distraction and the discipline of presence

When my children were little, I noticed an interesting behavior pattern. If we started the day with TV, it was difficult to get them to take interest in anything else — including each other — for the rest of the day.

I hated this, because it meant I had to be on my A-game for the first hour after they woke up because asking and needing began the moment their eyes opened.

It was so very, very tempting to hush and soothe them with Little Bear while I changed diapers and got sippy cups — and it meant I could probably close my eyes for just a few more minutes and snuggle with whichever of the four climbed into my lap while the rest stayed contentedly mesmerized.

When the weather was good, the extra eyes-half-open doze through a few episodes wasn’t too detrimental to the flow of the day. They could always be diverted by dirt.

But if it was rainy, which of course it was 99% of the first year we lived in Tacoma, well, Game Over. It was either let them watch a video or referee endless fights over Lego pieces, Hotwheels, gummy fruits, and all the “he said I couldn’t do its” they could dole out (apparently, this is the worst thing brothers can say to each other; it either turns into a dare or a brawl).

TV was a buffer. A babysitter. A break. I’m not knocking it. I might owe some of my sanity to my children’s two-year-old vhs/dvd obsessions, which were, in order: 101 Dalmations, Toy Story 2The Iron Giant, and Finding Nemo. (My kids watched Finding Nemo a lot…lucky me, baby #4 turned out to be a terrible sleeper.)

What I’ve discovered, however, is that if we repeatedly soothe our kids with video in all its forms when they are small, they are very likely to soothe themselves with it when they are older.

When my oldest ones became teenagers, “Turn off the TV!” was my delightfully judgmental greeting to them the minute I walked in the door from work. I say it often. I say it to myself.

Train up a child…

A few generations of us have been doing this for a very long time now. Watching numbs us to exercise, chores, homework.  We turn on the TV for background noise, for something to talk about when the conversation lags.

And if we’ve been distracting ourselves, numbing ourselves, soothing ourselves for most of our lives with TV, Netflix, whatever, it’s just second nature to need it to unwind, to avoid loneliness, to avoid sorrow. Just like in the toddler years, distraction can be a welcome relief.

But if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s become a problem.

A few years ago, like practically everyone I know, I picked up the habit of scrolling through my smart phone if I woke up in the night and couldn’t sleep. Just a warmer and cozier way to do what I’d done since 1995 when the Internet made Craigslist my new best friend.

And streaming Netflix?

I streamed five seasons of Madmen in the wee hours of the morning for three weeks before my daughter went to college. Don’t judge me for it. I judge myself. Madmen had all the “charm” of midnight in a 70’s bowling alley — smoky, boozy, sexy. Way, way too much depravity for me. But, I do have a weakness for the well-written drama, and I was a copywriter on the creative team of a marketing agency, and Peggy’s copywriting woes in season 3… well, I could relate.

Distraction. I wanted distraction and entertainment so I didn’t have to feel all the feelings of letting go.

A few months later, a dear friend and I began to talk and read about giving God space in our minds and hearts and how sometimes that means feeling the feelings we’ve tried to numb and asking God to heal hurt and being patient while He does and not trying continuously to pour on our own temporary anesthetic. To ask God to awaken us to the present, to live in the present, and to take it as it is. To be okay being uncomfortable. To be attentive to our lives.

This is an exercise — a prayer — I have to come back to again and again because numbing is my default.

Awareness of God’s presence. A prayer I would BE present in my own life.  That days would not be for “getting through” but for real, active living.

And it’s a prayer best prayed the moment I wake up. A simple word: presence.

Because if I start the day catching up on the latest Downton Abbey, and then remember that when I asked a friend “what are we all going to do when this is over” his response was “Poldark,” I will have to check it out. And what do you know, the whole first season is free on Amazon Prime…

Game. Over.

(“Wow! Mom did all of our laundry! Thank you so much, mom!” Say the teenagers, usually required to do own laundry. Who knew we had a whole Poldark season’s worth of dirty clothes?)

* * * * *

Don’t you envy people who live off the grid? Don’t you think, “If I could just toss all my electronics in a landfill I’d be happier”?

I kind of do.

But I wonder…

Would we just fill our minds with something else? With novels? With nature? (Sign. Me. Up.)

I think we would.

Because the adversary is bent on distraction, and it would still take discipline to open my eyes and see.

I need that discipline.

* * * * *

P.S. If Pixar’s Wall-E (oh the irony) was too subtle a critique on distraction, consider reading Neil Postman’s book, written in 1985, entitled Amusing Ourselves to DeathTo be honest, it’s too much for me and makes me feel trapped in the Matrix. I prefer Walden because it just seems easier to flee. But that’s not 21st century reality. Somehow, we have to reclaim our lives from distraction right where we are.

Here’s a little taste of Neil (remember, this was written long before we could carry our entertainment in the palm of our hands):

“The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about four and a half hours a day, every day (by age sixty-five, a person will have spent twelve uninterrupted years in front of the TV).”

“…No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are… This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

“It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985

going retro: recklessness and regret

20160209_113445.jpg
Teenager and giant puppy listening to Adele.

