Identification, please… (9/3/2015)

I am staring down the barrel of my and my husband’s 30 year high school class reunion.  In my experience, reunions, while very fun, are fraught with myriad pressures.  Some are admittedly superficial in nature: What will I find to wear that strikes the right balance between classy, cool, and not trying too hard?  Can I lose 20 lbs. before then?   Do I look that old, really?  Am I as cute as those “popular” girls are now?  And some are slightly less superficial: What do I even say when people ask what I DO?  Since I’ve been home with my illness, my kids’ response when asked what I do has been something like this: “Well, she watches a lot of Netflix, she knits, and she cooks.”  Doesn’t sound so very prestigious or impressive when you frame it in those words, does it?  Not that it’s entirely inaccurate.

It’s a strange thing, taking time to consider one’s identity at this age.  I’ve identified myself in many different ways during the course of my life: Ken & Bonnie’s daughter, student, Tim’s/Ken’s/Rickey’s little sister, James’ wife, musician, weight loss counselor, marketing director, stay at home mom, women’s ministry director, freelance interior designer, teacher, student council advisor, executive assistant.  Lots of identities.  Isn’t it interesting, though, that so many of the ways I’ve identified myself (and, I suspect, others identify themselves) are based on what one does, one’s vocation, or what fills one’s time.  Is that really who we ARE?

In this peculiar time of my life there’s not that much doing in my world.  Yes, I’m still a mom and I stay at home.  However my kids are 20 and 17 ½, so being a stay at home mom carries a bit of a different vibe than 15 years ago.  Or even 10 years ago.  As with many other parts of my life, this radical change in lifestyle because of my illness has changed the way I see myself.  I DON’T want to be identified based on my illness, although it is part of me.

But I am now finding my identity more and more in my relationships, who I AM, whose I am, rather than in what I do.  Being over doing.  Character over activity.  Based on that view, I am finding a new way to identify myself.  I am a forgiven and blessed child of God.  I am a wife to a wonderful man, one with whom I share an amazing love and this incredible adventure called married life.  I am a mom to two kids I adore, people I would love even if they weren’t mine.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a cousin, blessed with incredible people who walk with me through all the beautiful and difficult things.  I am one who is ready to listen and to laugh.  I am one who finds the humor in hard things and tries to extend grace.  I am a student of life and a reader of books.

I still don’t know what I’ll say at the reunion when asked what I do, but I think I won’t care as much about that as I once would have.   Maybe, instead, I think I ‘ll smile, remember who I AM and whose I am, and turn the conversation to ask what THEY do.

Planner (8/8/2015)

That’s what I am.  A planner.  I like to lay things out, set my goals, make a plan, execute, and succeed.  This is how I roll.  I’ve been like this my whole life.  I am a girl who is giddy at the sight of a new day planner or calendar at the beginning of a new year.  A blank canvas, waiting to be filled.  This is not to say I can’t roll with the punches, get creative, and adjust with circumstances, those left turns that life throws at me.  Not at all, I can TOTALLY do that.  But I always have an end result I’m shooting for and a sense of control over the process and (sometimes) outcome.  Or so I thought.

In my years of teaching, this was the time of year to lay out a year-long plan, a glorious frenzy, setting up classrooms, getting my world organized, laying out plans for my next newly improved unit/technique/ideas (many fueled by my awesome department head/friend/partner in crime Ric Reyes).  I was buying supplies, making my surroundings adorable AND efficient.  I was so enthralled with my empty lesson planning book, nothing but potential for creativity there!  When I was in my glory as an executive assistant, I was always planning for something the office/my boss/the region needed, working on the next steps, the next seasons, planning the next meetings and events.  Loved the whole process and the satisfaction of seeing my carefully laid and executed plans come to fruition.

