Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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A Gift for Scared People

Sometimes there are stories that sit with you.  I wrote my first draft of this post one month ago, but I haven’t been able to let it go–or perhaps, it won’t let go of me.  A month ago, I wrote from a sense that “Do not be afraid” was one of the central messages of the Christmas story.  Since then, I have experienced a horrible stomach virus that almost sent me to the ER, a series of panic attacks linked to our upcoming flight to California, and the surgeries of several friends and family members.  And of course, with all of you, I have watched in horror as we have learned about the latest school shooting.  Do not be afraid?  At times, it has become more of a question than a declaration.

But it won’t let me go.  Do not be afraid.  Through the hills and valleys of this month, this phrase has become inextricably linked in my mind–even, in my heart and gut–to the Christmas story.  As I keep editing and re-working this post, it has been working on me.  And so now, I give it again to you with my prayers that you too will find a measure of peace in the midst of your own lives.  Merry Christmas.

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A Story of Scared People

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Christmas, the first time.

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Mary,

See her lying there, trembling.  Her day of delivery approaches.  She is tired, but sleep will not come; and so she wills the sun to return.  Joseph will come for her then.

Joseph.  She smiles.  His name brings her peace.

In the morning, they will head south to Bethlehem.  In the morning, the donkey will carry her away from everything she has ever known.

The donkey.  As she remembers his dumb beast, her throat constricts and she pushes herself upright, now willing herself, “breathe, breathe, breathe.”  Breathe. It will be hard to breathe as she is carried along, the impact from every step a blow to her tight skin.  When will she finally burst?  When will the miracle-child, now kicking her in the ribs, come?  By the side of the road, under the rude stares of curious traders, as a spectacle to strangers?  Maybe there will be a woman–oh, let there be a skilled woman–to ease the delivery and stop the bleeding.

“What if we are all alone?”

Breathe.  No, they will not be alone.  In the distance, as far away as memory lingers, she hears the rustle of wings.  Do not be afraid.  Always the first word and always the last.  Do not be afraid.  She lays back down.

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the shepherds,

See them flee, trembling.  Brave men, rough and crude, they have met their match.  The sky pulses, the ground swells and rolls under their callused feet.  The world is ending.  The animals flee.  There is no rustle here, only words exploding in the air.

Do! Not! Be! Afraid!

They are scared enough to hear every word.

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and Joseph.

See him now, trembling.  He crouches in the dirt, picks up a smooth stone, remembers.  Remembers his rage that night, that night long ago, the night when he was the first to know.  How he had considered his legal right to stone.  His legal right to Mary’s death, to justice.  How he had trembled then, picturing her face and hearing the screams.  No.  He had decided to just walk away.

But then.

Alone in his bed,  the rustle came with a command.  Do not be afraid to take her as your wife.  In the blinding light, he had obeyed.

Now the baby walks and the royal travelers have come and gone.  With their gifts, they left behind a warning.  The king is suspicious.  Jealous. Furious.  He cannot be trusted.  And the angel comes again, this time with no comfort, only this–Get up.  It is time to walk again.  Get up.  Take the toddler and his mother far away.  Go now.  The soldiers are coming.

But remember, Joseph, Do not be afraid.  Remember the name of the baby.  Remember what it means.

The Lord saves.  Just not necessarily in the way you were expecting.  Go now.

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See you reading, see me writing.  We know this trembling.  At times.  At times when anxiety threatens to overcome us, when just a word or two shoves us into a place where we would not choose to be.

At these times we need to know that they trembled too.

They were scared.  We are scared.  And the rustling, exploding command was given to them so that it could be given to us.  Do not be afraid.  You’re nervous when you drop your kids off at school?  Do not be afraid.  The police cars are blocking off the next block again?  Do not be afraid.  You worry about what you will do when your savings are gone?  You can’t believe that your body is betraying you by growing old?  Your son is hanging out with the wrong crowd?  You wonder if you will ever find work that is more than just a paycheck?  You are overwhelmed by the decisions you face for the parents who used to take care of you?

Listen closely to the story this year.  Listen to the songs.  It is Emmanuel who kicked Mary in the ribs.

Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And it is because we are not alone that we need not be afraid.


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An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

For you and/or the introverts you love.

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PART ONE: Who are we?

I must begin by stating, as clearly as I can, a simple fact for the record.  I like people.  I really do.  I have friends.  Sometimes I can even make small talk.  Goodness, I live with seven other people.  This is good.  I would be a very unhappy hermit.

And this is also good, because ‘wannabe hermit’ is not a synonym for introvert, nor is ‘shy’, ‘withdrawn’, or ‘antisocial’.  Can you tell that I’m feeling a little defensive?  Perhaps this is because the Cambridge Dictionary defines introvert as, “someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily”.  Ouch.  How about a definition for extrovert?  That would be, “an energetic, happy person who enjoys being with other people.”

