Spiritual progress as I begin 2020

My current spiritual journey began with a bushel basket full of pesky questions and a commitment.

About two years ago, I found myself at a spiritual crossroads. My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my congregation’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

My commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be and live accordingly. 

I engaged a spiritual director to help me sort through my basket of “ultimate” questions, challenge all kinds of dogma from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological, and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. For the past two years, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful, and she recommends various reading materials as well.

It’s important for me to point out that seeing a spiritual director has not replaced going to church. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. It’s a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. 

One of the first questions my spiritual director asked me was, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God. Yet, nagging doubts continued to creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the Christians around me ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed that what I really wanted was the “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them. Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me – at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

I started spending more time outside. Dismissing the existence of a deity is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their neighbors while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

Because the natural world constantly reassures me of God’s existence, I’ve discovered that going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I can watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

Once I discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence, it was time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey – improving my conscious contact with God. For the past year, I’ve been exploring a variety of prayer techniques. Among them: morning meditation, nature prayer, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer and practicing better mindfulness in church. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’ve committed to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. 

As I’ve engaged in nature prayer, I’ve acquired a new hobby – photography. I even invested in a new camera recommended to me by the author of From My Window, a blog featuring amazing nature photography (link HERE). The Canon PowerShot SX720 HS camera is a simple “point-and-shoot,” but it has a 40X zoom, which has allowed me to capture stunning close-up photos of birds and other wildlife. I’ll be sharing more of my favorites on my own blog in the coming months.

1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my medical adventures of the past year have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. Toward that end, I’ve been experimenting with recipes designed to make my healthy eating plan more enticing. After much adjusting and tweaking of ingredients, I’ve managed to come up with a few recipes that are worth sharing, so I’ll be doing that from time to time as well.

So what’s next as I continue my spiritual journey?

Part of my initial motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years, and the stressful impact all the fighting has had in my personal life. I must say I’m dreading the 2020 election season here in the U.S. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an “exhausted majority” of folks who feel pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time, I don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing progressive or the right-wing conservative camp. As the increasingly polarized positions have hardened, and the endless bickering has begun to penetrate every area of our lives, common sense seems to have flown out the window. 

This situation has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors and what is my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How do I engage people who disagree with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love my neighbor as myself? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we as Christians change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? And perhaps more importantly, how do I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry? I will be exploring these issues and questions with my spiritual director in the coming year.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey. 

Our annual Christmas letter

I understand Christmas letters are considered a bit tacky in some circles – after all, they have a somewhat deserved reputation for turning into obnoxious brag-fests – but I personally love getting them. With family and friends spread out all over (Pete and I have relatives in at least a dozen different states and three different countries), Christmas letters, like Facebook, help me keep up with everyone. So Pete and I have been sending out our own annual Christmas letters for more than 30 years now. Hopefully we don’t brag too obnoxiously – except for our occasional travel adventures. 

Actually, our travel in 2019 mostly seemed to consist of trips to the emergency room. In February I landed in intensive care for massive internal bleeding caused by the blood-thinning medication I was taking. This was followed in the spring and summer by several trips to the emergency room for radiating chest pain, which the doctors now believe was caused by gallbladder attacks. Said gallbladder came out in September and I finally seem to be healing. (Knock wood!)

As if that wasn’t enough, both our kitties developed health issues this year. But so far, the special diets and medication are working and our little bandits seem to be doing well. Meanwhile, they continue to be their sweet, lovable, adorable, ornery, mischievous selves.

Which is a good thing, because this has been a sad year.

My mother passed away in September after spending several months in home hospice care and waging a valiant 60-year battle with Type 1 diabetes. It was a humbling experience to hear all the stories about her vibrant personality, hospitality and generosity from the literally hundreds of people who showed up for her visitation and funeral. She had a wide range of people who dearly loved her. It was nice to see lots of cousins we hadn’t seen in a while, even if the occasion was a sad one.

An absolutely phenomenal team of caregivers shepherded her through her final months and I will be forever grateful to Sharon, Stacy, Jessica, Debbie and Mary for their constant loving attentiveness that went way beyond the call of duty. Not to mention my sister Cindy, who took on the monumental task of supervising the support team. Here are several of these awesome ladies joining Mom and my sister for an adult slumber party complete with pink squirrels (Mom’s favorite drink) last summer.

