Rhythms & The Brain

Dusk brings a sense of comfort to our home. The light starts to fade, and a natural gold filters in through windows, showing glittering dust hanging lightly on air. I can feel my body start to relax. My bones know it is nearing the end of the day. Scratching my ankles, the dog looks up expectantly at me, knowing like clockwork it is time for her dinner. Our son paces in front of the basement door, waiting for his dad to come up the stairs. Hugs and babbles make up a joyful greeting. Eventually we hear giggles from his highchair as he involves all of his senses in dinner time. From the table, he commands, “Daddy, bath!” And our nightly routine continues on to bubble baths, storytime, songs, and the sweetest prayers together. He rolls into each new activity softly with anticipation. 

As humans, we are wired for predictability. Our hearts long for natural transitions. The bodies that carry us know the signs of change. Rhythm brings us toward familiarity; it keeps us moving with a steady breath in our lungs. We are not stationary in a routine, but we move forward to a new phase like the setting sun each day, with ease and comfort. 

Ceran St. Vrain Trail near Jamestown, Colorado

In neuroscience, we call these rhythms neural networks, meaning that the habits of our lives solidify in patterns that are repeated internally over and over. There are over 100 billion neurons in the human brain, a mere 3 pound powerhouse that controls your spatial awareness, memory, emotions, ideas, movements, and much more. The brain uses neurons to send messages of communication to other parts of the brain and body. To help put this process into the perspective, I visualize the brain as a large forest with interlocking trees and plants, twisted and gnarled together. The density of the forests in Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. At times while wandering through, the characters could hardly see the light above them. 

A neuron is like a single tree, with the branches and roots symbolizing synaptic terminals and dendrites. Like the trees in The Lord of the Rings, neurons are moving with a lifeforce. Electrical and chemical messages are sent back and forth to their neighbors along the branches. When those messages are repeated often, it is almost as though the limbs become intertwined with frequent use. This creates a neural network, built out of experience and repetition. The safety and security of relying on rhythms in our lives means that we can create space for new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiences. Neural networks and routine create automation, giving us room for a deeper meaning. 

Our world is filled with rhythms. Your body knows the rhythms to follow throughout the day, the 24-hour circadian rhythm working consistently to help you sleep and explore when the time is right. In the modern world, we’ve changed our concept of time to make our working hours match the setting sunlight. Outside my window, in the late autumn sky, you’ll see hundreds of geese practicing their rhythm of migrating to warmer weather. Here on the ground, we know what happens when the leaves change from green to gold, auburn, and rust. A chill on the wind brings forth the winter solstice full of shorter days and longer nights. Rhythms create trust in the experiences we have known and allow for anticipation. The beauty of rhythm is that it lies in our marrow and the external world; these patterns are part of the living world. They move us forward and keep us steady.

A Commitment

I first learned the story of Ruby Bridges as a young child sitting on my grandmother’s lap, while she turned the pages of a picture book for me. She described a small girl with great courage, who had to stare down hate in the face at the age of six years old. As a child, I could hardly comprehend the fact that verbal death threats and physical violence were hurled towards a Kindergartener. Yet, my grandmother knew it was important for me to learn the history of racism in the United States at an early age. She was teaching me Black Lives Matter before it was a movement making headlines. Along with reading books like The Story of Ruby Bridges, my grandmother introduced me to conversations about diversity through her global travels to places like Brazil and China with the United Methodist Church. One moment that deeply impacted me was a visit to the town Nicodemus for a gospel choir concert. Nicodemus is a National Historic Site, a mere ten miles from my hometown, which was founded as one of the first African American communities west of the Mississippi during the Reconstruction Period. While I listened and learned from the stories, art, and music of BIPOC, I didn’t quite understand the path that was being laid before me. My grandmother understood that a commitment to diversity is a lifelong commitment. It is our responsibility to learn about the history that has brought us to where our country is today, for only then can we lead our country into an anti-racist future.

As an adult, I can reflect and lament my privilege, bias, and weakness. In my small community in rural America, our high school history class never learned about a period beyond WWII. Those formative years were lost to me, and it took pushing myself to learn about those missing milestones. With the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd running through my head — my heart felt heavy because I remembered. My personal history includes times of inflicting pain and racial hurt. Times of inaction in the face of blatant racism, feelings of superiority, and voting for bad policy continue to haunt me. Yet, I know it is important to be accountable, settle into these hard places, heavy with tension. Because when we remember, we can make space to listen. We can learn.

Our Saturday mornings have been slow and steady the past few weeks. We run a mile along a trail, marveling at tall trees and bursting flowers. Afterwards we pick up some coffee and breakfast, settling in for a picnic, and take time to breathe together. We’ve been watching our baby grow to a toddler, the to-do lists that continue to get longer, and the wildness of this world. My heart is burning to see our society heal. Something feels so right about just taking time to watch this boy walk barefoot in the green grass. Part of me just wants to stay in my little corner. These are the simple, pure moments that I want to cling on to. 

