What’s My Commitment?

I briefly interacted with a gal working one of the booths at BottleRock. She wore amazing eye makeup, intensely purple and shimmery, ombre, with thick, expertly-applied liquid cat-eye liner.

Because I believe in freely and generously offering sincere compliments to friends and strangers, I commented on how beautiful her makeup looked. I also asked how long it took to apply, because obviously it took time.

“Forty-five minutes,” she replied matter-of-factly, like it was no big deal.
“Wow, that’s a commitment,” I responded.

To myself I added, That’s not a commitment I’d make!

I wouldn’t know how to spend 45 minutes on makeup. I could watch YouTube eye makeup tutorials, but I wouldn’t. It doesn’t matter to me to wear that kind of statement makeup.

That interaction has stuck with me. Commitments take time. Time spent = commitment.

Where do I spend my time?

This summer I’ve committed to doing a lot of writing and reading, exercising and praying. But I’ve also noticed the time sucks, the minutes between things where I pick up my phone out of habit and scroll through social media. Periodically I check the “Screen Time” function on my phone which reports how much time I have spent on social media versus reading/research; guess which wins…

I want to say that social media doesn’t matter to me that much, but my time says otherwise.

For now, I’m working on Social-Free Sundays, one day a week when I leave my phone down altogether. I’m also working on microMOVEments, a technique promoted by one of my favorite artists, SARK.

SARK decided that she could motivate herself to get big projects done if she broke, say, “Write a book,” into five minute steps. She could do anything for five minutes, especially if she sprinkled juicy adjectives into the description of each step. For example, one microMOVEment in writing could be: “Write down title.” But it’s so much more fun to “Play amazing title game!”

SARK’s secret is that once you get going, once you commit five minutes to one succulent step towards a larger goal, it’s easier to keep going. But even if you just commit five minutes, that’s still something. You can fill in another five minutes another time. Eventually all the minutes add up.

And what a better use of the in-betweens!

Uncluttering Our Lives: Simplicity

Oh, the irony of the day set aside to consider simplicity being more complicated than any typical day! Between church, sports, and school commitments, this family set off running in multiple directions. Some of us said goodbye more than twelve hours ago and haven’t been face-to-face since. And before bedtime one kid suddenly started puking. Nope, nothing simple about this day.

Let’s face it: simplicity is simply a struggle for most of us. Culture pushes us to be more, do more, buy more, more, MORE! We measure our worth – consciously or not – by the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we carry, the black space (as opposed to blank space) on our calendars.

I am not a simple gal, though I long to be. I dreamily page through each issue of Real Simple magazine, knowing it is not now nor ever will be my life’s reality.

I am dramatic and disorganized, complicated and continually overwhelmed. I fight hard, and maybe not hard enough, against the entropy determined to rule our home. As much as I dislike being a stuff manager, I spend a fair share of every day shuffling our belongings (backpacks, shoes, laundry, dishes…) from here to there and another fair share ignoring belongings that ought to be shuffled. No matter the organizational systems set in place (yes, we have key bowls and shoe baskets, not to mention laundry baskets and towel hooks), it still feels like a sisyphean battle.

After remodeling bids came in way too high, dear friends have recently taken advantage of the economic upturn to sell their house. Any move prompts a purge, and they purged prior to putting their home on the market and again more thoroughly once it sold. Watching the process has initiated something in me, and I have begun to ask myself (and Guy, who might be a tad overwhelmed at this turn of ‘tude): “If we were moving, would we move this?”

We opened the garage for just one hour this weekend and came up with an obscene number of things we could donate or sell, some stuff in good usable condition but so well put away (read: ignored) that we hadn’t seen it in years. We’ve listed only a fraction on a local ‘garage sale’ listserve, and took a trunk-full to the Rescue Mission drop-box. We have so much more to do!

A laundry basket filled with items to sell/donate

A laundry basket overflowing with items to sell/donate

Why do I hang on to stuff I don’t use when it could be precisely the thing someone else needs? Why do I hang on to earthly treasures I have ceased to treasure when they might form a wobbly barricade separating me from Jesus?

