas in all.

Seven “What ifs?”

I notice that if even one of these come true, the rest would fall into place. And that is both exciting and terrifying.

God, help me to commit to writing out my prayers to you more frequently. To find the quiet places and carve the time to rest in them, even if “rest” means a brain dump to quiet my thoughts, knowing that are out on paper and in your care. Lord, I spend an inordinate amount of time yearning for quiet and solitude, but also SOLACE, to validate my racing thoughts and corral my ideas into coherent sentences. I have always been able to make sense of them through my writing. And I don’t know where the disconnect falls, but writing brings forth personal acceptance, depth, and raw emotion–my own personal truths. Before I even write a word it is composed in my heart, ready to deliver to the paper. It’s as if the message is sent to the pen instead of my mouth. Because I know the paper is ready and braced to receive my words in a way that human nature might not be ready for. I worry too much about how my words might be received by another person, so they (usually) leave my lips highly filtered and thus drastically altered in translation. This is the start of my frustration in trying to audibly process all that is spiraling in my inner world. How do I dare convey this to another soul? This raw, unfiltered , deepest version of me? Do I dare share it with the world? I bring it to you, Lord, in my writing, and thus you use my frustration, even, to draw me closer to you. And maybe that is its purpose, after all. “Productive pain.” Amen.