You Will Think Your Life Is Over . . .

Milk DudOne blazing September day last year, Laura and I traveled between tobacco fields and down dirt roads in Nowhere, Kentucky, to adopt a green-eyed chocolate pup we’d seen only in pictures: Gordon Dudley. At home on our counter we had left behind our list of pros and cons for adopting a dachshund puppy. On that scribbled list, we had noted all we knew, the good and bad, about owning a dog. Turns out we should have listed all we didn’t know.

For instance, I didn’t know that a dog would refuse to eat except out of your hand. I didn’t know that a puppy wouldn’t sleep unless curled up between your legs. Didn’t know that he would attach himself to two people (dachshunds are prone to be devoted to one person) and show anxiety when one of those people is not in the room.

I didn’t know that a puppy shivered and ached for a whole day like an infant after getting his shots. I didn’t know a puppy experienced teething symptoms—the sickness, irritability, pain—like human children. I didn’t know a puppy threw tantrums, held grudges, sought revenge on rugs and couch cushions. And most bewilderingly, I didn’t know that a puppy did not merely add himself to your life—he became your world.

Now, after almost a year with Dudley, I can tell you this much—

When a dog comes into your life, you will think your life is over. But it’s not. Not yet.

The shower was my favorite place to cry in those early months. Sleep deprived and discouraged, I spent all my time after work training him or calming Laura from her frustration with training him all day in my absence. In the shower I could sob into a wash cloth and contemplate what we had done. I rehearsed my call to the breeder: No refund necessary—just take him back.

Seeing my puffy eyes later, Laura begged me not to say it. Ignoring her, I’d burst out,Dudleyblog3 “What were we thinking? Why did we get him?”

“Pal, we’ll give him until Christmas,” she promised. “If he’s not better by then, we’ll tie a bow around his neck and give him to someone we don’t like.”

It seemed that everyone we met had a story about a dachshund who lived an impressively long life. We were once waylaid in the park by an elderly couple who patted Dudley’s head and fondly recounted the recent passing of their own dachshund—at 18 years old.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Eighteen years sounded like a sentence of some kind. I’d be 48, about to enter menopause and not far from collecting social security, still trying to tie together the ends of my life that this dog had unraveled.

I’m hesitant to call those moments regret. They more closely resembled grief, bereavement for a life no longer wholly mine. My heart hadn’t expanded yet like a balloon, ready to be filled with love. I had to learn to let my life go, to call it over, before it could really begin.

You will think your life is over—but it has only just begun.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” the memes say. And there’s a lot of uncomfortable truth to that. Adopting a puppy broadened my life with understanding of a creature other than myself, and in that new understanding, it feels like my life is just beginning. Here are a few things Dudley has taught me.

1. Hard Things Will Become Easier with Time

It was hard for me to imagine a day when Dudley would play on his own withoutDuds sleeping needing a constant companion; when he would eat his food from his dish; when he wouldn’t need continual supervision to make sure he went potty outside.

Dachshunds are notoriously hard to housebreak. Those first months were torture, taking him outside every 20 minutes even in the dark and rain. Once he went a whole week without an accident in the house. We felt pleased at our training—until Laura found a turd graveyard beneath her bed. I’ve never felt so angry and betrayed. We yelled. We spanked him. We put him in his crate. I grieved again.

Eventually, of course, Dudley stopped peeing and pooping inside, learned to entertain himself, and is finally eating his food. Now I wonder, What did we love before Duds? What did we talk about? Where did we derive the joy of watching him root through each grocery bag to find a treat or toy? This very hard thing—one of the hardest things that I  had ever done—got much easier. And gives me strength to think of doing other hard things.

2. Work Through Distraction. Duds misbehaved when he didn’t get enough sleep, so onDuds lyingweekends Laura and I put him in his crate, covered it with a blanket, and left the house so he would nap. During those times, we went to a cafe’ to write, and I finally started keeping up with my blog. With my determination to post a blog once a week, I soon discovered that I needed to be writing each evening. But Dudley didn’t make that easy. He wanted to play constantly, and needed to be supervised.

For a while, I resented the distraction, wanted to delay my creation until I found the perfect conditions. E. B. White, a man who knew a bit about the dachshund life, said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” He was right.

It took practice, but eventually I learned to write a sentence at a time while throwing a stuffed toy or petting a velvety head or balancing a computer on top of a puppy on my lap. And I learned to be grateful for the distraction. Without Dudley, I might not have started writing again. Sometimes only a great disruption can give us the discipline and structure to get things done.

