Pair o’ Ducks

When I left Poland and came to Pennsylvania in 2015, I stopped taking pictures. I gave away my little digital camera because why would I need it anymore? Over a year later, I got my first smart phone, but even then I didn’t use the camera except when I went overseas.

My camera use and my minimal pictures indicate how I saw my States-side life. It wasn’t worth documenting or noticing–not compared to my colorful students and the old world charm of Europe. I have megabytes of photos from there, but not from here.

This summer will mark seven years since I left Poland and came to the US for one year, which stretched to now. I still scan the horizon and the road sides and trees and food for photogenic moments, and I rarely find something to document.

I can hear howls of protests from readers who love their home state, and I concede that my few pictures reveal more about my poor vision than about the world I live in now. The beauty of this blog is that no one pays to read it, and if my dismissal of the USA offends you, stop reading here.

Stephan Gingerich spoke at REACH about Third Culture Kids like me with excellent insight and advice. He said those of us who return to our passport country should be quiet for two years, and I’m sure he’s right. I bite my tongue every day to stay quiet about another life and another world that I know and love. But indulge me for a minute while I list things in America that make me cringe and want to be a million miles away.

  1. People put sugared, candied nuts on salads. This is a grave confusion of the proper place of sweets and savories. Salads are for any kind of crunch and textures and colors, but they are to be strictly savory, not sweet. Mixing candied, caramelly nuts is offensive to the character of the bright flavors of cheeses, garlic, and herbs. Along the same line, people bake ham and cheese sandwiches doused with a syrupy mixture with poppy seeds. The first time I had this, I honestly thought the cook was serving us a mistake. Now I know they have recipes for this, and I can’t imagine a poorer use of calories.
  2. I opened a fridge door recently (not mine) and saw not two or three, but FIVE different flavors of coffee creamers. This baffled me on several levels, not the least of which: how is dairy-free, artificially-flavored so wonderful? I wondered if five in a fridge indicates the next level of entitlement and it also reminded me of how incredulous I was when I first saw the rows and rows, shelves and shelves of creamers at Walmart.
  3. To kneel for prayer in traditional Mennonite churches, people whirl around, half standing, half crouching, and put their faces into the place they were just sitting. It’s awkward and illogical and embarrassing for anyone unfamiliar with this tradition. Why not gracefully kneel forward and lean your elbows on the seat back in front of you? I cringe for the visitors most of all.
  4. People talk SO LOUD on their phones and at restaurant tables.

Sometimes I catch a whiff of loveliness, a view that takes my breath away. It took me a long time to look past my bias against the US and recognize beauty here. People might not be as whimsical or colorful as my English students, but I meet gifted, passionate, fun people here. They tell me their big, beautiful, impossible dreams and stories of healing and generosity that remind me that Aslan is on the move here and life is wonderful and worth celebrating here.

Last summer I was gifted a missionary debrief retreat. Those sessions helped me start to acknowledge and name the vast chasm that spans the various worlds I’ve lived in. In many ways, I’m living my best life now, but I still cry from the losses of my former life.

The retreat leaders had a word for this: paradox. This word gave me permission to hold opposing realities simultaneously.

During the first evening of the retreat, each of us was given two rubber ducks and a Sharpie. We were told to mark up one duck. I eagerly and generously covered one duck with stitches and a black eye and broken heart and bruises. He’s the yuck duck and the other is the yay duck, and I hold them both in one hand. Both yuck and yay are true and real at the same time.

Because I tend to live in an all-or-nothing mode, and because I love tactile lessons and puns, the pair o’ ducks gave me an enormous step toward wholeness. Now I recognize paradox in many places. And instead of rushing to one of two opposing views and camping out at one place, I slow down and recognize that both the yuck and the yay are here, and neither of them ignores or denies the other.

I can’t tell you how freeing this concept is for me. I see paradox in people, how we’re all beautiful and broken. I see paradox in events or situations, and the blend of terrible and wonderful. As a TCK, paradox gives me permission to love the present while mourning the past.

The Apostle Paul lived with paradox too. In II Corinthians 4, it’s like he’s holding his own pair o’ ducks.

I may never completely settle in the US or come to peace with plastic creamers and startling traditions. But my ducks remind me that not everything in Europe was yay, and there is wonder and joy right here. The ducks are odd desk ornaments but I have a hunch they’ll sit here a long time.

