Forgiveness Is Not the Way Forward

I am relieved that Trump will be leaving office, but I am genuinely despondent that the majority of white Christians voted for Trump again, even after all the racist dog whistles and his bastardization of the Christian faith. We seemed to have learned nothing from this summer of visible and violent racism. Instead we are ready to “seek unity” and be embraced kindly across the aisle now that the so-called “Christian” candidate is no longer in power.

I am writing this out for me and for those of you who recognize Trumpism as the idol it is, who are trying to figure out how to love one’s enemy and protect the vulnerable at the same time, who are confused of what to make of these calls for unity and forgiveness. I am absolutely not interested in debating the nature of Trumpism.

The same Christians who raised up whole generations to fight a culture war in the political arena in Christ’s name are the same Christians now saying, “Let’s not talk about racism. Just preach the gospel.”

The same Christians who said that anyone who doesn’t support Trump aren’t true Christians are the same Christians now saying, “Let’s not let politics divide the church.”

The same Christians who compromised truth, decency, and compassion to aggressively advance white Christian nationalism in the name of “taking back America” and “religious liberty” are the same Christians now saying, “Don’t put your trust in princes. God is on the throne.”

This is spiritual gaslighting. Donald Trump’s presidency exposed how pervasive the rot of white Christian nationalism is in the church. We all saw it with our own two eyes. Let’s hold each other accountable and allow the chastening of the Holy Spirit to convict and transform us so that the marginalized don’t have to suffer AGAIN while those of us with political power learn our lesson.

Unity comes through repentance. We absolutely must seek the good of everyone rather than seeking to dunk on them or destroy them. We are about the work of redemption, not vengeance. Besides, we are all on the hook here: American Christianity has been so shaped by white supremacy and nationalism that the work of repentance is ours to share. We are indeed all in danger of becoming what we profess we hate.

None of us are worthy to throw stones, but let’s not pretend that the issues we fought over these past four years were just abstract ideological skirmishes and not clashes that harmed real people in real ways. Our energy should not go towards shaming and tearing down Trump supporters, but neither should it go toward smoothing over disagreements with those who enabled harm in Jesus’ name. Our energy belongs to healing those who were actually harmed and preventing further harm. The white American church has a serious issue of using forgiveness and unity to cover for abusers and oppressors.

White Christians are not the persecuted minority in danger of extinction, the victims needing reassurance and protection. We are the powerful majority who have intentionally and unintentionally caused or enabled harm toward those with less political and spiritual power, and the message we need to hear is not to forgive, but to REPENT.

Why then have these people turned away?
    Why does Jerusalem always turn away?
They cling to deceit;
    they refuse to return.
I have listened attentively,
    but they do not say what is right.
None of them repent of their wickedness,
    saying, “What have I done?”
Each pursues their own course
    like a horse charging into battle.
Even the stork in the sky
    knows her appointed seasons,
and the dove, the swift and the thrush
    observe the time of their migration.
But my people do not know
    the requirements of the Lord.

Jeremiah 8:5-7

How to Naturally Dye a T-Shirt (Or, a Great Plug for My Laundry Detergent)

img_20200426_134131798

There are so many great reasons to choose natural dye. It’s cheap, it’s ecologically friendly, and it’s likely sitting in your kitchen as we speak. Since your husband won’t let you dye your living room’s white curtains, let’s dye a boring white t-shirt, the third white t-shirt in your wardrobe, the one that you exclusively wear under your spaghetti strap jumpsuit to make it work-appropriate. Let’s dye it a warm cappuccino brown using — of course — coffee!

First, gather all your materials: a white t-shirt (preferably 100% cotton, though in a pinch, 48% cotton, 4% spandex, and 48% modal works too); coffee; distilled white vinegar; a bucket; and a wooden spoon.

img_20200426_113731410_hdr

Step One. Soak a clean white t-shirt in the bucket of water + a cup of vinegar for two hours. (One hour is for the actual soaking, the other hour is for the inevitable distractions of lunch, children, and not being able to find your FREAKING SHOES THAT YOU’RE FREAKING SURE YOU PUT IN THAT FREAKING TOTE PUSHED INTO THE BACK OF THE UPSTAIRS CLOSET, SO WHERE THE HECK ARE THEY?!)

img_20200426_114117443

Step Two. Brew 10 cups of coffee. I highly recommend Folger’s Breakfast Blend (shamefully, they are not paying me anything for this plug) — just because it’s almost as cheap as Meijer brand’s, but better-tasting; by which I mean very little, because I drink coffee only as a vehicle for coffee creamer.

img_20200426_131706475

Step Three. Soak your t-shirt in the bucket of hot coffee until you’ve reached the desired color, stirring occasionally. (Some friendly advice: Don’t soak it outside if you’re concerned about stepping on yellow jackets or fishing out tiny flies, both of which the coffee will attract. Also, do not breastfeed during this time without a toddler wrangler on hand, unless you enjoy sitting helplessly by while your two-year-old plunges his sleeves into the coffee to “help.”) For our beautiful cappuccino color, the Pinterest link recommends a 10 minute soak.

img_20200426_134811396
(I found my shoes.)

Step Four. Add 10 more minutes to that, because you’re pretty sure you’re still in that undesirable “sandy beige” range.

Step Five. Add, like, an hour, because those 10 minutes didn’t seem to move the needle on the yummy warm brown color dial.

Step Six. Wonder, “Is this the same color as the past hour and twenty minutes, or do I detect a bit more cappuccino and a bit less beige?”

Step Seven. Just resign yourself to stirring this concoction indefinitely.

Step Eight. Further resign yourself to whatever color you’d call this thing you’ve soaked for six hours.

Step Nine. Rinse in cold water. (Wow, that’s…that’s a lot of color gone. Looking more like how I take my coffee. See disturbing amount of creamer above.)