But I need to keep growing. Keep learning. About justice, privilege, forgiveness, and grace. About seeking the face of God everywhere, in everyone. The fact that I would have the option to stay in my corner is because of my privilege as a white woman, and that is not okay. One day I know we will talk about this time together, all three of us. Because our family can go run together without the risk of being shot down. We can pick up coffee & breakfast without fear of a corrupt police officer targeting us. We can have a picnic on the grass without suspicious eyes watching. We can BREATHE. And it is astounding, frightening, and unfathomable that our country continues to steal humanity and life based on color. America does this with our bias, with our justice system, with our words, with our pocketbooks, and especially with our votes. 

With all the expectations for change heavy in my mind, I want to make Black Lives Matter a lasting conversation. I listened to the podcast Unlocking Us by Brene Brown recently, and she featured author and activist Austin Channing Brown. Austin reminded us that these protests and conversations are not merely part of the news cycle. “[This is] a reminder that systematic racism is more than just headlines on the news. Is the work you are doing (on social media, in your home, in your community) just for self, or is it for others?” I write these words because I want this moment in 2020 to be a catalyst for sustainable change, not just a time for virtue signaling.

This weekend, we retreated down a wooded path for a new place to explore. Nature gave us life as we headed deeper into the forest. A wall of green grew up around us, towering above my head. If you’ve been on the prairie, you know that congregating trees are a rarity. While we continued the worn path, a bright flash of color caught my eye slightly off trail. I noticed a small path diverging, and I stepped off for a moment. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, and I assured Jonathan I would catch up. As I made my way forward, I saw a tall structure that looked almost like a treehouse standing in the middle of an overgrown clearing. There was a ladder and space for someone to stand at the top. The colors grew brighter when I walked forward. A mural stared back at me with stains of graffiti from different moments in time — a collection of voices asking to be heard. It was a combination of urban and rural, city streets and lush forest, bright color and untamed nature.  

My breath caught in my throat when I read the word “Love” scrawled under a person, with brown and gold lighting up their skin. And certainly, isn’t that what this journey is all about? The disparity and pain of inequality has been laid before us. And it is time to respond and make a commitment. We are called to move towards love. In moving down this path, I will remember, listen, and learn from voices other than my own. I will not be silent and I will teach my family. We will show love with our words, our actions, and our hearts.  

While there are plenty of recommendations floating around the internet from individuals more qualified than myself, here are some things helping me learn lately. I hope you’ll commit to remembering, listening, and learning.



Lessons Learned: 1 Year as a Stay-At-Home Mom

Happy Mother’s Day! I love that this holiday is celebrated uniquely by each family to honor the giving spirit of women in our lives. We are faced with an interesting time to rejoice as we are continuing more social distancing this week. Our family will be celebrating together at home, just the 3 of us. In the chaos the past couple of months, I have watched mothers, grandmothers, and friends step up and serve their community in beautiful ways. The art of nurturing isn’t limited to mothers, and I’m thankful to bear witness to the support and generosity provided by women over the course of my lifetime.

This year marks my second ever Mother’s Day. I’m also coming up on the 1st anniversary of my decision to become a stay-at-home mom. With this turn of the calendar year, I’ve taken some time to reflect on lessons learned that I hope can apply to friends in many seasons. I would be remiss to say that all mothers — working, stay-at-home, or working from home — are bright symbols of hope to me. I must also acknowledge the privilege of my life by saying that because of my religion, race, and economic situation I did have a choice about the next step in my career. Not every woman is afforded the opportunity of deciding her fate. Additionally, the fact that I had the chance to choose between work and home without judgement isn’t lost on me. I believe my generation is a unique one because being home is a choice, not an obligation or monetary exchange. My grandmother would have been crucified by her generation for seeking work outside of the home. My mother’s generation criticized those who did stay home for not exercising their feminist rights so recently earned. Yet, I live in a generation of women who empower others by lifting them up. In my friendships, family, and even the media I continue to see women’s choices for their careers respected. In a scene from Greta Gerwig’s most recent film rendition of Little Women, the director went off script and brought tears to my eyes. Before her marriage, Meg explains to her younger sister that her decision to marry for love and focus on creating a home are just as valuable as a career. “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” That’s a rally cry that goes to my core, a message for every dreamer searching for value, big or small.

When I first decided to leave the working world and be home full-time with Noah, I was consulting my pal Google constantly. Not only did I have the “New Mom Jitters” (ie. fears of keeping a tiny human alive), I wanted a guiding light to provide hope in a foreign territory. I was braving the wilderness with a four-month old in my arms, and darn it, I was going to do a great job at it! My eyes would often ache from scrolling screens of schedules, tricks, and tools that promised to make a more organized and fulfilled life in spite of the fact that my main company was unable to communicate. Today, my perspective on leaving the workplace and being home is a lot different. I wish I could say that the schedules, the routines, and the advice worked perfectly for us. No matter my willpower, I had to eventually learn that the job of parenting was going to be different than any other I had experienced before. No training, education, hard work, or discipline could prepare me for it. I’m still learning to let go and lean into the discomfort starting something new.

Let Go of Expectations

In the beginning, I had a lot of ideas about what my days as a stay-at-home mom would look like. Some of them included fresh baked cookies, freshly folded laundry (put away instantly), art projects, infinite amount of time to read books, and lots of quality time with my child. Looking back, I’m fairly certain that quality time might be the only true thing on my list. Needless to say, I had expectations for myself and my journey as a stay-at-home mom. Being human means that expectation comes with the territory. These standards can provide a strong motivation. Yet, some of these ideals of perfection can translate to disappointment and heartache if expectations are not met. 