Mom was a fun-loving, die-hard Cubs fan, so it came as no surprise when she requested that family and friends wear Cubs shirts to her visitation and funeral/celebration of life. Here are Pete and I in our his-and-hers matching shirts, which we bought just for her. The Cubs must have been playing for her, since they won 14-1 the day we said good-bye. 

We also lost a dear friend. John Knoepfle was a talented poet and storyteller who published more than two dozen books. At 96, he was still at it, working on yet another book when he wasn’t playing his harmonica. He was a terrific mentor to me in my younger years and Pete and I had the honor of helping him edit and publish the chinkapin oak, one of his earlier books. And while he lived a long, amazingly full life, we’re still going to miss him!

Fortunately, 2019 did bring more than sad news and hospital trips. There were also weddings. LOTS of weddings! Congratulations to Angie and Will, Ellie and Adam, Payton and Vero, Jacob and Sid, Anna and Eddie. Health issues prevented us from attending most of the weddings, but hopefully these newlyweds will all have marriages as wonderful and Pete’s and mine. (Have I ever said I have a fabulous husband??)

While we didn’t travel much, we did manage to see some of Pete’s cousins. We had the pleasure of visiting twice with John and Anne, who live in western North Carolina, while they were passing through the Midwest to attend a couple of the above-mentioned weddings. And we met in St. Louis with Pete’s cousin Chrissie and her husband Chris, who were in town for a WordPress meetup. Chrissie’s work as a “happiness engineer,” doing customer support for WordPress, takes her all over the country, and she’s been SO helpful to us with our blogs.

Pete and I continue to take spiritual direction with a charming – and very patient – Dominican sister. Spiritual direction doesn’t replace church. Rather, it’s a one-to-one relationship in which one person helps another grow in a personal relationship with God and sense the presence of God in everyday life. It’s been a very interesting experience for both of us, and we both blog about it. While posting articles and photos to my blog “Seriously Seeking Answers,” I’ve met some fascinating fellow bloggers who are pursuing similar journeys. Pete’s working title for his blog is “Ordinary Time” [link HERE]. As the address – ordinaryzenlutheran.com – implies, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. 

Pete’s historical research on Swedish immigration continues to sit on the back burner but he’s vowed to get back to it in the coming year, and I’ve promised to start in earnest writing the book I’ve been threatening to write for ages. That is, if we can tear ourselves away from our computer screens and stop arguing politics with total strangers on social media. And if we political junkies can’t stay away from the 2020 election season completely – who are we kidding?? – we at least plan to do something constructive like volunteering for a local candidate’s campaign. 

Music continues to be an important part of our lives. We’re active in our church, where we sing in the traditional choir. We also play dulcimers (mountain dulcimer for Pete and hammered dulcimer for me) with a group of musicians that gathers for jam sessions at a senior high-rise a few blocks from our house. There’s actually a bit of a “fan club” of residents who pull up chairs and listen to us play in the lobby, so it feels like we’re actually doing some social good while having a good time.

I have to admit that getting into the holiday spirit was a bit of a challenge, given the kind of year we’ve had, so that’s why I broke my usual rule of not even thinking about Christmas until after Thanksgiving and started decorating early. This seems to be working. And my Christmas cactus is faithfully blooming right on schedule.

We’re getting to an age where our idea of a wild New Year’s Eve celebration consists of supper at our favorite Indian restaurant around 6 p.m. followed by bedtime at 10. But we’ve started a new tradition in recent years of inviting friends to our house on New Year’s Day for hoppin’ john (rice and black-eyed peas), greens and lots of music. The hoppin’ john and greens are said to bring good luck and making music just seems to be a great way to start off the New Year right. 

Here’s hoping you all have a happy and healthy New Year full of grace and peace!

Blessings,

A prayer of thanksgiving

Dear God,

In Exodus 20:12 and again in Deuteronomy 5:16, you gave us the following commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” 

Fortunately, you blessed me with parents who made following that commandment easy. My life has turned out pretty wonderful. I have been blessed with a good marriage, a successful career and good friends. I owe that in no small part to having a good upbringing by parents who were loved and respected by the entire community. 

But this holiday season is the first that I will be facing without either Mom or Dad, except in my memories. So I’d like to take the time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for their lives.