Step Ten. Wash — WASH?! — alone in hot water (HOT?!) with detergent (???).

Step Eleven. Okay. You’ve barely taken me this far, Pinterest. I’ll continue to misplace my trust in you for one more step. It’s not like my detergent cleans as well as Tide, anyway.

Step Twelve. Pinterest LIES.

Do you hear me?

LIES.

Pinterest does not operate according to the rules of the universe by which we mere mortals must abide. Oh, no. It is a fantasyland of probable impossibilities that suck up weekends and spit out our hopes.

Step Thirteen. LOOK AT THIS.

img_20200426_184020641

Step Fourteen. LOOK AT THIS.

img_20200426_184354445

Step Fifteen. LOOK. AT. THIS.

img_20200426_191902039

Is this a cappuccino color? NO. This is DIRTY DISHRAG color. SWEAT-CRUSTED DINGY UNDERSHIRT color. SPILLED ALL TEN CUPS OF COFFEE I NEED TO SURVIVE THE DAY AND TRIED TO WASH IT OUT color.

In what world would hot water and detergent not wash out six hours of a tepid coffee soak? Why did I trust you, Pinterest? Why do I do this to myself? Is this a fun little ten minute save-the-earth-and-some-of-your-cash project? NO. IT. IS. NOT.

Step Sixteen. Yell, “I DO NOT DESERVE THIS KIND OF FAILURE” at your husband, whose weekend project of turning a tossed-out TV cabinet into a mud kitchen is going quite splendidly. (Husbands, your step one is to say this: “I’m sure you can figure it out!” in a very encouraging way that also strongly hints that you are in no way willing to enter this Pinterest catastrophe.)

Step Seventeen. Boil 10 cups of coffee.

img_20200426_191952405

Step Eighteen. Simmer dye bath on the stove for an hour.

img_20200426_192806199

Step Nineteen. Throw in some amount of salt halfway through because a random article suggested it.

Step Twenty. Rinse in cold water. Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. What devilry is this? A cappuccino color that stays cappuccino upon rinsing??

Step Twenty-One. Better simmer it for another hour, just to be sure.

Step Twenty-Two. Better add some more coffee, just to stay on the safe side.

Step Twenty-Three. And maybe some more salt. Because why not?

Step Twenty-Four. Rinse in cold water, wash on cold, and………………………………………………………………

img_20200429_123220636

Step Twenty-Five. Accept defeat.

Welp. It looks like cappuccino…if you took cappuccino…and washed it thoroughly in Seventh Generation Free and Clear laundry detergent.

So there you have it. Buy Seventh Generation Free and Clear. It works swell on coffee stains.

Listening to Your Gut When You’ve Got Really Loud Anxiety

belle-hunt-yUVQyTQrJhY-unsplash

I struggle with social anxiety. A lot.

When I was a young teenager, I attended a fabulous princess birthday party. As part of the royal treatment, fellow homeschool boys had been recruited to play butlers. One of their jobs was fetching our drinks. At a snap of a finger (or really, a breezy, “Brent, could you refill my glass, please?”) they would happily ladle in some sherbet-colored punch.

This was a nightmarish situation for me.

For one, boys. I was intimidated by boys my age for a variety of incomprehensible reasons that left me in a sweat. For two, inconveniencing people. I could get my punch by myself. I felt uncomfortable being served. Those boys (sharp inhale) probably hated the very idea of cutting their male banter short to serve some punch to an ugly dork like me. (I wasn’t even wearing a prom dress like the other beautiful, sparsely-pimpled girls.) For three, cutting into their male banter. I was (and am) terrible at grabbing people’s attention. It required speaking up. Inserting myself. Making myself seen and heard. Demanding that I be seen and heard, requiring them to dedicate five seconds of their life to ladling punch for me in the middle of their butler-y conversations.

I couldn’t handle any of that.

So I went the whole long party without anything to drink. For some reason, I was exceptionally, dangerously thirsty upon arrival…and I remained so the entire evening. I kept looking for a chance to sneak over to the punch bowl and serve myself, but there was always a crowd of bantering butlers lounging around the counter.

I was beside myself with thirst and anxiety.

And that was pretty much how a decent chunk of my teenage years went. And my college years. And my adult years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am felled by such tricky social situations like,

walking around the block multiple times when someone on North Orchard Street is sitting on their porch and might think badly of me for doing so;

coming back for seconds of fruit and crackers at church coffee hour because someone might think I am a glutton; 

or — and this is a tough one —

driving so slowly on the highway at 15 miles over the speed limit that I hold up and inconvenience all the pickup truck dudes who want to go 30 miles over the speed limit.

Do you want to know what my top three anxieties were about giving birth?

(1) At what point do I take my underwear off, and what if I accidentally take it off at the wrong time and people think I’m a slutty weirdo?

(2) Should I bother shaving my winter-hairy legs for childbirth, because hairy legs will probably personally offend the female attendants?

(3) What if I don’t make it to the hospital in time to get an epidural?

Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it to the hospital in time to get an epidural. You want to know why? Because I felt like a silly, uninformed, overthinking wimp about calling the midwife again over whether my contractions were serious enough to come into the hospital. I was so worried I would come to the hospital too early, embarrassing myself and inconveniencing everyone.

My social anxiety led me to almost give birth in the car in rush hour traffic.

The first time I gave birth, I apologized profusely for being in pain. The second time, I was in too much pain to apologize for screaming like a second-rate actor in a medical drama, so my social anxiety had to take a horrified back seat.

It’s really fun being me.

For me, an anxiety flare feels like someone slapped a blindfold over my eyes and yanked it tight. I am blinded and disoriented. I lose all perspective, lose all sense of where the facts and beliefs and thoughts I once had perfectly lined up and ready to go fit together. Depending on the situation, I freeze or fawn. I make myself as inconspicuous, innocuous, and innocent as I can. This is a powerful internal gut response.