3. Let Go of Things. Dudley added so much to our lives—joy, laughter, purpose, an object for our love. But for each thing he brought, he also took something. Sleep went first to his Duds and LAmbiepuppy bladder calling at 4:30 a.m., then to a full-grown dog—the longest dog you’ll ever meet—stretching horizontally in my bed and kicking my kidneys.

I’ve said goodbye to a clean apartment and hello to bites of unwanted kibble by the food dish, half-chewed antlers on the couch, and cotton entrails of mutilated stuffed toys strewn across the room like a crime scene. I lost the freedom to leave for day excursions without worrying about Dudley and feeling guilty for leaving him alone.

I’ve lost money on food he refused to eat, toys he demolished, and a computer cord that suffered the brunt of his boredom. I lost grocery store receipts, a brand new decorative blanket, and to-do lists on chewed up sticky notes. But I also lost the need for order and perfection. Life, in large part, is just figuring out what is worth holding onto and what is worth letting go.

4. Look for Cause and Effect. When we walked up to the breeder’s kennel, Dudley refused to come forward. He was trapped behind the gate, and though happily wagging his tail, he refused to push his way out to see us. The breeder reached behind the gate to gather the handful of wiggling pup. A few weeks later, after discovering Dudley’s fear of going under things, we understood his refusal to crawl beneath the gate.

We’ve also learned that when he needs to poop, he runs around frantically. When he starts tearing at the rug, he’s upset that we haven’t DudleyBlogplayed with him; when he’s digging at the couch, there’s a toy underneath; when we praise him, he behaves much better than when we punish him. I’ve learned the beautiful symmetry of cause and effect and now try to look for it without hasty, simplistic judgment.

5. Get Past Just. I can’t bring myself to say, “He’s just a dog.” If ever you hear someone say that a dog doesn’t have feelings, don’t believe him. Duds is a dog, for sure; but he’s more than just a dog—he’s a creature who deserves my respect.

When I take the time to look into his eyes, to see him cock his head and try so hard to understand my words, I know that just is often an excuse for my bad behavior. It reminds me of other just phrases: She’s just a teenager. He’s just a boy. She’s just got a temper. I’m just a no name. You’re just a loser. Just is often the start of abuse, disrespect, or dismissive behavior—toward creatures and humans.

You thought your life was over—but then it is.

No puppy website adequately warned me that my life would be filled not only with warm hand licks and soft bellies, but also bags of poop, impacted anal glands, putrid teething breath, maddening hours waiting for him to find the right squat spot, and Duds and Flowerthe knowledge that all this—his life and my life as I’ve known it—will end.

To hold a dog is to embrace a life of concentrated joy yet inevitably swift sadness. Their lives are only a fraction of ours, forcing us to make the most of each day. The current fullness of my heart informs my future depth of emptiness. How long would the carpet take to smooth out from the imprint of his crate. How long would it take me to gather his toys from where he last left them?

Whenever the end comes, it will come too soon. So for now I stroke that soft spot on the side of his neck, kiss between his eyes, breathe in the sweetness of his fur, and love him.

The heart is a great alchemist, over time turning inconvenience into pleasure, frustration into joy, resistance into love. Time, if we’re listening, teaches us to be better humans. I didn’t know much when Dudley entered my life, but my time with him has taught me what Roger Caras knew: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

me and dudley

 

 

 

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Drive Reckless: 8 Lessons for Becoming the World’s Worst Dad

This weekend, millions of children will celebrate the men who, in some way or another, shaped their lives. In glowing Hallmark prose set to the backdrop of tools, golf clubs, grill aprons, footballs, and fishing poles, the nation celebrates the admirable attributes of the men we call “Dad.”

Dads, I know you aspire to earn those cards that name you “World’s Best Dad.” But let’s face it—how many of you actually reach that level of perfection?

If you’re set on getting an award this Father’s Day, maybe instead you should be reaching for a more attainable achievement—something like Okayest Father Certificate or Worst Dad of the Year Award. To get you started on your award-winning journey, here are eight lessons you could learn from my own father about how to be the world’s worst dad.