I walked through Target with my soon-to-be-a-high-school-senior daughter today as she bought school supplies.  Out of the blue I totally choked up.  (Strange how Target is mentioned so often in my blog.  I should get a royalty.)  Not choked up (like any rational mother)  because I was getting school supplies for my youngest child for the last time in high school, but because it hit me full force that I wasn’t planning anything myself.  Nothing.  How oddly out of character and unexpectedly disconcerting.  It threw into sharp relief how drastically my world has changed since April, when I was a woman with a plan whose plans were suddenly turned upside down.  I saw the beautiful classroom supplies I would not need to set up.  The adorable office supplies with no office to go to.  The cute day planners (I DO still use a paper planner, one of the few of my kind) I would not need to fill.  I am without a plan.  And I, like so many with chronic conditions, am learning/struggling to deal with this.

No plan.  From the perspective of one who has walked through some insanely busy seasons of life, this sounds glorious.  And it can be.  And it was.  For a week or two.  Then I realized this lack-of-plan season wasn’t going to be short-lived.  And I started to feel a bit adrift.  I’m now in this strange state of limbo; it sometimes feels like I am without a purpose.  After all, I can’t DO very much at all these days.  I’m not sure at all what to plan for.  Or if I can actually plan for anything concrete.

No amount of planning, or much of anything I do, can control how I will feel when I wake up.  If I overdo one day, yes I do reap those consequences the next day (or two, or three), however the inverse is not always true.  I can spend a day on the couch “being good” and resting for an event/errand/plan in the future and STILL feel like I was hit by a Mack truck the next day.

One of my dear friends, whose sweet daughter has a chronic condition that limits their activities, gave me great words of wisdom:  “We don’t make plans, Kathleen. We have ideas.  And sometimes they work out.”

I am learning more and more that even when I HAD a plan, that didn’t/doesn’t mean I have control.  And I have far less control now.  Not easy for the planner in me.  I was very tempted to buy a label maker during this morning’s retail festivities to start labeling storage areas in my house, file folders, anything that would stay still long enough to be labeled!  But I actually laughed out loud at myself and put said label maker back on the shelf.  I recognized that was truly just another bid for controlling SOMETHING in my life.

No part of where I am with my health and uncertain future was part of my plan.  But who among us REALLY knows what the future will hold?  Who REALLY has control of their circumstances?  We all have ideas, but they don’t always work out.  I was reminded of this passage as I was thinking about this today:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

James 4:13-15

Setting aside my plans.  I’m getting better at that.  Learning to live in the present with a looser hold on what the future will look like isn’t a simple thing for a planner like me.  But it is making me more open and more vigilant to see His will, what is needed, where I’m being led, and what plans really don’t matter very much.

This scripture, while often quoted, rings truer than ever to me in this season:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11

He’s got the planning covered.

“But you look great!” (8/2/2015)

Ah, that phrase.  Meant by those who say it to complement.  And taken that way, generally.  But it is a hallmark of an “invisible” illness.  I have heard it many times in recent months.  I look perfectly normal, if a bit tired, my general appearance not revealing how I feel or what’s going on under the surface with my health and well-being.  My demeanor, unless you know me and observe me for a while, would not show that I am in pain or dealing with debilitating fatigue that drastically limits my activities.  I’ve had strangers give me a second, quizzical look when using my seat/cane (now called “Sit-izen Cane” for those who were wondering) in the middle of Target.  The question in their eyes: “She looks fine, why is she using that?”  No scars, no injury, no hair loss or major medical paraphernalia.  Looking great. Hair and makeup done, dressed cute, even somewhat accessorized.  However, what doesn’t show is that it took me most of the morning to get that way and this is my one outing of the day.

