Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Blog Post I Won't Write

Sixteen days without Mike. It's felt more like the 1.38+ million seconds it was.

I've gotten good at being home alone over the decades with Mike on ministry trips several times a year. Sometimes I even look forward to having a week to myself.

This time was not one of those times.

This time, I solved a lot of problems, made some big decisions, and faced a few firsts--things I normally do together with Mike--alone. In a time when the whole world communicates effortlessly via internet, Mike was 90 miles off the U.S. coast in a communist country which restricts internet access. So close, yet so far.

There's been professional challenges, family business matters, a first teenage job interview and job offer, other teenage firsts, and an unsightly rash on my legs I think is an allergic reaction to medication I took. Or maybe it's just stress.

All to face alone.



I need to write all this to get it outside of me -- I think I may burst otherwise. But some of my concerns and issues are mine only vicariously as I watch my children begin to bloom into the adults they are becoming. At this point, parenting feels in my heart the way childbirth felt physically (and, yes, I did feel it all -- twice giving birth with no pain medication). It is terrifying, intense, joyful, expectant, and almost more than one woman can withstand. It feels quite violent and vulnerable.

I hesitate to be so open about my young adults' tumultuous growing into their own: the mistakes, the mishaps, the failures -- even the victories. I hesitate for three reasons.

One, it feels like a violation of my kids' privacy as they get older. Their stories are not mine to tell anymore. They are claiming their own lives now. I will not violate that.

Two, as a pastor's family, we live in the proverbial fishbowl. Glass walls. I am tired of the scrutiny and the judgment of others as well as my own n'er-go-away desire to please people. And both have played a part. We are guilty on both sides of the glass.

We have a wonderful body of Christ to serve, don't get me wrong, but it's tiresome living as an example. Ever aware of  being a leader, one desires to live above reproach. One? Who am I kidding? I. I try my darnedest to hide from public view the things that are not exemplary, and there always are some. It's exhausting and stressful. No wonder Christian leaders fall, and break out in mysterious rashes that won't go away.

Leading up to these 16 days were the two weeks when Mike wasn't feeling well. Over-commitment, deadlines, and responsibilities can crush a soul. Overly dramatic? No, I think not. He had back ache that played mind games with the cancer patient in him. When he kicked off the covers one night, he laid awake the rest of the night wondering if that was night sweats again (one of his old cancer symptoms). He finally caved in and visited his oncologist, who scanned his body to prove to Mike he was healthy. We wept in the parking lot afterward. That didn't put everything to rest, though, because in the wee hours of the morning on the way to the airport, Mike talked non-stop about a multitude of things he's neglected of late. House repairs, yard work, church projects and goals that have been on hold. Date nights. His mind was still a pinball machine.

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I've been leading a summer bible study probing the places in our spiritual walk where we get "stuck." Who am I to lead such a study? We've talked fears (the gateway emotion to worry), discontentment, and being broken, angry, and overwhelmed.

The biggest stuck place of them all? Trying to hide these flaws.

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In one of the sermons I listened to this week, the radio pastor said, "Do you realize that the only one in your church who doesn't have a pastor is the pastor?" You'd think I know this already, being in the ministry for 25 years now, but my jaw dropped.

Ministry has been a joy and a way of life that I have loved. But I'm tired of being married to the ministry. Things have got to change, for the love of God. Literally, for the love of God, and for the sake of my rash and Mike's health.

Mike arrives at the airport and back into our daily lives at close to midnight tonight. That means a short night of sleep and church first thing tomorrow morning.

Story of my life.

You know what I really want? I want to go on a date with my husband in the morning. A slow, quiet brunch never sounded better. Then we would gather our three children, lock up all our devices, and head to the beach for a minimum of 48 hours. I need to engage with my people, and I think they all need it too.

Tomorrow, we will dutifully be in church, though. I don't resent it. It will be a sacrificial offering to the Lord, who is in charge of all these facets of life and ministry and family dynamics. I will go to church tomorrow, much like I sometimes cook supper when I don't feel like it--because I'm a big girl. I'll entrust our wounds and shortcomings to my God. At his feet is always the best place to be, especially when things are broken and fearful and overwhelming and stuck.

