Navigating the Fog: Practicing Routine Heart Checks through Conversations with God

navigating the fog (3)Moments after the attendant handed us our blended Butterfinger milkshakes, my youth pastor handed them back through the same window. “These are too low,” he pointed out, “Could you please top them off? 

I stared at him, speechless at the audacity of his words. He turned to me. “They were too low,” he repeated. As we thanked the attendant and pulled away with our newly topped-off shakes, he remarked, “You’re thirsty.”

Confused, I thought he was talking about a physical need, perhaps explaining his insistence on my paper cup being filled to the very top. But as he continued, I realized he was referring to my meltdown earlier that afternoon, the one eliciting the pit stop for shakes in the first place.

“Your spiritual tank is running low.”

He said it matter-of-factly, as if it should have been obvious to me. But it wasn’t. My anxiety over the pressures of high school had distracted me from my spiritual practices of prayer and worship. In the midst of my senior year, the variables at stake overwhelmed me: the unknown of life after high school, my self-imposed standards for a perfect GPA, my spinal fusion and the awkward hinged body brace I wore that year, my extracurricular activities, and my part-time job. 

Having a youth mentor at such a turbulent, impressionable time in my life was critical for my spiritual formation. But who fills that role for me now? Is it my husband? My pastor? A life group? My faith will always have room for growth; it is a life-long journey in which I am the student. With social media at my fingertips, I could find an influencer to follow, or I can look to the people in my own life, learning so much from those who have gone before me and those who walk alongside me. 

The unknown can be overwhelming, and staying in my comfort zone becomes more and more enticing. Before we plow ahead, or remain in the safety of our comfort zones, we need to intentionally set aside time to do a heart check, asking ourselves hard questions. Establish this heart check as a regular practice. What will yours look like? Will you write out your thoughts or process them with a friend? Consider whose input might have value in your conversations with God, whether it comes from a spouse, children, parents, friends, a counselor, or other key voices. Will you set aside time for this reflection seasonally, annually, monthly, or at another consistent interval? What problems are you looking to solve? 

First, I examine my priorities. What truly matters, and am I making space for these things? How am I spending my time and energy? Are they congruent? If not, what can I do to realign my priorities and my time? Identify pain points and note what has worked well. 

I also reflect on my motivation. Do earthly things motivate me, such as achievement, approval, or money? Where does God fit in? Am I feeling content, complacent, or scared? Consider where you might be able to hold back and allow someone else to step in with his or her gifts. Are you already stretched too thin, or are you better-equipped to serve elsewhere? 

Nearly 20 years after my drive-through top-off, I wake up, stiff from the air mattress in my husband’s old Eagle Scout tent, camping with my family of five. I’m thirsty again. I continue to ask myself these hard questions.

Is this life I’ve built the one I want to continue to build? Are there things I can adjust, or do I need a foundational shift? Is my heart here where my feet are planted, or am I restless for a different path, one where I feel more fulfilled in my calling?

I unzip the tent, careful not to wake my light sleepers, ages two, five, and seven. Standing at the lake’s shore, I shift my feet ever so slightly, trapping the dazzling morning sun behind one of the sweeping pines, backlighting its needles into precise silhouettes. Where do I need to stand to allow God’s radiance to embolden me in this way? 

I question my footing and whether I have enough faith to remain in one place long enough to allow God to shine in and through me, or whether my tendency for restlessness causes me to leap too soon. Am I being true to my identity in Christ? This is the self-reflection I need during this regular exercise. Do my priorities align with my identity in Christ? Is my time spent running after what He is nudging me to do?

Am I restless because I wonder if a better opportunity will come along?  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” Ephesians 2:10 (ESV). How do we know whether to plant ourselves where we are, or to uproot and walk? Am I listening to God’s directives, or am I striving for control? What can I surrender to God? 

Am I happy? Am I trying so hard to obtain a different life for me and my family that I am not enjoying what I have now?

Poised over my journal on a wooden bench at the water’s edge, my pen can’t keep up with these racing questions. Am I becoming who the world wants me to become, or who God wants me to become? Am I, in my mid-thirties, too young to have regrets? At the same time, am I too old to pursue new ventures? Should I be grateful for what I have, for what I’ve already built for myself? Is there only one “right” path for me? People move all the time; how do they start over? Would I be okay starting over? Who would support me? What would people think? Am I in too far deep to unravel it all and step into something else? I’m not a risk-taker; what if I fail? If this new venture doesn’t work, will I be able to come back? I vacillate between my comfort zone and the unknown. 