So, we’ve discovered our giant puppy loves classic light rock 70’s music. I mean, really loves.

Easy listening soothes the savage beast, Dave says. Her current favorite is The Best of Bread, but only Side A. Side B gets a little too rocky…

(By the way, 70’s teenagers CANNOT talk about how kids these days don’t use good grammar and it’s all because of pop culture. Baby I’m a want you — really? At least in the 80’s we recovered some good old-fashioned dignity.)

Fortunately, we do get some relief from Side A, because Ginny also loves Adele. Who, interestingly enough, reminds me of Stevie Nicks sometimes… so there you go. The dog with her highly sophisticated taste in music agrees.

Actually, I have to think of Adele as Stevie Nicks when I listen to her song When We Were Young. Because when you’re 67, it’s okay to sing about lost youth. But at 25? I’m pretty sure the only thing more audacious than a 25-year-old singing about how she’s getting old is the 13-year-old singing along.

Adele.

[cue Emma Thompson voice]

Dearest, you are young. And I *deep breath* am quite old enough to be your mum.

[end Emma’s voice, or not — choose your own adventure]

But thank you. And I do mean this sincerely. Because you put music and lyrics to all the feels I’ve had all of this 46th year of life.

We were mad at getting old it made us restless.

I’m so mad I’m getting old. It makes me reckless.

I feel this. I’m mad, too. Especially at my feet, which now require special exercises before I even get out of bed…

46, at least my 46, has been a wild transition. Half of our children are adults now. Adults!

…I accidentally got invited to my high school’s Facebook group planning their 30th reunion and I was so offended someone would think I was that old — until I realized it was the class just a year ahead of me. What??

(BTW, if you are older than me and reading this and saying out loud, of course, “Deb, you are so young!” Call me and let’s do lunch. You are my new favorite. And I love you.)

*

So, anyway, I’ve been doing some fairly reckless things in rebellion against the passage of time:

1. I quit my steady job to freelance.
2. I let, nay, encouraged my 18-year-old-senior-in-high-school-planning-to-leave-for-college-in-the-fall son get a puppy. (I know…)
3. I ate In-N-Out burger three times in one weekend. With nary a care for calories or cholesterol.

Oh, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m sure there are people who get through this part of life without a blip. But I’m not that kind of girl/woman/lady/whatever I am now. Oh no. In my life, there’s no such thing as a smooth transition.

[see? no transition here…]

I just heard Eugene Cho gently refer to this season as “Midlife Reflection” rather than the old standby of “crisis.”

In which case, I’ve totally #nailedit.

Because I found myself looking back a few times too many over the past year — to years and decades of my life and giving them labels:

An entire year consumed by this… Five years consumed by that… A decade spent on this.. 

It’s only safe to think like that for about ten minutes. And then you have to let it go.

If you look back too long, you end up turning on Adele first thing in the morning, spreading a photo album of your babies on your lap (or just staring at the one picture because only baby #1 actually has a completed Creative Memories album), and dropping chocolate cake crumbs all over your bathrobe… and you’re still sitting there at noon. For days. [Not that I would know. I’m just saying it could happen.]

Because sweet memories are one thing, but regrets are another.

I know you understand this, so I’ll give you a few major regrets from just one decade of my life:

  • I regret not buying the condo offered to us for a ridiculously — ridiculously — low price by a friend who wanted to get the heck out of Dodge after the Northridge earthquake.
  • I regret not changing the oil on time in the Suburban.
  • I regret not getting a dog when the kids were much younger. (They needed one. They really did.)

But, sometimes the stuff we regret is the very stuff that has shaped our lives for good. You live, you learn. Right? For example, I learned what it means for a vehicle to throw a rod…

And then there are other regrets. The regrets that shaped those years and decades and gave them labels. Like these:

  • I regret trying so hard to do everything right by my own astronomically high standard.
  • I regret working overtime (in all senses) to please other people.
  • I regret not reaching out for help when I didn’t know what to do.
  • I regret not stepping out and speaking up — creatively and in relationships.

These are the sorts of regrets you don’t dwell on or they will destroy joy like nothing else…

But reflection to a degree is a very good thing, right? No, you can’t change the past, but you may find a common denominator among your regrets. And maybe it’s something that will change your future.

My common denominator is easy to spot now that I have the advantage of a midlife reflection.

Fear.

The kind of fear that suffocates life, minimizes risk, hides in closets, holds back and says you’re not good enough.

If the most reckless my getting old madness gets is throwing off fear and taking risks, well, that’s a whole lot better than buying a fancy sports car with a rockin’ stereo on which to play soothing seventies tunes.

People often say they’re going to live without regrets, but how do they know? Maybe they’ll disconnect emotion from their life history and maybe they won’t. Every human has a regret. At least one time in their life, they know they chose wrong.

Lucky for us, Adele sings about her regrets.

Hmmm…maybe I’ll sing about mine. Or not. I don’t know…

I suppose living without fear could involve karaoke.

You never know.

* * * * *

five favorite things for February

I just wrote the most depressing post. And then I decided nobody needs to start February that way.