Jesus wants to be my treasure. He wants my heart, but it’s pinned beneath towers of cascading clutter.

Guy and I married when we were 23 years old. We lived in small spaces and moved every few years, and so we left my archivally-preserved wedding dress in a corner of my grandmother’s closet. Some years ago during a Chinese Checkers marathon, I asked her if I could at long last have it back. She sat up straighter, made a funny face, and confessed: “It’s gone.”

My wedding dress had been stolen when she moved from an upstairs to a downstairs unit in the same building.

While I felt strong disdain for whomever would steal boxes from a 96-year-old woman as she belatedly moved to a downstairs apartment in a building she had occupied for 30-some years, I also experienced heartbreak for my lost wedding dress.

And yet…
* I had no plans to wear it;
* I have no daughters for whom I should save it;
* And, most importantly, its loss has in no way affected the quality of our marriage.

That loss has affected my view of stuff, however. If I can release my wedding dress into the great wide world (of dirty rotten grandma’s-box stealing thieves… oops, sorry), then I can certainly let go of items far less sentimental.

As a family, we have done a few things to counter the cultural tide, to anchor our hearts solidly in Jesus’ kingdom:

1) Among our posted family values: “Boredom = Opportunity” and “Play!”
We try hard not to over-schedule our kids. One sport at a time, and mostly rec leagues, and no more than three weekly activities each season (sport, church, music) has been our MO. We also don’t allow screen time during the school week, so the kids have plenty of time to get bored, to be creative, and to simply be kids who play. One Mother’s Day when Teen was still in elementary school he made me a home-made card that read, “Thank you for not over-scheduling us so that we get stressed out!” Melt a mama’s heart!

2) Another family value: “Need vs. Want.”
We don’t buy just because we want. We weigh desires against needs. We can easily convince ourselves that we need more, but honestly we need far less than we think we do. Staying out of stores is also a big deterrent against shopping for entertainment.

Creating margin on the calendar and on our counter tops will be an ongoing process, but it’s one to which I’m committed. Here are a few of my recent and regular steps:

1) Set a timer for 20 minutes, choose one cluttered space, and attack. When possible, set aside a longer block of time.

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

Even 5 minutes could make a dent in this pile

2) Continually winnow. I’m not one for taking everything out of a space and only putting back the essentials. That approach feels too drastic, too large, too time-consuming. And so I try to look fresh at each space as I come to it: what do I see today that I can let go of? Same goes for the calendar: do we need that activity? and likewise: what good activities are missing because we seem to be overscheduled?

It's tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

It’s tempting to say I need a bigger closet, but I really just need less stuff

3) The Art of Simple has become one of my favorite blogs. The posts tend to be short and to the point of simplifying so many areas of life.

4) A book I expect to come back to again and again: Throw Out 50 Things. Gail Blanke walks you through each room/area of your living space and your brain and examines why we hold on to our stuff and our unhelpful thinking patterns.

And a Bible study for you, as together we treasure our relationship with Jesus.

Connect
Reflect on an example from your life when you lost (in some way) a precious possession. What was it and what happened?

Study
Read aloud Matthew 6:19-21.
Give three examples of someone storing up treasures on earth. What do you think Jesus meant by storing up treasures in heaven?
What problems result from storing up treasures on earth (v. 19)?
What are the benefits of storing up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21)?

Live
In what ways can earthly treasures get in the way of storing up heavenly treasures? Explain.
How does storing up treasures in heaven help you simplify on earth? (cf. Mt. 6:33)
Where would you put yourself on a spectrum from hermit to hoarder? Explain.
Describe a time in your life when you lived simply. What were some of the advantages?
Name one or two obstacles to simplicity that you might be able to remove from your life, and how you might begin to address them this week.
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles.
Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will use a discipline of simplicity to draw you nearer to God.

A Beautiful Week

I have to laugh.

I declared my intention to put myself in the way of beauty this year. And the first full week of January began with an ant infestation and was dominated by two kids with poison oak and multiple doctors visits.