Advent Jewels

This gentle turning of the season into gray and cold and sometimes snow has been lightened now with words and music and berry trees. I want to share the wealth, be the town crier, tell you about the gems that sparkle for me. If they don’t shine for you, it’s ok. Words, and songs, like books, are for seasons that are not always now.

Poetry
These mornings, I’m paging through Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson: a book of blessings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Epiphany. I find the verses thoughtful, infused with Jan’s experience of deep grief and hope.

I come back again and again to this favorite from Malcolm Guite: “O Emmanuel.” Guite plays with words and allusions with holy playfulness. The layered meanings of each word and line slows me down and fills me with awe at his skill. My favorite line is the second line: O long-sought With-ness for a world without. I love hearing artists talk about their work, and this podcast on Spotify has the author reading all seven of his Advent poems and some of the backstory of each. Go to 30:00 to hear him read this one:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Music
While I love all the carols of the season, (not the chintzy songs about chestnuts or holly!) Advent songs meet me right now like nothing else. I’d like to sing #121 in the Mennonite Hymnal every Sunday: “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People.” For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad/And all flesh shall see the token that His word is never broken.

Two pieces on repeat these days:

  1. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Voces 8.
    LIsten to the long, plaintive first “O,” how the tenor voices shimmer throughout the song, and the strong, desperate quality of the voices calling.
  2. “O Radiant Dawn” by The Sixteen
    I heard this live twice last week, and each time, I couldn’t stop the tears. It’s raw, longs for light and justice, and calls COME because there’s nothing else to say.

Art
A friend gave me this card, a painting by Liz Hess, because she knew I’d like it. I keep it on my desk because so much love how the kings of the earth are bringing their glory to the lion and the lamb at the manger.

Last year pastor John showed me what he was making for his daughters and I was cheeky enough to say I’d love one too. Soon one morning, I found this on my desk and of course I cried. I love its simplicity and these days, Mary’s arms are empty.

Blog post
Every year about this time, I reread and share this blog post by Lanier Ivester. I found it years ago during an especially dark season, and it gave me hope and light and a giant shift in perspective.

The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness. It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one.

The blog post also introduced me to the beautiful words attributed to Fra Giovanni in 1513: There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

Advent is a season of waiting, watching, preparing. We light pink and purple and white Advent candles every week, and we wait for many things but I often think we know nothing of waiting like the Jews did for their Messiah and deliverance, or like refugees wait for their papers. But we still wait. The whole earth waits, weeping for justice and goodness and beauty.

This year, more than I could last year, I can enter into the season of hope in waiting. I’m ready for light to seep up from the horizon, ready for smiles to grow strong and confident, ready for faith to become sight. Ready.

Words When There are None

Screenshot from Every Moment Holy website

I don’t know why, but I usually have more words than one person needs. However, the supply comes and goes. At both tips of the deep lows and soaring highs that my personality tends toward, I have no words. Only tears or gasps, like last night on my walk when I saw the enormous orange moon slipping up from the horizon. Or in times of confusion and anger and sorrow. Or when I don’t know how to pray.

My culture came away from rote prayers, prayer books, and liturgy, ostensibly because we valued direct connection with the Holy Spirit, and I’m glad for that. I don’t like to be tied to a form that becomes hollow.

But in the cascading sorrows of this season, as well as the shimmering beauty that lingers, I found a place that has words when I have none. I don’t use the book every day, but I go again and again to the first volume of Every Moment Holy, and I sit with the words that remind me of simple truth, enduring safety, and the anchor of God’s sovereignty. You too? You forget too that something bigger is going on here, and God is still in charge of the world? Yeah, me too. That’s why I love this prayer book so much.

Sometimes I call it a prayer book for millennials, because it has a prayer for drinking coffee, a prayer when reading too much news, a prayer when seeing someone beautiful, a prayer when camping, a prayer before going on stage. One of my favorites alludes to a Narnian story: it’s a prayer when feasting with friends, and reminds us that eating together is an act of war. Yes! Count me in to fight the dark side by feasting together!

Screen shot of the Every Moment Holy, partial list of contents, vol. 1

Jesus countered the proud, public prayers of His day by telling us to pray secretly, and He modeled that in His solitary nights of prayer. For all of us individually, secret times of connection with the Father shape our character and anchor our public service. If we crowd out these secret moments, we lose way more than we can know.