But come Monday, Mike and I will be making some changes. There will be times of the day that he will be letting voicemail answer his calls, and there will be the turning off of the computer and the light in his study. Because although God is first, He is not only. Family is second. There must be a third and fourth and all these things that will added unto you, as promised. There has to be.

The third reason I won't write this post is because I need more grace in my life. I ran into Romans 14 again the other day and all things permissible and yet not being a stumbling block to the weaker brother. Hello love. Hello grace.

I'm tired of striving. Striving to live up to the impossible standard that is Jesus. Unaware, I have gravitated toward my old foe perfectionism. Doing that from behind glass walls ever-aware of the audience leads to being legalistic and judgmental. Romans 14 reminded me Jesus sees and evaluates me through his grace. It's time I follow His lead and do the same.

So I resolve to be kinder and more gracious. I think I'll start with me and mine. I invite you to do the same.

And finally, since I'm not writing this post, I'll leave you, instead, with Mike's love song for this ministry trip.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

HelloHello — Testing — Is This Thing On?

Anybody out there? I've wondered if anyone has even missed me, because it appears everything online went on just fine without me (no surprise there). But blogging brought the writer in me back to life, so much so that blogging was my hero for awhile.

Then, over time, blogging began to feel like an echo chamber. I blog. I want readers. So I read other blogs so they'll read mine. I spent a lot of time slogging through blog posts that, in hindsight, weren't worth the time. But then I'd read a real gem and think all that wasted time was worth it to find this one. It felt a bit like mining for precious stones, except it probably was more like a gambling addiction. One payoff would send me back for lots more wasted time in search of great writing and a magnificent, profound thought. And only bloggers read blogs, but by golly, some of them were reading mine, so who cares? It's a technicality.

 

I then ventured into adding a few of my blog friends to my in-real-life online places like Facebook. This also started a chain reaction of over-thinking and wondering if I was attending more to online relationships than the ones in my daily life. Lines grayed, and I felt confused and uncertain at best and irresponsible at worst.

My writing had changed too. I was no longer content writing about ordinary things in as much poetic description as I could muster. It was a disguise for the fact that I didn't have anything profound to say. I wanted more, something valuable to impart, and I didn't want my important message camouflaged in clever, lyrical phrasing. 

Meanwhile, back in my real life, I began floundering professionally. I was becoming less happy at work. But, because I am reluctant to change and  unambitious to a fault, I hung in there too long — long enough for them to down-size me and my paycheck to four days a week. It was the kick in the pants I needed to find a new job.

It took fifteen months, because the position I was looking for was what I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to expand my writing by moving into communications and public relations. 

I knew myself very poorly then. I thought I knew what I wanted my life to look like, and then when I finally got it, I was miserable. 

I took a job in trade books and bookstore marketing. It sounds all glamorous and bookish, only it was retail and event planning. It took me five months to admit even to myself I'd made a huge mistake.

I no longer had a quiet office where I could think. I was on my feet all day long, making split decisions and solving problems in the public eye. I am the most ill-equipped person on the planet for that type of work.  I came home mentally, physically and emotionally drained — and at all times of the day and night, weekends included. Utterly depleted and without a daily rhythm, I had nothing left to give to all the most important areas of my life.

I read Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking for two reasons. I had watched her TED talk, which left me wanting to hear more, and it had been on our Campus Bestseller table at the bookstore for about four months. That book did two things for me — two life-transforming things. It gave me permission to own my introversion. Secondly, it helped me realize that my job was slowly killing me. Part of me was dying on the inside a little more every day. It was time to cut my losses.

 

It took seven months to find another job. Then it took me another 6 weeks to slowly come back to life while I convalesced in my new position. Yes, convalesced. Although I am training and learning new job responsibilities, I am back in an environment I thrive in, doing what I now realize not only suits me, but what I had enjoyed all along. 

It'd be easy to say that I am now back where I started, and all of that was for nothing, but that would be the biggest mistake of all.  It was not a pointless detour. I may have come full-circle, but I am not back where I started.