I do battle with expectations and contentment on a regular basis. Part of me yearns to be a super-mom who can balance homekeeping, attend to the needs of her child, and keep us on the go with activities all the time. But I can only be stretched so thin. After a year, I’ve learned to identify my priorities. My focus is to provide unconditional love to Noah, care for our home, and find small ways to seek peace throughout the day. While I wish that meant we had a schedule we could use every day, that is unrealistic for my life. Sometimes it means that cleaning the house, cooking dinner, doing dishes, and the million other things on my “to do” list are put off for another day. While I would love to meet all my expectations as a stay-at-home mom, I’m learning to seek contentment each day. God has been watching my journey of motherhood, and I know I can rest in the fact that he knows I am doing the best I can. 

Let Go of Control

My sisters have not so secretly labeled me a bit of a control freak in the past year. Just mention nap time schedules or throw off our nighttime routine and I am gritting my teeth. I have white-knuckled my way around sleep for the past year. Nothing causes my heart to race like a nap cut short or a middle of the night wake-up. While we are fortunate to have a good sleeper in Noah most of the time, I still find myself anxious and controlling about sleep as he continues to grow. In becoming a stay-at-home mom, I thought that I would have more control over Noah’s life. Surely I would be able to make sure he took long naps, ate great meals, and played educational games. I’m not quite sure where I developed this fantasy, but I was in for a rude awakening. This past year, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is offer options and let go of control. I can hold him, rock him, and sing to him, there will be times when he just doesn’t want to give in to sleep. I can offer him healthy food and he can still choose to throw it on the floor. (Although he is a strange kid and actually loves broccoli and spinach… Weirdo.) I can try to set up a fun sensory bin I found on a toddler activity website, and he will still flip the tub upside down sending miniature pom-poms everywhere. Thankfully we haven’t tried a rice bin yet for this reason.

Unfortunately, I think letting go of control is part of the art of parenting in general. I know that as Noah continues to grow, there will be many more hand’s off moments ahead. Riding his first bike, jumping into a swimming pool, driving a car, going to college… (I’m tearing up. It’s fine.) But I know that the beauty of parenting is guiding your child into independence and watching them grow into being their own person. The same can be said for projects, careers, and relationships. If we are able to let go of control, the true joy and freedom comes in trusting the process.

Let Go of Achievement Banners

Achievement banners are something that I’ve really taken notice of in the past couple of weeks. We truly live in a culture that is obsessed with benchmarking “success”. It starts from when we are young children and follows us throughout the course of our lifetime. Grades, test scores, promotions are all milestones to be met. In parenthood, you place these markers on your children and brag about how quickly your child is walking, talking, or mastering a new skill. We have even boiled down accomplishment to tracking “likes” on social media, platforms that were meant for community and support. As a society, we are constantly searching for another finishline to cross, running a race that is endless and stretches a lifetime. Like expectations, achievement banners aren’t all bad. They provide incentive and responsibility. Yet, these markers for success shouldn’t be how we measure our lives.

When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, I usually give the sheepish response “I’m just a stay-at-home mom.” This usually receives a variety of responses. From mature couples, I usually hear praises about making the “right” choice for my family. From younger generations, I’m usually met with a few blinks and a quick pivot of the conversation to something we could have in common. Most of the time, I wish people could give a neutral response. Because just like a career, being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t define me. Culture measures identity by productivity and potential. But I’m a lot more interested in the person I’m becoming instead of what I’m doing. In 2015, David Brooks wrote a book titled The Road to Character, in which he discussed his idea of “resume virtues” vs. “eulogy virtues”. As I was confessing my lack of achievement banners as a stay-at-home mom to my husband, he recommended spending some time reflecting on this topic. At times, I really find myself missing the challenges of work and the skills I built there. But when I’m at the end of my life, I hope my family can look past my bullet points on LinkedIn and instead focus on my growth as an individual. It’s much easier to measure the advancement of a company, the impact of a project, the progress of a new idea, the overall success of an event, or even a career trajectory. I’m not sure how you can measure soul work. I just hope in the end they can say that I loved well and learned along the way. And I’ll keep working towards that every day of my life.

In my year as a stay-at-home mom, I’ve learned to appreciate so many of the small moments every day. I’m learning from the babbling, the diaper changes, and the little tears. While not every moment is going to look picture perfect, I know it is refining me. I’m savoring this time at home, but I’m also open to my next chapter of motherhood. Letting go of expectations, control, and achievement banners is helping me embrace the person I’m becoming.

4 Paths to Hope in Seasons of Worry

I’ve had a harder time focusing on hope this Spring compared to years in the past. Across the plains, I see green grass sprouting up which is a dramatic shift from the brown, lifeless ground that typically dots the Kansas horizon during the winter months. Every morning I see new flowers arriving — daffodils, iris, and peonies shooting up with life. The sun continues to warm the earth each day, and its trailing beams linger longer in the evenings. Usually these beautiful rhythms of nature bring me such joy and anticipation. But my heart feels like it is still in hibernation and dormant with the cold of winter. 