Other places in the New Testament show God’s people praying together and collectively pushing back the dark powers around them. Humans are finite and limited and near-sighted enough that we forget the spiritual reality that shimmers beyond our sight. If we would see and hear what happens in the spiritual world around us, it would take our breath away.

I hold enormous comfort knowing the Spirit prays for me when I have no words. I also love using this prayer book, but I dream of these prayers printed and handed around small groups and church benches and Sunday schools all over the globe. The second volume is prayers about death, grief, and hope, which I don’t have yet, but seems appropriate and necessary these days.

Liturgy for a Time of Widespread Suffering

Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow

In collective prayer, we hear each other say the words we can’t string together, reminding ourselves of what is enduring, verbally expressing hope and joy and sorrow, and audibly saying words we know to be true even though we don’t feel their reality. We often do this unconsciously in songs. What if we would intentionally speak words together in prayer—words and phrases and silences we don’t have but someone else wrote for times like this?

These two volumes make lovely gifts. Here’s a short list of PDFs from volume two, but you probably should buy copies of both volumes for yourself and your friends.

Instead of God’s people being known for their suspicion and outrage, I long for God’s people to be known for their love and worship. To have child-like faith. To keep our faces turned toward the God who will one day right all the wrongs that rain around us. To instinctively reach for someone’s hand and pray for them or with them when we don’t know what to say.

Imagine if neighbors would say “Have you heard about their prayer meetings? Do you see how crazily they love those who disagree with them? They look like they have a shining secret! I wonder what makes them so gentle and beautiful?”

Imagine if prayers would be the words we’re remembered for.

Filters & Personas

Photo by Teigan Rodger on Unsplash

I wonder why

People cry for authenticity

Honesty, transparency

But use

A million filters

In their stories.

This glow,

That persona,

Woke lingo.

I reach for clarity

Tempered with grace,

Steel and velvet

In their place.

Glory and agony,

Diamonds and shards.

Real. Liminal. True.

The best

And highest moments

Never reach IG

Because they sparkle IRL,

Real-time, not reels where

The expanse of reality

Stays screen-flat,

A likeness, not life.

But dopamine hits

And the scrolling thumb

Is running from—

From stab and throb?

From pine and pungent mist and moon?

From laughter, questions gone soon?

Be still, the poet said.

Ask the pulse

Its hunger,

How the drug of choice

Lifts higher than this moment:

That leaf’s blaze,

This shimmering chord,

Those dimpled grins.

Be still.

Be here.

Silence seeps

Its sweet tang.

Pleiades stills

A raucous brain.

Flicker, flame,

Shine, tune

Sigh, pine.

Vast sky expands,

Woos, implants

A yen for more

And grants it.

That Good Night: a Review

I’ve blogged about the day I went book shopping with friends and found a favorite book. This is the story of another book that day.

I usually shop with a strict budget I’ve set for myself, not so much set in dollar amount but whether I’ll use the item or not, or whether it was something I was looking for. But I went into that day knowing that somewhere, I’d allow myself a treat. I didn’t know what it would be, and I was on the prowl for several titles, but I would know the surprise treat when I saw it.

I was looking for a copy of Les Miserables that’s easy to hold in my hand, not chunky, and has space for notes in the margins and isn’t super expensive. At the idyllic Loganberry Books, I found one that could have worked but was still too pricey, so I put it back on the rack. I’m still looking for a winner for that wish list.

On my way past the counter, ready to leave without buying anything, I brushed past a table full of newly-published books, and That Good Night caught my eye. I flipped open the dust jacket flaps and skimmed them. The author was an American-born daughter of immigrants from India. She was about my age. She was a palliative care doctor and this was her story. It checked all my boxes, and I knew this was my treat for the day.

I’ve rarely been so thrilled with an impulse purchase. I’ve read the book twice in less than two years because I love it so much.

In her last months of medical school, Sunita did an elective in palliative care and suddenly started grappling with questions about what did it mean to live well, and how was dying different from death, and how to treat the person instead of the disease? She writes with mastery and gentleness about her experience of starting to unlearn the things she’d learned in medical school.