I don’t know what lies ahead, but God draws me out from my questions. He silences my panicked thoughts. He beckons me to listen. Right here on this campsite with no phone service and my family stirring in the tent, He has my captive audience. I bow my head. 

“This is your life,” He gestures to me, to the sounds of my boys. “Home is not confined to the walls you reside inside, but is defined by the lives you have created inside. It isn’t going to be easy.” 

What isn’t going to be easy? Is this His way of calling me to step out, or is this my own rationalization, trying to discern what to do next?

“Watch me. Let me take the lead.” I notice a small fishing boat tied a few yards away, rowed here from the boat launch across the lake. For whatever reason, it is tied here for this brief time. I imagine God with the oars as I untie the knots. God waits for me to settle in, surrendering to His directive. 

“Lord, where are we going today?” I question. He doesn’t answer, rowing into the great expanse of fog, able to see further than my limited vision. “I won’t let you down,” He reassures me, “just stay with Me.” The boat doesn’t follow a track. It glides along the lake, slicing its path through blurry waters, leaving only its wake. 

The full afternoon sun delivers sparkling clarity across the lake. But after a day oscillating between slow progress forward and hints of clarity, the next morning sweeps a new blanket of fog onto the lake, God’s invitation to join Him in the boat again. This time, I step in the boat with more confidence, knowing Who is at the helm, but not knowing where we are going. My faith assures me I will be delivered safely to shore again at His appointed time. I’ve done this before, not on this exact path, but with my same God, and we will continue it again, every day, through the morning fog and afternoon clarity, and evening darkness, establishing these sacred rhythms of yielding and trust, leading and following, praying and listening, resting and stepping out, always leaving a wake for those who follow behind.

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I haven’t always gotten in the boat when He’s offered. Unable to discern through the fog on my own, I’ve struggled to relinquish control at times. I’ve stayed in safe harbor, not changing or growing. I’ve felt safe — content, even, but not fulfilled. But when I step off-shore, into the boat, trusting His vision to guide me, we journey together, my heart aligned with His. He calls the fog to rise from the surface of the moving waters in His time. I wake each morning, hungry for this passage with Him, my Father. I trust His pattern of fog and clarity. Sometimes entire seasons bring only fog. But I am ready for whatever the day brings, for what He reveals as we journey together into the unknown. 

I am filled. 

Finding Home

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Steam from my coffee fogged my glasses. After padding back to my bed after hours spent rocking my early-riser, I found my flannel sheets cold and uninviting. I love having the house to myself in these quiet morning hours, and that longing overruled any chance at returning to sleep. I was up for the day.

I made oatmeal and frothed cream for my coffee, feeling lucky on this icy morning when most of my county was without power. I lit a pine candle, its wax nearly gone, and sat down to write, hoping my words would offer direction. I had some big things to sort out.

“… this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 84).

Dancing is complicated when there are two leads. My heart is dreaming, but my mind is the voice of reason. I feel God’s tug on my heart, but I can’t visualize the next step. I’m tied to a place I was called over a dozen years ago, and now here I am, in a completely different season of life, still fulfilling that pursuit. God planted a different calling in my heart as a child, and I yearn to water it, nourish it, and allow it to thrive. Is God calling me to move back home? If I move home, will I become that version of myself– the dreamer, the creative?

How do I embrace the risk of stepping out in faith when I am not a risk-taker? Is my hesitation from a place of fear of disappointing myself, other people, or God? Or is it a fear that I will lose my spot if I give it up and then fail?

Watching others step out in faith offers me hope as I see God bless their efforts. I look for answers from other people when His Word is where I need to be.

My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2, NIV)

While I cling proudly to my area code of origin, I’m not feeling called to return there right now. My heart is here, with my friends, my church, and my boys’ entire lives.

I don’t know where you’re leading me, Lord. Clearly you are stirring my heart, drawing me out of complacency. You recently gifted me two ice days at home with my boys — we took things slowly. We ate lunch together, read books, and worked on creative projects. I am happier having stayed at home with them those days. My time with them wasn’t relegated to the few hours between homework and bedtime, dominated by the routines of homework, piano, dinner, bath, reading, and sleep. These windows offer me glimpses of a different life.