  1. Take yourself too seriously. When your daughter is taking a road trip and you tell her to drive safe, and she says, “No, duh,” be sure to get offended and lecture her. Whatever you do, from that point on, don’t tell her to “Drive reckless” each time she takes a trip. And when a woman strikes up a conversation about cube steaks in the grocery store meat department and your daughter asks, “Why in the world did she ask you about cube steaks?” don’t shrug and say, “I must look like a guy who’s eaten a cube steak.” Be sure to get offended easily and grouse about how you “don’t get no respect.”
  2. Don’t bother to learn new things. Don’t stand alone in every museum, zoo, or aquarium after your family has moved on, poring over signs, reading every line of information. Don’t have something to say about nearly every topic, offering facts you gleaned from your addiction to NPR. When you’re watching I Love Lucy, don’t say, “You know, John Wayne once said she was the prettiest woman in Hollywood.” And when you’re playing Scrabble, don’t eye the board with a poker face, then end the game with a word (stakeout) worth 152 points. It’s important to maintain the “stupid dad” role.
  3. Don’t teach your kids to appreciate nature. Don’t bring home garter snakes or praying mantises or snapping turtles. Don’t point out spider egg sacs—like Charlotte’s magnum opus—or the giant red velvet ants in the yard or luna moths on the screen at night. Don’t raise a squirrel kit, name it Earl, let it ride around in your shirt pocket, and, when the time comes, let it go back to nature. Don’t encourage your son to collect snakes and lizards. Don’t keep a baby crocodile named George. And especially don’t bring home an injured red-tailed hawk (no seriously—don’t do it. It’s illegal!), don’t build a cage, nurse it back to health, or set it free. Don’t fondly call your family’s crusty tom cat “Old Man” and invite him to sit on your chest because you’re the only human being that he prefers—and you kind of like that exclusivity.
  4. Don’t take advantage of teachable moments. When your daughter shows you the cross-stitch she just finished, don’t praise her and then turn it over to point to the chaotic back and explain how life is sometimes like that—messy in order to make something beautiful. And when she crashes through yet another piano recital, her nervous hands shaking off the keys, but finishes on the right note, don’t go to her room later and tell her that it’s not how she starts but how she finishes that counts.
  5. Avoid trying new things and taking adventures. Don’t go to Big Lots or the dent and discount store up the road just to see what funky foods you can try, like the newest cereal flop or offbeat snack flavor that didn’t even make it to the store shelves. And don’t take a drive with your daughter to find a cottage in the woods where you took her years ago on a workday and where she fell in love with it while you built cabinets in the kitchen. And when you can’t remember where the house is, don’t drive down every back road and driveway trying to jostle your memory, and in the end never find it but make good memories anyway.  And when business takes you about an hour away from where she lives in Florida, don’t ask her to come see you, and when she forgets her suitcase, don’t walk her through every Walmart and Goodwill in the tiny town, picking up tacky outfits that you genuinely admire and she genuinely abhors. Always be sure to play it safe and don’t take risks—just stay in front of the television, maybe.
  6. Freak out during emergencies. Don’t stay calm when the tire falls off your family’s van going 75 mph down an interstate and then pilot the careening vehicle across four lanes of traffic to safety. And when your wife cuts her hand on a broken dish in the kitchen, don’t raise your voice a little to make her calm down. When a kid is running through J.C. Penney and runs smack into a metal rack, don’t stay with the mother until paramedics come to sew up the kid’s bleeding gash.
  7. Don’t teach your children to be comfortable talking to people. Don’t embarrass your kids by asking hotel clerks for discounts, the pizza guy for “no shows,” or perfect strangers for information. Don’t strike up a conversation with anyone wearing a T-shirt or sporting a bumper sticker on their car that might give you something to talk about. Don’t serve in small churches for your children’s whole lives, taking them along to pick up bus kids and handicapped church members. And when your state congressman inexplicably walks into the diner where you take your daughter for her birthday lunch, don’t stop the man on his way to the restroom to thank him for his service and ask his opinion about Washington politics.  Teach your kids not to talk to strangers and to be suspicious of everyone.
  8. Don’t be vulnerable or open. If you remember nothing else, get this in your head: don’t show your children that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Don’t tell the story from your childhood of the dusk when you killed dozens of fireflies with a paper plate, swatting them mid-glow, and later went inside racked with guilt. (If you tell your daughter that story, she might tell you that she once cried because she killed a wasp, watching it suffer and writhe on the windowsill, doused in Windex.) Don’t tear up at Frank Capra movies or choke with emotion when you read one of your daughter’s stories. Hold it together—grown men don’t cry. Don’t make it awkward.