As a child with disability issues, I had problems in school, especially with other kids. In those days, diversity was NOT considered beautiful, and I was bullied pretty relentlessly. Compounding the problem was the fact that there were no good services 50-60 years ago – no IDEA, no Individualized Education Plans. Parents and their special-needs kids were pretty much on their own, and my parents just had to do the best they could without the help parents and kids can take for granted today. Despite these obstacles, they raised an honor student who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.

It’s amazing how a small gesture can change a person’s life. When I was in junior high school, and didn’t have much belief in my abilities, I showed Mom a poem I had written. Without telling me, she sent a copy of the poem to Carol Burnett and it wound up getting published in a book. Then Mom gave me a typewriter, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas or anything, and said, “You could be a famous writer someday.” Okay, so maybe the “famous” part didn’t happen, but I did grow up to be a successful professional writer. I even managed to win some writing and journalism awards. And it started with someone believing in me and telling me I had talent.

I appreciated my parents’ sense of humor when conveying life’s lessons to my sisters and me. Instead of lecturing us extensively about the need to avoid peer pressure, they’d simply say, “If 10 of your friends jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, would you do it too?” Once when I was complaining about a mean boss, Dad said, “You know, you can learn as much from a bad example as you can from a good one.” I took that advice to heart, actually, as I progressed through my career. When I became a boss myself, I thought about the bosses I’d liked, and analyzed what they did right. But I also learned a lot about what not to do from the bosses I didn’t like so well.

Mom and Dad took just about the right approach when I ran into problems. If I found myself in a situation that really and truly wasn’t fair, they were my best allies, and more than once they went to school to help me straighten out misunderstandings with one teacher or another. But if I got into trouble and was guilty as charged, they allowed me to experience the consequences rather than bailing me out the way some parents would. I can still remember when I got into a water fight with a classmate in the home-ec room, and our punishment was staying after school for 10 afternoons to clean ovens. When I complained that the punishment seemed excessive, I didn’t get much sympathy, but was told, “The exercise will do you good.” 

But perhaps the best gift they gave me was their example. 

My parents showed me what a good marriage looks like. I’ve now been blessed for 34 years with the kind of marriage they had, and I know it is possible to have a relationship with someone who loves and respects me and treats me well.

They showed me how to overcome adversity. I was not a happy camper when I got diagnosed with diabetes. But Mom had it for 60 years, and showed me how to live with the condition and accept the dietary restrictions with good grace.

They showed me it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable. One of my favorite memories was of Dad and his brothers arguing about politics, for two or three hours at a time. But they’d all be smiling while they argued, and they’d still be smiling when they got done.

Mom and Dad taught me to be generous and to give back to our community and they walked the talk. Whether it was serving on the school board, teaching Sunday School, or donating $1,000 to help a family at church, both parents were generous with their time and money. Helping others has been a big part of both my career and my volunteer work, and I learned that value from my parents. 

Their generosity has extended to hospitality. Pete and I are both grateful for how nice my parents were to my mother-in-law, making her feel like part of the family after her husband died. They made sure she felt welcome and loved.

And the community loved my parents back. During their funerals and visitations, I was blown away by the outpouring of love and respect from everyone who knew Mom and Dad. Literally hundreds of people lined up to tell my sisters and I what our parents meant to them. Here are just a few examples of the comments:

“Sweetest lady ever!”

“He’d give the shirt off his back.”

“So special, kind and caring.”

“Always so nice to everyone.”

“They changed my life.”

Finally, my parents taught me by example to count my blessings. On my 50thbirthday, I remember joking, “Now that I’m finally mature enough to listen to my elders and believe them, what advice would you pass on? If you had one thing you could do differently, what would it be?” I remember Dad, who was 75 at the time, saying, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I only hope I can say the same thing when I’m 75. 

So now I try to remember to count my own blessings, and I definitely count my parents to be among those blessings.

With love and gratitude,

My Gratitude List for 2019

In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:18 

It’s November, which means it’s time for me to make my annual Thanksgiving Gratitude List. 

I’m tempted to say this year has been a ring-tailed monster. It began with both me and my little cat being diagnosed with diabetes, followed by a stint in the ICU with massive internal bleeding caused by my blood-thinning medication. My beloved mother was placed in hospice care in May and passed away in September. Then came two more trips to the hospital for me in the fall – first for gallbladder surgery and three weeks later for more testing after I developed complications.