I'm not the same person I was when my professional life began to unravel three and a half years ago. I'm not the same business woman, the same Christian, or the same friend. Our family dynamics have changed, as have my desires and priorities. I've grown stronger and wiser, and know myself a bit better. I'm a little more comfortable in my own skin. I've grown as a writer too, because although it's been quiet here on my blog, I was still writing and publishing in print.

I'd like to say I'm back, but I'm not. I don't think I'm done blogging entirely though. At least I don't think so. I'm not sure what this is or what it will look like going forward. 

I no longer think about writing a book someday. I no longer read online at the expense of my real life arenas.

A few things I do know. I won't follow the rules of blogging this time. Instead, I'll follow my gut, my heart.  Guts and heart make better reading anyway. I might even start fresh at another blog site. (If I do, I'll let you know, just in case.) I know I'm still a girl who loves God and his word. I'll still be working out my salvation with fear and trembling here (or there). And I'd love to do that together with you through meaningful conversation in the comments (which I've reopened). It's hard work putting feet of flesh to my faith, and hard work is always easier with good company. I've never had a lot of great conversation in my comments here, but I'd like to. It's something I always wanted, and one of the few things that hasn't changed for me. 

So I'm inviting you back or to stick around or to make the move with me. (See how messy not following the rules can be?) But I'd love to have you along, because I need friends like you to share life with and learn from and invest in. I'm not sure how often I'll post. It may be sporadic, but that's okay with you, right? I've never called a "real life" friend every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9:00 AM. I call them when I want to or need to, which is basically twice a week or in the middle of the night, or not at all for three weeks. This is going to be a little more organic like that, okay? 

This has been fun. It was good to see you again, but I gotta run. It's going to be another busy week here in my real life, but we should get together again soon.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Learning to Love the Scenic Route :: A Guest Post By Vicki Stilwell

For the past seventeen months, Vicki Stilwell has been learning to live without her husband. One day Rick's heart simply stopped beating during his morning commute. His car careened across the median, then several lanes of oncoming traffic and into the ditch on the other side of the highway. He was 43 years old; their children 17 and 15. Every day since, Vicki has been carving a new life out of what remains. It's been public and private, broken and beautiful, dignified and not so dignified. When I found her reflection on Facebook, I asked her to share her story here.

  : : :

After we got Max, we quickly discovered that Jack Russells need exercise in order to not eat things like shoes and furniture, so I started walking the dogs. Little walks turned into longer mileage, and Rick encouraged me when I said I wanted to walk a half marathon.

Two years ago, I was training for the first one, and while I was comfortable with mileage, hills scared me. I am slow, and hills made my calf muscles scream.

Rick and I were here at our condo in Lake Lure, and there is a particular route on the back roads of the resort that I had always wanted to walk. It is quiet and in the woods, and of course, filled with twists and hills.



Rick, always my biggest cheerleader, encouraged me that I could do it. He even promised to meet me with the car at the end of the route and take me to get coffee.

I was able to follow that path that day with his encouragement. I finished and got my coffee.

 He always said, "I don't care how far she goes as long as she comes back."

I have now done three half marathons so far: one "virtual" half with Nike (done on my own) and the Savannah Half twice.

 
Last summer, I did that Lake Lure route again, on my own. I needed to prove to myself that I still could.

Soon after, I began training again for the Savanah half, this second time last year with a group of amazing women ... because they love me and know I needed the encouragement. Getting back out there was hard because I did not have Rick here waiting when I got back. But I know he'd want me still out there, doing the mileage and learning how to do all this a new way.

The kids and I are at our condo at Lake Lure again this summer, and this morning, in the rain, I did that route again. But this time, God made me aware of how much this stretch of road mirrors my life.

The route is not one I ever thought I could do, much like living without Rick. There are parts of this path that are hard; those hills still make my calves scream, but not as badly as two years ago.

When I am in the quiet of the woods, I can feel God's presence. He showed me this morning that some of this road is smooth, some is filled with bad patches, but I am never far from Him or those who love me.