Her elective experience moved her so profoundly that she chose to make palliative care her career. What kept my attention even more than the medical accounts was the way Sunita talked about how she needed to learn a different way of listening and speaking. She says the biggest shift in her new responsibilities was her new relationship with language. She still used and prescribed drugs and treatments, but she used words as her primary way to probe, diagnose, and find a good way forward–even if that way meant patients dying and not getting healthy again.

Maybe I found the story so riveting because I don’t ad lib well, and when I’m put on the spot, I often regret what I said. Here, Sunita recounts hyper-fraught meetings with super-stressed patients and their family members. Every conversation was a mine field, but she had good mentors, and she practiced words and phrases in front of a mirror and learned how to find her way through unpredictable, volatile conversations. It makes me think that maybe, maybe I could learn to listen better and use words better too, even on the fly when I don’t have the luxury of time to craft them.

I’ve loaned the book out several times to friends, and they say they enjoy my notes in the margins, but none of them gushes about the book, or were as taken in as I was. Fair enough. But I loved being immersed in those emotionally-charged conversations where, by listening well and using non-inflammatory language, she found a logical, level-headed solution that let everyone feel heard and helped. I love the idea that using words well is a way toward healing and peace that replaces chaos and fear.

Sunita writes from a Buddhist perspective, which adds a fascinating layer to her story. It’s not healthy to agree everything you read, and I loved the exercise of sifting through what I admired and what I didn’t agree with. The glimpses of Indian culture and worldview makes it a rich read.

Please let me know when you read the book, because I’d love to hear how you experienced it!

Stir: A Book Review

I was thrilled last year when a friend organized a day over Easter break to prowl around bookstores in Cleveland. Three of us met at Loganberry Books, a sprawling old bookstore that wound round and round and in and out of rooms and even had a resident cat. I found a treasure there that I’ll review here soon.

It was a delicious day all told, in books and food, because my friends introduced me to Choolah for lunch, an Indian barbeque place that I fell in love with–the hospitality, the decor, the light-hearted quips on the wall about elephants and waiting lines.

Then we drove to Chagrin Falls, just outside Cleveland, and when I passed the popcorn shop and crossed the bridge and came into the town square with a gazebo in it, I thought I’d landed in Ireland. Fireside Books is on the square, and the kind of shop that goes deeper in and higher up than you expect at the front door. I picked up several books and put them back down, and at the last minute, grabbed one that was a little overpriced for being a used book. Its subtitle convinced me that it would go home with me despite the price: My broken brain and the meals that brought me home.

I care a lot about what it means to walk from brokenness to wholeness and I knew this would expand my understanding. It did.

Jessica was 28, a super-focused, energetic Harvard graduate preparing for her doctorate exams in Jewish literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a routine morning jog, she suffered a brain aneurism that sent her to an emergency room and emergency surgery. That would have been traumatic enough, but the staggering complications coming from that incident spread out over the next two years and shattered Jessica’s life, her frenetic routine, and her sense of safety and self.

Who was she if she couldn’t study and teach and produce papers? Who was she if she couldn’t cook and host and buzz effortlessly around the kitchen to serve her husband and friends every weekend and every holiday? How could she know this meteor in her brain wouldn’t hit her again?

The book recounts Jessica’s quest for normality and joy during a season when nothing was right and her body didn’t obey her. Stir is a beautiful read, sparkly, and wholesome. I love how Jessica lets us in on some of the Jewish holidays and customs that create the fabric of her life. I love how fond she is of her husband Eli. I love her easy use of colorful words like “glop” and “lacy scatter of sesame seeds.” She is reflective, self-aware, and philosophical by turns. She writes about her medical issues without making that the whole story, and the stories always involve food and friends and family.

The recipes at the end of most chapters are straight-forward and thorough. Some are super simple and make me want to make it right now. Others are fun to read, but I know I’ll never follow four pages of instructions for a strawberry custard cake.

One of my friends read the book and started making the chocolate chip cookies with their magical simple ingredient that wows us every time. Another friend brought me a slice of the butter almond cake that she made after she borrowed the book. Clearly, this is the best book to loan out because I get food in return. Anyone else wanting to borrow it soon? Just say when!

I tried her challah recipe during the stay at home order this spring. The beauty of working at home was that I could see after its five fold-and-turn instructions, and I can’t do that when I’m at the office. I tweaked the challah with a bit of whole wheat flour and oatmeal, as if I knew what I was doing, and it was a smashing success. I want to make the sesame noodles soon, and I wonder if I could make cherry clafoutis with another fruit, say, raspberries or blueberries?