The more margin I make to write, the more strongly I feel God tugging on my heartstrings.

To simplify. 

To let something go.

To live smaller so that I can live bigger.

To open my eyes more, to see the world.

How do I surrender when I’m not sure where to step?

I know that “how” is not for me to understand, but I grant myself permission to write out my dreams. I list my questions, my concerns, and my doubts. What can I do now? I write four action steps ending with, “Continue to listen and pray.”

Lord, where am I supposed to go to follow You? Where do I feel your presence? What gifts lie dormant as I yearn for a quiet space to draw them out? Lately I’ve heard the message, “go where the love is.” I’m struggling to discern exactly where that is when we have family and friends — loved ones– in so many different places. Is it about the actual decision, Lord, or the process? I can’t stop thinking about all the small details and logistics, and I need you to show me where home is. Amen.

What is home?

“The Definition of Home. Be it ever so humble, it’s more than just a place. It’s also an idea — one where the heart is.” Verlyn Kinkenbord

Whenever I return to my childhood home, I stop in all my favorite places. I remember the traditions and routines of my youth. Those traditions allow me to relive my memories through a more-experienced perspective and offers me a chance to invite my husband and children into my past.

As I grow older, I also crave for my boys to experience my childhood traditions. Does that mean I need to move back home to recreate those opportunities? For a moment, I feel homesick, second-guessing the life we’ve created here over the last decade. But when I sit down to list all of the places where my heart is now, it’s in the life we’ve built here. I reflect on words I associate with home as I allow God to guide my heart: hygge, sanctuary, comfort, safety, family, gratitude.

Home | the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household; (verb) — of an animal, return by instinct to its territory after leaving it

I find home in writing. I’m homesick for this first calling, homesick to get back to a place of feeling fulfilled in my work. My heart bursts with a longing to create. Until I sat down to write, I assumed I should be looking for a new house in a familiar town. But for all the perusing real estate apps I’ve been doing, I’m not going to find home listed there. Home arrives with my pen against the page, soft music playing, a candle flickering nearby. Home is the time spent listening to God.

“A black man at my church, who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, ‘God is your home,’ and I pass this on mostly because all the interesting characters I’ve ever worked with– including myself– have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it’s wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people’s baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 200).

Lord, I don’t want to present you with plans. I pray that you offer me the next step. Where do I look? Where can I find the breathing room to savor what I have here? What if I have to unravel all the little pieces I’ve worked into place? I surrender these questions to you, Lord. Amen.

God isn’t giving me a next step–not yet, anyway. He is drawing me home–here, at this writing desk– to keep going, to keep writing, to keep bringing myself closer to Him in these quiet moments. God’s welcome mat is always out, ready to receive us, to invite us into His presence. The pineapple of hospitality hangs on His door, no matter the season. 

I am homesick for that younger version of myself. For the little girl who not only dreamed of writing, but did it with confidence. She wrote books with her best friend in second grade. She wrote action stories with her next door neighbor in 4th grade. She won countless writing contests and did all of this without self-doubt or inhibition, only the pure joy that comes with doing what she loved.

Naysayers tried to discourage me when I wanted to be a photographer, a teacher, and so many other ambitions. “Everyone wants to do that, you’ll never succeed” they challenged, or “You don’t want to do that.” But nothing has ever discouraged me from writing, not even the rejection letters.

No, my roadblock in writing is finding uninterrupted time. I constantly seek the quiet space I need to draw out my very deepest thoughts, longing to make those connections, and I become anxious knowing that other commitments demand my attention or interrupt. Morning quiet time is never long enough — my boys are awake and asking for breakfast, and my concentration is lost, my attention demanded elsewhere in the rush to get out the door to work and school.

I am so desperate for a retreat alone to spend time in quiet reflection over the life we’ve created. I have so much to process. With seven consecutive years of pregnancy and breastfeeding with no break, I’m homesick for alone time. I’m homesick for me, for the girl I once was before motherhood took over. I struggle finding the words to explain it to people who don’t understand. Even now, I’m balancing a toddler in my lap as I type an essay I’ve been working on for weeks.

