Long Days and Short Years

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

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Life at 30,000 Feet

I have developed a fear of flying over the past decade or so.  It is quite annoying, and has not always been this way.

When I began flying in college, I was amazed by the miracle that lifted tons of steel into the air.  I would press my nose against the window and marvel at the miniature world below.   I took photographs from the sky, and in the days before digital photography, built up a collection of blurry sunset and cloud pictures that inevitably included the flash’s glare.  One year I rode in a small plane at the Butler Farm Show and was disappointed when I had to sit in the back.  I even briefly considered learning to fly, but was put off by the cost of lessons.

My husband, who has only known me for eight years, is astonished by these recollections.  This is not the Jen he knows.

A lot can change in a decade.  And it has.  Something has happened inside me in the years since college, since 9-11, and since children.  The fear crept in slowly, beginning with slight trepidation, fed by terrorist tales and endlessly retold crash sequences (yes, even Lost episodes), strengthened by new concerns related to flying with children, growing with every spot of turbulence and bumpy descent, and culminating in a panic attack in the New Orleans airport.

Now, if flying were an optional part of my life, the story might end there.  But when your husband’s entire family lives on the opposite coast of the Continental United States of America, it’s hard to avoid the airport.

Hard, but not impossible… for a time.  I did manage to avoid it for almost two years.  My husband’s family came to us, and we tried to pretend that the charms of Los Angeles (like the beach along Highway 1, the smell of flowers in the winter, and good Salvadorian food) didn’t exist.  It worked until two weeks before Christmas this past year.

For two years we fooled ourselves, but then the stars aligned and I was sunk.

My husband’s brother, whom we love, bought a spacious house but did not yet have housemates.  On the other coast, we had a full house and could no longer host his parents for their January visit.   They offered to pay for our flights instead.  I checked the computer, and (darn it) found reasonable fares.  We booked the tickets, and pulled the suitcases out from under the bed.

I tried to breathe.

I busied myself with packing and presents.  I went to the gym, and ran my nervousness into the ground.  I talked to friends.  I dug out a lonely bottle of anti-panic pills (prescribed by the world’s best psychiatrist a year earlier) and tucked them away just in case.  I ran and talked and packed some more.  And then, just before we left, I enlisted the prayers of every praying person that I knew.  And they did pray.  I know this because of the way things turned out.

Things turned out, as they often do when people pray, in a very hard-but-beautiful way.

I began by passing out.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I began by finding us a ride to the airport, and intentionally asked someone I was very comfortable with.  Someone friendly, funny, encouraging; someone who you would actually want to spend time with at 4:30 in the morning when you feel like you want to throw up.  He said yes to the 4:30 drive, and this was a miracle.

And so we were on our way.

Now, I am a bit stubborn about taking medicine for my mental health.  I think of it as a last resort, but never quite get to the point when I see myself as that desperate… well, until I am practically past the point of desperation.  On this particular morning, I put off taking the little blue pill until we were about 1 minute from the airport.  This was unwise.

Panic attacks are no joke, and I have found them to be somewhat different from anxiety.  Generally, anxiety is something that you cooperate or do not cooperate with.  It is usually possible to change the way you are thinking, change your environment, or distract yourself.  There are some choices along the way.  But when anxiety grows to the point of panic, your own control diminishes.  Here’s how it was for me as soon as we pulled off the highway to the airport… BAM.   I had been talking to our friend, I was doing okay… BAM.  Heat rushed through my body, dizziness spun me around and I passed out.  BAM.  It was like the green airport sign tackled me.

That part was quick, perhaps only a few seconds.  When I stumbled out of the van my husband didn’t even know that I had fainted.  I sat on the suitcases, gasping for breath.  “Are you okay?”  “No.”  “Honey?” “I don’t think I can do this.”  But then… but then… the blessed medicine kicked in.  I was still aware of everything, still a bit shaken up, but all of a sudden the panicking part of my brain dis-attached itself.  “Alright,” I stood up, “let’s do this.”

And we did.  The next part of the story is mercifully boring.  Tickets, security, waiting, boarding.  No panic, no problem.  We settled into the plane and smiled noncommittally to our seatmates.  The woman in our row returned my smile warmly.  After takeoff I commented on her book, and we began talking.  We discovered that we were both young mothers and committed Christians.  Somewhere over Illinois I mentioned that I had experienced some trepidation in regard to aviation (speaking in code because I didn’t want my daughter to understand… the last thing I want her to know is that someone could be afraid of flying), and she smiled even more broadly.

It turns out that my seatmate was a mental health counselor, currently studying anxiety and panic.  She was also from a family of pilots.

I am not making this up.