Neither ants nor poison oak could ever possibly fall into the “beauty” category. Sheesh!

Poor Tween, worse for the wear with one eye practically swollen shut by the rash on his cheek, blisters on his leg, incessantly itchy, complained loudly and often, “But there’s NO GOOD PURPOSE for God to allow poison oak! Nothing good can come from this.”

We talked about trust. About maintaining a good attitude. About being open to God even when the situation makes. no. sense. at all.

Despite January’s less-than-stellar beginning (and still, not all that bad either), I have chosen to look for beauty, indeed, to put myself in beauty’s way, and I have seen her.

* After several failed human-ant counter-attacks, I felt ready to surrender and let the kids invade my bathroom instead. However, they teamed up toward a different solution: they sprayed Teen’s Old Spice Spray Cologne on every last ant, then cleaned them all up, and plugged the ants’ entry with a thick smear of toothpaste. Imaginative and, surprisingly, effective (But, good Lord, the smell threatened to knock out the humans as well).

* Having spent time in Ephesians 1 on Sunday, the words “united with Christ” have stuck with me all week. Guy spent the week leading international college students in a house building trip in Cancun with Amor Ministries so I’ve been solo parenting, usually an opportunity to spend individual time with the kids while I schlep them to all their activities. Even with the additional complications of this week, it’s been okay as I’ve sensed the presence of Christ.

* Along those lines, I’ve had some interesting God-coordinated Bible moments. Tween and I read Jesus Calling for Kids most mornings before school. Wednesday morning we read 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” In staff meeting, we also read 1 Thessalonians 5:18 plus verses 16-17, “Always be joyful. Never stop praying.” On Thursday Tween and I read Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.” And later that morning someone referenced Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God!”

Coincidence? I think not. God has been present, asking me to pray, to give thanks, to help Tween give thanks even in the midst of trying not to scratch; when we stop long enough to be still, God will reveal Himself as our God, our refuge and strength, our help in trouble.

* Almost nothing on my to-do list got done, but I had lovely encounters with others. Which is what life is really all about, right? Time with my kids (one night they even thanked me for making dinner, a simple Asian-inspired soup; if that’s not a miracle…). Time with friends, unexpected phone calls and visits. Time with co-workers. One co-worker shared with me God’s nudging toward her dream, and as she talked I realized that two books new to my shelf had come to me for her just as much as for me. We were both there when another co-worker received the final sale papers on her parents’ home; she held back tears as she told us about her last visit to the house and about the new owners; we hugged and prayed together, for our friend and the legacy she inherited from her parents that we enjoy in her company, and for the new owners and all the memories they have yet to make in that same home.

* I went to an uncomfortable social event, mostly because I couldn’t find an appropriate excuse to get out of it, and it wasn’t that bad (“united with Christ,” breathe). My presence might have encouraged certain people, and hopefully my words encouraged others. And one friend just made me giggle with her inappropriate snark, just what I needed.

* And this: last night Teen picked up a book on my shelf because he liked the cover. It was just what I needed for this quiet morning. On the page facing the Introduction, I found this prayer, so perfect to my desire to pursue beauty, to look for miracles in the mundane:

Prayer for Awakening the Senses

That in the elements of earth, sea, and sky
I may see your beauty.
That in wild wings, birdsong and silence
I may hear your beauty.
That in the body of another and the intermingling of relationship
I may touch your beauty.
That in the moisture of the earth and its flowering and fruiting
I may smell your beauty.
That in the flowing waters of springs and streams
I may taste your beauty.
These things I look for this day, O God,
These things I look for.

Day 30

What gives when your life goes wonky? (Personal follow-up: when is my life ever not wonky?)

A week after we returned from Costa Rica I heard about this great language-learning app, Duolingo. Determined to capitalize on two months of hearing and attempting to speak Spanish, I immediately installed the app on my phone and got to work. Just five minutes a day, easy-peasy! I could fit that in between appointments, while waiting for the kids, while transitioning from one task to another… And even though I loved it, I don’t think I made it a month. Exploded work-load, kid activities, volunteer requirements…despite my desire to live slow and simple, it didn’t take long for the cultural pull and expectations to become too much. I’ll get back to Duolingo, but I haven’t yet.