And because it’s so overpowering, automatic, and deep-set, I despaired of ever following that oft-touted advice to trust your gut — because my gut reactions usually ended up making everything a whole lot worse for me.

Social anxiety isn’t the greatest at helping you achieve what you want out of life, set boundaries, protect yourself and your kids, or make difficult decisions.

I stuck with making columns of pros and cons, keeping everything as rational and unemotional as possible. The problem was that at the end of the lists and charts and rational arguments, I still needed the courage to implement my decision. Now that I’m older, I know what I believe and want. It’s not a question of what to do. It’s a question of doing it. And even if a decision needed a little pondering, it needed to be done in a reaction time shorter than a whole week of agonizing: no, I’m not going to laugh at that sexist joke to smooth over the social awkwardness; hey, my kid is clearly uncomfortable with you picking him up right now; yes, I’m going to take two kinds of treats at the church coffee hour. 

But I still experience these social dilemmas as a question of what to do. “I don’t know what to do!” I wail at my confidants, after an agonized rambling that, summed up, is, Life is complicated and uncertain but still demands a decision.

At this point, presented with several good, rational options with different outcomes, I am usually advised to “go with what you think is best,” “listen to your gut,” “you do you” — something that assumes I’ve got some sort of guiding principle that’s not my hilariously irrational and self-destructive anxiety.

After some years of adulting, I have learned that I do indeed have an internal guiding principle that’s quite wise, calm, and decisive. It’s the part of me that holds me back from leaping headlong into my anxious impulses, the part that holds the other end of the rope during the back-and-forth tug-o-war about what to do in a tricky situation. I just need to clear the anxiety long enough to hear what that part of me has to say, to feel the force of its calm rationality long enough to do what I know I should do.

And for that, I’ve started asking myself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid of what other people would think?”

Usually, my confusion and disorientation is not because I don’t know what I want to do. It’s precisely because I do know what I want to do, and I know that it does (or might) cause another person to react in a negative way. This one question clears the air for a bit. It reframes the issue as not what to do but how to work up the courage to do it. It halts my dithering about in despair and sets me on a clear (if extremely uncomfortable) course.

And if I don’t know exactly what to do, if I’ve lost sight of key facts or beliefs, that question filters out the anxiety enough for me to regroup and regain perspective.

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid of what people would think?

For starters, I would ask for a glass of punch.

Yes, Christian Americans: Jesus Wants You to Sacrifice Your Liberties

grant-whitty-OZxaBI0jYwo-unsplash

Hosanna, I was reminded on Palm Sunday, doesn’t mean hooray! It means Please save us.

I forget this, because the Palm Sunday processional is such fun. We’re bouncing on our toes to keep warm as we wait outside the church. (It’s always miserable weather on Palm Sunday…except for this one time we’re all stuck at home in quarantine.) Our deacon is double-checking to make sure everyone’s got an oversized palm branch — and take a folded palm cross. Or two. Then we get the signal, and everyone starts marching or sashaying or traipsing around the parking lot, over the grass, across the sidewalk, awkwardly waving palm branches and sometimes ironically calling, “Hosanna!” while drivers gape at us from their cars. I’m always smiling, laughing, because I want to let loose, but my social anxiety keeps me in check. We’re back at the church again. The red double doors are flung open, and the organ floods the building with “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” We’re belting out not-so-sweet hosannas as we process into church.

Palm Sunday is a happy time.

But hosanna, while hopeful, isn’t necessarily happy.

Please save us.

Holy Week started a day before the surgeon general announces that this week may be the “saddest day of most Americans’ lives” — the week COVID-19 is expected to reveal itself in overrun hospitals and countless deaths.

Lord, have mercy.

I can’t get over how the worst projected week of COVID-19 is occurring simultaneously with Holy Week. No need to imagine the roller coaster of emotions Holy Week’s original participants felt: we’re all hiding in our homes, burdened with whatever suffering or stress quarantine brings, waiting for the all clear to return to normal…or grieving losses that have forever changed our normal. We’re waiting for resurrection, for healing. We’re devastated yet hopeful.

Nor can I get over what a perfect opportunity this is for those of us who are healthy and financially secure to sacrifice our lives for the needy, just as Christ did. He used his divinity to enter into our suffering, to suffer with and for us, forever bridging the divine and the human. He emptied himself of all that he deserved that we might have abundant life.

As Palm Sunday’s epistle reading said,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. // Philippians 2:5-8

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but also the interests of others,” Paul concludes (v. 4).

This pandemic gave me a new way of looking at this passage.

In the evangelical world, there’s a lot of respect for Christians who risk their physical lives for proselytizing, leading churches, or circulating Bibles in anti-Christian countries. I used to fret about whether I’d have the sort of faith to lay down my life for Jesus like that.

It also seems easy for Christians to recognize the Christ-like sacrifice of those who risk their life for another’s — the mother with health problems who carries her baby to term, the Italian priest who gave up his ventilator for a younger patient, the parents who threw themselves in front of their baby during a mass shooting, the soldiers who go off to war for our freedom. When it comes to literally following Christ’s example — literally laying down one’s life in extraordinary circumstances — Christians have no problem.

But when we American Christians are asked to give up other rights and possessions, to empty ourselves out for our neighbor in merely life-altering ways, to be of the same sacrificial mind as Christ during everyday life…well, this pandemic highlights how unwilling many of us are to follow Christ’s footsteps.

I see a lot of Christians balking at requests to restrict their movement out of concern for others’ safety. Healthy individuals are still meeting up in large groups, some defiantly, on purpose, just to stick it to the libs or to Trump’s federal guidelines. Many, not seeing anyone they love sick or dying, find it reasonable to risk millions of lives so that their lifestyle and economic prosperity can continue unhindered. Some find it reasonable and heroic that medical personnel should risk their lives in overwhelmed healthcare systems, and that Grandma and Grandpa should be willing to die for their grandchildren’s future economic prosperity.