No value judgments here.

Sorry Cambridge, but I’m coming at the introvert/extrovert continuum from a slightly different angle.  It begins with a few questions, the first of which is, “What charges your batteries?”  In other words, when you are depleted, overwhelmed or mentally worn-out; what energizes you?  A night out, or a night in?  Do people, experiences and challenges ‘get you going’; or require a whole bunch of extra processing time?  Are you more easily bored or overstimulated?  As the Myers-Briggs website summarizes, “Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things (Extraversion), or in your inner world of ideas and images (Introversion)?”

So, which category do you suppose a reflective blog writer falls into?

We are the introverts.  Hear us roar take some time to think about all of this.

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PART TWO:  Introvert Torture

That would be a full work week (paid or unpaid) plus two social gatherings, every weekend, for all of December.

And don’t forget to put up the lights, make the cookies, buy the gifts, take the family picture and order the photo cards (not to mention actually addressing, stamping and mailing the cards… I still have an unsent box from the year our youngest was born), decorate the house, make more cookies, figure out what you can give to various worthy organizations, keep up and maybe create some meaningful family traditions, and try not to get too stressed out because you know that the holidays are supposed to be a reflective time.

Ah, December.

Stop reflecting.  Shouldn’t you be making cookies?

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PART THREE:  Introvert Survival

First off, re-read part one, and write the Cambridge definitions on a piece of paper.  Burn it.  Dance around the fire.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Did you know that introvert’s brains are actually wired differently than extroverts?  A researcher named Dr. Debra Johnson published an experiment in the American Journal of Psychiatry in which researchers asked a group of people to lie down and relax.  Their brains were scanned, and then her team compared the findings to the participant’s questionnaire-based identification as introverts or extroverts.  They found that the blood flow in the introvert’s brains was actually longer and more complex, hitting parts of the brain that involved memory, problem solving, emotion, and planning.  The extrovert’s blood flowed in shorter, faster and less complicated pathways that involved sensory input.  It’s no wonder that introvert’s brains can feel so tired!

Now, it’s not that extroverts don’t think deeply or even that their brains are less complex than those of introverts.  It just seems that introverts tend to favor the longer brain pathways, even for processing very simple experiences (like, ‘lie down and relax’).  Before I get into deeper neuroscientific waters (with my swimmies on), I’ll just say that this rings true for me.  My extroverted husband and I can experience the exact same situation (let’s say a holiday party), for the exact same amount of time (as long as I can last), and I will come away mentally and emotionally exhausted while his reaction is something like, ‘what’s next?’

What’s next?  A break for my tired brain.

Breaks are the key to survival.  But they are not a given in the month of December, so to my fellow introverts, I say…

Please don’t let the holidays eat you alive.  This will take some planning.  Yes, planning.  I don’t mean to give you one more thing to do, but hear me out.  You need to plan so that you can choose.  You need to plan so that you can pace yourself.  You need to plan so that you will have more than a smidgen of energy left when something really important is happening.

This is my first piece of unsolicited advice:  plan to give yourself some space.  Before the party, after the party, hidden in the bathroom (just briefly!) during the party.  Close your eyes, take deep breaths, try to forgive yourself for the stupid thing that you just said and think of a question that you can ask someone when you emerge.  Write space into your calender like it’s an appointment, and then do the things that give you energy–the things that help you process and enjoy the rest of your life.  Be really protective of this time, and if you miss it, re-schedule.  The key words here?  Prepare and recover.

Second, reflect on what you can really do well, and say no to just about everything else.  You’re an introvert, and so you have unique gifts to give.  Could you spend some extra time on a thoughtful holiday letter (or e-mail)?  Is there someone who really needs you to reach out to them and then just listen for awhile?  Are you an especially considerate gift-giver?  Do you have an idea to make the holidays especially meaningful for your kids (or someone else’s)?  Are you an artist of some kind or another?  Take some time to think about this, and then prioritize these things.  When other things that you are perhaps not so well-suited to come up, you won’t have time to do them all.      

Finally, stop thinking so much about yourself.  This may come off as a bit harsh, and even contradictory to the two previous paragraphs; but as I live my own little introverted life, this is a constant tension.  How can I remain healthy while responding to the near-constant demands of my two small children?  When do I go to the party just because it means a lot to my husband?  What about the big family gathering after an especially stressful week?  What if I figure out ‘what I need”, but then I don’t get it?

Sorry.  Sometimes you just have to deal.  Sometimes you just have to play nicely with the extroverts.

But here’s the thing… if your plans for space get interrupted, at least you had plans.  If you have to do something that you don’t want to do, at least you know what you’ll do next time.  If the pace doesn’t seem quite right, at least you’re paying attention.

And if you really need a break, you can always hide in the bathroom for a little while.