Part of Jessica’s recovery included starting a food blog, which she named Sweet Amandine, but which now seems defunct. Apparently Jessica has returned to living a less public life with her family, because I’ve not been able to find more information about her except to find her on Instagram. There are some interviews on YouTube soon after the book came out (2015). It always feels like a bonus to hear an author’s voice after I’ve read their words. I liked hearing how she pronounces her husband’s name: both vowels are short, not long, as I would have expected. I like hearing that she strings words together as easily and beautifully when she speaks as when she writes.

If you need a treat of a read, I recommend Stir! I love this story of resilience and healing coming from a place of comfort and creativity in her kitchen and dining room.

Use Your Words

I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. Our family parsed words to death, arguing whether a word meant one thing or another. When I taught ESL in Poland, I made the bag pictured above with words from a favorite hymn because I thought an English teacher should have a bag with words. And Wordles were so much fun! They’ve kinda gone out of style by now, but I loved their eloquence and simplicity.

Sometimes I buy a thing just because of its fun name. Like a car air freshener called “High Maintenance” or a mini orchid because it’s named “Espresso Orchid.” It was white, not espresso colored, but it fit in an espresso-sized cup, and I found it irresistible, and am thrilled that it’s finally shooting out a bud stalk.

Words. Names. We fling them around. Label things. Describe ourselves, describe feelings, describe situations. And what a humdinger of a situation this year has been. What a stupendous opportunity to use words well, to let them sparkle, fly, heal.

I’ve seen healing words, heard them, received them. They infuse me with new energy and light. Words carry light, you know. Or darkness. Which is sobering. In mysterious, staggering power, words create our reality. We can name a thing wonderful or terrible, and it becomes that. Is this power part of carrying God’s image–the part of Him that named creation into existence? Is it akin to how Adam named the animals?

I’ve heard wise moms calm their distraught, screaming children by saying, “Use your words.” Then the child says, “I’m cold.” Or “He hit me.” Or “I want to go hoooooome.” Then the mom knows what’s happening, and the screaming stops. She worked ahead of time by teaching her child words to use.

I think we could teach each other words that are useful and clarifying. I think this weird year gives us a fantastic chance to try to name what’s happening.We’ve heard lots of yelling, words flung around like daggers, weighted with hate and anger. We’ve complained, and tried to be strong, and given up lots of dreams, and readjusted our plans a hundred times, and cried buckets of tears of deep loss and sorrow. We’ve worn out tired words like

unprecedented

anti-maskers

fraudsters

systemic

mitigation.

Anger and grief are real and valid and we should name them. Name them, own the tsunami emotions, and care deeply for those in hardship. Death, a serious health diagnosis, loss of home or loved ones, mental illness, front-line medical work, violence, and abuse deserve words like

suffering

devastated

crushed

agony.

God’s people should be leading the way in holding the broken hearted, comforting, helping, and offering quiet presence. If they speak, they should give gentle, luminous words, not judging or giving quick fixes.

In contrast, when a storm comes through and takes away electricity for more than 30 hours, or a vacation got cancelled, or masks are mandated for specific situations, we can use words like

uncomfortable

disruptive

disappointing

inconvenient

sad.

When I hear anger about masking or changes in holiday plans, I want to say, “Use your words!” And choose them appropriately. We can be sad and disappointed about many things, but if we’re not in a flapping tent in a refugee camp, and we have contact with our loved ones, and we didn’t bury a family member, are we suffering? I suggest not. We should use our words instead of screaming.

The stark pictures of boots and crocs upside down outside a UNHCR tent in Greece (upside down so the rain doesn’t get in them, and outside so they don’t dirty the living quarters in the tent) calls me to be utterly careful how and where I use the “suffering” word. When I hear people yelling about masks, and being worried about the effect of COVID on our nation, I think they don’t get out much. Am I being judgy? There are much worse, much harder situations across the globe that deserve our anger and our prayer. We can be honest about how we feel because anger or sadness doesn’t disappear by ignoring it, but we also need perspective and higher goals than keeping ourselves comfortable.

What if we’d use our words to name our situation with truth and grace like Jesus did? What if we channel our deep emotion toward gentleness, compassion, and caring for what is truly devastating? Could we create a new reality by naming things accurately?

I wonder.

