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.

A blessed day

On my birthday, I resolved to begin each new day of the coming year by reminding myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

I must admit the past couple of days posed a challenge to this resolution. 

I got a message from one of my sisters telling me that Mom – who had been in hospice care since May – might not make it through the night.

“How can I possibly rejoice in a day that may include the loss of a person I love dearly?” I asked God as Pete and I drove the two-and-a-half hours up to the farm where Mom lives, and where my sisters and I grew up.

I prayed and hoped against hope that we would make it there in time for me to hug Mom and talk to her at least once more.

Thankfully that prayer was answered. Mom did survive long enough for me to get there and hug her good-bye.

My last words to her were, “I love you!”

Her last words to me were, “I love you too!” 

“We need to regard each day we still have her as a blessing,” my husband had said repeatedly over the past few weeks.

I was indeed blessed to have that last day with her. Thanks be to God!

I know she is now with God and happily reunited with Dad, whom she has missed terribly over the past six years.

One of my sisters snapped this photo of the sun rising on our family farm. I think it makes the perfect background for Psalm 118:24.

My priorities as I turn 64

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? 

As always, I used this morning’s meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

The past year has felt like one long roller coaster ride marked by repeated trips to the hospital for myself, family members and friends. Even our two kitties developed medical issues. So needless to say, some of my priorities ended up sidetracked or completely hijacked.

However, I decided the priorities themselves are good ones, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

This little annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress this past year: I’ve met monthly with my spiritual director, who has helped ease my doubts about God’s existence and guided me in exploring various kinds of prayer.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue working with my spiritual director to improve my prayer life. I’ll also use journaling, imagery and other exercises to sort through my beliefs about God, clarify my values and explore more of my burning questions.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress this past year: First, the good news – I persuaded my husband Pete to embark with me on a healthy eating plan, beginning the day after my last birthday, and I’m now down 30 pounds from my top weight. The not-so-good news – I’ve had several recurring medical problems, some of them stemming from the ever-growing pharmacopeia of pills prescribed to me by various doctors over the years. In March, the blood-thinning medication I was taking landed me in intensive care for two days. Since then, I’ve been weaning myself off nearly half those meds under the supervision of my primary care provider.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! I’ve begun getting much more assertive with my health care providers regarding medications and coordination of care. Meanwhile, I plan to continue shedding weight and I’d like to experiment with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie-pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! I also need to focus on developing a regular sleep schedule and improving my exercise routine. 

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress this past year: Again, there’s been good news and bad news. The good news is we got to see most of my immediate relatives at least once, including a cousin who lives in Denmark, and we reconnected with a pair of close friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The bad news is, some of my family and friends have spent as much time negotiating doctors and hospitals as I have. And the really sad news is that, after more than a half-dozen hospitalizations over the past year, my beloved mother is now in hospice care.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have all of my family and friends around me. I plan to spend quantity as well as quality time with Mom in the time we have left with her, and stay in contact with other family and friends through regular visits or correspondence. I also want to let the people I love know how much they mean to me and stay out of other people’s battles.

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends.

Progress this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place still eludes me.

Intention for the coming year: I need to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. Then, develop a maintenance schedule to keep the house clean and neat on an ongoing basis so I can invite people over more often. I want to enjoy our beautiful home!

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well and have even acquired some followers. I’ve found that posting once every 2-3 weeks works for me.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. I also want to make my blog more user-friendly and take advantage of all the cool tricks Word Press is capable of.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress this past year: Shortly after my last birthday, I followed through on my decision to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that had been poisoning my soul for way too long. I have no regrets about that decision. With all the trauma from medical issues, I’m glad I haven’t had to contend with this additional stressor on top of it all!

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue my current church activities – choir, bringing treats for fellowship hour on Sundays, bringing soup or desserts for Advent and Lenten suppers – and my participation in a musical group that entertains residents at a local retirement center twice a month. That’s enough for right now, because I’m learning I can do a much better job in one or two areas if I allow myself to pare down my commitments and focus my energy rather than trying to spread myself too thin. 