And yet I do have plenty to be grateful for this year:

My husband. He’s been my absolute rock this past year as I went through three hospitalizations and the loss of my mother. I love that man to the moon and back!

My parents. During Mom’s visitation and funeral (and Dad’s a few years ago), I was awestruck to realize how many people loved my parents and to hear story after story about their generosity in the community.

My family. Having sisters really helps when one goes through the grieving process. Even though the occasion was sad, I also got to visit with a number of cousins I haven’t seen in years. And I can’t begin to express enough gratitude for the amazing team of women who cared for Mom during her final months! They became like family as well.

Good friends, our church community and other supportive people. I’m not sure we’re expected to be grateful for affliction – after all, I’m not a masochist. But I’m certainly grateful for the people God puts in our lives to help us through the sad and scary stuff – the friends, family, church people and total strangers who prayed for us this year. The steady stream of get well-cards and sympathy cards and visits helped more than people know!

Our kitties. I’m learning to count each day with Oley and Champaign as a blessing, now that both have been diagnosed with health problems. And I’ve decided whoever invented pill pockets deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

My health. I’ve absolutely stopped taking my health for granted. I’m committed to practicing better self-care and am grateful for the Stay Fit exercise program at our local hospital, not to mention the existence of fat-free cream cheese, sugar-free peanut butter cups, the buffets full of delectable vegetable dishes at our two local Indian restaurants and other little things that make sticking to a healthy eating plan (slightly) easier.

Our home. The fireplace I sit next to during my morning meditation and the flower beds in my backyard offer a perfect balm during all the days I’ve spent healing.

Financial security. I’m grateful we can afford health insurance, which means I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay all those medical bills. Being able to hire someone to clean our house and mow our grass has certainly made my life easier, especially since my time was taken up with the job of healing from surgery and making frequent six-hour round trips to my parents’ farm.

Being alive. God has granted me another year. While many folks complain about aging (and I must admit I do this myself from time to time), today I choose to be grateful I’ve been able to grow old. Especially after the adventures of the past year.

And last but not least … SPRING IS COMING in 125 days!!!

For all of this, God, I thank you.

And so, I resolve to keep reminding myself each day: Today is the day our Creator has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Here’s hoping everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Blessings,

Courting my Muse

I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity because I could relate all too well to author Julia Cameron’s description of writer’s block: “Creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery. A decade of writing and all I knew was how to make these headlong dashes and hurl myself, against all odds, at the wall of whatever I was writing.” 

My own Muse had been on strike for several months, and attempts at negotiation had utterly failed to coax her out of hiding. A prolonged siege of work-related stress had left me feeling emotionally exhausted, with no creative energy whatsoever. I was ready to try almost anything.

Cameron calls The Artist’s Way a blueprint for “creative recovery” – in fact, 12-Step recovery movement lingo is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. She encourages us to nurture and protect our inner artist and to build healthy artist habits one day at a time. While we may relapse into unhealthy patterns from time to time, we seek progress, not perfection. If we faithfully use the tools she outlines in the book, we will experience a creative awakening. 

Why the 12-Step model? “On a societal level, blocked creative energy manifests itself as self-destructive behavior,” Cameron says. “Many people who are engaged in self-defeating behaviors, such as [addictions to] alcohol, drugs, sex, or work, are really in the hands of this shadow side of the creative force. As we become more creative, these negative expressions of the creative force often abate.”

Cameron also invokes spiritual themes extensively. “Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as the Creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist,” she says. “I am suggesting you take the term creator quite literally. You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator. … We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.”

How it works

The Artist’s Way, which has become a classic since its publication in 1992, offers two basic tools for creative recovery – the Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

The Morning Pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness, done first thing in the morning. “Three pages of whatever crosses your mind – that’s all there is to it,” Cameron says. “If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’ Do this until you have filled three pages. Do anything until you have filled three pages. … Just write three pages … and write three more pages the next day.”

We should think of the Morning Pages not as “art” but as an active form of meditation for Westerners, she says. “In the Morning Pages we declare to the world – and ourselves – what we like, what we dislike, what we wish, what we hope, what we regret, and what we plan.” 

“In a sense Morning Pages are prayer,” Cameron told Publishers Weekly. In her book The Right to Write, she elaborates: “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration. It opens the door to God or, if you would, to ‘Good Orderly Direction.’ Writing is a spiritual housekeeper.” 

