Long Days and Short Years

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


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Be Small and Love Big {Part Two: Christmas Letter Aftermath}

How do you count your life?

Big, small, meaningful, wasted, successful, incomplete?  How do the days add up?  How do you add up?

Do you ever wonder?  I do, and though I finished Part One with a nod toward meaning found in daily acts of love, I am unsteady here.  I sway when I consider that my part-time job pays less in a whole month than my husband makes in a single real estate transaction (which isn’t even his main job).  I waver when my friends get promotions in jobs that they actually went to school to do.  I topple when the Christmas letters come and I learn that someone else’s preschooler is reading better than my kindergartner.    Or that they ran marathons.  Or teach Pilates.  Or just published their dissertation.

(You all know who you are.)

I sway, waver and topple; and though I tell myself that my own life has meaning that can’t be quantified, sometimes I feel like an over-indulgent parent complimenting a four-year old’s scribbling.  “Oh, honey, it’s beautiful… what a nice, uh, nice, uh…”  “Pegasus, Mama, it’s a yellow Pegasus with rainbow wings.”  “Oh, of course.  Let’s put it on the fridge.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life is really worthy of the fridge.

****

How do you count your life?  Here is the easiest way to count most things: numbers.  Let’s talk annual income, weight loss, or likes on facebook.  How about debt, doughnuts eaten, or hours wasted in whatever way you like to waste hours?  How do the numbers add up?  It’s like a word problem on a standardized test, “If Suzie spends two hours watching Downton Abby (which, if you’re wondering, is a positive value), works for six hours at twelve dollars an hour, and cycles three miles home; did she have a good day?”  “If Bill owes twenty thousand dollars in school loans, makes thirty thousand dollars a year, and just lost ten pounds; is he having a good life?”

Yes, I know that I’m being ridiculous.  Of course, you can’t count a life by numbers any more than you can compare one life to another.  But isn’t this our fallback position?  Isn’t it at least a temptation when you find yourself unemployed or overweight or in debt over your little graying head?  Or conversely, don’t we have a subconscious sense of security when the numbers add up in our favor?  Isn’t this why I’m obsessed with exactly how many miles I ran?

If life doesn’t add up in numbers, how am I supposed to know how I’m doing?

And now that I’ve said it, I can tell:  this is exactly the wrong question.  I ask it as if life is something to be earned, deserved or proven.  But when I sit here, when I fall into this place and wallow in it, I know:  I’ve gotten everything backwards.

****

Ann Voskamp spelled it out for me the other day on her blog, the blunt force of her words cutting through my hazy patterns.  “Doxology or drown.  Decide.”  We either live a life of thankfulness (doxology), or we will quickly find ourselves in over our heads (drown).

Doxology or drown.  Decide.

When I read this, I felt physically shaken.  It’s no wonder.  She was pulling up the roots of my assumptions.

Life is not an accomplishment(yank), but a gift.

Life is not something to be evaluated(pull), but something to be received.

Yes, yes, I knew all this.  In my head.  But do I really know it?  Do I live it?  How deep does it go?

I entitled this pair of posts “Be Small and Love Big” not knowing precisely what I meant.  I still don’t.  But it’s a place to begin.  Be small.  Doxology begins with the small, with noticing how the raindrops slide down the electrical wires (thank you).  With hearing a child downstairs whisper much too loudly, “Go away.  I’m hiding” (thank you).  With feeling the tap of computer keys as words come and another blog post goes out (thank you).  Another new morning.  Another list of responsibilities.  Another influx of blessings.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Doxology begins with receiving each small piece of your life.

Noticing.  Receiving.  Saying thank you.  Again and again.

It’s another way of counting life, and I have decided to give it a try.

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Be Small and Love Big {Part One}

My first clue came from the lips of an animated cucumber.

It was October, and my feelings of restlessness had been building for months.  In May, I completed one year of blogging–an experiment in writing for someone other than my college professors.  The feedback was encouraging, and the sense of doom attached to the blue “Publish” button diminished. Perhaps most critically, I was enjoying the process–the sorting through of thoughts and experiences, the release of stories into cyberspace, and the conversations that followed.

It was going well, but with the initial experiment complete, I began to question.  What was next?  Did I need to experiment with another kind of writing, another format?  Did my blog need more focus as a parenting blog or a life-in-the-city blog or…?  Was I ready to take this to the next level and be a more disciplined writer?   What would that even look like with a preschooler and a part-time job?  Why in the world was I even writing at all?  What did it all mean?

(Inner turmoil is one of my special gifts.)

And then one day, the animated cucumber spoke.  I was putting in a Veggietales video for my kids, and using the remote to skip though the previews (as parents must do every single time we put in a DVD, and always with different buttons–why can’t this be a standard ‘menu’ function?).  Anyway.  I only gave the cucumber about 2 seconds to speak before I passed by his vegetable version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it was long enough to hear him say this:

“I want to live a Big Life.”

I want to live a Big Life.  My finger kept clicking, the video began, but the phrase ran though me.  I walked into the kitchen.  I want to live a Big Life.  I started sorting the dishes.  A Big Life.  

There it was.  With this phrase something fell into place.  This is what had been bothering me.  I want to live a Big Life.

And my actual life is so very small.