If you asked me to describe myself before the pandemic of Coronavirus, I certainly wouldn’t have used the words anxious or worried. In our marriage, Jonathan refers to me as the positive one, always thinking on the sunny side and looking for the good. But during the past few weeks though, I’ve found my posture to be tight and weary. I’m anxious for family and friends, saddened by constant bad news, and worried about the future. Despite the “stay at home” orders lifting in multiple states, nothing about the nature of this virus will change. Without an impending “end date” on the calendar, the fear of the unknown is starting to catch up with me. 

Recently with a few other women in my community, I’ve been reading the book Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts by Jennie Allen. In the first few chapters Allen provides the hard truth that we can’t truly understand our emotions and feelings unless we take the time to process them. So I sat down, with a blank piece of paper, and wrote for a solid 20 minutes every single line item that came up around my dominant feeling of the moment. That emotion was “worry”, and before CoVid-19 I don’t necessarily think I would have gravitated towards those thoughts. I believed my list would be filled with health concerns because of the pandemic. But after I was finished mapping out my thoughts and lists surrounding worry, I started to notice trails of worry throughout other areas of my life like community, family, and my future professional goals.

Writing these thoughts down, recognizing that they were there and existed (pandemic or not), and searching for patterns helped me understand that my emotional well-being was deeply impacted. These thoughts were running rampant, affecting my attitude about myself and others, and in turn also impacting my spirituality. Instead of focusing my time and energy on serving those around me and taking care of myself, I was letting thoughts of worry in all areas of my life drown me.

This is all to say that I don’t know how to “do” a pandemic. I wish this pandemic wasn’t leaving a mark on me emotionally. I wish I had answers and a way to move forward. Like the famous hero stories that are interwoven in our myths and culture, I wish I could find an expert or guide who could provide me with direction. You probably feel the same way — a little lost as these days of staying home turn into weeks, that might even turn into months. And while that’s scary, I’m finding ways to hope even when my head and heart don’t really feel like it. Here’s what’s helping me:

  1. Boundaries

We are missing a key piece of technology on the first floor of our home. Our television hides out in our basement, used a few times a week for us to relax (and watch 30 Rock). This to say, we have stopped the constant news cycle that feeds our generation. The access to information at our fingertips daily (from print to social media to the radio waves that hit our ears) has a negative impact. Feeding your mind with constant notifications and the drone of endless news hurts your spirit. When we knew we were in this pandemic for the long haul, we stopped. We are telling the television, our phones, and the news that they are not the boss of our minds. While it is important to stay informed, we knew that things weren’t going to change in an hour. Stepping away gave us the chance to create stillness and to notice. By creating a boundary and quieting our minds, we found more hope in our home around us.

  1. Perspective Shift

This is something I work on every, single day. Often, I find that it is a lot easier to mope into the idea that I am a victim of my circumstances. My son doesn’t take a nap? Woe is me. My husband has to sit on a work phone call late into the evening and can’t help with bedtime? Woe is me. About six months ago, I heard on a podcast featuring the author Bob Goff that he spends much of his daily energy to “focus on what I’m receiving, not what I’m lacking”. If we continue to look for the missing gaps, we will find giant craters that we have split open with our own minds. But if we focus on what is filling our lives, we will find an overwhelming abundance of goodness to be grateful for. During this time, I am shifting my perspective to focus on the gifts I am receiving. I’m noticing the connection my husband is making with our son, the generous help he provides to me, and the work he does for our family. I’m watching the service neighbors and friends are stepping up to provide for one another. I’m creating healthy rhythms for myself to find rest in a creative contemplation. All this goodness comes because I am open to receiving it.

  1. Be Still

I’m fairly addicted to anything surrounding Brene Brown, so when I found she was creating a podcast that arrived during Covid-19, I considered it a personal gift to myself and was overjoyed. In a recent episode with Alicia Keys, they were describing the stillness that came on with social distancing. By removing the hustle from our lives, we have each been forced to slow down. Brene said, “We stay busy enough so the truth of our lives can’t catch up to us.” That quote hit me like an arrow to a bull’s eye. If I don’t have to ask for help, I don’t have to slow down. I can carry the weight by myself and not rely on anyone else. Yet, that do-it-all mentality serves no one. It doesn’t provide others with a space to give and it doesn’t help my soul in the long run. I’m willing to stop and ask those around me for help when I need it. I’m taking time to be still and rest, and this has helped me tremendously.

  1. Daily Spark

Watercolor painting, writing snail mail, yoga, and baking have been filling up my soul lately. I don’t do all of them at once (wouldn’t that take true talent) or necessarily every single day. But I’ve given myself a mission to find something small to look forward to each day. It may not be the time in life to pick up a brand new hobby. I wish I could make a sourdough starter or learn to knit, but I know there are limitations on my time. Instead, I’m focusing on what feeds my soul and I am searching for ways to do something joyful (as small as that might be) every day.

While this season might seem empty or filled with worry, I pray that you will find hope in the small things. It is okay to let yourself feel the emotions of worry, anxiety, and fear. If we find paths to hope, those emotions can be held in the same space with peace.