There will be hills, and valleys, and stretches that feel so lonely — but in the end, the walk is worth it.
This route finishes with a brilliant view of the lake — just like this life will finish with a awe-inspiring view of God. I pray that God will say to me "Well done," just the way Rick did when I made this trek the first time.
Vicki Stilwell is a high school drama teacher, a curator of Disney movie trivia, a pinch-hit social media and computer tech pro, and a walker of half marathons. Follow her on Twitter @MrsCaffeinated.

Related Post: Walking and Talking: A Tribute To An Unfinished Friendship

Monday, June 23, 2014

Chopping Salad and Slicing Life

Dear Mike,
I chopped cabbage yesterday while Reagan chopped lettuce. I ate the fruits of our labor for lunch at 3:15 today. And I'll have more tomorrow.

They don't talk on the phone like we did to socialize, so I asked. "Have you been talking with your friends this summer?"

"What friends, Mom?"

Chop.

"You know! Grace. Maddie. Bailey. Cloe. Your friends!"

Silly girl.

While we press garlic, pinch sugar, and measure balsamic vinegar, the rest of the conversation dawns on me that every one of our daughter's close friends no longer enjoys an intact family unit.

"Do you know what it is you have, Ru?" My knife had fallen silent.



She says she knows, but she takes it for granted. I do, too. How can we not, when we take the fruit of our labors for lunch break on a Monday?

I crunch salad, and I read Reagan's text: Can we do something tonight? I am beyond bored. We didn't go to the pool. We've been every day for two weeks.

The pool. You had invited me in just yesterday. When I climbed into your floating lap, you asked when I last shaved.  I laughed. "It's goose bumps, not stubble."  You twirled us slowly in the water.

I take another bite of my salad and wonder how far into the Guatemalan mountains you are right now. You've traveled less than 12 hours. More than a week still before you return.

We are no longer the norm. We swirl in the water. We chop salad with our kids. We eat the fruit of our life mid-afternoon and look forward to having more tomorrow.



Even after 25 years, we look forward to more tomorrow.

You've traveled far today, Mike. I have too. You toward those who hunger, me toward  recognizing satisfied. Perhaps we shall both sleep well in our respective places.

Sweet dreams,
Dawn


Photo Credits: Adrian

Saturday, May 24, 2014

For When You are Stressed, Dependent, and Humbled


This week I did something for only the tenth time in my life. I started a new job.

One forgets what it's like being new, knowing nothing, and having no context. I needed help and had to rely on others to guide me in accomplishing my responsibilities. In short, it was stressful, uncomfortable, and humbling.

Although I look forward to the time when I am well-trained and competent in my work, this week of ineptness on the job made me remember that this is the exact context in which we are to remain when it comes to faith.

We are to rely on Another's leadership and guidance. Not just when we're newbies (2 Corinthians 5:17), but always. There will be times when our finite context is not enough and we must trust that God knows what he's up to. In faith, we walk assured only when we are unsure, unable, and reliant upon Christ to be made perfect in our human weakness.

This week, I was grateful for positive feedback from co-managers, higher ups, and even one I manage. I'm grateful just to have co-workers, because I haven't really had them in quite some time.

And for the gift of scripture from my predecessor, who still works for the company (and is training me — thank you, God) and is my co-worker in more than one way.

I'm thankful for the reminder that sometimes it's not only okay, but preferable to be stressed, dependent, and humble.

I want to make this new job my own and add to the corporate culture and community in this new space where I will share 40 hours of life each week with a whole new subset of people. I want to bring my whole, best self to my new job and do it well for the glory of God. It will take being independent, dependent, and interdependent, and knowing when each is appropriate.

I hope to never forget that.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

More than a Meal

 

I was stunned by the gleaming wedding ring at the summit of my steering wheel. “I’m married.” The words escaped into the air, even though there was no one else in the car to hear them. I had been married eight months and should have been well-acquainted with this fact, but saying it out loud was an attempt to solidify what had not yet taken complete hold in my mind.

Life took me by surprise again when my ten-month-old slept soundly in his crib. I stood over my kitchen sink staring at a lone baby bottle, when I again stated the obvious to myself.  “There’s a baby bottle in my sink; I am a mom.” You would think that after 573 dirty diapers and half as many 2:00 am feedings, I would already know this.