Patina

rain chains

Rain chains on amazon.com

Reflections on re-entry to my birth country, five years after.

They swooshed camp chairs
Out of carry bags
And lifted Pinterest-perfect snacks
From Thirty-One bags
And glided on soft-soled shoes
To friends with nodding faces.

I watched
Them and
Ordered
My lungs to breathe and
My knees to not crumple

Until I found a quiet place
To sob and sit and list
All the things I missed
And what was new. I’d never
Needed a camp chair.
(Stumps and grass
Had always worked fine.)
And what was Thirty-One?

Words dribbled over lines,
Lines puddled into memories.

Lewis said far, far better things lie ahead
Than any we leave behind
So I lettered his lines for my wall

But a life won’t be stuffed into words
And memories ooze
For years. The tears
Don’t stop but drip down
Down to the mother bowl
Of copper dark
To rest and glisten and breathe
And sometimes see
Chimney swifts circle and drop
Circle and chirp and drop to 
Home.

Days drop into weeks
And years into a rain chain where
Loss empties gain, fills loss, drips gain and
Splashes into weathered green
Mystery rimmed
Shimmering.

Smiley Faces & Emojis

hansjorg-keller-iKxDcv5Kx9Y-unsplash

Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

When I want to send a text these days, I look at my most-used emojis and feel astounded at how they reflect the essence of much of my communication. It’s a long way from the hundreds of smiles I wrote by hand—like this, but vertical: =). Dashes for the eyes, not dots, are important to me. I don’t know why.

Twenty-five years ago when we moved to Ireland, someone chartered a bus for our friends and relatives to go with us to Dulles Airport, a three-hour trip. After a helpful agent checked in our mountain of luggage, all the dozens of friends and relations trooped through the airport, onto a shuttle, and waved us off at the door of the plane. That’s how long ago it was.

In the first years, we relied on letters and faxes to stay connected with people across the ocean, five time zones away. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on stamps and stationery. I remember the wonder of watching a fax come squeaking off the machine. Never mind that it was thermal paper and could easily fade. It meant someone was feeding the message at this exact moment, and it was magic to feel that connected in real time. I wrote dozens and dozens of letters, and Michelle and I wrote each other every week for the first two years. I often wish I could read them again. Or maybe not.

One friend saw how much Michelle missed me and gave her money to call me once. We arranged by letter what day and time we’d call, so we had to schedule it way ahead. The rate was something like $20 for an hour, and the call was such a treat!

Then a friend in PA told me that I could write her via her family’s email, and I said, “What’s email?” Eventually we got a modem for our family computer and every morning it would do its whirring, chirping, burbling noise to send and receive emails. That was when we got all the silly chain emails that said if you don’t forward this, your billy goat will do something bad. Our family shared one address, and our friends would write our names in the subject lines so it would go directly to our individual folders, but even so it wasn’t a super confidential system.

When I got my own gmail address, I loved the versatility of logging in at any computer in any state or country and connecting with my people. I spent hours and hours emailing friends who lived far away. My isolation and loneliness in Ireland and Poland pushed me to learn what it takes to sustain long-distance friendships. I was willing to put in that time and effort because it was a large part of how I was supported and connected with people with whom I shared history. I had dear friends and mentors who had a lot of patience with me and with email in those days, and I’m deeply grateful. It helped that I could express myself well with words, but communicating via email was a skill I prioritized. I didn’t buy as many stamps anymore, though they were still important. I started typing and printing my letters instead of writing them long-hand like I’d always done. Also, I laughed and laughed when I first learned about the chat option. You could message back and forth in real time! And send animated emojis! There was a new kind of culture in chats I had to learn. You didn’t have to do formal hellos and goodbyes. You could just show up, message something, and disappear as you wanted. Kinda novel. Kinda fun.

In 2004 a friend told me about Xanga. She said it was like online journaling and I thought that’s the oddest thing I’d ever heard, and I would never put my journal online. Then for some reason I got an account, and moved around in that world a little bit but it was always a little noisy and scary and overwhelming to me. I liked it and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the pressure of creating a persona for myself. But I made some good, life-giving connections that I still treasure.