The Artist Date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist,” Cameron says. The Artist Date can be devoted to any pleasurable activity – a concert, a visit to an ice cream shop or a walk in the park – but we must do it alone. Bringing along kids or a significant other is strictly against the rules. We are to make time for an Artist Date at least once a week.

The Artist’s Way also offers a series of exercises. For example: List twenty things you enjoy doing. … List ten changes you’d like to make for yourself. … List five favorite childhood foods. … Describe yourself at eighty. … Complete this sentence: “My payoff for staying blocked is …” 

Some of the exercises seem to have little to do with writing, drawing or other creative activity: Open your closet. Throw out – or donate – one low-self-worth outfit. (You know the outfit.) … Mend something. … Repot any pinched and languishing plants. … Bake something. So why does Cameron include them? “Creativity does not have to always involve capital-A art,” she says. “Very often, the act of cooking something can help you cook something up in another creative mode.”

All of these activities – the Morning Pages, the Artist’s Date and the exercises – are designed to get us past The Censor, “a nasty internal and eternal critic” who “keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth.” (You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. … What makes you think you can be creative?) “Think of your Censor as a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard,” she says. “As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly.” 

After Cameron finishes explaining how The Artist’s Way works, she makes a bold promise: “If the basic tools of Morning Pages and the Artist Date are kept carefully in place, you can expect to experience large life shifts.”

Yes, whining is allowed

I first decided to give The Artist’s Way a try about 15 years ago. What did I have to lose? Since I was a veteran of 12-Step groups, the book’s recovery focus was familiar to me. 

The Morning Pages turned out to be fairly easy. I had no trouble meeting my three-page quota most days. At first the writing amounted to little more than a daily To-Do list. Need to do laundry today. … Need to get some grocery shopping done. … Need to get some gas in the car.

Then I began writing about areas of my life that felt unmanageable. This house is full of piles and piles of junk and boxes and boxes of stuff that needs sorting. … I spend too much time getting tangled up in political intrigues at work and not enough time nurturing personal relationships. … I seem to spend all my time juggling and juggling and making to-do lists and doing more juggling and making more intricate to-do lists and I still can’t seem to get caught up. … I’m overweight and out of shape. I need to adopt a healthier way of living.

After that, a litany of complaints and resentments began to pour out onto my Morning Pages. I’m tired of all the childish games at work. … I’m tired of political campaigns that amount to six months of name-calling. … I’m tired of people who question my patriotism unless I vote for their candidate. … I’m tired of cleaning up the house every day, only to see it messed up again the following day. … I’m tired of all these half-finished tasks that never seem to get done.

Some days my Morning Pages consisted of three solid pages of ranting. Everything I try to do runs into some snarly little complicated snag. Why can’t anything be simple? Could one little thing go right? Just one thing? Just one little thing?! … I wish I didn’t have to work for a living. Actually, I’d do volunteer work, but I’d only work for people who treat me right and appreciate me. I want to do work that actually uses my skills and training. What a radical idea. … I want a clean house. I want a sane schedule. I want a full day off just for me, with no one yanking my chain. I want, I want, I want …

All this raging and whining was supposed to release creative energy?

The author of The Artist’s Way seemed to anticipate what my Morning Pages would sound like. She assures us that the Morning Pages “are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish, angry or bland – even silly sounding. Good! … All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.” 

The Morning Pages “round up the usual suspects,” she says. “They mention the small hurts we prefer to ignore, the large successes we’ve failed to acknowledge. In short, the Morning Pages point the way to reality: This is how you’re feeling; what do you make of that? And what we make of that is art.”

Cameron predicted that the Artist Dates would be harder than the Morning Pages, especially for workaholics like me. She turned out to be right. But I managed to keep my dates most weeks. I went shopping and bought myself some pretty pajamas. I walked through my neighborhood park’s rose garden. I got a manicure and pedicure. 

What happened next

To my surprise, things suddenly started to get done. I spoke up and asked my hairdresser to cut my hair a certain way and got exactly what I wanted. I confronted an electrician who overcharged me and saved $50. I ordered a new computer, something I had been meaning to do for a year. I bought a new freezer, something I’d been needing to do for several years, and cleaned out a place in the basement to make room for it. I got rid of an old washer that had been sitting in the basement ever since we bought the house – 18 years earlier. I baked bread for the first time in months. I planted a fall crop of spinach and salad greens for the first time ever. I cleaned out closets. I walked away from a job that had been driving me crazy and replaced it with a new job that paid twice as much.