I have talked about this recently with several friends who have similar experiences.  My dear friend and prayer partner for the past 11 years has MS and recently had the worst flare-up of her adult life (back under control, thank God).  So many have told her “But you look great!” throughout the years, not understanding why she couldn’t always do what it seemed she should be able to do based on her physical appearance and age.  Another dear friend’s beautiful pre-teen daughter struggles with a chronic disease that limits her activities in ways you can’t imagine.  But she looks great.  Two other life-long friends, now precious online-far-away-friends, have dealt with the same phrase, the same situation, the same feelings, because of their ongoing “invisible” health issues.  But they look great.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear “that phrase.”  Those words can carry (though not intentionally) into the heart of the hearer a question about the validity of their experience and condition.  Can make the hearer feel as if they aren’t really…understood.  Not fully seen.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was pondering this phrase after spending time with some friends who hadn’t seen me for a few months, another thought came crashing in on me.  That difficult-to-hear, kindly-meant phrase is true for all of us, not necessarily in the realm of physical health, but in our hearts, our minds, our souls.  Those around me who “look great” may be carrying burdens I can’t fathom or imagine.  Those who seem from the outside to have it all together may suffer from incredible pain they never show.  Behind their smiles can be a heaviness, a weight in their hearts they’ve dealt with their whole lives that is beyond my experience or understanding.  We are so accustomed to stopping at the surface, just glossing over the outward appearance of a situation or a person and making a judgment from that, not taking the time to look deeper.  Like a thunderbolt, the question: Just as I crave compassion, grace, and understanding for my physical condition as I am learning to navigate all of this, shouldn’t I extend the same compassion, grace, and understanding to all of those around me?  Shouldn’t my experience make me more sensitive to the fact that appearances can hide such pain and struggle?

All of this is NOT to say I don’t want people to tell me I look great (who doesn’t need to hear that??).  And it’s NOT to say that I wish to be defined by my health condition, because I really don’t.

What I DO want is this:

I pray for God’s eyes to truly see people’s hearts, past the “great looking” surface in all of those around me, and to discern the need for my kindness and grace.   I pray for a softened and understanding heart, so I can know where people’s experiences that so differ from mine are affecting them, and therefore extend compassion where they need it most.

Making Room (7/20/2015)

Today I will meet with my boss, a woman I admire, respect, and genuinely care about, to surrender a perfect job I was led to, have loved, and been so perfectly suited for.  12 weeks of medical leave have come and gone, which boggles my mind a bit.  The day I came home on medical leave I thought I’d be out for a couple of weeks, they’d “fix me,” and I’d be back at work and good as new before I knew it.  Today, however, I have to really let go.  I’m turning in my work iPhone, my access badge, my company credit card, cleaning out my darling office.  My company was only required to hold my position for 12 weeks and it is unfair to ask them to wait any longer.  If I knew an end was in sight, I would ask them to hold on for a little longer, that I’d be able to come back after surgery, treatment, etc.  But there’s no surgery, no treatment, and no recovery timeline.  Letting go of this is so very hard, and I know I will grieve.  Leaving behind so many genuine friends and work that made the best use of my gifts and talents. Feels so final.  So now my calendar we be open for what’s next.  And God keeps impressing on my heart that He is “making room.”

Last week I packed up much of my former life.  I spent time going through my closet, pulling out things I don’t love, don’t make me feel like a million dollars when I wear them, don’t work with where my life is currently going or  (sadly)don’t fit anymore. I had a giant black garbage bag for Goodwill donations and a plastic storage tub for, well, the “clothes on hold.”  The tub is now filled with pencil skirts, blazers, dress trousers, blouses, sheath dresses, button up shirts, sleek pointy-toe pumps, and memories.  The things I won’t be wearing in this new phase.  Wouldn’t make much sense to dress like I’m going to a business meeting to sit on the couch and write my blog.  Or to go to the doctor.  Or on my outings to Trader Joe’s. My closet is cleaned out of the things that would remind me of where I’ve been and make me long for that again as I move into the next piece of my story. The plastic bin of lovely workplace fashion will wait in my garage, as I make room for something else.