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate backlog tasks and clutter that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress this past year: I got our taxes done on time for the second year in a row! I’m not sure if our accountant has recovered from the shock.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. Large tasks can be broken down into bite-size chunks if necessary. I also need to avoid nerve-wracking deadline pressure by getting things done before the last possible minute! This unfinished business only keeps me in crisis mode and turns my focus away from important priorities like writing, healthy living, keeping our home looking nice and spending time with family and friends. What I also need to commit to, for now, is to not take on any new projects until I have everything crossed off my backlog list!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress this past year: With my own health problems and with my mother in hospice care, I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of support from family, friends and church people. For that, I am VERY grateful! 

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. I want to be AWAKE! While we Christians may talk a lot about heaven, I believe God also meant for us to enjoy and appreciate life in the here-and-now. If that’s not true, why did God create flowers, beautiful sunsets, majestic trees that turn gorgeous colors in the fall, and small furry animals who curl up with us in bed? I need to reserve mornings for Pete and I as much as possible, take walks when the weather is nice, notice my surroundings and remember to count my blessings. 

And each morning for the coming year, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Confessions of a spiritual mutt

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend sometimes depended on where we had Sunday dinner – one week we might attend the church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad quickly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to partake of the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (This was the early 1970s, and both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at the local evangelical free church, where members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great evangelism tool for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and after-hours gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and considered these alcohol-soaked events essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

While embarking on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I investigated possible spiritual paths that might work for me. Folks in the 12-Step programs advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” My husband and I joined a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, where other women and I explored the Goddess movement and experimented with pagan/Wiccan traditions. I also delved into books on comparative religion and learned about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Indigenous traditions and other belief systems outside Christianity, all with the blessing of my fellow U.U.s and 12-Steppers.

Following my 12-Step/U.U. phase, I took another hiatus from church. I decided that no human being – including me – could definitively answer the question of God’s existence. At that time, one could classify me as a “cheerful agnostic.”

In 2004, after a huge medical scare – during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped existed – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaking into a couple of evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

From 2005-2009, I worked for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged church congregations to “adopt” an incarcerated mother reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting teams of volunteers from these congregations, which in turn required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches: from Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Presbyterian to Pentecostal, Mennonite and African Methodist Episcopalian. Every month or two would find me in a new congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I’m now part of an ELCA Lutheran congregation – a successor to the Lutheran Church of America denomination my father’s side of the family belonged to when I was a child. One could say I’ve come back full circle.

I like this church’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” – the idea that we don’t need an intercessor such as a minister or priest telling us how to understand God and interpret the Bible. I’ve never heard anyone preach that God “hates” whole groups of people (feminists, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, etc.). I’ve also been able to ask questions in our adult Sunday School class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet.

About a year ago, I started seeing a spiritual director as well. It’s important to point out that I see my work with her as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. In his book Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen says, “Frequently, we are restlessly looking for answers, going from door to door, from book to book, or from church to church, without having really listened carefully to the questions within.” That’s where my spiritual director has come in for the past year – helping me explore “the questions within.”

This summer – over lunch with my husband, our pastor and a Catholic friend of ours – I joked, “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt.”

Our Catholic friend said, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

I’m inclined to agree that experiencing a variety of traditions has had its advantages. I certainly don’t believe I have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters, and I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles over the right way to do baptism, communion or other things Christians find to bicker about. I prefer, instead. to learn from others and to look for areas of agreement.

What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

As far as I can see, the people at my current church do their best. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, this is where I’ve settled. But I still sneak into other churches from time to time when I’m visiting with family and friends. As far as I can see, these people also do their best. The good news is, my occasional church-hopping doesn’t bother the people in my own congregation.

