The wind is gusting hard this morning. Tree branches clash and clink, coated in ice; twigs screech across the sunroom window like fingernails on a chalkboard. From my desk I watch the sparrows spilling seed at the feeder, the dark-eyed Juncos pecking at the dirty snow. High up on the trunk of the river birch tree, a strip of papery bark waves in the breeze like a prayer flag.
“So now what?” my counselor asked me in our session last week. “What do you want to do now that the book is out and your responsibilities there are easing up a bit?”
“I just want to do my regular stuff – work, write, be with my family,” I replied.
It was such a simple answer – some would say a boring answer – but for me, the answer to my counselor’s question was something of a revelation.
My desire to “do my regular stuff” is an indication that I have relinquished (at least somewhat) what was once my relentless drive to produce and achieve. I feel less driven, less inclined to strive and accomplish, less need to push. Instead, I sense a broader, deeper ease and openness in myself, not only in my professional life, but in my spiritual life as well.
Last month I read something in Ann Voskamp’s Advent devotional The Greatest Gift that struck me hard. “When do you find yourself striving, reaching, grasping, for the next rung to try to pull yourself closer to God?” she asked.
I penned that question into my journal and pondered it. There was deep truth for me in Ann’s words.
All my life I have been striving, reaching and grasping – striving toward professional achievements, grasping at personal goals, reaching in my relationships, and yes, even striving to pull myself closer to God. I’ve often looked with envy at others who speak about God with seemingly more intimacy than I have with him. I assumed they had something I didn’t. I assumed that if I pushed and grasped and strove harder, I would find what they had.
I am finally beginning to see the truth though, which is that we don’t need to strive, reach and grasp for the next rung to pull ourselves closer to God simply because God has already come close to us — closer, perhaps, than we can ever perceive.
I know now that I don’t need to pray for the deepest desire of my heart – to be close to God – because the deepest desire of my heart has already been answered. I have God right here and right now. I had God yesterday. I will have God tomorrow and the day after that and for all of eternity.
It is simply in our ordinary living and being that we find God. He has already drawn near. He has been here all along.
The winter wind has died down. Outside my window, the pine boughs barely shift, the birch bark prayer flag is stiff and still. The sparrows and Juncos sit tucked into the lilac shrub, alert and expectant.
I sit at my desk and watch the snow begin to fall, quieting the world in stillness.
I’m doing “my regular stuff,” as I told my counselor. I am working. I am writing. I am folding laundry and stopping at the post office to mail a package. I am spending time with my family.
And in all that is regular and ordinary, I am already and always with God.
Four times a year Emily Freeman hosts the seasonal What I’ve Learned, and this week it’s time for the Winter Edition. Here are a few silly and serious things (okay, mainly silly) I’ve learned these last three months.
At some point a year or two ago I switched out my trusty clock-radio on my bedside table for my smart phone. I didn’t love the look of the digital clock, and I figured why not simply use the alarm function on my phone. The problem was, I have zero self-control when it comes to “just one quick check” of my email before clicking off the light. Most nights, the “one quick check” would spiral into 20 minutes of scrolling Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. By the time I set my head on the pillow for actual sleep, my mind was a jumble of thoughts, facts and anxieties.
These days I park my phone at the charging station downstairs, set my bedside clock radio alarm to NPR and read anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour before drifting into a peaceful, more restful sleep. Turns out, using my circa-1998 digital clock radio for my alarm instead of my smart phone is much better for my brain and my body.
Turns out, I’m on it a lot more often than I thought (Jesus is rolling his eyes at that statement). After hearing about the free Quality Time app on the By the Book podcast, I downloaded and installed it on my phone to measure how much time I’m actually on my phone in any given 24-hour period. So far my week averages are: 12 hours, 8 minutes (week one); 14 hours, 14 minutes (week two); 20 hours, 1 minute (week three). Yes, I have noticed that my weekly phone usage has nearly doubled since installing the app. This is my long-dormant rebel side kicking in.
So far it seems I spend the majority of my phone time on Instagram (4 hours in one week – yikes!), Voxer and text messaging, followed by my podcast app and Audible (I am training for a half marathon, so I’m listening to more podcasts and audio books than usual), Gmail, Facebook and Google maps (I can barely get to the grocery store without Google maps).
What I’ve learned from the Quality Time app has been illuminating. That said, I don’t have any plans to curtail my phone usage. I did, however, install it on my kids’ phones. [insert maniacal laughter here]
A few years ago I picked up Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity at my local library, but I didn’t even get halfway through it. At the time I considered it a bunch of woo-woo bunk and promptly tossed it into the book drop. Fast-forward to this month when, after struggling with writer’s block and a general lack of creative energy for the past six months, I retrieved The Artist’s Way from the library again, and this time, it resonated, particularly Cameron’s practice of morning pages.
The premise of morning pages is deceptively simple: write three long-hand, stream-of-consciousness pages first thing in the morning. There are no rules or restrictions. You can write about anything and everything, even the angry, petty, whiny, boring stuff (especially the angry, petty, whiny, boring stuff), and if you get stuck, you simply write “I don’t have anything to write about” again and again until you get unstuck.