So there you have it: some tips from my dad on how to be the world’s worst father. Of course Dad never quite got it right—in fact he ended up doing the opposite of everything you’d want to do if you’ve got a low goal in mind. It would have been really easy for Dad to earn that “worst dad” status, but somehow he ended up raising five highly functional, fairly likeable, mostly OK-looking kids who love him and think he’s all right.

So happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the dads out there who go against these rules. You most definitely would not win a Worst Father of the Year Award.

What a bunch of losers.

Better luck next year.

 

 

 

 

The White Elephant in the Room: (Un)advice for Surviving Singleness

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Guest Post by Leah Meyer

“I just don’t get it,” my 11-year-old neighbor Zahara said, her eyebrows wrinkled with confusion. “Lots of ugly people are married, and you’re so pretty.”

A group of us were taking our customary walk around the neighborhood one evening a couple summers ago. Me—the 25-year-old single American girl—and them, preteen immigrant girls whose mothers were not much older than I was.

I had recently arrived home from grad school and once again was inundated by well-meaning friends, church family, and acquaintances with questions about my relationship status.

I always came back with plenty of stories—the boy I met at a missions summit, who was headed overseas and eager to make us official a week after meeting. Or the Asian guy who could barely speak English but starting cooking his native dishes for me after he found out I had a voracious appetite. Then there was the upperclassman who ordered me off the menu at the restaurant where I worked, and barely looked at me again after that night.

I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth.

I had read the books and taken pages of mental notes from my married and single friends. I didn’t want to end up alone, so I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth: what to look for, where to look, and sometimes not to look at all.

“As soon as you stop wanting a husband, that’s when God will bring you someone,” several people informed me.

“You find what you are looking for,” others claimed. “Keep your eyes open.”

So which was it?

“Christian college is the best place to find someone,” a pastor told me. “That’s where most people find their spouse.”

Not me, it appeared.

“Put yourself out there—you have to show a certain amount of interest, or guys won’t notice you.” But also, “Don’t show too much interest until he pursues. You can’t come on too strong.”

Still I finished college completely unattached, feeling like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party. Was something wrong with me? How had others found someone special so easily?

I felt like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party.

It’s easy to ask why. We want the answers so we can find a solution to the problem. Blaming something or someone seems to be the easiest solution, with God often bearing the brunt of our frustration. That way it’s out of our control, and He is responsible for our inability to find happiness through marriage. Outside of blaming another person, the other option is to blame myself. If it’s my fault, I have the power to fix it. I can try harder, go to the right places, say the right things. But sometimes in life, instead of finding the answers, we have to let go of the questions. We may never know why. And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to.

So what should we do as we try to let go of the questions and live fully? Ignore every piece of advice? Lash out at well-meaning friends and family for their questions? Bury every desire so deep inside that not even an FBI agent could find it? Here are a few things I try to remember.

  1. Trust God—above all. He is bigger than the statistics, the hurts, and the seemingly missed opportunities. Pay attention when He is closing a door or opening a new one. Go to Him with your desires—He’s got this.
  2. Take advice—with a grain of salt. Everyone has a story, and listening can encourage you. But realize that what worked for them might not necessarily work for you. Your life, your story is just that—yours. So don’t feel like you have to do things exactly like someone else.
  3. Take chances—every chance you get. Go beyond your comfort zone to serve and play. Be open to trying new things and going new places. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Build strong relationships with the people that God has placed in your life. Be raw, be real. And you just might be surprised by who joins you on the journey.

I didn’t have an answer for Zahara that night. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” I said. “God willing one day I will, but for now, I get to be with all of you.”

That answer seemed to satisfy the girls who nodded in agreement and echoed my sentiment into the gathering dusk. “God willing.”

 

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The Secret of the Track

Track
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

I’m gonna tell you the secret of the track. You know—the track that everyone gets off and back on (1). But first I have a confession.

In my February blog post “Unintentionally Living Intentionally,” I talked about getting serious with a plan to use my time and my life most wisely. For almost a month, things went really great.  But then Laura got sick. Vet appointments and daylong babysitting gigs happened. I got pneumonia. My parents came to visit, and we spent two weeks in Maryland caring for Laura’s mother who had a recent surgery.  April was the cruelest month.

Every day we talked longingly about those three weeks of keeping a schedule—working out, getting up early, eating well, consistently writing. But we had jumped the well-laid track, it seemed, and derailed our plans, like the iconic crash in The Fugitive, the cars diving from the rails in a halo of sparks, grinding and scraping, jackknifing and furrowing to a halt. We were lethargic and discouraged. “We’ll get back on track, Pal,” Laura promised.