Holding Joy and Sorrow in Both Hands

My wedding day was overcast, grey skies and a major chill in the air that caused goosebumps to raise up onto my exposed arms. The lack of sunlight made me look paler still in my white lace gown. Despite the bright orange and red leaves dotting the fading November trees, the first words I thought of when I looked at the sky were “gloomy”. And given the weeks leading up to my wedding, the heavy weather wasn’t really a surprise. 

Photo by Emma Highfill of Rose Wheat Photography

About two weeks before my wedding, I took a phone call from my parents that I knew would bring bad news. My grandmother had been incredibly sick, a decline that started over a year before, which slid her memory and cognition into the cool deep depths of loss. We could see it a long time coming, and perhaps the saddest part is that she could feel and see it coming too. My last good visit with her was the Christmas before — we sat in the nursing home singing Christmas carols together. She sang the harmony while she tapped her fingers out on her legs like she was playing the piano. I smiled with delight to watch her returning to the habit she developed after playing the organ at our church for over 50 years. She took my hand and told me that she knew things weren’t quite right with her brain, showing me a tattered piece of paper she had taken to the doctor scribbled with pencil notes crossed out. The paper was full of reminders and crossed out notes, a jumble of words I could barely read. 

On my 25th birthday, she had written 20.5 on the card because she couldn’t form the numbers in her head and put them to the paper. The dots were no longer connecting, and her light was slowly fading. A painful decline, multiple moves between health care facilities, and the diagnoses of a brain tumor rapidly occurred. It was difficult to watch, and I’m sad to say that sometimes I was tempted to stay away, not wanting to confront the pain of losing a friend I’d held dear my entire life. 

During childhood, I had loved to spend time at her house, examining different treasures hoarded in her basement which held little value to the outside world. My sisters and I played tea party in her dining room, dressing up with beautiful scarves she collected from around the world. She loved to watch us perform and practice hospitality anywhere (the local nursing home was her favorite spot to do this), and it did help each of her grandchildren learn to stand up in front of a crowd. Lilacs bushes bloomed around her house and irises would always pop up in the early spring; she loved to have us trim fresh flowers for the table. Her steady hand on the piano was my constant companion after she pushed me to perform at church, competitions, or meetings. Eventually, I grew to love those times together because knew that even if my voice failed, she’d jump right in behind me, showing her best kept talent of knowing when to lead and when to follow. She taught me to bake an apple pie for our 4-H county fair in her kitchen, sifting sugar between her knotted hands, adding extra because there could never be too much. 

As I grew older, I would take time to visit her during high school and college, sipping iced tea, and enjoying our quiet time together talking about what was on my heart. I remember the first time I talked about Jonathan with her, and she smiled after learning that he liked to read probably more than I did. When they were finally able to meet, she had one very good day. Her memory was sharp and she teased us all mercilessly, joking that she expected Jonathan to be more of an academic type and show up in a top hat. Together we all went up to a cafe together and she sipped Diet Dr. Pepper. After about two hours together, she declared that Jonathan looked just like Anderson Cooper which was certainly a high compliment in her book. Looking back, I’m incredibly thankful that I had the chance to share her with Jonathan that day because he was able to understand what a legacy she left on my family and my life.

My Grandma Jo passed away about a week before our wedding. Our goodbye was painful and beautiful, and I’m so thankful I had the chance to understand she would be finally heading to a place of peace. She managed to speak and I felt connected to her as she held my hand and called me “the most beautiful girl”. Even though the past two years had been incredibly difficult, I felt comforted knowing that the disease that impacted her brain function didn’t take away the memories I will cherish forever. While watching her, I sang “Over the Rainbow” gently while she closed her eyes, a song that was special to both of us not simply because of our Kansas ties but because we had performed it many times together. 

The week of my wedding, I felt sorrow as I sang “Over the Rainbow” at her funeral and experienced joy hearing it right before I walked into the wedding chapel with my husband. Even though she was physically missing from the most important day of my life, I know she was with me spiritually through every step I took. In spite of the grief hanging over my head, I felt my grandmother guiding my heart to happiness. While many think that sorrow and joy can be easily compartmentalized into tidy boxes, I have come to the realization that both emotions can be held in both hands, which makes us human to our core. Our stories are incomplete without the full experience of pain and happiness that life has to offer. Without knowing the depths of sorrow, we surely cannot understand the great joy that makes our hearts soar. 

Lots of joy dancing with my Dad.

Today would have been her 89th birthday. I think it is incredibly fitting that today we celebrate Good Friday in the Christian tradition, in perhaps the most sorrowful time in the modern world. We are isolated from neighbors and community, in our homes alone and able to process the brevity of this moment in history. This is the day that we experience the darkness of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the grief that comes with the loss of him from earth. The pain our savior experienced as he cried to his Father, “My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46 CSB). When I think of sorrow, I can think of nothing more powerful than Jesus painfully laying down his own life for my own. And yet, we know there are three more days left in the story. Without Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday. In rolling away the rock before the tomb, it is with great joy that we experience the resurrection of Jesus. The promise of the rainbow is always fulfilled, as Christians are taught so early in the story of Noah from Genesis who spent 40 days and nights in sorrow and darkness. Cling to both sorrow and joy because without one, we cannot understand the other. Good is coming, and there is a rainbow on the horizon. 