Cameron calls the morning pages “the primary tool of creative recovery.” She argues that writing out all the junk allows us to “get to the other side — the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods, and above all, of our Censor.”
Like I’ve said, I’ve been skeptical, but this time around, for whatever reason, I am finding morning pages to be a fruitful practice. I don’t know how this practice will ultimately impact my professional writing and creativity (or even if it will), but I do know this stream-of-consciousness writing has unearthed some stuff that feels important and that I will have to spend some time processing and unpacking, which is bound to be beneficial to my life as a whole, as well, perhaps, to my writing life.
For the last year or so I’ve had to depend more and more on my Target readers, not just for reading but also for such basic tasks as eating (blurry food, anyone?) and filling my coffeepot to the proper four-cup water mark. Thus, I decided it was time for Big Girl Glasses (aka bifocals). I got my swanky new pair last week, but the trouble is, the reading portion of the lenses is, like, 1 mm wide. It’s like reading while looking through a drinking straw. I have to hold my head at the exact right angle and the book at the exact right angle and heavens must align perfectly and then maybe, maybe, I will see actual words.
Seriously, you should see me read a book these days. It’s like I am a watching a tennis match, back and forth, back and forth, one word at a time through my drinking straw eyeglasses.. The optical experts have insisted that I “give it time,” and that my “eyes will adjust.” In the meantime, though, I am lurching around Lincoln, careening off curbs, catapulting into coffee tables and reading like I’m watching the Williams sisters volley it out at Wimbledon. Adjust schmust.
It’s not just the bifocals that cued me in to this fact. A couple of months ago, a young woman in the marketing department at work asked me if she could photograph me because she “needed my face.” Initially I was flattered…until I realized that what she was really saying, in her sweet, twenty-something way, was that I fit the demographic she needed, which was “middle-aged lady.” Later, when I saw the ginormous spread in the member magazine (note to self: next time ASK HOW PHOTO WILL BE USED), it looked suspiciously like they had added some gray “highlights” to my already gray-enough hair!
Seriously, did they not make me grayer? People, they made me grayer! Is this even legal? (they also whitened my teeth, but I am totes okay with that)
That’s it for me – basically this winter I’ve learned that I am old and can be made to look even older. What about you? Tell me about one thing (or five) you’ve learned, and be sure to stop by Emily’s place to read some more What I’ve Learned posts – they are fun!
I’m big on New Year’s resolutions. Every year I make four or five, and while I don’t always keep them past January 31 (case in point: “floss daily” has been an annual resolution for ten years running), I always have good intentions.
I also like to kick off the New Year by reading a book that will both inspire me and help me identify my goals for the year. Recently I posted a note on Facebook asking for recommendations for my January read. I specified that I was looking for a non-fiction book focusing on productivity, goal setting, and “how to figure out what to do with my life.”
I got a several intriguing suggestions in the comments, but one woman’s recommendation stopped me short. “Rebecca” (and for the record, I don’t know Rebecca personally) suggested, “Instead of choosing your own goals, pray and ask God for His goals and do that. His plan is always better than our plan.”
I admit, I bristled when I read Rebecca’s comment. It felt a little bit like I was being lectured, as if Rebecca was suggesting that as a Christian, I shouldn’t set goals, but instead should simply “go with God.” I rolled my eyes and wrote Rebecca off as a holier-than-thou wet blanket.
The problem was, days later I was still thinking about Rebecca’s comment. Turns out, she’s right, at least in part.
On one hand, I think Rebecca oversimplified the process of listening to God. To simply “pray and ask God for His goals and do that” implies that God operates like a magic genie: ask your question, rub the lamp, get your answer. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, God doesn’t download an Excel spreadsheet, complete with action steps and measureable outcomes, directly into my brain.
It seems instead that God reveals his plans much more slowly and quietly. Sometimes, honestly, it seems he doesn’t reveal them to us at all. I rarely recognize God’s plans as they unfold in the moment. Instead, the impact of his subtle work in my life is often only visible in retrospect, as I look back months or even years later.
On the other hand, I think Rebecca was right in observing that most of us, especially at this time of year, are so busy resolving, planning, and executing, we forget about God himself. So focused are we on writing our to-do lists and strategizing our goals for the year, we forget that we are not in control.
I learn this lesson the hard way over and over again. Every time my plans go off the rails and I find myself shaking an angry fist at God, I’m humbly reminded that the reason I’m disappointed is because I’ve put my faith, hope, and confidence in plans of my own making, rather than in God himself.
I still made a couple of resolutions this year (though fewer than I normally do), and I’ll still kick off the New Year with a book that I hope will help me identify my goals and priorities (if you have any suggestions, let me know!). Frankly I can’t help it; I will always be a Triple Type A planner.
But I’m also going to take Rebecca’s advice. I will incline my heart toward God, listening for the whisper of his still, small voice in my soul. And I will try to hold the plans I make loosely, trusting that God’s plans, even those yet to be revealed, are ultimately better than any I could make for myself.
It’s raining today,
gently at first,
a fine mist beading.
knocking on the skylight,
drenching screens and sills,
puddling on the wood floor.
Outside, branches and buds hang low,
faces toward the ground,
petals clenched tight like pink fists.