But the longer we waited, the more clearly I understood the secret of the track:

We hadn’t gotten off track at all. We simply stopped our train.

I feel like this idiom of getting back on track is simply a way to blame the train and track for the engineer’s failure. If some part of life (unexpected responsibilities, emergencies, needs of other people, the general swift passing of time) makes our schedule “go off the rails,” we are victims of the distractions and duties of life (2). And when we think of ourselves as victims, we’re frozen in our own self-pity, never moving forward while thinking something else is holding us back.

Here are three ways that I’m beginning to change my perspective so I can reclaim order to my life and chug on toward my goals.

1. I’m the Engineer—I am not the weeping, hapless passenger in the back of the parlor car. No, I am the engineer in the cab. I get to decide when to pull the brake and when to add coal. Unlike a train’s rigid departure schedule, my best-laid plans and routines are idealic things, often upset by the unexpected or the necessary or my indiscipline.

  • I wanted to start getting up early, but I stayed up too late reading or writing.
  • I wanted to exercise in the evening, but after work I had unexpected errands and events.
  • I meant to eat healthy, but there was Chick-fil-a frosted coffee and a moment of weakness. . . okay, several moments of weakness.
  • I meant to write and handletter consistently, but I just didn’t feel inspired (oh, brother).

After a week or two of not following the schedule, I pulled the emergency brake and ground to a complete halt, thinking I was a failure and life was working against me. But since realizing I’m in charge, it’s been easier to leave excuses at the station, take the blame for standing still, and start out again tomorrow.

2. Don’t Stop for Pennies—Since trains have been around, people have laid coins on the tracks, sadistically testing the myth that a penny can derail a train. A penny weighs only a few grams while a train weighs several hundred tons. As you might imagine, that penny is consistently flattened or even pressed right into the track or wheel. It seems ludicrous to think of something as small as a penny upsetting a train. But then again it’s usually little things that make me screech to a stop. So I’m learning to identify the things that waylay me—social media, sleeping in, apathy, sugar, priorities, discouragement—and either anticipate them, avoid them, or roll right over them.

3. Watch the ETA and Destination—I keep a notebook full of ideas for my blog, advice on SEO, a list of guest bloggers and artists I want to highlight, encouraging quotes, a monthly schedule for posts, my fears—and my goals. It helps me focus on what I’m doing each day and each month. I’m still not exactly sure of my final destination, and there’s not exactly an ETA— but I’ve got to keep moving and recalculate for the days when I stop (for pennies). I’ve got a freight load of goals, dreams, and purpose to haul, and only I can make sure they arrive on time.

Casey Jones
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

4. Ignore the schedule. Rather than trying so hard to stick to the schedule, sometimes it’s better to just ignore it entirely. Perfectionism is often the enemy of progress. I’ve got to stop obsessing over the ideal outcome and just focus on making as many good choices as I can. Even if I drink a frosted coffee, I can still go to bed early that night. If I get up late, I can still spend some time working out later. I decide where my train is headed, and sometimes that means forgiving myself for making choices that went against the plan and making a better choice the next time.

So if you’re feeling like your Little Engine That Could is in the ditch, remember—it’s only stopped at the bottom of the hill. Change your perspective, give it some steam, and start to climb.

I know you can. I know you can. I know you can.

the little engine
Image from The Little Engine That Could

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1. You can probably apply it to a walking track, but I prefer a train metaphor.

2. Of course I am not talking about the tragic and time-consuming unavoidable, such as moving cross country for a new job, becoming seriously ill, or recovering from the death of a loved one.

6 Messages You Should Be Writing in Your Mother’s Day Card

towels

Around this time every year, I stand at the rows of pink and floral and paisley cards, pulling them out, reading the message, stopping at the first line, rarely looking inside. Finally I collect a few and ask Laura, “Which one?”

But the real challenge starts when it comes time to write the personal note. This woman gave me life, raised me to adulthood, continues to be my support, yet I often stare at the vast open space of the card, drawing a complete blank.

I know I’m not alone. We love our mothers, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spell it out in strokes. Our first response is to write, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and be done with it. But this year, why not try one or two of these meaningful messages?