Pointing to John 15:5 – “Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’” – ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recently had this to say about respecting different Christian denominations (link HERE): “We are not only connected to the same vine, but we have no life apart from that vine.” She adds, “We are scripturally, confessionally and even constitutionally wired to be an ecumenical church. … It is possible to be Lutheran and an ecumenist.” 

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Don’t worry. In the end, we all worship the same God.”

Baby steps

I began the Lenten season with our church’s Ash Wednesday service and a pledge to:

  • Give something up: Participate in the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge, which involves decluttering one area of our home each day and letting go of “stuff.”
  • Add a positive habit: Include 3-5 daily servings of fruits/veggies in my diet.
  • Resume my Morning Meditation routine, which I had allowed to lapse over the winter.

How am I doing so far? Well, let’s just say my husband and I also began our Lenten discipline with “His” and “Hers” prescriptions for Tamiflu. Ugh! This has been the capstone of a L-O-N-G winter, which has included three separate bouts of illness for both of us. I’m still sniffling, in fact.

But I haven’t given up on my Lenten pledge.

I had embarked on the 40 Bags Challenge with an ambitious list: Clean the refrigerator on Day 1, the freezer on Day 2, the pantry on Day 3, and so on. I had also planned to try a batch of new veggie recipes.

Instead, the notorious fatigue that accompanies flu, coupled with a bit of nausea, meant I managed to finish one shelf of the refrigerator each day and I ended up drinking my fruits and veggies for several days running. (The good news is, an 8-ounce glass of V-8 juice equals two servings of vegetables and orange juice contains all kinds of Vitamin C.)

“Baby steps,” my spiritual director said, when I explained my modified plans. “That’s what matters.”

The baby steps seem to be working. After two weeks, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), sorted through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail, gotten caught up with a month’s backlog of ironing and am now halfway through the freezer (one shelf at a time).

Meanwhile, when I ventured outside to feed the birds – and squirrels – a few mornings ago, I spied a patch of snowdrops in our backyard. YES!!!!! Those little flowers make me so happy. Their appearance signals this L-O-N-G winter is finally coming to an end and spring is on its way … a baby step at a time.

Lent: Borrowing a tradition

Even though I grew up Protestant, from early childhood on, I’ve usually participated in the annual tradition of giving up something for Lent.

My Aunt Marie – Sunday School teacher extraordinaire and a great Christian role model – believed that while Protestants didn’t require people to make a Lenten sacrifice, there was no reason why we couldn’t borrow this idea from the Catholics. “It’s good discipline,” she explained.

One year, as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table discussing what we would give up – cake, ice cream, chocolate – my father added his two cents to the conversation.

“I’ve never really believed in the idea of sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice,” he said. “Not when life gives us so many opportunities to make real sacrifices. If you’re going to give up something for Lent, I think you should make a sacrifice that actually means something.”

We all looked at him quizzically.

Dad grinned from ear to ear. “Instead of cake and ice cream, why don’t you kids give up fighting for Lent?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Mom chimed in. “No fighting for six whole weeks!”

I think my sisters and I may have actually accomplished this feat for a week or two.

In recent years, some of my Christian friends – including Catholics – have added a new tradition to their Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on” and acquire a new positive habit. This could include anything from healthy eating and exercise to daily prayer and meditation or a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’m thinking it would make sense to include both a sacrifice and an “add-on” this year.

In Dad’s honor, I’ve decided to make a sacrifice that would really mean something – letting go of a significant portion of the “stuff” that clutters every nook and cranny of our house. Toward that end, I’ve decided to accept the 40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge.

The 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge coincides with the 40 days of Lent, and involves decluttering one area of our home each day. The Challenge was started in 2011 by Ann Marie Heasley, author of the blog White House Black Shutters. It has become an annual event and the blog’s companion Facebook group now boasts 67,000 members. The 2018 Challenge starts February 14 and goes until March 31. (Click HERE to read more about The Challenge.)