Again, there’s our odd infatuation with and normalization of people sacrificially dying for others, yet balking at being a living sacrifice for others.

Of course, there’s nuance here. There’s a conversation to be had. It’s prudent, I think, to debate which liberties are necessary to restrict and which hardships are necessary to endure. Suffering needlessly is not a virtue, and it’s true that social distancing has many negative effects on the mental and physical well-being of all Americans. Domestic and child abuse are up, mental illness has been exacerbated, income and job-related healthcare have been lost, and people must work harder to get necessary help and community.

That’s not something to be taken lightly, and I don’t think we should shut down conversations that take seriously both COVID-19 and the negative effects of social distancing, in a bid to work toward the most effective solutions.

And while I disagree to such an extent that I find it paranoid, I do at least understand the fear many conservative Christians have about their religious liberties being taken away. Many genuinely believe the government is using the pandemic as cover to take away constitutional rights. I agree that all constitutional rights should be preserved as fully as possible as long as it doesn’t significantly endanger anyone’s health. Voting should still take place via mail-in ballots (looking at you, my infuriating home state of Wisconsin). Due process for the incarcerated should still be happening via remote court proceedings. The beatings and death threats other authoritarian cultures are employing to ensure social distancing are absolutely unacceptable and unjust. There’s obviously a lot of gray area (and some black and white) about what’s reasonable and what’s oppressive, and we should talk about that.

But while I do see those conversations happening, I’m also seeing brazen defiance toward the very idea of giving up anything meaningful for the sake of neighbor. Christians theoretically willing to lay down their lives to save their neighbors’ souls are completely unwilling to lay down their political right to anything to save their neighbors’ lives.

When it comes to politics (a.k.a., our neighbors’ physical well-being), the mindset of, “This is America; I do what I want” seems to replace that radically rights-emptying mind of Christ. “We’re the church. We do what we want (and cry ‘persecution!’ and ‘government takeover!!!’ when asked to take the same public health steps as everybody else).”

I can’t square this default refusal to even consider sacrificing our liberties and happiness in any circumstance during the week we celebrate Christ showing us that sometimes love transcends life itself. Maybe that’s a faithfully American response, a constitutionally correct response — I don’t know. But when I read my Bible plain the way many claim to, it’s not a remotely Christian attitude. It’s hypocritical to want our Christian values reflected in politics when it comes to protecting our rights, but not want the sacrificial life of Christ reflected also.

How do we protect rights while emulating Christ’s radical, sacrificial life? For me, it comes down to this: Are we asking the weak among us to give up their rights for the strong, or are we asking the strong to give up their rights for the weak? In countries where citizens have few rights or Christians are oppressed, it may indeed an unjust, risky sacrifice to support government-sanctioned lockdowns. I’m not sure, as I don’t live in such a country. I live in America where my rights are enshrined in law and where the people are empowered to protect them. I am a financially secure, healthy, young Christian with access to Zoom Bible studies, services, coffee hours, and prayer meetings. Since I have been given much, it is my Christian duty to take the hit to my life, liberties, and finances when my neighbor is too weak to survive the hit alone.

It’s absolutely anti-Christian to ask the weakest among us — the poor, the elderly, the immunocompromised — to sacrifice their right to live, to the tune of millions, while the financially stable, the healthy, and the young continue on with all of our rights intact and unscathed. It is not oppressive to ask the strong to lay down their lifestyles for the weak.

Again, there’s nuance here too. We are all a mix of strength and weakness. Social distancing affects us all in different ways. Where the social distancing measures are too much for some, we who are strong must sacrifice our desire to live life untroubled by others’ suffering, and give of our time, money, and love.

As people of faith, we can sacrifice these things because we know resurrection is coming. We are not being asked to give up our happiness, liberties, or even life itself forever. It will be restored to us. Yes, I am talking directly about the social distancing measures our states have adopted. Yes, I am talking directly about a spiritual reality that I do hope bears out despite my doubts.

But what I do believe with absolute certainty? This socially distanced Holy Week is an invitation to take our emulation of Christ’s radical love into our political, physical lives.

Jesus, please save us.

Redecorating on a $0 Budget (Featuring My aMaZiNg Photography Skillz)

If you scrolled through my Pinterest boards, you’d think I’m some sort of DIY goddess with a great affinity for decor, a pioneer who’s not afraid to go big and bold with a dark accent wall, an eclectic stylist who collects tons of house plants and meaningful knickknacks (but also super into minimalism).

I mean, that’s the plan, but the reality is I am terrified of DIY projects. And home decorating? The thought of it makes me sweat. It’s an extension of my anxiety around change and decision-making. What if I repaint the ugly dresser and hate it? What if I spend a bunch of money on new furniture and discover it doesn’t give off the vibe I was going for? What if I permanently repurpose something but end up needing it unrepurposed five years down the road?

Plus, I don’t have a good eye for basic coordination, color, and symmetry, much less the envelope-pushing style choices I often pin. Since I place zero confidence in my style skills, it’s tougher to take risks.

BUT, I am actively combating my anxiety-gripped perfectionism, and redecorating is a far more low-key, non-life-changing way to step out of my comfort zone than, like, setting boundaries and speaking up for myself and all those other Important Life Things that require risk, mess, and a failure-riddled learning process.

Creativity is supremely uncomfortable for me because of my anxious perfectionism. I overplan my decorating schemes. I click around the internet for hours looking for exactly what I had in mind, and then never get around to changing anything because, weirdly enough, my precise style isn’t trending, or I find the perfect thing…and it costs way too much money. Then I have to do the dreaded Decision Making Process where I gamble away a bunch of money on something I think I want and then not being able to purchase something else better down the road — or what if it goes on sale in a couple months?! But what if I don’t purchase it and then never achieve the vibe of my dreams? Maybe I should check another website….

