Change: The Jackhammer of Life

Our neighbors are having their driveway replaced, which requires the workers to use an oppressively loud jackhammer to break up and remove the cracked and crumbling existing surface to make room for the new.

As I’ve listened the past two days to the hammering sounds and watched the progress being made, I’ve been struck with how much that process mirrors human life whenever change is involved.

Whether you choose change or it chooses you, it’s usually disruptive. Like the jackhammer, it can feel violent and jolting. You may feel substantial parts of yourself or your life being chiseled away. Things long hidden may be unearthed, leaving you feeling violated or laid bare. What was once solid and firm may be turned to dust. And whether you instigated the change and are the one operating the jackhammer, or some other person or force is wielding that tool, there’s no escaping the noise and rattling.

Just as the sounds next door have disturbed my peace and given me a headache, change in your life can be disruptive and messy for those close to you. Rarely do we experience a shift in some important aspect of life without it affecting those we love or spend a lot of time with. Our attitude or outlook may be different, causing an adjustment in relationships. Our behavior, health, or ability may change, causing an adjustment in life rhythms. Or change may involve our departure from an environment or experience, leaving others to fill in behind your or just to miss your presence.

Sometimes, changes are ultimately for the good. Often they are. And even for those changes that seem to have no redeeming qualities, there is often some blessing mixed in—you just might have to look a little harder for it as you sift through the rubble.

And the disruptions that come with change don’t go on continuously or forever. Like the worker wielding the jackhammer next door who stops from time to time to take a break, so too do we get moments of respite even in the midst of the most complicated, enduring periods of change or unrest. These rests allow us to gather our strength to pick the jackhammer back up or get ready for another session of chiseling and chipping away.

Consider: Where in your life do you need some jackhammer action? And if you find yourself subject to jackhammering that you didn’t choose, how can you see the potential for good or renewal?

Wear the tiara, and other things I learned on my 49th birthday

Last month, I threw a birthday bash for my 49th birthday—“49 and Fine.” I wanted an opportunity to celebrate my life while I’m feeling really good. It’s possible I’ll continue to feel good for years to come, but there’s no crystal ball with cancer (or, heck with any of life, really), so I decided to do it now, rather than wait for next year’s five-decade milestone.

Having my local friends attend would have been party enough, but I decided to put out the invite to family and friends afar also. And, by golly, most of them were able to come! That night, I was surrounded by many of the people who love me most (despite also being the people who know me best, warts and all). And I learned a few things from that party that are worth remembering.

Wear the tiara. Normally, I don’t love being in the spotlight. But for this event, I wanted to be the belle of the ball. So, I purchased a tiara—which I wore for the whole evening. It was fun to feel like a princess, to realize that all of the fuss was for me. Rather than feeling self-conscious about being the center of attention, I ate it up, and it fueled a deep joy. To be the focus of so much love and care….

People want something to celebrate. Sometimes when I throw an event, I wonder if people are coming out of obligation. For this event, in particular, that was a distinct possibility. Maybe some were there out of a sense of “I should go—who knows if this will be her last party?” That’s fair. I’d be lying if the thought never crossed my mind. And who throws a big 49th birthday party anyway?? Regardless of anyone’s initial motivation, though, folks seemed genuinely happy to be there. And I realized, most people like to have something, or someone, to celebrate—to join in a group that collectively says, “This is a good thing! Let’s eat, drink, and be merry.”

Grown-ups like to play. We had a couple games and silly dances at the party, because, well, it was my party, and I thought that would be a good time. Turns out, Cyndi Lauper was right: “Girls just want to have fun.” (And boys, too). Adults don’t get a lot of opportunities to play, explore, build, goof off, and generally let loose. But try giving them a box of spaghetti and bag of mini marshmallows and telling them to build a castle—and that there’s a prize for the best one. You’ll see all sorts of creativity and shenanigans.