For the “add-on” part, I’d like to acquire the habit of eating 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day as recommended by nutrition experts. I’m lucky if I get in one or two servings on most days – some might say my eating habits resemble those of a rebellious 10-year-old – so this will be a challenge! Fortunately, psychologists say it takes 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit, so Lent would give me a bonus of 10 extra days to make this new habit my own.

Meanwhile, I also plan to get back in the habit of morning meditation. My meditation ritual, which I’ve practiced for several years, involves starting my day in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap while I journal about everything from the meaning of life to my plans for the day. Some days my husband joins me and serenades me with folk tunes played on his dulcimer.

Alas, looking through my journal entries this morning, I realized I haven’t partaken of this lovely ritual for several weeks. I’ve allowed a combination of illness and other people’s drama to crowd out a habit that helps me feel centered – no wonder I’ve been a tad bit crabby lately. I definitely want my morning meditation ritual to be a keeper!

 

 

Feeling like the Apostle Paul

It’s not that I haven’t tried to address the issues detailed in my late-night laundry list, I told my spiritual advisor at our second meeting.

My bookshelves literally overflow with self-help books: First Things First, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, Take Back Your Time and Stop Screaming at the Microwave! My husband and I like to joke that we’re powerless over self-help books and that our bookshelves have become unmanageable. However, I don’t need a self-help book or a therapist to tell me I should practice self-care and set better boundaries.

I know intellectually what I need to do to get my life in order: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, stay away from toxic people or environments, pay more attention to my relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating that intellectual knowledge into action. I’m usually so immersed in all the dramas of my life that I ignore problems until they become a crisis that can’t be ignored any longer. My life seems to be in crisis mode about half the time.

Periodically I grab myself up by the scruff of the neck and resolve to do better – on New Year’s Day, the first day of Lent, my birthday, the first day of spring or summer or fall, or any month in which the first day falls on a Sunday or Monday. I vow I’m going to turn over a new leaf, get my priorities straight and start doing things differently. My reform efforts may work for a week or two, or if I really buckle down, for a month. But then my life returns to the same chaotic reality that has become the new normal for me in recent years.

Sometimes it seems as if my life has been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for volunteer 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 carry around constantly and jokingly call “my conscience.” I’m constantly juggling so many balls in the air, I’m convinced I have to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I won’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 spend my time, I can’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever, I told my spiritual advisor. 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.” Yep. That’s me, all right.

The good news is, I’m nowhere near the state of spiritual bankruptcy I was in 25 years ago, when the combination of psychic pain and fear for my future led me to put down the booze and start attending 12-Step meetings. Nor does my life feel quite as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service agency, caring for an aging parent and trying to have a life at the same time. My current state feels more like a case of spiritual sleepwalking alternating with existential questioning.

But I also know I need to make some changes if I 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.

 

Late-night laundry list

The other night I gave up on sleeping, after tossing and turning until 2 a.m., and began journaling instead. Using the “Clutter Mountain” graphic I created earlier as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered:

My relationships. My family and friends are scattered all over the U.S., and even in a couple of other countries, so it’s hard for me to visit them as often as I’d like to. I keep in touch with many of them on Facebook, but I know that’s really no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Our house. I’m a packrat married to another packrat. In this case, one plus one does not equal two. One packrat plus one packrat equals ten tons of rubble! (My friend Patti came up with that gem.) Clothes, dishes, books, office supplies, unopened mail, knick knacks, stacks of paper and boxes marked “miscellaneous” clutter nearly every surface, especially in the basement. When I even think about trying to sort through the whole chaotic mess, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or stick my fingers in my ears and scream at the top of my lungs until the frustration dissipates.

My schedule. Since I’ve retired, my life hasn’t slowed down much at all. In fact, retirement mostly means I’ve replaced full-time paid work with full-time work I now do for free. The support group I facilitate for adults with autism and their family members has evolved into a 501(c) 3 organization offering recreational activities and life skills training, and my “job description” has expanded accordingly. Meanwhile, people looking for volunteers at church wink, nod and say “you know how those retired people get busier than ever” as they suggest another obligation to stuff into my chock-full calendar.