My baptism in 1992.

Creating Space for Your Emotions

If we could be together today, I’d welcome you into my home with a hug and a smile. A sweet baby boy would cackle with delight when he saw you coming up the walk, tugging on your pant legs as you come inside. The smell of coffee would fill your nose and I’d offer you a mug from our eclectic collection. I’d invite you to take a seat, make yourself cozy, and simply be. If we could be together today, I’d welcome you into my home because right now, I miss community.

It’s been a little over a week of time to ourselves, social distancing, quarantine, or whatever terms you might like to use to describe the current state of our world lately. With the news rapidly spreading about the Coronavirus and many cities around the United States essentially shutting down, Jonathan and I made the call to retreat into our home life. Despite missing out on fun activities and precious time with friends and family, I consider us to be fairly lucky. We are still employed. We still have a roof over our heads. We have food, comfort, and each other. As a team, we are finding a rhythm to our days.

Because we are so fortunate, I was beginning to feel like difficult emotions didn’t belong to me. I have friends who have had to post-pone weddings, are experiencing wage cuts or lay-offs, or are struggling to make ends meet because they had to decide if they wanted to put themselves in a harmful situation for an hourly job. With my thoughts spinning, I kept telling myself that I don’t deserve to feel difficult emotions right now. Here we are, surviving. And yet, in spite of our blessings, I still feel emotions like a stronghold over my heart:

  • Inconvenience
  • Uncertainty
  • Disappointment
  • Grief
  • Out of control
  • Anxiety

Last night I sat in on a small, virtual retreat with seven strangers. We were each asked to reflect on the overwhelm and disruptions this pandemic has brought to our daily lives. I listened as each woman expressed the same feelings that were building up inside of me. Each of us are in different life stages — some with children, some married, some single. We are from different corners of the world. I’m sure if we had time to dive deeper we would have disagreed on politics, religion, and values. And still, in our small gathering together, we came to realize we all share so much in this moment. Our generation has never been fully connected by emotions until now. We were not alone. And neither are you.

In the past, I would have fled these thoughts in anyway possible. Happy, optimistic, hopeful — any way to escape feeling pain. Over the course of my lifetime, I have numbed with food. I have numbed with wine. I have numbed by scrolling through social media. I have numbed by widening distance between myself and others. All to avoid settling into pain. Each of us find a way to escape reality for one reason or another. In cognitive psychology, they often call this the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. My typical response to emotional processing is flight. I don’t want to make space for difficult emotions in my narrative. Before social distancing, I could probably call myself a professional daydreamer because of the many ways I had found to escape my reality. Browsing Pinterest for changes to our home, from new furniture to new floors to new light fixtures. Spending hours researching part-time, working from home job opportunities to use my talents and skills. Fantasizing with my husband about a  dream vacation in the United States. (Spoiler Alert: his idea was South Dakota… Apologies to all the Black Hills fans out there, but I was hoping for something like Hawaii.)

But one way or another, pain can be like a boiling pot. Even if you spend time fighting or running, those bubbles will build over time. Eventually, with the heat rising, they will collectively rise to the top.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a fun package of stationary which featured a card declaring “Find Joy in the Ordinary”. At first, I didn’t think much of the popular saying. It wasn’t until when my eyes caught the card after our time in isolation that I took it a step further. Find joy in the the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the grief. In the midst of trials and pain, find space for every emotion and let it be

In this moment of history, I am choosing to hold on to those feelings and experience them. All I can control is the internal. My external world has forced me to pause, even though I wish I could grip my environment between my fingers and mold it like clay to my will. But I will create space for discomfort, just like I will create space for happiness, joy, and hopefulness. I refuse to retreat to a state of numbing or escapism. I know that my narrative is so much stronger than the difficult emotions during this time. This forced pause has helped me realize that I was craving something intentional and meaningful in my life, needing quiet time for my soul in the midst of motherhood, and seeking out solutions before taking time to understand the emotions I was truly experiencing. Now that it is quiet, I’m ready to listen.

On Sharing Joy

We have watched the rain outside switch from a hazy drizzle to snowflakes all day long. I pulled on Noah’s jacket and wrestled him while he tried to stand up, sliding one sock and shoe on at a time, hoping they would last longer than the car ride. Today, I took Noah to a local nursing home to visit a family member. As we walked inside, I couldn’t help but fixate on the most recent posts on social media and news warning of colds, flu viruses, RSV, and other dangerous bugs floating around waiting to infect a small baby. A buzzer sounded as the code was punched in to the alarm system, protecting those inside from the outside. I held him tightly as he stared up at the florescent lights. 

Strangers who were chair ridden stretched their arms out to him as we walked by, cooing and trying to connect with him. He flashed his best smile, flirting with the crowd like usual. They called him beautiful, handsome, and a perfect baby. As his mama, I couldn’t help but agree (and I was secretly thankful that he didn’t chose this time to pitch one of his toddler fits that have been starting to bubble on the surface). A woman asked to hold him, and I politely declined with a smile. I tried to kindly mention we didn’t want him to come down with any sickness, but she was welcome to wave to Noah and blow kisses to him. He juggled making friends and balancing while walking through the hallways, holding onto my fingers for support. His new-found mobility made it hard to keep him in my arms because he certainly prefers crawling and independently standing compared to cuddling these days.