Then came Skype, which avoided the cost of a phone bill, though I still had to pay something to call internationally from Poland. It was a good system in its time, and I feel a little melancholy about its iconic beep-beep-swoosh ring tone. When I had major surgery in Poland, it was worth a lot to use the Skype video option to call my mom the next day, show her my incision, and let her see my surroundings. The tables were turned several years later when she was on chemo and I was five time zones away. Then I used WhatsApp video, and it helped me feel not so far away to be able to see how she looked when she lost her hair, and how she closed her eyes when she was tired.

There are lots of voices out there that decry technology but I’m so grateful for the ways that it has helped me feel not so far away from so many people I love. I’m particularly fond of voice messages. I sent a voice message to RSVP to a bride, and she messaged back: “I’m so glad you sent me a voice message. I can hear your soul that way.” Or another friend who was recently in such a remote place in West Africa that she didn’t get messages for three weeks: “When I got your message, it made me feel so loved and a little weepy because I just want to have an evening together.”

These days, I get tired of staring at chins and necks in Zoom calls and “You’re muted.” BUT WE CAN SEE EACH OTHER AND HEAR EACH OTHER! (At least, we can when the weather is clear and my wifi works.) Bumpy, scratchy Zoom calls are still better than thermal fax paper. Most times, anyway.

I’m super choosy about the podcasts I listen to. I want substance, not chitchat, so I mostly listen to counselling episodes and journalists with the BBC. This week I listened to this one about naming unspoken griefs. They talked about ambiguous loss and how it shapes our relationships. One line hit me hard: “Sustaining long-term long-distance relationships requires you to live in ambiguous loss.” It’s true. I’ve learned ways that work well to communicate but my soul never gets used to the distance, never is reconciled to the dissonance of being psychologically present but physically distant from my people. It’s good to have a name for it now.

These days, my task bar shows two—sometimes three— messaging apps I use every day. Please please please don’t send me an invitation to another messaging platform. Can we please just use what we have, which already works great?

After all the words and voices and sound bites, sometimes there are no words. My most-used emojis tell the story of what I say when I don’t have words. They span the spectrum of my current experience: a (tan) thumbs-up, a face with floods of tears, a broken heart, a dancing lady in a red dress, a laughing scholar, puzzled, wrinkled eyes with a grimacing mouth, a grinning face with sunglasses, hearts floating all over a happy face, a wink, a wink and a kiss, a party hat face, a shocked face with wide open eyes and mouth, hands holding a blue face, cheering, waving hands.

The smiley face with the dashes for the eyes and the (tan) praying hands all do the same job. They give a way, a mechanism, a system for hearing and being heard which is mostly about loving, and I’m very grateful for all of it.

Practical Principles about Virtual Reality

I felt offended the first time I went to a McDonald’s and couldn’t place an order with a person but had to order at the digital screen. I felt it was an affront to our humanity to have a screen mediate our transaction, and I’ll probably never be ok with it.

When I think about how to spend my limited resources of time, money, and technology, I want to live out of an abundance mentality, rather than scarcity. What good and beautiful thing can I throw my energy into? When God dreamed me up, what did He intend for me to be? I know He didn’t intend me to be a dour, nay-saying person.

What’s my biggest YES?

God and His purposes are the the non-negotiable part of my life. Beyond that, my biggest YES is connected to people and words.

Being sure of my main YES is wonderfully clarifying. I’m convinced that He intended me for:

  • Action rather than passivity
  • Creativity rather than consumerism
  • Interaction rather than spectating

These convictions help me sort out what to say YES and NO to regarding technology and devices. It even shapes my policy not to use the self-check-out machines at Walmart, because they cut out one person that I could interact with.

Passivity, consumerism, and spectating tend to shrivel and diminish a person—not what God had in mind when He dreamed up humans.

In contrast, action, creativity, and interaction make us fuller, better, healthier people.

Flourishing would describe it, and is surely what God designed us for.

Below are some practical ways that demonstrate my ideals and my main YES. When I know what to say YES to, it filters out clutter. I have more time for what I really love. I get to live in abundance, not scarcity.

But first a qualification: I really enjoy social media. I love Instagram. Also, I know loneliness and the magnetic pull for more, more, more faces and profiles and witty exchanges. Dopamine is a chemical we all like to feel, but the soul translates its absence as loneliness, and I feel it too. I’m not speaking out of a distant, Luddite attitude. Not at all.