Oh, and it’s even worse shopping in person, because the stakes are higher: if I want it, I need to buy it right now because it might not be there after a few weeks of mulling, and I can’t keep popping back and forth amongst local stores to check out my options and price compare, because the kiddos are melting down and the husband is starting to give advice based on how likely it’s going to get him home sooner. And I need real advice.

Doesn’t that sound like a fun way to spend a weekend?

So I have pined the better part of a year away about how boring and ugly my house is, and done absolutely nothing about it. (Except pinning impossible Pinterest dreams.)

Then the heavens opened and suggested some YouTube channels about creating things on the fly, without a precious plan, without too much particular skill. Just people spending a few bucks on something from the thrift store and seeing what happens. In particular, I’ve been watching Mr. Kate’s $300 room makeovers (like this and this one).

Two elements stood out to me, besides the gloriously cheap budget: they shopped at one thrift store, and they did everything in one day. They narrowed their options from ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE INTERNET to one store, they limited what they were doing to one eight hour day, and they further curtailed their choices to stuff under $300. And then they did what they could, within those limits, and they just did them.

Something about those limits freed up what little creativity I had banging around inside my perfectionist little soul. I didn’t need to do the best thing humanly possible — which is what my perfectionism boils down to. I just needed to do the best with what I had.

I hit pause midway through another Mr. Kate episode and just did stuff. My budget? Zero bucks. My store? The junk closets and corners around my home. My time limit? Now until bedtime. 

First up: this sideboard filled with art supplies.

image000000_07

I decluttered all the important papers we’d carefully haphazardly scattered about the horizontal space, then moved the sideboard out of an awkward corner onto a blank wall in our dining room.

image000000_06

I’d found this amazingly weird piece of wood last fall while throwing walnuts into a flooded footpath with my toddlers. The flowers were a gift for my baby’s birth, and since I never remember to water anything living, they dried out on my dresser. For some Wisconsin grit, I stuck in buckthorn branches from the vast dead plant pile taking up our entire back patio. My husband hoards candles that my toddler then scatters about the house, so I gathered three together into a pottery dish that my husband sculpted and painted in high school. The napkin (you know, one of those cloth napkins you register for during those starry-eyed pre-wedding days when you delusionally think you’ll have time to launder cloth napkins after every meal) pulled it all together.

image000000_05

I dug out those mirrors from a Goodwill bag stuffed into a closet. Totally forgot I’d bought them, but now that I stumbled across them again, I realized I’d never put them up because I wanted them a certain color that I would never get around to painting, and thrown up in a gallery wall that has yet to happen. They worked perfectly with the sideboard wood. I didn’t plan to hang them diagonally, but they didn’t have any hangers (???), so I had to hang them from a corner. The nails were already there from the previous owners. Why reinvent the wheel?

Next, this shelf.

img_20200405_004318101
Quick book review: Zoom in on those books and read them all. You’re welcome.

I also rescued this from an awkward corner and a pile of stuff. I wasn’t exactly sure what to put on it, but once I started digging around in my clutter hotspots, I found plenty. Finally I could display our college diplomas. My dried out wedding bouquet sits atop the Book of Common Prayer (a nod to my Christian studies major) and next to the tiny silver beaker my husband insisted on keeping, now a symbol of his chemistry major.

img_20200405_124559470
Four years of liberal arts education did not prepare me to read my cursive Latin diploma.

Our senior year college yearbook was too beautiful not to display, and I just filled in things around it — my husband’s original art, some naked hardbacks, the decanter my husband also insisted on keeping without purpose, and this awesome retro adding machine from (notice a theme?) a box of childhood stuff my husband insisted on keeping. I love adding interactive design elements that my kids can play with and fondly remember….

img_20200405_124621668

I’ve been agonizing over family photos for years now, but I never had the right frames, or the right wall space, or the ideal time to order prints. Now that I was a new and improved person, I just printed a few photos on cardstock and stuck them in frames lying around in a box — nothing precious about it. Are they amazing quality? Nope. Do I like the frames? No. Do I love looking at my loved ones’ faces, as is the primary intent of framing photos? Absolutely!

Oh, and the bottom shelf is reserved for the mountains of library books I check out and never read.

image000000_10

Speaking of books, I wanted to empty our heaving bookshelf and do something minimalist…but after browsing Pinterest, I realized the heaving bookshelf look is an actual style, and I, a lover of books, liked it. Besides, I couldn’t be too fussy about the shelves, because my toddler periodically, um, rearranges things. So I merely played with texture and depth — stacking some books horizontally, embracing the stack that leaned diagonally. Then I pulled out our German china heirlooms that have been languishing unappreciated at the back of our cupboard, and paired them with some dried phlox I rescued from that patio plant pile.

image000000_09

image000000_04
I think Assassin’s Creed pairs well with delicate floral china, don’t you?

Just one last touch: we’ve got so many random furniture pieces strewn about the basement, so I brought one up and put a plant on it.

img_20200405_105006136

There you have it! A midnight redecorating project, completely dollar- and stress-free. We all love the dimension, styling, and meaning these areas bring to our house, and I came away from a few hours of creativity absolutely singing with joy and a sense of accomplishment.

What are you waiting for, my perfectionist people? Go! Be free! Raid your junk closets!

Date Night: Re-reading Childhood Favorites

yoab-anderson-IHC5LPAoGrs-unsplash

There’s nothing quite like the bond of reading and rehashing a book — even a terrible one. Unfortunately, my husband and I aren’t usually on the same page in our personal reading lives. He likes dense books and technical nonfiction, classics and sweeping five-hundred page narratives. He’s been begging me to read a fantasy trilogy for years that I just can’t work up the interest in. I love character-driven modern novels about relationships, different cultures and lifestyles, and self-discovery. I don’t even bother suggesting my favorite books anymore — though I did buy him Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime for Christmas and got him to love it.