According to Cameron, this all makes perfect sense. “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action,” she says. “One of the clearest signals that something healthy is afoot is the impulse to weed out, sort through, and discard old clothes, papers, and belongings.”

But what does all this have to do with writing and other creative pursuits?

After a long, long dry spell – during which I felt guilty even attending meetings of my writer’s group because it seemed like everyone but me had something to share – I finished my first short essay. More essays followed. I co-authored a “best practices” manual with a colleague in my field, and was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Alaska. A couple years ago, I started this blog … and have been writing steadily ever since.

I’ll confess, I don’t do Morning Pages every single day. And I don’t always write three pages. But the Morning Pages continue to be part of my life. 

For my Morning Pages ritual, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap. Sometimes I get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and me to serenade us with sacred songs and folk tunes on his dulcimer. 

I journal about my priorities for the coming day. Or I write thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. Some mornings the writing consists largely of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. 

Recently I’ve been recording my real feelings about my ongoing medical saga. I’m tired of doctors pushing pills. … I’m tired of bouncing from one specialist to the next like a human ping pong ball. … I’m tired of the feeling that I’m constantly at war with my own body. … I’m tired of symptoms that scare me. … I’m tired of being sick. … I’m sick of being tired. … I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired! The first time I wrote like that, tears were streaming down my face by the time I finished writing. But I felt better just getting it all on paper.

No matter what I choose to write about, my Morning Pages ritual continues to offer a great jumpstart to my day when I do it. And I’ve found this ritual to be a perfect form of prayer.

I’ve also continued to treat myself to occasional Artist Dates and expand my creativity in other ways. I may spend an hour or two walking around my backyard or the park snapping photos. Or I experiment with recipes. Or I play with Photoshop and design memes. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to use iMovie, a video editing software application that lets me create video clips.

In short, The Artist’s Way has given my creativity a significant boost over the years, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a way to coax their own Muse out of hiding.

Why do I write?

I often ask myself, “What on earth possessed me to be a writer? Besides being a total masochist.”

Writing can be enormously frustrating, especially when my drive to create gets paired with the attention span of a toddler some days. In fact, to be perfectly honest, sometimes I really HATE writing. 

I often promise myself I will start writing in earnest at some future date – New Year’s Day, my birthday, as soon as I get through whatever crisis hijacks my energy at the moment. Beginning on that date, I will devote at least one hour each day to writing, no matter what.

Alas, I have a gazillion excuses for not putting pen to paper. I need to clean house. Pay bills. Get groceries. Cook supper. Check Facebook to see what’s going on with my friends and relatives. When my resolve to start writing in earnest fails to translate into action, I’m tempted to give up and say, “Oh well, what’s the use?” Curses! Foiled again!

But if writing is such a royal pain, why do I write?

Writing is my “voice.” When I was a child – actually, well into my teen years – making two-way conversation was a supreme challenge. I could write well before I could speak well. Even today, writing comes more easily to me than speaking when I need to share important thoughts or strong feelings. I can express myself without yelling, and without someone interrupting me and making me lose my train of thought.

I have things I want to say. I want to do my part to change the world by writing on behalf of a favorite cause. I have ideas I want to contribute to the public conversation. I want others to know what it’s like to be me or why I think the way I do.

Writing has been somewhat lucrative. From young adulthood on, my writing ability has assured me I would never starve. During my career as a journalist, then as a public relations consultant and finally as a human services provider, lots of people knew I could write a coherent sentence better than the average person and wanted me to help them get their own ideas/messages on paper. Or help their organizations get donors. Even more enticingly, people offered to pay me real money for this assistance.

Writing beat other professions I could have chosen. As hard as writing could be at times, journalism – or even preparing grant proposals – sure beat waiting tables or flipping burgers for a living. Courses in mathematical information systems or data analytics would have bored me silly, even if they led to one of those “hot” tech careers. And I sure as heck was not a public speaker or numbers cruncher.

Writing helps me develop a filter. Instead of allowing my mouth to run faster than my brain, I can look over each word or sentence and ask myself, “How is this going to sound to others?” Is this what I really want to say? Can it be misinterpreted? Is there a way to get my point across more clearly? Or nicely?