My talent for procrastination. I always have some deadline hanging over me – bills to pay, tax returns due, a volunteer commitment – and a talent for putting things off until the last possible minute. This means that when little things go wrong – a computer hard drive needs replacing, the iron stops working, the refrigerator starts leaking water all over the kitchen floor – I’m so overloaded with urgent tasks that must get done immediately, I throw up my hands and scream at the offending appliance, “No!!! I can’t handle your crap right now!!!”

My writing. So much for all those articles and books I planned to write once I retired. A gazillion ideas ricochet around in my head competing to be written down first, but I can’t seem to get my thoughts organized enough to finish an article, let alone focus on one idea long enough to write a book.

Our finances. The stock market has become increasingly volatile in recent years, which makes me constantly nervous about the portion of our retirement nest egg invested there. The advisors who handle our investments tell us we’re in good shape, but ever since the Crash of 2008, I have great difficulty trusting financial institutions or advisors.

My health: I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, on and off-again high blood sugar, hypothyroidism, periodic muscle cramps, aches and pains everywhere, and a mystery rash on my skin that no one can explain. I suspect some of my health problems don’t just stem from the fact that I’m aging, but from the fact that I need to take off a lot of weight. I keep making efforts to get on track with a healthy eating plan, but have been unable to sustain it for more than a few days or weeks at a time.

My emotional life. With all the bickering among my Facebook friends in response to our current political situation – on top of the stress resulting from too many commitments on my calendar – my resentment machine has been working overtime cranking out surly thoughts. When I’m not wallowing in resentment, I’m stewing in anxiety: Has climate change gone beyond the point of no return? … Is North Korea going to blow us all up? … Did I remember to turn the oven off before I left the house? Some days I feel like I have become a walking bundle of fears and resentments.

The outside world: When I was younger, my friends and I knew exactly what our life purpose was. We were going to change the world – nothing more and nothing less. We marched for civil rights, for environmental awareness, for peace. Now all our efforts seem like a cosmic joke. Members of Congress can’t agree on even the most trivial issues. War rages in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and God only knows where else. Each week it seems, we hear about another terrorist attack or mass shooting at a mall, a concert or even a church. The gap between the rich and poor has become a yawning chasm.

My spiritual life: I mostly like the people at my church, but am not sure I agree with parts of the theology – something I’m reluctant to share with the others in our adult Sunday School class. And on those nights when I’m lying awake at 3 a.m., the doubts and questions proliferate: How do I know Christianity is the one true religion? … Will I go to hell if I make the wrong denominational choice or agree with the wrong person’s interpretation of certain Biblical passages? … What is God’s will for my life, now that I’ve most likely lived roughly two-thirds of it already? … Who is God, anyway?

I know my life will continue to feel chaotic, and I will continue to experience both physical and spiritual angst, until I slow down, learn how to stop letting myself be pulled in 20 different directions, and make time to answer (at least for myself) some of those existential questions. And I’m beginning to think my spiritual director – whom I meet again at the end of this week – has her work cut out for her.

 

Thoughts on turning 62

Unlike many people “of a certain age,” I still get excited about birthdays. I have always considered my birthday to be a personal holiday. My husband will play Happy Birthday to me on his dulcimer. My mother will come for a visit and take us out to my favorite restaurant. And I will meditate on what I’ve learned about life. So here are some thoughts as I embark on a bright, shiny new year:

Time is limited. Of course I’ve always known – intellectually, at least – that we’re not immortal. But in recent years, this has started to register on a deep-down level with the loss of Dad and a best friend my own age. Bottom line: Nothing’s guaranteed. I need to let family and friends know how important they are to me and how they’ve impacted my life. I need to do this now.