We talked in code for the rest of the flight.  She listened to my concerns, gave me some tips on calming down (some of which I used with success on our extremely bumpy return flight two weeks later), and shared some stories of flying in small planes with her family.  “Really,” she said with convincing sincerity, “I know that you’ve heard horror stories, but you have no idea how safe flying is.”

Maybe.  I don’t know.  It is hard to let go of fear that you have nurtured for so long, and the horror stories are rather, well,  horrible.  I don’t know what will happen during future flights.  Then again, I don’t know what will happen during future moments when I have my feet firmly planted on the ground.  Life at 30,000 feet is a risk.  Life at zero feet is a risk.  Ultimately, it’s not under my control.  I’m not a big fan of being out of control, and I probably never will be.


Here is something that comforts me:  Though I do not have control, I have help.  Help from a darn good psychiatrist, help from friends who will get up at 4:30 a.m., help from friends who pray, and help from Somone who responded to these prayers by sending me a kind-Christian-young-mother-mental-health-professional-from-a-family-of-pilots.

Really.  We were flying on Southwest.  I could have sat anywhere.


Why You Need to Do a Triathlon. Yes, you.

Recruiting?  Yes, I am.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who believed that she was not an athlete.  She went to a very big high school where the naturally athletic, the coordinated, and those-who-had-been-playing-their-sport-since-age-three rose to the top and stayed there.  They were the athletes.  She was good at algebra.

The little girl grew up and had two little girls.  For the sake of her mental sanity, she started going to the gym.  She ran a mile on the treadmill and it wasn’t horrible.  She hurt her back (while picking up the little girls who were getting bigger) and had to start swimming.  She got bored easily, and so she started running and then swimming in one work-out.  Sometimes she read books on the stationary bike because running was too bumpy for reading.  One day she was so bored that she ran a mile, biked for 10 minutes, and then swam some laps.

“Oh”, she thought, “I just did a triathlon.”

Something rung in her mind.  Didn’t Pittsburgh have a triathlon?  Hmm… she had done a few short running races by this point, and knew that she was motivated by a date and a goal.  She also knew that she liked to get free t-shirts.  She looked it up on the internet.

(I’ll save you some time here:  http://www.piranha-sports.com/Race266.aspx )

And then she learned about the greatest thing of all: Sprint Triathlons.  Ignoring the implications of the word ‘sprint’, she checked the distances.  600 meter swim.  That’s about a third of a mile.  20K bike.  That seemed long, but half of it was joyously downhill.  5K run.  She had run 5Ks.



The little grown-up girl finished the race!  Here I am running toward my own personal paparazzi.


This picture was followed by one of the greatest moments of my life in which my daughter ran out into the course, and hugged me just before I crossed the finish line.IMG_5817

It still makes me tear up a little.


But enough about me.  Back to you.  Why do you need to do this?  Five reasons:

1) Training for a triathlon provides automatic cross-training.  Cross-training=good (especially when you’re in your thirties or older).

2) Training for a triathlon is less boring than training for a really long running race.  Well, unless you really like running.  I don’t particularly.

3)  If you do it in Pittsburgh, you get to fly down the 279 HOV lane on a bike.  This is really really cool.  And swimming in the Allegheny River isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

4)  You don’t really have to sprint a ‘sprint triathlon.’  I prefer to call it a ‘beginner triathlon.’  I’m not the only one.

5)  Aforementioned free t-shirt

Are you convinced?


How Having Children Ruined my Life

It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.

I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women.  A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words.  Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members.  We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,

“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”

There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur.  I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”

I disagreed and tried to explain.  ”No, I mean ruined.”  ”Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it.  Really, I wouldn’t.”  I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air.  A dear friend gave me a sharp look.  ”I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”

And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’


Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme.  And no, I’ve never said that to my kids.  It’s just that ‘changed’  isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings.  There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child.  It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children.  They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.

They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess.  And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.


I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor.  Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time:  Having a baby is like moving to another country.

Having a baby is like moving to another country.

First, the preparations.  You study the guidebooks.  Ask friends who have been there about their experiences.  Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need.  Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like.  Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!

And then you’re in the air, on your way.  It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down.  Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby.  Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.

And good luck learning the language.

There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder.  Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go.  Everything changes.  It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting.  Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.

And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt.  You grow.  You learn the language.  You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land.  People visit you and you are proud to show them around.  There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real.  The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.

Everything is different, and so are you.

And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life?  Of course it did.  You can never go back to where and who you were before.  But would you ever want to?  Perhaps at some moments.  Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult.  But overall?  Would you ever want to go back?


We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days.  She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop.  My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.

Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again.  I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call.  Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.

When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her.  She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together.  We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  And she isn’t out of the woods yet.  Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up.  I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again.  But then she will snuggle into my chest.  She will say Mama.  At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again.  We will laugh together.

And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.