Laughter is the best medicine. Cliché, but true. Being in long-term cancer treatment can get really old. You’ve got appointments to keep up with, tests, medicines, side effects, fear constantly looming. It’s sometimes hard to imagine ever being carefree again. It had been a long time since I laughed as much and as hard as I did at my party. And it felt really good. For the whole party weekend, I almost forgot my lot.

Life can be full of mini milestones. Social convention tells us that really big parties are saved for births, weddings, graduations, new homes, promotions, and “special” birthdays. But there are lots of other little moments in every day that can bring joy, love, and appreciation. Why not celebrate those moments in some notable way? OK, maybe not with a rented hall, disco ball, and open bar…. Instead, how about laugh with a friend, raise a glass, send a thank you note, utter a prayer of gratitude, or record the moment in a journal (or a blog)?

I don’t know what my next birthday will bring. In the meantime, I’ll try to be more mindful of things to celebrate and opportunities to play and laugh. And I might just drag out the tiara and wear it to the grocery store some Tuesday evening, for the sheer fun of it!

A Personal Pep Talk

The past few weeks, I’ve felt my resilience falter a bit. After a new medication brought some icky side effects, a non-cancer-related health issue caused some discomfort and inconvenience, and a project at work caused a prolonged time of stress, I was feeling rather whiny and weak in spirit. I sometimes wanted to just curl up under a blanket and hide. I started thinking of what lies ahead in battling cancer and wondered, if I feel this puny and discouraged in the face of fairly minor stuff, will I have what it takes to face the real tough stuff down the road—not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Then I remembered: This is not the first situation to challenge my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And I’m still standing.

My heart…

  • Has been broken by someone I thought loved me but didn’t.
  • Has grieved the death of those dear to me… grandparents, parents-in-law, friends.
  • Has stung with guilt at something I’ve said or done that hurt others.
  • Has watched, choking back tears, as my firstborn walked off to start his life at college.

And yet, my heart still beats, still loves, still hopes, still sings, still feels joy, still revels in the love of family and friends.

My mind…

  • Has made decisions that ultimately led to great disappointment.
  • Has judged wrongly the character of someone.
  • Has made mistakes that led to embarrassment.
  • Has failed miserably at a new skill or endeavor.

Yet, my mind still imagines, still dreams, still comes up with good ideas, still wrestles with choices, still dares to try new things.

My soul…

  • Has gone its own way, wandering far from God.
  • Has wondered where God is in times of trouble.
  • Has questioned his will—for me, for those I love, for the world.
  • Has been hurt by the actions of a fellow believer.

Yet, my soul still longs for relationship with Christ, still trusts that God is sovereign, still believes in the power of prayer, still desires deep connection with brothers and sisters in Christ.

My body…

  • Has recovered from broken bones and stitches.
  • Has twice experienced the pain of childbirth.
  • Has endured biopsies, surgery, and radiation.
  • Has felt like a pin cushion as a result of countless shots, IVs, blood draws,  and more blood draws.

Yet, my body still breathes, still stands and walks and bends, still has strength to climb and carry, still has the gumption to exercise and travel.

So, cancer treatment…? Yeah, I’ve got this! And in those moments when I’m not so sure (again), I’ve got people around me who will spur me on and even carry me along. Plus, now I’ve got this little blog post to serve as a pep talk when I need it.

Spring brings a fresh crop of questions

With spring’s arrival, I find my “pondering” is more frequent than usual. It’s as though the warmer weather and sunny days have awakened synapses in my brain that have lain dormant over the long, cold winter. Many of the thoughts and questions that fill my head are triggered by what I see in my own backyard as nature wakes up around me.

New life co-mingles with the old and the dead. Many trees have both buds or flowers and a few straggling dead leaves that have held on persistently through fall and winter. New blades of grass grow up and around broken branches deposited on our lawn by winter’s winds. I ask myself: What old or broken things in my life do I need to clear out or clean up to make room for healthy, new growth?

flower and thorn

But not all that grows is desirous. Prickly brambles creep up from the dirt alongside daffodils and hyacinths. Oak saplings appear in areas designated for manicured flower beds. And vines twist themselves around fences and railings, growing more insistent with each lengthening day. Left to their own, those little plants can eventually take over and do damage. I wonder: What unhealthy vines and brambles have I allowed to grow in my life that threaten what I’m intentionally growing or building?