We spent a little time chatting with family and catching up. Noah scoped out the colorful candy bowl and was captivated by the black and white movie playing in the background. I found myself reflecting on visiting the nursing home with my family when I was a child. Christmas carols were sang to cheer friends and family members up. Hard candy was always a staple, butterscotch candy being the ever popular bribery treat for sitting still. And the memories of that distinct smell of nursing homes, of age and idleness, a smell that lingers in every one of them probably.

Sitting in the small apartment style room and holding my sweet baby, I also spent some time thinking about my grandmother. She spent the last few days of her life in a nursing home with comfort care. I thought about holding her hand and singing to her as she slipped away from the world. Often times, when I think of these places and memories, I feel a sadness creep into my bones. I felt that today. I think of the loneliness and changing of life, how it can pass by so quickly and quietly for so many people.

As we made outside to head home, a woman stopped us in the entrance. Noah rubbed his eyes, and I held him closely as people continued to wave at him. He needed to make it home in time for his upcoming nap.

“Thank you for sharing him today,” she whispered.

Pure joy

Why is it that these days, I find it so much easier to share life with Noah from the quiet of my home instead of the commotion of public? That I would choose to share highlights of our life through social media instead of discussing them with friends in person? Why is it that I find it so much easier to seek connection through the internet instead of real life? For some reason, I chose the ease and comfort of sharing in the solitude of my screen, instead of being with out with strangers who need joy more than anyone else.

I could tell you that I was afraid to take Noah into a nursing home because of sickness, because we didn’t have time, or because there would be strangers all around. But the truth of the matter is, I was nervous to take him because of how hard it would be for those memories to come back to me. I was fearful to share my joy because I knew it would be difficult for me personally to go into a nursing home. And I knew it could be difficult for strangers there to see our joy, too.

We too often struggle to look those in the eyes, like people in nursing homes or the homeless or even our friends who are grieving, and share our joy authentically. We think maybe our happiness can increase their sadness. Or it may even cause us a little heartache too. The often overlooked truth that joy can be held right with sadness at the same time. Instead of being afraid to show up, in person, we need to love right where we are. In joy and sadness, connection and loneliness, happiness and heartache – it is in sharing that things get messy. It is in sharing that things get hard. But the beauty is that we all have the chance to do it together, and I would much rather share those moments in person than hide behind my screen any longer.

Sure, I’ll hold onto my baby in public closely. I’ll try my best to protect him from the world, people, and illness during this life. But I will happily share him today and every day with those who might need it most. Chris McCandless once wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.” You might know him as the subject of the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a young man whose life ended in isolation after setting off on a solitary journey in the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless is someone who would certainly know about the consequences of detachment. If sharing joy in the world is the small thing I can do to make a small impact on my community, I plan to do so going forward. I hope you also can find tiny ways to be fearless and joyful in the days ahead.

Book Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

I cried within the first chapter of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry – big, ugly, fat tears that streamed down my face. The kind that leaves your eyes puffy and swollen. And then I laughed hysterically – big, belly-aching, unstoppable laughs that poured from my lips. My emotions flipped up and down while reading Fredrik Backman’s words like a shiny, copper coin. If you happened to be in the room with me while I was hunched over the book, you probably thought I was “losing it”. But this emotional reaction quickly became the norm. The penny tossed and turned as I dove deeper into a moving story about the strength of community, being true to yourself, and the unique relationship between a young girl and her grandmother.

My Grandmother

Elsa is an almost eight-year-old with a precocious personality. Her teachers and classmates like to call her “different”. When they call her that, her Granny likes to demonstrate that being different is nothing to be concerned about, in the most extreme ways (ie. sneaking into a zoo overnight and throwing monkey feces at security officers). Who wouldn’t want a grandmother like that?! To most, Granny is wild and eccentric, but Elsa frequently refers to her grandmother as her personal superhero. Yet, the more Elsa learns about Granny’s past life as a doctor with global impact, the more she learns that Granny was a superhero to many. Before she passes away, Granny leaves Elsa with fanciful tales of adventure in the magical Land of Almost Awake. The two explore and learn together in this place, and it leaves Elsa with the best memories of her grandmother. When Granny dies, she has one final request for her favorite Knight. She asks her to deliver apology notes to her neighbors and community members.

As Elsa begins the greatest adventure of her young life, she begins to realize that the fairytales told by her grandmother were laced with realism. Each character from bedtime stories comes to life, and Elsa begins to learn more about the world around her. She takes her new responsibility seriously and dives deeply into relationships with her neighbors. Her interactions with others, even as a child, are powerful. We can all hope to see the world from young Elsa’s eyes. Her spunk and zest for life inspire, and frequently the book reminds us to shape our own identity “because if a number of sufficient people are different, no one has to be normal”.