Writing serves as a safety valve. When I find myself walking around with random anxieties, fears and resentments competing for rent-free space in my head, putting it all down on paper helps me let go of some of that anger, anxiety and frustration. 

I love having actually written something. I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I finally put pen to paper and come up with something well-reasoned and rational, then polish it like a brilliant little gem. I’m still thrilled to see my by-line in a magazine or newspaper, and it would be even more of a thrill to see my name on a book.

Writing can serve as a form of prayer. Writing helps me focus my thoughts in an organized way, even when I’m communicating with God. I feel much more “centered” after journaling during my morning meditation. Keeping a journal also encourages me to record the fruits of prayer, which in turn reminds me that God does answer prayer from time to time. 

My writing ability is a gift from God. I’ve known since third grade that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose, whatever that turned out to be. I’ve known this is a talent I must not waste. I want to make good use of my gifts, rather than hiding my light under a bushel. 

Since I have all these marvelous reasons to write, what keeps me from doing so in a more disciplined fashion? What gets in my way? What makes writing such a pain?

One problem is, I frequently have so many ideas floating around in my mind I don’t know where to start. Then I end up staring into space and writing nothing. When I do manage to commit something to paper, I tend to flit from one subject to another, so I have piles and piles of random notes written on yellow or white legal pads. Most of these end up buried under a mound of other papers in my office, or in one of the 68 boxes in the basement marked “miscellaneous.” 

I suspect another problem as well. “Is it because I’m afraid?” I ask myself. “What am I afraid of?” That I won’t get answers to the questions I’m asking? That someone will disagree with what I write? That I’ll end up looking foolish or awful in print? That people will reject not only my writing, but me as well? 

So how do I get past these barriers and motivate myself to write? 

In the end, I know it all boils down to self-discipline. Feet to the fire. Derriere in the chair. Just do it. Write already! 

And another thought: What if I never get around to writing? Someday I’ll die without ever having said what I really wanted to say. Lately that’s been reason enough to overcome writer’s block.

Wait a minute … the cat’s litter box really needs cleaning, doesn’t it?

When Martha Stewart becomes a verb

During a recent church service, I heard the familiar story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. The two sisters open their home to Jesus as he travels with his disciples. While Martha busies herself with preparations, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching. Martha complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, I don’t need to take any of those Are-You-Mary-Or-Martha quizzes on Facebook to figure out which sister I am. As someone who struggles constantly with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my writing and my spiritual life, I seriously relate to Martha. 

In fact, the Mary-versus-Martha story reminds me of a visualization exercise my spiritual director recommended shortly after we began working together. She instructed me to imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. As I did this exercise, I realized I’d been imagining my “idealized state” (not to be confused with “ideal spiritual state”) for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman I facetiously call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL. 

Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings, where she serves up a banquet better than anything Martha Stewart could produce. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is not only healthy, but painless, because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned ALL the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.

The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions, or engaging in my annual birthday tradition of evaluating my priorities and setting goals for the coming year. Coupled with the Super Me fantasy is what I’d call the Ultimate Rejection fantasy, in which people wrinkle their noses in utter disgust when they find out what my house really looks like if I’m not expecting company. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Luke had told us that Martha harbored both of these fantasies from time to time.

I’m relieved whenever I discover I’m not alone in having “Martha” tendencies. I laughed out loud when Alicia, author of the blog For His Purpose, used “Martha Stewart” as a verb. “I like to say I can just Martha Stewart everything,” Alicia confessed in one of her posts (link HERE), as she expressed her fear that the exchange student coming to live with her family would decide that her whole household was nuts and run screaming back to Russia in response to the chaos. In my own case, I feel compelled to warn houseguests not to venture into my basement or garage lest I find it necessary to file a missing persons report and organize a search party to rescue them.

“As an overachieving Martha myself, I am trying to understand Mary doing the better thing first,” said Elizabeth, author of Saved By Words (link HERE), in response to my birthday blog post, in which I outlined my priorities for the coming year (link HERE). “Not that Martha is doing anything wrong. Just that at the time sitting at Jesus’ feet was more important.” In the ensuing discussion, she and I agreed we both might possess some Martha-like traits.

The dilemma is real. 

I struggle with the advice Jesus gave Martha. I agree that we need to keep what’s really important at the forefront. This was brought home to me rather painfully over the summer. With my beloved mother in hospice, the past few months represented my last chance to “visit with her more often.”