Passion | pati (Latin) – to suffer | a strong and barely controllable emotion; an intense desire or enthusiasm for something

This longing for home is a desire for the time and space to write, think, and be in my head, and somewhere along the way I’ve come to believe that unraveling all that I have accomplished is going to take me back to that place. But it won’t. I have to advocate for it, because no one else will. Others continue to stack demands on my time if I allow it. Work obligations suffocate my quiet time.

When I was little, I placed so much expectation on my birthdays that I often met the day a little sad that it had finally arrived and thus was already ending. I wanted it to go by slowly and perfectly after a year’s worth of anticipation. In the same way, I am already putting so much pressure on this elusive writing retreat that I’m going to take once my toddler is weaned. I’m so afraid that once it is here, it will vanish too quickly, and that it won’t have been enough. That I’ll get sick, or that one of my kids will get sick, or that I’ll feel self-indulgent and invite my family along at the last moment because they won’t understand why Mommy needs space alone. But the truth is, I need time to be home. To be that little girl who loved to write, and had all the time in the world to get lost in doing what she loved the most, embracing God’s gift before she knew it was a calling.

Being Mindful in Simple Family Moments

One day they_ll realize we intentionally carved out that time for each other and guarded it fiercely against our bulging calendars.

Captivated in a moment of complete mindfulness, I scanned my backyard on Saturday night at the imperfectly-perfect happenings all around me. My older boys were deep in imaginative play in their mud kitchen, scurrying around filling orders from fictional customers while singing something unintelligible.  My toddler, safely gated in on the back patio, was happily splashing away at the water table, seemingly-carefree despite his now-sopping play clothes. Just living his best life. The large ceramic water feature behind me, installed by previous owners, mimicked the sounds of a serene brook. As I flipped a glossy page of the large hardcover in my lap, my husband used a poker to put the screen on our family’s fire pit as we waited for the flames to diminish so that we could gather to make s’mores. It was 9:38 PM, long after my kids should have been in bed, but we were taking advantage of the dwindling daylight and the brief gap in storms to carry on a relatively-new tradition.

I took it all in — all of it — as I thought about this simple family tradition we committed to at the end of last summer. The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of smoke and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while drawing my family closer together.

The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of campfire and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while threading my family closer together.

Today, I’m so honored that Emily Sue Allen chose my essay to feature on her site, Kindred Mom. I hope that my family’s simple tradition will both inspire you to spend quality time with those closest to you while granting you the permission you need to make room for moments such as these.

You can read my essay here at Kindred Mom. If you are a new reader, welcome. Thank you for stopping by. I’ll hope you’ll find what you need.

Ashley

 

A Prayer for the Mother in Crisis: PPD/PPA Essay Feature

 

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The nurse handed me the clipboard of thick paperwork, the metal clip strategically covering the name of the depression inventory. I knew what it was — this was my third rodeo with childbearing — and I’m a counselor. I knew which boxes to check to avoid raising any red flags about my mental health.

But at only six weeks postpartum, I was still feeling pretty good. I had been living in the glow of a new baby, a magical newborn photo session, and still marveling about how I had gotten myself into the predicament of mothering THREE boys.

My failed homebirth attempt was sensational enough that even though I hadn’t had the chance to truly process it, I had spent weeks retelling the drama to anyone willing to listen. The quiet place of introspection would come later. I hadn’t yet processed my disappointment over losing control during some of the most critical minutes of my birth story.

To read more of my story, please join me over at The Joyful Life Magazine, where my essay, “My Journey Through Postpartum Depression and Anxiety” is featured on the magazine’s blog!

If this post resonates with you, I’d love to hear how in the comments below, and I’d love to pray for you.

**If you recognize some of the same symptoms that I faced, I urge you to contact a medical professional or a crisis hotline right away, and also let your loved ones know how they can help you. You are not alone!**

4 Lessons Learned When My Baby Swallowed a Screw

If only I had just let my 11-month-old continue to gum whatever was in his mouth, he never would have swallowed it. It was my own failed attempt at retrieval that caused him to ingest it in the first place, as he lifted his chin and choked it straight down.

When the mystery object couldn’t be retrieved, I administered the infant Heimlich unproductively and urged Siri to call my husband to come home.

LESSON 1: GRACE

There is relief in the exhale.