Most may know Backman from A Man Called Ove, a #1 New York Times bestseller. I’m thankful that I dove into his works starting with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. His sense of humor is incredibly unique and may take some adjusting. However, you’ll fall in love with the peculiar characters that are more realistic than you can initially imagine. Maybe you’ll remember the neighbors around you. Maybe you’ll recall your own adventures in childhood. Maybe you’ll flash back to wonderful memories with your own grandmother. No matter how you interpret the story, I highly recommend picking up My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry this summer.

★★★★★ 5/5 Stars



Land of a Thousand Welcomes: An Ireland Gallery

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Ireland for the first time alongside my younger sister. I had just finished two years at my first full-time job and found myself relieved to step away and take a longer vacation. As we started to plan our adventure, my sister and I knew we would be tired (as she was coming off a month and a half long study abroad trip in Italy). But most importantly, we wanted to make the effort to learn more about the Irish culture. When we met together near the River Liffey which runs through the center of Dublin, we were ecstatic to be in a new country together.

These photos are just a sample of the time we experienced there. You may notice the overcast sense that permeate throughout my earlier photos, from the restaurants of Dublin to Trinity College. I believe this depicts my weariness on arriving to the city, reflecting my exhaustion from travel and time changes. The very word Dublin means “black” or “dark” in classical Irish. As a city, Dublin has seen a great deal of darkness in its past, from an early Viking settlement to the more recent violence surrounding the Irish fight for independence. When my sister and I arrived, the city was commemorating its 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, a revolutionary movement claiming the lives of nearly 500 in Dublin. As we learned more, it was, at times, hard to understand that Dublin was the capital city of a very young independent country, especially when we were surrounded by a great deal of history and Irish Nationalism that the tourism of Ireland can showcase.

While we spent the majority of our time in Dublin, our favorite day included a trip away from the hustle of the city to the rolling countryside. By looking at the photos, you’ll notice that we experienced a rare perfect day of weather on our trip west. We stopped in Galway and saw the sunlight hit the ocean at the Cliffs of Moher. It gave us a truly full view of Ireland, and I highly recommend taking the time to explore as much of the diverse country as you can. If you have the chance to visit Ireland in the future, make sure you notice the people of Ireland as often as the landscapes in front of you. From the cobblestone streets of Dublin to the gorgeous green pastures, the country radiated a welcoming attitude that I will always treasure.




Book Review: East of Eden

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

When I first thought about the task of reviewing books for my blog, I knew that I absolutely needed to include East of Eden by John Steinbeck on my list. It has often been called the Nobel Prize winner’s greatest work, a thick and sweeping tale of the American Dream. Most importantly, this is, without any doubt, my favorite novel. In the beginning, I’m not sure what it was about Steinbeck that caught my interest. He was never part of “required reading” for any of my high school or college Literature courses. Yet, at the age of seventeen, I pulled a copy that smelled a bit like rainwater from the shelves of my high school library. And I fell in love with East of Eden’s marvelous prose, stunning imagery, and characters that you hold close to your heart.

East of Eden book

This is a story about the true nature of man that is far more personal than prophetic. Primarily set in the California farmland of the Salinas Valley, a place rooted in Steinbeck’s personal history, you discover the variety of struggles faced by two intertwined families in the early 20th century. Despite their differences, every member of the Hamilton and Trask family immensely struggles to understand the idea of destiny. Are these complex, broken, and entirely human characters fated to be flawed due to a predetermined plan? Or do they have the choice and ability to determine circumstance? The theme is deeply entrenched in the story – sibling rivalry, the lack of love from a paternal figure, the pressures of leading a large family, the struggle for acceptance, or the sinking of depression loneliness. Steinbeck weaves a story that leaves many of his readers questioning humanity’s disposition alongside the characters. The idea is hidden inside a metaphor in the depths of the story, and it is one that I’ve really chosen to root in my life. The Hebrew word timshel, which Steinbeck translates as “Thou Mayest”, stands for the idea that although God knows us to our core (our future, our plans, our dreams), we still have the freedom as humans to make our own choices.

“[The Hebrew] word timshelThou mayest — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if Thou mayest — it is also true that Thou mayest not… [Thou mayest] makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth … he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Perhaps man is not doomed to evil or destined for good. Instead, man has the power to choose his path. If I were ever to have a tattoo, you can bet timshel would be printed on my body as a reminder that God created me, yet I am fully responsible for my own choices.

The novel is arduous, and I won’t try to gloss over the labor that goes into reading it. Yet, in my opinion, every line that Steinbeck writes is something to be savored. Like unraveling and sucking on a piece of hard candy, you want to taste it on your tongue, rolling it over and over, and when it disappears, you quickly wish it back. This is America’s epic. Steinbeck’s masterpiece feels immensely personal. I can imagine myself in his home, curled up on a couch across from him, listening to his deep voice sliding over the Salinas Valley as he describes the mountains in the distance, the wildflowers springing up from dry dirt, the people who have worked at the land. He really invites you inside this story to feel and experience it yourself.

If you’re looking for your next favorite novel, I guarantee Steinbeck will make the cut once you finish this book. (Even if it does take a couple months to tackle the task.)

★★★★★ 5/5 Stars. I honestly would give it 6, but that wouldn’t be fair to the other works.