The one book I did read on his recommendation was one of his childhood favorites — River Boy, by Tim Bowler. It was not my cup of tea (even though it should have been, being a moody narrative about loss and growing up), but what kept me reading was trying to figure out why this was my husband’s cup of tea. What did middle-school-aged husband see in this story that kept him coming back again?

It’s a unique sort of intimacy, reading your spouse’s childhood favorites, getting a peek at who they were as a kid, and what that might say about them now.

So we started reading our favorites — together. Fortunately, I love reading aloud, and my husband loves being read to. Children’s literature is generally shorter and faster-paced than our adult favorites, making them perfect for those few grown up hours after the toddler goes to bed.

We just finished one of my favorites that I read a million times growing up — Shadow Spinner, by Susan Fletcher, an adventure tale about a girl helping Shahrazad find stories to fill a thousand and one nights. I must have read it during a homeschool history unit on Persia, and the book is filled with lush, sensual descriptions of the bazaar and harem life. I knew my husband would be just as fascinated as I was by this peek into a different time period, culture, and religion.

Now we’re reading Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, another book I’ve read to pieces (literally — I need to dig out some spine-reinforcing packing tape!). It’s already made my husband laugh. There’s something amazing about sharing a book I’ve loved for half my life and seeing my spouse experience it for the first time. (Not as amazing: trying to pronounce all the made-up languages I skipped over when reading to myself….)

Lately, our evenings look like my husband working on his Minecraft world while I read a few chapters aloud…until the baby wakes up. That’s our introverted idea of a great date night!

A Great Tool for Sharing the Mental Load

It used to be more stressful for me to send my husband grocery shopping than simply doing it myself. I’d still be the one coming up with the meal plan, then making the list itself—a long process that involved us texting back and forth on what he needed from the store, writing specific brands and quantities, then verbally reading it out loud to him to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Plus there was the issue of what platform to write and save lists on. I used my phone’s notepad, I printed out Word documents, I wrote with dry erase markers on laminated paper.

A pain.

screenshot_20200321-162551Enter Cozi! It’s a family app the syncs calendars and lists across phones. And it’s done wonders for list making. Instead of texting me a list that I would then transcribe into whatever format I was experimenting with that month, my husband simply inputs items into a shared list as he thinks about them. The list is always in his back pocket if he’s running into Meijer for his own projects—no need for me to debrief him on what our family collectively needs.

Whenever he wants to make a recipe or needs to know the ingredients for a family favorite, he no longer needs me to text him the recipe link (again). All our recipes are stored in the family recipe box. (What, you don’t cook most of your meals from randomly Googled recipes?)

We sync to-do lists too—our own individual lists as well as shared to-dos. Cozi allows us to cross off items without deleting them, which helps us track important things like if I paid the mortgage already. It both eliminates the need for remembering to start that oh, by the way, do we still need to do this thing? conversation and reminds us of things we need to mutually discuss and delegate.

We’re doing just fine with a paper calendar posted in the dining room that we share and discuss, but Cozi offers a shared calendar, and emails out daily, weekly, and/or monthly agendas—a fabulous way to keep appointments, holidays, and events in the forefront of both spouses’ minds.

And did I mention the best part? It’s free!

Are there any other tools you recommend for sharing the mental load?

Need Some Easy Mealtime Inspiration?

rachel-park-hrlvr2ZlUNk-unsplash
This is definitely what my table looks like at every meal. *cough*

I’m always looking for something simple and quick to throw on the table for those days when I don’t have much time or energy to cook. Two mindset shifts have made my cooking life much easier:

1. Decide on what food groups I want to serve in each meal, and plug in foods that meet that requirement. Duh, but I used to think in terms of planning whole meals (quiche on Wednesday, pizza on Friday, etc.) and shopping specifically for those meal only. This is great — unless I’m too busy on Wednesday to make quiche, or I used up the eggs on Monday for an emergency lunch, or the eggs went bad because my meal plan got pushed back half a week. Now what?

Now I don’t shop for individual meals; I shop for a variety of individual components within food groups — nut butter, dairy products, eggs, frozen shredded chicken for protein options; cereal, breads, noodles, rice, farro for whole grain options; dried, frozen, and fresh fruits and veggies for produce options. When meal time rolls around, I mix and match those components to create a variety of meals. This allows me to get creative and use up random things in the pantry, while sticking with familiar recipes.

I’m also a moody eater: quiche might sound great a week ago when I planned it, but I might be feeling egged out when it comes up on the meal plan. Cooking a meal I don’t feel like eating is a bummer, but with this component-style meal planning, I can poll my mood and my family to see what kind of flavors we’d like for dinner.

I haven’t meal planned in over a year, but with this method, we almost always have healthy, varied meals.

2. Eat breakfast for dinner. Or snack for breakfast. Or lunch for snack. The point is, if I’m stumped on what to make for a particular time of day, I borrow inspiration from another mealtime. Run out of pre-made snacks? Scramble an egg, grill a cheese quesadilla, or serve a bowl of cereal. Running short on time for dinner? Make a sandwich, set out cheese and crackers, or throw together a fruit and granola parfait. No motivation to get out of bed and cook breakfast for your hungry kids? Raid the pantry for no-cook snacks: rice cakes with peanut butter, a granola bar with a handful of raisins and an applesauce squeeze, or apple slices with yogurt dip.

P.S. My picky or moody eaters often love breakfast and snack foods, and they’re often easier to modify than full meals without turning us parents into short order cooks.