On the other hand, doesn’t Galatians 5:22-23 remind us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control? In my mind, self-control equals the self-discipline to maintain healthy eating habits, family obligations, a clean house and active participation in church and community, among other things. 

And then, of course, we women have the Proverbs 31 Woman often held up by fellow believers as an example to emulate. If the Proverbs 31 Woman were transported to the 21st Century, I can imagine her having Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career, Christie Brinkley’s looks and Martha Stewart’s homemaking and entertaining skills. For starters.

Besides, I’ve found that several of the priorities I identified in my birthday post are really no longer optional for me. For example, with my newly-diagnosed diabetes, healthy eating is no longer simply a worthy goal, but a medical necessity.

While perhaps less crucial, crossing backlog tasks off my to-do list actually makes my life easier in the long run. Certain things really do need to get done, like it or not. Keeping the fridge and pantry in order reduces food waste – better for both our budget and the environment. When the clutter around the house gets out of control, my whole life feels out of control. It’s stressful to have deadlines hanging over my head all the time.

And I have one priority that hasn’t changed since I was 10: Write a book! The fact that I’m retired means I have never been in a better position to achieve this dream, and the time to do it is now, not some future date when everything will have settled down and fallen into place so I can start living my life in earnest.

All of this requires some level of the self-control spelled out in Galations 5:23 as a “fruit of the spirit.”

The good news is, my life does not feel nearly as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service organization. And I do like to think my current priorities are a vast improvement over the ones I had in high school, when being popular was my number one goal, or even in my 40s and 50s, when my top priority (judging by my behavior) was chasing after brass rings and fancy job titles. 

Before I retired, it seemed as if my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carried around constantly and jokingly called “my conscience.” I constantly juggled so many balls in the air, I was convinced I had to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spent my time, I couldn’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Even now, however, repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” 

So yes, I do need to practice some reasonable self-discipline. But at the same time, I also want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists. In other words, I’d like for my life to include a few more “Mary” moments.

It’s nice to be able to find things when I need them without sorting through mounds of clutter. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people (and pets) live here, no matter how much time I spend cleaning. There will never be a time when my house is in perfect order inside and out, including the closets, the garage and the basement. The perfectly clean house exists only in Better Homes and Gardens – and then only for the hour or so needed to photograph it. Unless you’re Martha Stewart, who probably not only has a full-time housekeeper, but a full-time housekeeping staff. (Speaking of Martha Stewart, is she the ultimate “Martha” in the Mary and Martha story?)

 “Baby steps,” my spiritual director often advises when I complain of my life feeling out of control. “That’s what matters.” The baby-steps advice does seem to work when I heed it. In the past month, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), the freezer in the basement (one shelf at a time) and the pantry (one shelf at a time), as well as sorting through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail. I’m finding ways to make the food preparation required for healthy eating easier – batch cooking, for example. 

Meanwhile, I try to muster the self-discipline to include morning meditation in my daily routine as often as possible. This reminds me to keep my relationship with God “in the #1 slot,” as the folks around the tables in 12-Step groups would say.

Of course, when it comes to Super Me, I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. One thing coping with multiple medical issues over the past few months has done for me is, I’ve stopped trying to Martha-Stewart anything. At least for now, while I’m healing. And maybe, as Martha Stewart herself would say, “That’s a good thing.”

As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve the level of perfection I fantasize about in my Super Me daydreams, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

There’s a secret part of me, however, that still hopes Mary helped Martha wash the dishes after Jesus left. After all, food preparation and clean-up don’t happen by themselves.

An abundantly extravagant greeting

When people read John 10:10, we may be tempted to think of abundance in terms of wealth or possessions. But I sense that Jesus had something entirely different in mind.

This past Sunday evening represented the tail end of a bruising week that began with my spending the night in a hospital emergency room and ended with my mother’s funeral.

Needless to say, the week had left me feeling both emotionally and physically exhausted.

In a show of support, some longtime friends of ours invited my husband and I to join them at an all-you-can-eat buffet for a feast of serious comfort food.

As I stepped out of the car and walked through the restaurant’s parking lot, God greeted me with a stunning display of abundantly extravagant beauty. The photo below doesn’t begin to do it justice.

But it does offer evidence that the “abundance” Jesus talks about in John 10:10 has to do with much more than money or material goods.