All the other radical left turns my life has taken over the past several years have always been God leading me to a defined next step, something different that was fairly clear and tangible.  This isn’t.  Which is so strange.  So I am here at this strange crossroads of limbo, unsure of what my next phase will be.  As of right now, it could just feel like empty space.  I choose not to focus, though, on my lack of a 5 year plan (or one month plan for that matter).  I will dwell in the present, ready to listen, to hear, to be still, and I will look ahead to what’s next, trusting that whatever He is making room for will be for my best. I will wait on the Lord’s leading as He makes room.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

-Philippians 3:13b-14

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

-Psalm 27:4

Enough (7/16/2015)

In most of my adult life I’ve been trying to impress someone.  Someone I worked for/with, some cute boy in high school (who actually did marry me, by the way), teachers/professors, my friends, my frenemies, someone in my church, total strangers, people I didn’t even like, extended family, parents, husband, children, my kids’ friends’ parents, ministry leaders.

I always felt the driving need to prove that I am “something (you fill in the blank) enough.”  Thin enough.  Fashionable enough. Fit enough.  Smart enough.  Well-read enough.  Home decorated well enough.  Home clean enough.  Kids well behaved enough.  Working hard enough.  Doing enough at church. Doing enough in general.  Creative enough.  Cool enough.  Pretty enough.  Spiritual enough.  Innovative enough.  Involved enough. Striving, striving, striving.  So much of how I felt about myself and my success was tied to someone else’s evaluation (real or imagined) of how well I’m doing.

Now, in this strange/purifying season in which I currently live, I find that I am not trying to impress anyone for the first time in my life.  What an odd freedom.  I feel as though I am… enough.  I can’t DO enough, but the being still that is hallmark in my life is enough in this season.  All the other standards of evaluation fall away.

I have set aside so much of my (considerable) pride in this season, not giving a second thought to using my new handy-dandy folding cane chair (we’ve come up with several creative names for it, including Cane-ye West, Cane-y Perry, John McCane, Cane-y Poehler) when needed, or riding in an electric cart in Target on a particularly bad day, or *gasp* asking for help.  Not worried about how anyone else sees me or judges me.  Again, so much freedom.

Do I know what the next steps will look like?  Nope.  But I have found a place of freedom and contentment in spite of that.  I am enough because what God is doing in me is enough.  Sitting with my husband at breakfast, chatting and sharing coffee is enough.  Quiet times with my young adult kids just being there (something that is short-lived, I am painfully aware) is enough.  Sweet time with a precious friend is enough.  My slow pace is enough.

Being in God’s presence, not running, not striving, is enough.

Blessed (7/5/2015)

 

The past three days have been hard.  Very hard.  Feeling particularly bad since last Thursday and disappointed/frustrated in my lack of improvement.  Not my favorite.  But last night one of my dearest friends and closest confidantes in the wide world, one who sees me, knows me, and knows my struggle, challenged me to write something every day about how I am blessed or what I was thankful for. Not easy today, but a much needed paradigm shift.  So here it goes.  One blessing for each of these very difficult three days and one extra for tomorrow:

  1. I am beyond thankful for my husband of 25 years who stands with me and supports me through the hardest things.  He listens to my pain, sits with me when I cry, and loves me regardless.  He helps me wherever he can and encourages me when there are things only I can do.  I honestly don’t know how I would keep going without him.
  2. Air conditioning.  It’s July in the Sacramento Valley.  Enough said.
  3. Exactly-the-right-level-of-ripe nectarines from a roadside fruit stand, just a few miles and a few hours removed from the trees that grew them.  Golden perfect reminder of teen summers spent working at a nectarine ranch fruit stand.
  4.  People from all phases of my life, near and far, who have reached out to me to encourage me in this part of my journey, share their own stories, and give me solutions/thoughts that worked for them.  It means the world that you would take the time to communicate and let me know you hear me, you see my challenges, and you care.

The point in all of this is that God is good and faithful no matter what is hard in my world.  To quote my friend Susie, even on bad days, “There’s a lot of good.”

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

2 Corinthians 4:8-9

Can’t (6/26/15)

My growing list of “can’ts” is disconcerting.