My husband and I (and our three small children) waited in suspense at the ER until the x-ray came back revealing the foreign object our sweet baby had just swallowed. When I first saw the x-ray and the bold, white, unmistakable outline of a screw, I had two options.

Laugh, or cry.

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Without pause, I did the latter. I cried, right there in front of the gastroenterologist. What mother allows her child to swallow a screw? All my chances for the title of mom-of-the-year went right down the hatch with that screw. Even though my baby was babbling happily in the exam chair, I was a nervous wreck, texting my closest friends and family, begging for prayer. Because that’s what we do in our tribe. That’s all we can do.

In hindsight, I wish I could go back and hug that poor mama. Give yourself grace, I’d tell her. Freak accidents happen so quickly. My husband and I thought we had gotten all the screws off the wall sconce when we were changing our guest room into a playroom for our boys. The baby was right in front of me when he put it in his mouth – and I noticed him gumming it because I was watching him. When I put my finger in his mouth to swab for the object, it was already so far back on his tongue that he gagged it straight down.

Clinging to grace, I was eventually able to turn a terrifying experience into a captivating party story. Mamas, sometimes we have to choose laughter and grace for ourselves just so that we don’t go crazy. Some of the things that happen in this parenting gig just can’t be made up.

We good-naturedly told the story at his first birthday party the very next weekend, as I’m sure we will for years to come. I covered his smashcake in homemade edible blue candy screws, the final touches on his giant cupcake. His aunt and uncle made him a birthday shirt with a photo of his own x-ray. We could exhale finally knowing that he was okay. There is relief in the exhale.

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LESSON 2: OPTIMISM

On the bright side, there are far worse things you can swallow than a screw. The jar of retrieved objects on our GI’s desk held toothbrushes, spoons, and sewing needles. Passing a 2.8 cm screw encased in a bright blue plastic wall anchor sounds far less painful than passing a sewing needle, IMO. And it wasn’t a battery or a magnet, PTL.

Helpless in this situation, I refused to let myself worry about potential places the GI warned us where the screw could get stuck (the stomach, the intestines, the colon) or cause damage on the way out, even as the doctor made plans to x-ray every week for a month to check on the progress of the screw. Instead, I cast my fears into my prayers, turning to God in my time of unknown and fear. My faith assured me that God remained in control. 

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:25-26, NIV)

LESSON 3: PATIENCE

It was a long 24 hours of prayer before the baby passed the first object, the blue plastic wall anchor. Part of me was elated that things were finally moving, marveling at how efficiently and predictably the human body works, and another part of me was terrified that the sharp tip of the screw was now exposed and potentially lodged somewhere within my helpless baby. And there was nothing we could do to speed up the process (although we toyed with the idea of pureed prunes). It had to make its way down his throat, into his stomach, through his intestines, through his colon, and eventually out the other end. In all, it was a stiff 48 hours before the screw would emerge in torpedo-form during a routine afternoon nursing session. Ok, it wasn’t that dramatic of an exit, but we can pretend.

LESSON 4: HUMILITY

For each diaper change following the ingestion, I strapped on bright orange latex gloves and peeled back those cloth diapers as if there were a Wonka golden ticket hidden within. There are few things in life more humbling than digging through a baby’s poopy diaper. And I did it willingly. Never have I wanted to find something so badly, not even the year when our church youth group leader hid the most-prized golden Easter eggs in a pile of cow manure. I even wrote sub plans and took off work so that I could look through his diapers myself. I wanted to be the one who found it, since I took full responsibility for the ingestion.

Thankfully, the screw was unmistakable. The baby’s body had broken down the black paint off the screw and then coated it in such a way that there was no chance of the sharp tip being exposed to scrape him. I’ll leave it at that except to say that every prayer uttered for my sweet baby in that 48 hour period must have added a layer of protection around that screw like a caterpillar forming its own chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly.

For the record, let it be known that I’m the one who learned all the lessons here. My baby is still oblivious to the fact that he completely swallowed a screw and then passed it exactly 48 hours later. He still puts everything in his mouth, bits of preschool and kindergarten projects that swirl in tumbleweed form behind the older brothers. No matter how hard we clean, there always seem to be new trails left behind by our three boys, and I don’t know how to change that.

Instead, I’ll cling to prayer and grace. I’m contemplating a dog to deal with the tumbleweed trails.

Anyone have thoughts on goldendoodles?