Not all plants make a comeback after a long winter’s nap. The lilac bush in our back yard has long struggled, with fewer and fewer branches each year yielding leaves and blooms. Each spring, I’ve carefully pruned the deadwood, hoping to give the bush one more chance. But this year, nearly all the branches are bare, and it seems time to finally remove it and plant something else. In my own life: What “dead” thinking or behavior do I need to chop down and replace with a fresh attitude or habit?

As I sit on the front porch, papa bird flies back and forth to the nest he and his mate have built in the eave. He brings bug after bug to nesting mama bird—so industrious and diligent, undeterred by distractions, a singleness of purpose. I reflect: What do I pour such energy and focus into? And are those things most deserving of such energy?

This spring, what thoughts and questions are sprouting for you? What do you need to think about afresh?

The Importance of Remembering

rearview mirror

Recently, a friend used the phrase “looking back to move forward” in the context of remembering and reflecting on where you’ve been in the past as you prepare to enter a new life season. I think a long look in the rear-view mirror is wise practice and can be especially helpful when the new season you’re facing is stressful, painful, or uncertain.

More often than not, a trying or uncertain time bears resemblance to a previous one. And even when a tough situation seems entirely novel, it’s likely there are some elements that relate at least in general character to past events.

So, why should you look back, particularly if it means recalling something troubling from your past?

Obviously, you can learn lessons from past events. How did you handle the prior situation? What worked well, and what should you do differently? Even if you find yourself faced repeatedly with a particular challenging circumstance, you can approach it differently each time, armed with the knowledge gained the first time or two (or ten). Thinking back to what happened before allows you to glean wisdom to apply to your current situation.

You can also find encouragement. When standing on the shores of something unknown or difficult, it’s helpful to recall when you survived such a time before—and maybe even came out ahead. Remember ways in which you persevered, think of prayers that brought peace, and consider practices that helped you cope or gather your strength.

And you can find comfort and support. Who among your friends and family was most helpful when you went through a season like this before? Thank those people for their past support and ask for it again. At the same time, who made the situation worse? Perhaps you need to give yourself some space from those people for a little while, or be direct in telling them what’s helpful and what’s harmful.

For Christians, this looking back is a practice we’re instructed to undertake. Deuteronomy 32:7 tells us: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” And there are many other verses in the Bible telling us to remember. In the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” there’s a line that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come,” a reference to Samuel 7:12: “Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, ‘Up to this point the LORD has helped us!'” Remembering God’s past faithfulness can fuel our faith in the current situation.

In what situations in your life would it help to take a reflective look back and raise an Ebenezer, figuratively or even literally? And think about others in your life—could someone use your help in remembering to encourage their journey forward?

Being sent to “the back of the plane”

On a Christmas flight, we paid extra for “economy plus” seats to have a little more legroom and board earlier to ensure we got space in the overhead (we hate to check bags). This put us just a few rows behind first class, so when it was time for a restroom break, I followed my husband up to the bathroom at the front of the plane, which was by far the closest one to us. As I stood there waiting my turn, a flight attendant asked if I was seated to the rear of the plane, and before I could even answer, she said, “There are two bathrooms in the back of the plane you can use” and motioned for me to move on. Somewhat embarrassed, I mosied down the long aisle to the rear.

When I returned to my seat, I noticed the flight attendant had closed the little mesh curtain that separated first class from economy class. I resented having been told I wasn’t welcome at the front of the airplane, and the curtain seemed to add further insult. It also seemed ridiculous. You could see right through it, and it did nothing to dampen sound between the passengers in the front and those in back. Yet, its message to those of us in the “cheap seats” was clear—stay back there where you belong.