Exercise went next. I even scheduled Teen-pick up at the gym (conveniently, he can walk from school to the gym) so I could work out while he did and then we’d go home together. Nope, I stayed at work longer and Pick Up was just that: pick up.

Sleep, of course – how can I manage consistent healthy sleep with all this chatter bouncing around my brain?

Day 30 of the 30 Day Power Purge came and went with no fanfare. It could have been significant had it accurately represented 30 days of decluttering, but sadly, it didn’t. Week 1, Zone 1: The Kitchen – all good! Since I necessarily spend a certain amount of time each day in the kitchen preparing food for the fam, it took little extra effort to clean out a few drawers and what not. Each baby step made visible progress. It felt good! And then it didn’t as we moved on to other projects and even more cluttered closets. Forget five minutes, these projects would need at least a good hour if not more, time I didn’t have to give to stuff that could continue to sit.

The thought buzzed around my eyes: one more failed attempt? Beat it, bug! Hannah has great suggestions; I read every email, mostly “on break” from the over-work I brought home each day. I will get back to it, determined to live a simpler, less stuff-oriented existence; I will not consider this a “failure” but a “pause.” Hah, maybe I need a 30 Month Puny Purge instead!

And then last week. With all good intentions someone delivered a solid wallop to my gut. A project I’ve been so excited about, had taken on as my “cause,” well, let’s just say others haven’t been appreciative of my significant investment of time and effort.

After a good, long wallow, I began to realize that this might provide the adjustment of time and priorities I’ve needed. Certainly not the way I’d ever imagined it would happen, but I had prayed that God would make clear a different way.

Since then I’ve exercised five out of six days. I’ve started reading a new book. And I scheduled a chiropractic appointment that I’d been putting off for calmer times.

Last spring my chiropractor, in our first appointment, diagnosed an issue I’ve been dealing with for 20+ years, previously missed by every doctor I’ve seen including another chiro and two neurologists. But 20+ years of working issues into my body will take some time to work out again. Just being in the office, I breathed differently. The music, especially, caught my ears: not something I’d typically listen to, but in this environment, so right and so relaxing. Zen bliss.

Lying face down, electrodes tacked to my back delivering deep-delicious stimulation to my overwrought muscles, I had no option but to simply be. And then the music…a piano instrumental, familiar but new. I listened, questioned, and Oh My Good God, realized the song was the hymn we sang at our wedding: How Great Thou Art.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed. 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Yes, God is great. He created the glorious beauty we appreciated in Costa Rica and likewise He made the beautiful small California town to which we came home. He made me, He loves me, He saves me (sometimes He even saves me from myself!). No surprise to God the situation I’m in, not that He wants me to hurt but He does want me to seek shelter in His awesome arms. His power will be reflected in my weakness as I allow Him to rearrange the details of my life.

That night we took the kids to see The Book of Life. Set on The Day of the Dead, gods La Muerte and Xibalba place bets on three children: will Manolo or Joaquin eventually win Maria’s love? Beautifully rendered, the story tackles life’s great themes: life and death, war and peace, love and fear, heroism, artistry, and ultimately, writing your own life’s story. I think I may have audibly gasped as, in a critical scene, the voice-over declared that Manolo had finally faced and overcome his worst fear: not fighting the 1,000 bulls of his legendary bullfighting family, but his fear of becoming himself.

Sometimes being yourself is the scariest, hardest thing you can do. Others may not like you or appreciate the gifts you bring to the table. Hiding, pretending, can seem the better options. Being yourself can leave you vulnerable, raw, exposed – and real. How great is our God who stands with us for better and for worse; who loves us when others misunderstand us or, worse, reject us; who gave up glory and took on pain in order to be with us.

Life will keep on being wonky. I will continue to juggle requirements and desires. People will love me and hurt me. And God will be great, holding me tight as together we write the story of my life becoming me.