1. Thank You—  We grow into our gratitude like too big shoes. First it’s clunky and uncomfortable, with our parents hounding us to remember the words at every gift or favor. But eventually we make the words our own. And in more time still, we mean it. It’s a great unfairness that the years a mother spends doing the most are the years a child is most ungrateful. When we start doing the things our mother once did for us—cleaning, cooking, mending, keeping a general balance to life—we’re at once overwhelmed yet, perhaps for the first time, deeply grateful. There will never be a way to thank your mother for everything she’s done for you (though it might not be a bad exercise to try).

“Thanks for keeping the towels clean.”

So instead, find one small thing that your mother did well or faithfully, and make it stand for something greater. For example, I’ve been to houses with towel closets that are empty or in sloppy piles (which works for some people.) But I was accustomed to towers of fluffy linens. And it’s one of the things that I still associate with my mother’s meticulous care. In her Mother’s Day cards, I sometimes write, “Thanks for keeping the towels clean.” And I hope she knows it stands for all the thank yous I don’t have space to write.

2. I’m Sorry— Though I doubt good parents live for the days that their children return penitent for tantrums and tracked mud and mealtime calamity, it does a child good to recognize her trespasses. I sometimes tell my mom “I’m sorry,” but I never feel like I say it enough. Our own memory is kind to us, so I’m not sure I fully grasp what a handful I was. “Was I a bad child?” I’ve asked her. She just smiles and says, “No.” But there’s probably more to the story, and I’m hoping that, by being an upstanding adult and saying “I’m sorry” every so often, I can make some measure of restitution for whatever havoc I wreaked on her life. You might try saying it as well—chances are you’ve got plenty to apologize for.

“Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

3. You Are. . . —I realized a few years ago that I thanked my mother for what she did for me. But I never addressed who she is. She’s a great interior decorator, a masterful baker, a sender of thoughtful packages, a washer of towels, a problem solver. But those things indicate something about who she is. She’s creative, skilled, thoughtful, organized, and indomitable. Make a list of the things your mom does, and beside it identify her corresponding quality. It might even be enough to say, “Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

4. I’m Proud of You— Let’s face it. Mothers are usually the ones doling out this encouragement. But how often do they get it back? It might have been since just after high school graduation, before she got married and had you, since she last heard it. So turn the tables on her. How can you recognize her not just as your mother (which, granted, is probably her proudest accomplishment) but as a person who still has her own life and abilities? (Perhaps call on your list from number 3).

5. You Taught Me— I’m not a mother, but I have been a college teacher (which is a bit like being a mom.) One of the most encouraging and meaningful things that my students ever told me was what they learned from me. So this might seem counterintuitive on Mother’s Day, but talk about yourself. For instance, I might tell my mom, “I decorated my room with my favorite cards that I’ve been given over the years, just like you do. Thanks for teaching me how to be resourceful with my decorations.” In other words, “I am because you are.”  You might draw from the list of your mom’s actions and qualities from number 3. Think about which ones you emulate.

“I am because you are.”

6. I Love You— I hope the power of this phrase isn’t overshadowed by its obligatory, familiar nature. You’ll never hear a more empty phrase or a more full one than “I love you.” It’s one thing to write the word “Love” as your signature, but it’s another to intentionally write the words, “I love you, Mom.” Don’t hide behind the vestigial sixth-grade “gee-shucks-it’s-just-my-mom” feelings. Spell it out.

This Sunday, don’t let the card writers do all the talking. Make the opportunity count. Say I’m sorry, say I learned from you, say I’m proud of you—don’t just say Happy Mother’s Day.

Expecting Change: 3 Truths About the Unknown

maria-stiehler-2219

Guest Blog by Jessica Marshall

One chilly spring evening, my four sisters and I watched our bunk beds burn.

Our brothers had simply sawed them in half, ripped them from the walls of our little room, and dumped the remains on a burn pile.

For some of my sisters, the tears flowed freely.

In case you are wondering how my brothers could be so heartless, let me explain.
My three sisters—Sharon, Joanna, Monica—and I did not suddenly find ourselves homeless that spring day. We were the daughters of an evangelist and had grown up traveling all over the country. We lived in a 40-foot bus that contained a living room, a kitchen, a shower with a changing room, a toilet with a sink, and two bedrooms. A long aisle ran from the living room all the way to the door of my parents’ bedroom in the very back of the bus. This aisle divided the couches, the refrigerator from the sink, and the bathroom from the shower room.

The bunks were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.”

This line also divided the bunkhouse where my sisters and I slept. Our minuscule bunkhouse held three bunks on each side of the aisle. The bunks were six feet long and barely wide enough to hold one body. They were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.” Tiny closets were separated into two sections; the top held shirts and blouses, and the bottom held skirts. Underneath the bottom bunks, six little drawers held socks, underwear, and other unmentionables.