That curtain made me stop and think. I had essentially been told that, at least in this circumstance, I was “second class.” The fact that I could see through the curtain to first class made it worse. I could see everything I was missing: the special service, the better drinks and snacks, the spacious and cushy seats… and the uncrowded bathroom.

Those feelings for me ended when that flight did. But I couldn’t help thinking that there are people for whom that’s a common experience—not just on an airplane, but in many of aspects of life. People who are told they aren’t welcome, who get the message they are somehow “less than,” who are treated differently because of what they look like, where they’re from, or how much money they have.

This reflection called to mind a conversation I had with a friend last year. Like me, he’s married with a few kids, has a professional job, lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, drives a nice car, and attends church regularly. Unlike me, however, he’s African American. I had asked him to talk with me because my assumption had been that because his life was similar to mine in many ways, his life experiences and his interactions with employers, neighbors, store owners, police, etc. must also be similar to mine—even though his race is different than mine. Surely, race alone can’t really be enough anymore, not in this day and age, to influence how one is treated. After many stories in the news, though, I thought perhaps I should actually talk to someone “different” from me to test my assumption.

I learned that my assumption was very wrong. His experiences—many things being equal to mine—were, in fact, quite different. As a child, in his own middle class, mostly white neighborhood, police had stopped him while walking home to ask what he was doing there. As a teen/young adult, he had been pulled over repeatedly by police for no good reason because of his skin color. While shopping, he had been followed or watched by salespeople with extra scrutiny. And he had watched as servers gave the check to his wife, who is white, instead of to him. In subtle, and not so subtle, ways he received the message he was somewhere he didn’t belong, he wasn’t trustworthy, and he wasn’t worthy of respect.

My little incident of being told to go to the back of the plane to use the economy bathroom was really no big deal, and because I don’t often experience the “we don’t like your kind” or “you don’t belong here” message, I was able to shake off the anger and embarrassment I felt within moments. But I haven’t been able to shake off the lingering questions that resulted. What would it feel like to be someone who encounters that message frequently? How jaded would I become? How angry or dejected? What might I start to think about myself? And about the world around me? Would I try to rise above that message, to prove people wrong? Would I become defensive and act out against the people and systems sending that message? Or would I simply start to believe that I’m not equal, welcome, worthy, valued, or capable—would I stop trying or hoping?

As importantly, in what ways do I communicate to others around me that they are not welcome, not enough, not valued? And why do I do that? Do I honestly believe those things about some other people? Do I think on some level that if others are “less than,” then I can be “more than”? Do I even realize I’m sending that message?—how can I be more self-aware in that regard? And how can I work to instead extend hospitality, foster inclusiveness, and promote dignity of all people—including, and especially, those who are different from me.

These are weighty questions. But given the division in our country and in our own neighborhoods, they are questions worth pondering.

Welcome, 2018!

new-years-day-image

So, I’m a day late with this, but here’s a quick New Year’s blog….

I had a conversation with a dear friend yesterday, during which we acknowledged that it was good to turn the page on 2017 and start looking forward to a better 2018. But then I thought, we shouldn’t put pressure on the new year to be anything special or different—it’s just a year like any other, sure to have its ins and outs, ups and downs. You be you, 2018.

We all have as much control over the status of the new year—good or bad—as we have over anything. That is to say, we have little control. (I need this reminder often.)

BUT—we do have control over how we respond to everything that 2018 holds. And we also have control over how we greet each day of this new year.

So, right now, I’m setting a goal for myself to awake each day with gratefulness that I have another day on this earth, despite any challenges the day might present. And I’m pledging to find some way to spread hope and encouragement on each day. Maybe that’s a quick text to a friend who’s struggling. Maybe it’s a word of thanks for a kind deed or kudos for a job well done. Maybe it’s a smile to a complete stranger or the gift of charity to someone in need. And maybe it’s the gift of grace for myself if I stumble and give way to negativity, fear, or frustration.

Who wants to join me in this endeavor?

Bring on 2018.