Want a Good Parenting Day? Lower Your Expectations. Lower. Nope, Even Lower Than That.

hammering golf tees
Via My Baba

Sometimes the worst parenting days are the ones where you’ve got a plan and a positive attitude. You know what I’m talking about? Those days when you’ve finally got enough energy and inspiration to do something fun? Your toddler starts putzing around the house, bored, and instead of flipping on the TV, you say, “Oh! I have an idea! You’ll love this!”

So you set up that activity you’ve had pinned on Pinterest for two years, that one where the kids hammer golf tees into styrofoam. It’s perfect because your toddler loves “booming” things. You don’t have golf tees or styrofoam, so you run around the house looking for nails big enough and blunt enough to be reasonably safe. You can’t find any, so you call your husband for a hint as to where they might be. They’re in the garage, and the hammer’s in there too. You find the nails, but you can’t find the hammer, which is fine, you’re still chipper, because you remember seeing your toddler’s toy hammer somewhere, recently. You’re running around the house checking everywhere you might have last seen it. OH MY GOSH YOU JUST SAW IT WHERE IS IT. It’s under the couch, of course, all the way in the back by the wall, of course, so you whack it out with a broom. You find a cardboard box. There. Ready to go.

The toddler is already dumping the box of nails everywhere. “No, no, no, wait, let me show you how to do it,” you say.

The toddler seems excited. “Boomin’ hammer, Mommy! Boomin’ hammer!”

“Yes! You can boom with the hammer!” You knew he’d love it.

You can’t really hammer the nails in with the plastic hammer, but you discover that if you jam the nail into the cardboard really hard, it’s creates a big enough hole for a toy hammer to make headway.

“Whack it!” you encourage.

Your toddler gives a halfhearted whack.

“That’s it! Keep going! You’re doing it!”

“Mommy do it,” your toddler says.

“No, no, you do it! It’s for you! It’s supposed to be fun!”

“Watch TVs?”

You know. Those days?

Or the days you wake up and feel the urge to deep clean the house or write a blog post or drink all of your coffee while it’s hot — feel the urge in your soul — and every part of the day conspires to make sure you reach only a semblance of that goal with the maximum possible stress and disappointment?

Those are the days I want to hand in my notice to my husband and walk out the door. (That’s how you quit parenthood. Right?)

Life with littles can be so frustrating.

God grant me the serenity to accept the moods I cannot change, and the courage to change the one thing I can — my expectations.

Emily Nagoski, author of the must-read book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, taught me about the brain’s discrepancy reducing feedback loop:

In your brain there is a little monitor, a watcher, who knows: (1) what your goal is, (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal, and (3) how much progress you’re making. And it keeps a ratio of effort to progress.

And it has a very strong opinion about what that ratio should be.

As you encounter obstacle after obstacle in your attempts to entertain your toddler or enjoy a cup of hot coffee, your brain must recalculate how much effort is required and how likely the goal is. This is frustrating for your brain — to continually put effort into something that seems less and less likely. As the goal continues to float out of reach and the required effort piles up, frustration turns to anger. Then there comes that point where the required effort becomes so overwhelming or the feasibility of the goal so unfeasible that your brain just gives up and pitches you into the depths of despair.

I can think of a dozen examples of that psychological process from the past hour alone. Parenting littles, in particular, is rife with failed, delayed, or prolonged attempts at reaching goals. And that’s what often makes up those defeating, rage-inducing, burnt-out days.

But when I understand what is happening in my brain — that it isn’t the day just magically and hopelessly crumbling around me — I can consciously evaluate my effort and my goals. As Nagoski advises, I have three options:

  1. Change the goal.
  2. Change your effort.
  3. Change your expectation about how difficult the goal will be.

For me, in the context of littles, the lesson here is lower my expectations — lower, lower, and lower still. I change goals into either tiny concrete things more within my control or broader goals that allow for whatever happens to happen. And I anticipate that things are likely to go awry. I plan for the worst (or really, the normal) toddler behavior, I lowball my goals and expectations, and I feel that glorious ding ding ding of achievement when I hit those simple goals. If it’s one of those days where I easily meet the bare bones of parenting, I can build up toward loftier goals — like enjoying a hot coffee all the way through.

It feels much better to start humble and grow than crash and burn from aspirational heights.

The other day, I took my kiddos on a walk. I consciously framed it, as I frame almost all walks, as toddler-led. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I planned on going slowly, maybe doubling back, stopping in spots for an absurdly long time. I set the goal as enjoying time in nature with whatever my toddler found interesting. That’s a doable goal, because it accounts for a wide variety of toddler behavior, from getting engrossed in nature to sitting like a rock in the middle of the trail, and it focuses on something I can control — my behavior.

If I was strapped for time, or wanted to get a brisk walk in for exercise, or desired to get to a particular destination, I would buckle the toddler into the stroller and communicate that he wasn’t getting out. I would anticipate some extra steps and maybe some more emotional friction to accomplish that goal — thus changing my expectation for how difficult reaching my goal would be. Since he was walking, though, I knew it’d be a colossal struggle to get him moving in the direction and along the timeline I wanted. So I lowered my expectations and broadened my goal, and we enjoyed a lovely slow, meandering walk that involved a lot of standing in one spot looking at bugs.

Not going to lie: I still got a bit agitated once we hit minute ten of watching the beetle walk around in circles. But I repeated my mantra: Lower your expectations. Lower. Lower still. Accept that this is what today’s toddler-led walk looks like. And God granted me a little more serenity in that acceptance.

Some day, the toddler won’t be a toddler, and can more realistically and reliably meet greater expectations and bigger goals. But for now, the toddler does what toddlers do — and we are all much less frustrated when I meet him where he’s at. Then we both experience success.