This tiny bunkhouse held memories unending. Giggles. Secrets. Tears. Prayers. Hopes. Dreams. And one spring day that ended.

The decision was made to move the four of us sisters into a little motor home we had nicknamed, “The Hippie Mobile.” (My siblings and I nicknamed almost all of our vehicles. Except for the bus. Somehow, its name always remained the “Bus,” as if it had no higher calling.) We had lovingly given the Hippie Mobile its name because it was a 1973 Chevy with felt curtains the color of sunshine and little stick figures around the edges.

Our old bunkhouse in the bus was being renovated into a video editing room, where my dad and brothers would produce short videos and cable programs for TV. Thus, the bunk beds had to go. They were built into the walls of the bunk house, and the only way to remove them was to saw them in half, then take them out piece by piece. Each piece found its way into the burn pile my dad and brothers had built.

And so 12 years of life went up in smoke that day. Even though we had bought material for new curtains in the Hippie Mobile and had laid new carpet and rearranged everything—for it once had been a boys’ domain—we still found it hard to let the past with all of its memories go.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other.

I am not sure why I thought of this event in my life. Perhaps because I have faced this kind of tug-of-war before—this fight within myself of letting go, accepting, relinquishing. And I am facing change again today.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other. To let go means to turn your back on all that lies behind you: the joys, the sorrows, the memories, the regrets. To move on means you face the future: the joys, the sorrows, the mysteries, the dreams. You simply turn around and face forward.

I could have told my 17–year-old self one thing that day: there would be more change to come. The pattern has repeated itself over and over.

Every time I think I have settled in, here comes more change, marching down the path toward me. Whether it was moving out of the bus into a Hippie Mobile, moving out of a broken-down Hippie Mobile to live out of a van one hot summer, moving into a log home in West Virginia, moving to Maryland, moving to college in Florida, or moving to Oklahoma, change was always unsettling. I felt as though the moorings I had lashed myself to ripped away, or the sturdy foundation I had relied upon exploded in a blast of dust and debris.

When I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

Sometimes I wonder why I fear the unknown so much. Is it because I cannot control what lies ahead? Is it because I am fearful, my mind filling with what ifs? No matter the reason, when I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

  1. God already knew the change was coming.
  2. He is preparing a clear path ahead of me.
  3. I can take the next step in front of me without fear.

Any other alternative—weeping, moaning, fearing, or resisting—will only cause me more stress. Pausing a moment to take in these truths helps steady me.

I can always expect change. I can also expect that He will be there, too.

. . . . . . .

JessJessica Marshall sat in my college writing classes for four years, always eager to learn. But I can take no credit for her raw talent and voice. The most I could do was encourage her to keep writing and keep practicing what she instinctively knew.  Since graduating in 2015 with a degree in professional writing, she has done just that. Between freelance editing and writing, she keeps The Gypsy Life blog. I’m so thankful to call her a fellow writer, friend, . . .  and, today, my guest blogger. 

Finding Our Way: 8 Benefits of Cutting Clutter

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”—Albert Einstein

I recently recounted the Great Purge of 2016 in which I rooted every unnecessary trinket, envelope, book, shirt, and mug out of my apartment.

It’s a great thing to clear off a mantel and sort through your collection of souvenir shot glasses. But just below the layers of stuff, there are several other benefits to discover from decluttering.

1. Remembering. In a big pine chest, I had three boxes of birthday, get-well, holiday, and congratulations cards; notes from my family and friends; theater ticket stubs; 3×5 cards with messages I passed to my friends in college classes; and assorted other keepsakes. Sorting through the mound of missives, all the memories of my dear friends came back. As you sort through your things, it might surprise you how many memories you’ll dredge up and how enjoyable your life in review can be.

I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.

2. Giving Thanks. The surplus of clothes, decor, cups, CDs, and books that we sold and donated made me extremely grateful—not for the things themselves but for the realization that these things didn’t make me happy. It reminded me of what’s really important: friendship, love, joy, an organized life—and a tidy house. I am grateful for what I have—but also for what I no longer need.