***

My actual life, perhaps like yours, is full of life-altering decisions like whether or not to buy string cheese.  Or new snow boots.  Or the inane beeping princess toy that makes me want to hide in the bathroom.

But Mama, it’s the only toy I ever wanted in my whole life.

My days are dictated by emergencies like stomach viruses, head lice, and missing the school bus.  Should I make a doctor’s appointment this time?  Is it ethical to give children tylenol just so they’ll go back to sleep?  Do I really need to take another day off work?  Why can’t you just get your darn coat on the first time I ask you?

On and on and on.

Do you ever go to bed at night, utterly spent and exhausted, and wonder what in the world you did that day?  Life can seem so full, and yet, so very very small.

After all, you and I are two of 7 billion people on this planet.  That makes us objectively (no inner turmoil required on this one) minuscule.  Tiny.  We feel small because we are small.  And though we are among the most privileged people in the world (Are you reading these words?  Congratulations, you’re literate and have access to a computer), this doesn’t necessarily translate into significance.  Sometimes it’s even worse to have a bit of privilege, because we feel that we ought to have made something big out of our lives.

Did I really get a Master’s degree to do laundry all day?

But what about the people who are living the Big Lives: celebrities, athletes, politicians, published authors, CEOs and various professionals at the top of their fields?  I suspect that this sense of smallness doesn’t go away with a list of accomplishments or a position of power.  There is always more; there is always the next thing.  Ambition is never satiated.

And even if, for the sake of argument, these super-people feel as Big as they seem, how many are we talking about?   Ten million people?  Perhaps a hundred million?  Should we count their proud parents and grandparents?  Even with all this, we’re only talking about a tenth of the world’s population.

This makes living a small life the norm.

And this makes me wonder if we’ve got the whole thing upside-down.

What if it is the small things, the small acts, and the small lives that really matter?

****

In my favorite C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce (which has nothing to do with marriage), a man is taking a ‘tour’ of heaven when he sees an unbearably beautiful woman accompanied by procession of people, animals and angels.  Amazed, he wonders aloud,

‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘Its someone ye’ll never have heard of.  Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green,”

‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye.  She is one of the great ones.  Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’

The guide goes on to explain the woman’s greatness.  She cared for the people and animals she encountered.  She loved them so well that, in turn, each was able to love the people and animals they encountered better after meeting her.   ‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further.  Who knows where it will end?  Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.  But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’

And I wonder.

What does it really mean to live a Big Life?


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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.


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When I Grow Up

Do you ever feel like you’re lost in your own life?

It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet.  Buried in piles of laundry and dishes–piles endlessly mocking my small efforts by their ability to reproduce–I bowed my head.  There were other weights too.   My latest submission to a magazine had been ignored, I had decided not to interview for my “perfect job” because of the time commitment, and the preschool tuition bills were just over the horizon.  With my husband’s salary we could get by–barely–but here I was, an able-bodied person with lots of school debt and no career to show for it.

I groaned, sitting at the kitchen counter, watching my housemate balance a tower of plastic bowls.  “I just don’t know,” I complained, “what I’m going to be when I grow up.”  He smiled sympathetically.

Later I wondered at my own comment.  What in the world did that have to do with anything?  Weren’t all the grown-up responsibilities that surrounded me proof enough of my grown-up-ness?  What more was I looking for?

“Business cards,” I decided, “Business cards that I didn’t pay for, a whole bunch of them in a box with some organization’s logo on them.  And a paycheck, not too big, but enough at least to cover my school loan payments.  Business lunches, conferences, maybe a title…”

I had to stop myself before I started stealing the company pens in my mind.

Of course, at some point I checked my own shallowness.  Being a grown-up has to do with having your name on cardstock rectangles?  Could it really be all about money or titles or expense accounts?  I don’t believe this to be true, so why was I doubting myself?  It’s almost as bad as saying that in order to be a grown-up you have to buy a house, get married, and have kids (would anyone like to argue that Mother Theresa wasn’t a grown-up?).

After all, there is no way I would judge my friends in the same way.  Many, many of them have followed non-linear career paths, just trying to find their way.  Some of found extremely linear career paths but are without the house-spouse-kid credentials.  Some have lost jobs, some are divorced, some are single parents… the list of life’s complications goes on and on.  Would I consider them “not yet grown up?”  No way.

So what does it mean to be a grown-up?  I’m not even sure that this is a helpful question.  How about–Congrats Jen, you’re over 18.  Now what kind of grown-up will you be?  Cause as I consider many of my fellow grown-ups, I realize that their maturity has very little to do with their net worth or the picture on their Christmas postcard.

The most-grown-up grown ups I know are wise, humble, compassionate, and a pleasure to be around.  They actually listen when you talk to them, even if you are not yet a grown-up.  They have a sense of humor about themselves, and try to help when they can.  They have not become these things through a degree program (though some have degrees).  It is not their “career” to be wise and humble (though some have been shaped in the midst of their jobs).  Having kids didn’t push them over the line (though it really helps with having a sense of humor about oneself).

These people, the ones I would like to emulate, have simply grown up a bit more every day.  They are grown-ups in a very active sense, “the growing-up ones”, verbs instead of nouns.  They haven’t arrived, and would probably laugh at the thought.  If they have business cards, they just don’t take them too seriously.  And if they don’t, like me, they don’t take that too seriously either.

Besides, I’ve heard that laundry is very good for character-building.