I mostly watch videos only  if they’re classical music, choral music, painting, or lettering because they speak to my creativity. Who has time for cat videos? How are cats connected to anyone’s big YES? Oh yes, the people who work in catteries. But I’m not a kill joy, honestly. I love a good laugh. Oh yes, and I love, love, love Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet because he makes me laugh every single day.

Housecleaning

I’m very Marie Kondo about my feeds. If something doesn’t spark joy, I unfollow it. Simple. I followed a very talented artist, and learned from her, and liked what she did, but she complained all the time, and I decided I don’t need that negativity. Same way for someone who consistently rants about their pet grievance or enthusiasm. If it’s about politics or multilevel marketing, it’s out. It’s nothing personal but it’s a boundary that gives me space to interact with the people I really want to hear from.

Friends or strangers

I accept most friend requests because I’m an author and welcome interaction that extends beyond the book. But with little or no exception, I don’t follow people I don’t know in real life, unless it’s a public page relating to creativity or people. Nobody is keeping track of how many friends or likes I have, and if they do, they must not get out much.

Real people vs virtual connections

People are colorful and unpredictable and quirky. They have all these stories and insights covered up in their souls, and I refuse to miss out on that by burying my face in my phone. Are some people boring? Yes. But they stay boring if I don’t engage with them.

And yes, interacting with real humans can be awkward and risky on all kinds of levels.

But how can people live their hours behind a device and then be vibrant, wholesome, contributing, flourishing husbands and wives and church members and mentors and artists and teachers and committee members?

Passivity and consumerism bleed into crippled, selfish relationships where I must feel good and cozy all the time, or I’ll escape into a device. Saying YES to interacting with real humans now exercises the muscles necessary later to love the difficult son or daughter, the awkward small group member, the selfish committee member. Refusing to interact in real life results in shriveled, diminished humans, which is an ugly alternative to what God dreamed for us. Is interaction with real people easy? Nope, not always.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Be all here

My phone shows only my Whatsapp, Messenger, and email notifications on the lock screen. I don’t need anything else when I’m working or socializing. I don’t have to know what’s going on on Facebook or Instagram until I’m alone and have time to open the app.  If I leave for an evening and I’m not the driver, the phone usually stays home. Others have heavier responsibilities than I, and don’t have the luxury of being as untethered as I am. But if they’re not a Person of Pressing Responsibility, I wonder why the phone can’t stay on their table a few hours until they get back.

This extends to taking pictures. We’ve all seen the circle of friends who are looking down into their phones at the pictures they’ve just taken instead of out into each other’s eyes. Or they’re contorting themselves to take a Instagram-worthy picture instead of internalizing the moment.

It makes my heart hurt to see that, but I feel the rub. Last Monday evening I was in a choir rehearsal. I’m so excited to be in an 80+ voice choir for Larry Nickel’s “A Cappella Christmas Cantata.” Part of my job is to publicize the event, and pictures do that best, right? But I felt so conflicted because I could either be a good choir member and stay engaged with the singing. Or I could take action shots. But I couldn’t do both, and when I tried, I failed on both fronts. sigh

Then yesterday I spent the day with a small group of pals critiquing writing projects. It was a lovely atmosphere, and I kept thinking about how I could capture part of it in a picture. After several hours of being all there, I tried surreptitiously to take a picture, but it wasn’t a good one and it still derailed the conversation toward styling a picture and talking about #vscobasics. Some conversations can afford to be interrupted with a camera, and some can’t. I’ve decided that my best moments don’t make it to the internet because they’re so sweet and precious, not for public consumption, and too valuable to interrupt with a camera.

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The disrupting shot

There are people in my life who have shaped me enormously, and they do it by being completely present with me. When they talk to me, they make me feel like I’m the most important person in their world. They ask thoughtful questions that show me they remember our last conversation even if it was a long time ago. They’re not grabbing at a pocket, or glancing at a screen when it dings. They have a million other things to do, but in that moment, they’re with me, and my soul is soothed in a way that no screen can mimic. The tilt of the head, the squint of the eye, the wink, or touching my arm tell me that they are all there, and I find it deeply restorative. We don’t have a selfie to document the moment but something real and lasting happened inside me.

This is the kind of presence and intention that will shift a person, a community, a world, and I want to be part of that.

Join me?

Last week, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about practical ways to approach life and technology. This is the expanded version of what I shared there. I’m also indebted to my co-writers yesterday who helped shape this into better coherence. It was a case in point: presence over electronics!