3. Learning to let go. When we take a hard look at our stuff, we’re forced to appraise what it’s worth to us. If we keep more than we turn loose, it might mean we’ve formed emotional connections to it. Now if it’s an item that holds a certain emotional value (e.g., your grandmother’s urn, father’s football jersey, first child’s shoes), it’s reasonable to hold onto it. But sometimes our emotional connections boil down to greed, obsession, or fear—the fear that we might one day need something after it’s gone. These are, of course, toxic emotions, and we need to take a clue from Elsa and let it go. The more you put in trash bags and Goodwill bins, the easier it is to relinquish your hold on stuff. It takes practice, faith, and sacrifice, but it’s worth it.

4. Thinking Ahead. When you die, there are a great many things that your loved ones must do, such as making funeral arrangements, pulling together your will, and finalizing other business affairs. And they must do these things while grieving their loss. The last thing they need is to face a crammed attic, a jammed garage, and a stuffed basement. Go through your stuff now before your children have to shovel it into a dumpster.windmill

A will is great for distributing your possessions after you’re gone. But you know what’s better? Giving the items to your loved ones while you’re still alive. Several years ago I received a package from my grandmother. Inside was the windmill music box that I used to play with on every visit to their house. Later she allowed me to take home a bell that I also enjoyed tinkering with when I was little. I think about my grandmother every time I see those items on my dresser, and sometimes they remind me to appreciate her while I still have her.

5. Making Room (and Money) for Other Things. Laura sold her Madame Alexander dolls and American Girl dolls from her childhood this fall, and I sold my extensive Pillsbury Doughboy kitchen collection and a host of other odds and ends from around the house. We put our earnings together and, along with money we received for Christmas, financed a trip to Disney World in January. What could you do with the money from a little time spent posting items on Facebook yard sales or hosting a yard sale of your own?

We also sold all of our travel-themed decor and made room to purchase two new nature-themed pictures.  Along with the decor we repurposed from other rooms in our house, we  changed the theme in our living room without spending much money and by selling rather than storing. With open space in our house, we’re free to allow new things to come in—or just to enjoy the new space.

6. Reconsidering Our Image. What does your stuff say about you? I like looking at the different desks at work. The minimalist desk with no personal touch and nothing out of place. The sloppy desk incomprehensibly filled with dirty bowls; food crumbs; and scraps of paper, stickers, or trash that once-upon-a-time served as an inside joke. The tidily-cluttered desk, like mine, where the desk walls might be filled with photos but in an arranged, purposeful fashion (or at least that’s what I tell myself).

We’re all different—that’s for sure. But it’s important to realize that what we own says something about us. Do we want to be surrounded with pointless accumulation or purposeful items?

Alice7. Making connections. Sometimes I think about that scene on Walt Disney’s animated movie Alice in Wonderland when Alice eats the cookie and grows until she pops out of the White Rabbit’s house. Does your house feel so full of stuff that it might break through the windows and roof? If so, it might mean that other areas of your life are bursting with clutter as well.

Is your mind full of trivial things or insecurity? What about your schedule? Is it so hectic that you don’t have time for a half an hour of silence? Even your body: did you clutter it with too many snacks or too much sugar today? Is your spirit full to the rafters with anger, worry, or fear? In what other ways does clutter manifest itself in your life?

8. Simplifying. Recently, I upgraded to an iPhone 7, mostly because I wanted that tantalizing new photography feature, the portrait mode. Laura got an iPhone 7 plus. When we got home, I discovered that only the Plus has portrait mode. I was frustrated for all of five minutes until I realized what was happening. A thing was upsetting me. With so many other important issues to concern me, the last thing I want to do is salivate at the marketers’ bell. In general I don’t crave things—I crave time, intellect, character, compassion. And sometimes I feel that those non-things come best in the absence of things. (1)

“Don’t just declutter, de-own.—Joshua Becker

In her book Gifts from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh said,

“To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say—is it necessary?—when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life. . . . Simplification of outward life is not enough . . . but the outside can give a clue, can help one to find the inside answer.”

Stuff certainly has a way of taking over our lives. We’re responsible to pay for it, organize it, dust it, maintain it. But it’s also up to us to deny it power over us.

Further Help for Decluttering

Decluttering is more than an exercise—it’s a mindset. When we lay aside the junk that “does so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1), we find our way through our houses, attics, garages, and storage rooms—and we just might find our way.

For more information on overcoming clutter, check out Clutter Free Academy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Also visit A Life in Progress for tips on calming your spirit and simplifying your life.

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Notes

1) I eventually swapped it for an iPhone Plus when I found out how simple it would be to exchange. I’m satisfied to know that I was content to keep the one I had.