I survived adolescence once already, thank-you. These days, I swear I’m experiencing more bodily changes than I did as a teenager. My husband and I have acquired a new pastime – looking up medical problems on the Internet after the doctor sends us for tests based on the latest unnerving symptoms. We’re fond of joking that aging lends a whole new meaning to the term “drug salad.”

Perfection is an illusion. All my life I’ve struggled with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my career ambitions. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people 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.

So is eternal youth. Is 60 really the new 40, as Baby Boomers proclaim? Some say my generation is redefining old age. But truth be known, I have wrinkles. I have gray hair. There are some things I can’t do anymore – like burn the figurative candle at both ends and get away with it. Actually I wasn’t getting away with it when I was younger either. I just thought I was.

Perhaps I should say I’ve survived adolescence twice. I did have one of those midlife crises the shrinks talk about – that second adolescence complete with acne at age 45, identity struggles and acting out behaviors (red car, drastic career change). As I prepare to enter this new territory called Senior Citizenhood, I’m thinking maybe it’s time for my flaming midlife crisis to be over already! On the other hand, a friend sent me a Facebook meme that advised, “If you haven’t grown up by the time you’re 60, you don’t have to bother.” Whew! Maybe I’m off that hook.

I do not spend all my time wishing I were younger. Yes, there are days when I wish I had my 20-year-old body – especially when my arthritis flares. But only if I could keep my 62-year-old mind and all the experience and wisdom about life that I’ve accumulated. Older women tell me the 60s can be really good years. I’m old enough to know what’s important and young enough to act on it. Besides, when I am 80, I will most likely wish I still had my 62-year-old body, so I might as well appreciate it now.

 “Respect your elders!” never sounded so good. I can tell I’m getting older whenever I’m tempted to direct that admonition to 25- and 30-year-old kids. Oops! I mean colleagues and service people. On a serious note, it’s gotten more scary to encounter young adults who see their elders as people who either need to move out of the way or be thrown away rather than people to learn from and respect.

It’s time to let go of regrets. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have picked up that first cigarette. I would have spent fewer of my prime years striving and competing for that brass ring that didn’t seem so shiny once I succeeded in grabbing it. Alas, I can’t change what happened decades ago. What I can do is make better decisions in this 24 hours. When my father turned 75, he said, “I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.” I hope I can say that when I’m 75!

I have set some boundaries with the fashion world: 1. Clothes must be easy to care for. If they need dry-cleaning, forget it. 2. They must be comfortable – nothing that binds or scratches. 3. They must look good on a 60-something woman who’s never been a size 0 and never will be. 4. Since I don’t have time to constantly shop, my wardrobe must stay in fashion for longer than a month. If clothes don’t fit all these criteria, I leave them on the rack, no matter how many cute young things are wearing them! 

I’m much less materialistic than I used to be. If there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s more THINGS!!! If I need to be reminded of this fact, I can go to my basement and gaze upon the 64 boxes marked “miscellaneous” that make me scream when I think about sorting whatever is in them.

But there are some things I continue to want. I want to spend more time on what’s important – traveling with my husband, entertaining family and friends – and less time mindlessly surfing the Internet. I want the courage to stand up for my values and let the chips fall where they may. I want to stop worrying about what my peer group thinks. I want to stop fighting with my own body.

Yes, I still have dreams. I have never been in a better position to achieve dreams like writing a book or making a constructive contribution to our society. The time to do these things 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. (See “Time is Limited” above.)

I’m entering the Age of Wisdom. Or so I’m told. When I was in my 20s, I had the world figured out. But the older I got, the smarter my parents got, just as Mark Twain predicted. Now I’m convinced only God has all the answers, and it’s my job to keep asking the questions.

I have a LOT to be grateful for. I have a terrific 32-year marriage to the best man on the planet (I’m only slightly biased here). I have wonderful enduring friendships. I have a beautiful home and – for the first time in my life – some real financial stability. I’ve had a successful writing career, followed by a challenging career in human services, followed by fulfilling volunteer work. Despite minor ailments, I’m relatively healthy. And I’m thankful God has given me another year.