Even if I start out with too lofty of goals (silly me, thinking I could brush my teeth before lunchtime), and the day is crashing and burning around me, I can reset goals in hindsight to get myself back on track. My mom taught me this one: When she was a young mom, overwhelmed with how little she had achieved that day, my dad encouraged her to focus on what she had achieved, no matter how small — even if it was just nursing a baby all day. Which is an amazing reframe for me because I do, indeed, spend a great deal of my time sitting and nursing a baby.

Every day, I set my goals super low: feed the kids three meals and one snack a day, change their diapers, put them down for their naps, and respond to their emotional needs as best I can. That’s it. Depending on the day, that seems far too aspirational or far too easy — but it keeps me from migrating toward the despair at the end of my brain’s discrepancy feedback loop. And when I feel positive and successful, it’s a good parenting day — no matter how much I actually accomplish or what craziness actually goes down.

How to Parent When You Don’t Have a Lot to Give

the-honest-company-GMEWjLs5vXU-unsplash

I’ve got a toddler and a newborn, and often their needs conflict in a way that leaves me feeling stretched thin and not enough. Even when there aren’t two voices begging for my attention, and both babies are content, I sometimes feel stretched thin and not enough.

I’m parenting from the couch. All I want to do with any spare time is nap. I haven’t taken my kids outside in a few days. It’s too hard to go on fun outings right now with a baby still learning to breastfeed. I made cereal for breakfast again. My toddler’s been playing from a bunch of scattered toys on the playroom floor instead of the Pinterest activities I will someday set up. He should probably have more playdates. I’m probably depriving him by keeping him at home, but we can’t afford preschool. Have I interacted enough with the baby? She seems thrown in between all my naps and my toddler’s needs. I haven’t got around to doing that infant massage or the baby and mommy yoga video. I should probably start reading to her, or doing something to show I’m invested and interested in her beyond nursing her around the clock while I scroll through Twitter to stay awake.

Scarcity. This is a scarcity mindset. I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough. What I have, what I’m doing, this phase we’re in, it’s not enough — not enough to give my precious children what they need or deserve. I need to serve up and carve out something different, better, extra, more than what’s happening right now.

With my first, I had anxiety that I thought was normal first-time mom stuff at the time, but in anxiety-free hindsight, was a roaring mental health issue. Any time he cried or seemed bored or unhappy or not meeting the emotional equilibrium I thought children of good, attentive parents should, my anxiety latched onto this scarcity mindset, catastrophized it (“He hates me! He’ll grow up stunted! Our attachment is ruined!”), then left me too depressed to engage in the life in front of me.

It’s all adult projection. It’s my own fears about repeating any lack I experienced in my parents’ generation of parenting. It’s my own shame about not keeping up with this generation’s overly abundant parenting — all the things and activities and ways of living and being that are supposed to counteract everything that makes life hard. It’s my own misunderstanding of what children truly need, a focus on the trappings of a good, healthy, connected lifestyle while missing the substance of the good, healthy, connected lifestyle itself.

The trappings are often unattainable. I don’t always have the money or space or energy or time or talent to do many of the trappings of good parenting. I’m tired, and I’m tethered to a newborn’s needs and distracted by a toddler’s. That’s our life right now, and it feels limiting and limited when I compare it to other phases in parenting or other parenting lifestyles made possible by things I don’t have right now (mainly sleep).

But toddlers and newborns aren’t comparing, and they have nothing to compare things to. They don’t know what other parents are doing. They’re not aware of what they could be doing or having. They are perfectly content with the lives in front of them as long as those lives meet their needs. And the main thing they need from me is not to revamp our entire lifestyle or rush out of the current, not-always-awesome parenting stage I’m in, but to join them in that life. To meet them there. To see opportunities of connection in every moment, not just the planned, Pinterest-y ones.

Kids are brilliant and resilient. They can make do with a lack of resources. They engage with what’s in front of them. They can come up with games and worlds and ideas out of almost nothing. They enjoy repetition as much as novelty. They have no reference to interpret our parenting “fails” as anything else but their normal, beloved family life.

But the one thing they can’t make do without is me. They don’t need anything more or different from me; they just need me present and confident in what I currently have to offer — even if it doesn’t seem like much to me. They fill up on what I’m giving and have no idea about what I can’t give.

So I might not be able to give a ton of undivided attention to my newborn, but if I’m changing a diaper, I’m there, talking through it, counting snaps and wiggling toes, naming body parts, making eye contact, kissing bellies. And if there are screams, I’m there too, going slow but forward, empathizing.

I might not be able to muster up anything more for breakfast but cereal again, but if I’m serving cereal, I’m there, making small talk, noting the school bus out the window, or sitting in companionable silence, present and available.

We might be having a rough day where everyone is cranky and the day just won’t end, but if I’m dealing with cranky kids, I’m there with what little my frazzled self can offer — a deep breath, a hug, a kind word, or maybe just the restraint to not shame them for fussing and an apology for if I do.

It might be subzero temps outside with a tight budget that doesn’t allow for many trips to the kids’ museum, but if we’re stuck inside, I’m there with whatever we can do and are doing indoors.

I might be tired and needing to nap more than I would want to as an attentive parent, but when I’m napping, I’m there napping, and when I’m giving my children attention, I’m there giving them my attention.

Not all parenting stages are enjoyable. Not every aspect of our current lifestyle is ideal. There is always more and more and more to do or be or have, so much so that it would take hundreds of lives to fit it all in. But this is the stage, the lifestyle, the one life I have. So I’m going to be there for it, whatever it is. I’m not always going to love every second of it. I’m not going to stop bettering myself where I want and need to. But I’m not going to let a perceived scarcity crowd out what I do have to give.

I don’t need to do anything differently. I don’t need to give more. I just need to pay attention to what I am doing — to be there, to observe how it matters, to see things how my children see them, not as I am afraid they are seeing them.

When I fill in that “scarcity” with my presence and intention, it’s enough.