That baby boy in my crib is now sixteen and about to start his first job. The results of this life change, though, I am realizing ahead of time: the beginning of the end of our family dinners.

They started when we would drag the high chair as close to the table as possible. We were determined to create a family experience of dinners around the table. Never mind that our toddler managed to get only a few morsels successfully from his tray to his mouth. Back then, clearing the table also involved mopping the floor. Conversations were limited to Mom and Dad, but it was a start.

Mike and I remember the exact night the family dinners we had envisioned began in earnest. Our third child was newly graduated from her booster seat. This meant that no one was strapped in at our table anymore, another step in the right direction.

How it started, I cannot say, probably because it began like every other meal. Adrian, now a seven-year-old and all boy, began to imitate Uncle Mickey’s habit of clearing his throat. It's just the kind of eccentricity a seven-year-old boy would be all over.  Adrian nailed the impression -- even his younger sisters recognized the similarities. We were all laughter.

We moved on to pinpointing and laughing at each other's idiosyncrasies. There was the way Noelle sucked her thumb rotated in her mouth with palm turned skyward while her other hand was plugged firmly into her belly button. As a toddler, she called it her butty-butty, and we laughed at that too. Then Noelle offered an exaggerated demonstration of her dad’s underwear waistband slapping suspender-style. Reagan was a peacock across our kitchen floor remembering the ones I had tried to feed when we stumbled upon them once in the mountains.   

While the children crumpled in laughter over their half eaten chicken and rice, Mike and I sat up tall above them and met the gleam in the other's eye. The moment had arrived, and we knew it. We were a bona fide family making a memory around our table which held a home cooked meal.

Since that first untethered meal, we have prayed, we have cried, we've helped each other, and we’ve learned together. We have discovered problems, solved some, and ignored some. We've pondered questions and celebrated good news. We've fought over whose turn it was to set the table, make the salad, read our devotion, and do the dishes.



Next week, Adrian's new job will be the first among many things that will keep one or more of our children from our family’s nightly dinners together. Small children that were once strapped into high chairs are becoming young adults who are no longer tied down. In fact, they will eventually follow heartstrings into their own adult lives. So now my hope is that the memories we have made will become the ties that bind and draw us back to the table for many more family meals together.

**This is my first piece ever accepted for print. It has never appeared on my blog. It chronicles part of our story, and as my first published piece it's doubly part of my story. It ran in the May 2012 issue of Reach Out, Columbia. I was reminded of it tonight, when we all five of us were around our table for dinner together. It's already a rare treasure in our family.




 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Do We Still Have Beauty Pageants Anyway?

I don't think I'll ever know how I feel about beauty pageants.

Part of me can't believe we haven't come further in society than to parade young women across a stage and compare and compete based on beauty. Someone please tell me we no longer do this.

And fierce competition it can be, too. I know, because I interviewed Miss South Carolina and told her story that got her there and on to the Miss America pageant in a magazine cover story.

But part of beauty pageants is community service, learning to be an articulate communicator, and interviewing skills and experience. Part of it a young woman's accomplishment, intellect, and talent on display. I'm all for honoring and celebrating hard work.

In a day and age when the sexes are blurred and homosexuality is the new black, I like that my daughter was holed up in her bedroom this afternoon with two best friends putting curls in Reagan's hair, eye liner just so, and unwrapping new earrings for the occasion.

I like that she studied her interview questions and answers late into the night with her older sister who would have rather been asleep but stayed up to help Reagan. That will be a worthwhile sister memory.

And the twenty minute rides to and from the school — all 5 of them in the last 48 hours — have been full of singing Broadway songs with my girl at the top of our lungs, and short, casual conversations about the balance between competition and having fun that really weren't all that casual after all.

I told her I was proud of her for doing everything herself. No mom taking over, telling her she ought to wear a suit for the interview. It was all Reagan, every choice, every preparation. No paid make up artist or hair style. Just a girl and her friends in her room.

Part of me will be squirming tonight when my growing up girl walks gracefully across the stage in her teal gown. But part of me will be very proud, and when it's all said and done tonight, I still won't know how I feel about pageants.



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