  • ·       Can’t focus on more than one thing at once.  Can’t walk all the way through Ikea.  Or Target. Or the mall.  Or even Trader Joe’s.
  • ·       Can’t go to a theme park for the day.
  • ·       Can’t hike. Or sight-see.  Or even snorkel.
  • ·       Can’t remember what I meant to do/who I meant to call/ what I meant to tell someone.
  • ·       Can’t garden/do housework/move around much for more than 15 minutes before I need a nice long rest.
  • ·       Can’t drive very far without feeling awful.
  • ·       Can’t work at the job I love.
  • ·       Can’t stand for more than a minute or two (don’t know why, but it’s harder than walking).
  • ·       Can’t remember words sometimes, heartbreaking for this girl, one who loves language.

Oh-so-easy to focus on those things, those “can’ts” that weigh down like the lead weights I feel like I’m carrying every time I move, the fatigue that pushes down on me like hyper-exaggerated gravity.

Again, in my time with Him (a great blessing that is part of this season of challenges), God realigns my thinking and reminds me of all the “cans” I should be holding onto.

  • ·       I can be present here and now with my family and have those “simple” conversations with them that wouldn’t happen if I was in my “normal” life.
  • ·       I can learn, as the apostle Paul, to be content in all circumstances.
  • ·       I can, again like Paul, do all things through Jesus’ strength.
  • ·       I can trust that He knows the plans He has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans for a hope and a future.  Words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah to a people in captivity that ring true to this grounded sparrow’s heart today.  He knows.

And so you have it; I have my list of “can’ts” and my list of “cans.”  Where I focus my time and energy is up to me, my choice.  So I choose to hold on to Him, the One who is more than able to do immeasurably more than I can ask or imagine.  He can. Even when I can’t.

Limited (6/19/2015)

Limited.  I don’t like that word. I don’t like the idea of my activity, health, or energy being limited.  But limited is my world right now.  I struggle with debilitating fatigue, chest pain, and lack of answers.  I don’t want to be this version of me, unrecognizable when compared to the high-energy, bouncy, super productive, multi-tasking, motivated, high-achieving me.  I worry that I am disappointing to all of those around me; that’s what I see now when I look in the mirror on a “bad day.”  A burden.  Less than.  And whiny.  The opposite of productive.  Not me.  Limited.

I want a nice neat package of definitive: here’s the issue, here’s how to fix it, here’s how soon you’ll be back to normal.  But thus far no dice.  I enter doctor’s appointments with less and less hope that they will end in a direction and course of action rather than ruling something else out as NOT the issue.  Not cardiac, not diabetes, not thyroid, not hormonal.  The most recent “answer” is ridiculously lengthy mononucleosis caused by Epstein Barr virus.  Three severe bouts of sore throat, weakness and fever earlier this year coupled with all of this fun of the past two months and nothing but negative results in all other blood tests bring us here for now.  So I wait some more to see if I improve.  So I take my vitamins, listen to my body, rest A LOT, do my very gentle yoga routine (truly all I can manage), and I have embraced a very clean eating regimen (Whole30).

This is week 8 of my medical leave.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not exclusively Self-pitying Whiny Girl.  I do realize many (myself included in the past) would LOVE two months to stop everything for a rest.  It’s not quite that simple,  but I get that part.  On the upside, I am so blessed and grateful to be with my husband and kids more, to have time to connect, in person or electronically, with people who are dear to me, and time to be still and present.

But still, this doesn’t feel like me.  And I can’t help but wonder if this is my new normal.  No longer the indispensable gal in my office, fixing everything for everyone and making my boss’s life easier, no longer being that woman who can climb Half Dome, do P90X and Insanity, walk all day in San Francisco and still play with her family, cook, clean and decorate her house.  I have no idea how this kind of new normal would even look.  But I’m guessing:  Limited.  I don’t know that this will be the case.  All the things I’m doing could really help, the virus could run its course and I could be back to where I once was.  But I can’t help but wonder.

Yet I am reminded in all of this that He is not limited.  He is strong.  He is more than enough.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (emphasis mine)

2 Corinthians 12:9