So instead, I went back to a picture I took the other day of all the lovely things I had arranged on my table. And I bring you five favorite things for February — and the reasons why. (Not including the Philodendron.)

Oh, the post got better. It just started out so sad. Like Adele. You don’t need that today, either.

Anyway, here they are:

1. Mintgreen’s 2016 planner

With all of my heart, I want to do a bullet journal. I really do. I may still go there. But I picked up this cute little pink floral 4 by 5 inch planner for under $5 at Walmart and as long as I do my job of writing the actual-for-real-right time down, it’s doing its job.

Also, I’m the sort of person who absolutely loves to organize things on paper but not actually do them myself. So, lists…I have them. But making them cute and artsy won’t make me more productive for longer than a week.*

*things I’ve learned about myself over a span of 46 years

2. Pooch & Sweetheart mini books

I picked these up at Michael’s craft store for $1.50 each. They’re total knock-offs of Katie Daisy’s artwork, though. So while they’re adorable, I wonder… Anyway, you should visit Katie Daisy’s site and watch the video of her painting. My sister and I decided she’s like Beatrix Potter.

Anyway, I use them to write down all the things I write down when I am out and about, which is a lot of things. Ideas, mostly. Bits and phrases that come into my head. And they are the same size as my planner, which is pleasing. And they all fit in my purse.

 

3. 52 Silly Things to do When You are Blue 

We’ve had this deck for a while, but I pulled it out to see if I was doing any of them. Turns out, I already do a lot of the things suggested on the cards. Rearranging furniture and cleaning out a closet has always made me feel better.

But my February favorites are: Feed Somebody and Walk a Dog. The walk a dog part is way harder these days than it sounds because our dog is a 7 month old, 70 pound, ball of crazy who requires two people, a harness, a Cesar Milan leash, and the strength of two horses to keep under control. But at least we get outside, right?
But food… food is fun! I made beef bourguignon for the first time in my life last week — and for a group of friends! If you decide to make this amazing meal, note two things: 1. If your family hates onions (even gloriously carmelized in bacon) or mushrooms, don’t make it for them. 2. The recipe calls for Cognac, which I did not use. And also 1 Tablespoon of salt. Seriously. I’ve never seen a recipe for anything other than pickles that required that much salt. I didn’t want to kill anybody, so I put in about 1/4 tsp and it turned out just fine.

4. Whatever is Lovely: A coloring book for reflection and worship 

Grown up coloring books are all the rage these days. My friend Maggie gave this one to me so we could color together. She has every sort of pen/pencil/crayon available to coloring sorts of persons and we had a great time talking and “arting.” I have crayons. Which aren’t so awesome for coloring small spaces.

I also colored with my daughter and my sister & my niece, during which time we discovered that some of the pictures create more stress than calm — because you have to make color choices and sometimes you regret them. So if you pick up one of these books expecting calm, and you’re even a teeny-weeny bit of a perfectionist, start small.

5. For the Love by Jen Hatmaker

This book is not in the picture because I bought it for my Kindle, which I now regret. Some books you just need to have in hardcopy. (I can’t peruse an electronic version during a book club discussion — even the end notes deal didn’t help.)

Anyway, For the Love is where I got the idea to make that crazy Beef Bourguigon thing. She made it sound like so much fun — and for me, it was. I am at a place in life where cooking can be really fun again — it better be because I’ve got three two-legged bottomless pit teenage boys to feed. And also, I love cooking in my kitchen. And also, I’m seriously into carmelized onions. (BTW, there are only maybe three recipes in this book, it’s a collection of essays.)

Among other wonderful essays on everything from running your own race to poverty tourism, I found this a perfect read. Her essay on turning 40 made me want to jump up and down and shout “AMEN, SISTER!” But my 20-something, 30-something, and just a bit older than me friends all agreed: humor + thought provoking + encouraging + Jesus = good stuff.

I pretty much highlighted every word of For the Love, but this bit is particularly inspiring for me today. It’s in the part that’s a letter to her kids:

You’d be surprised how powerful kindness actually is. I am not being dramatic: you can save hearts and lives with grace.

— Jen Hatmaker, For the Love: fighting for grace in a world of impossible standards

* ** * *

I’ve got ten more things I could add to this list, but the sun came out while I was writing, so that means on to other things. Like dog walking.

But I will get back to talking about Adele before Valentine’s Day. I promise.

 

the importance of cheerleaders

photo cred: College of San Mateo Library
photo cred: College of San Mateo Library

I was in Ceres, California last Monday when I heard Glenn Frey had passed away. And the mental collision was so real.

I did two years of high school in that town. And one of those years, I tried out for cheerleading.

We had to do a yell routine, of course, and I was astonishingly not good at that part. But I was even worse at the dance routine — which was “The Heat is On” sung by Glenn Frey. It’s been 30 years, but I can still dance the first sets of beats.

These moves have provided endless entertainment for my family and a few select friends over the years. I’m sure I remember them so well because it is the only dance routine I ever learned… Our cheerleaders at Ceres High School were awesome dancers. And I was an awesome, rhythmless, regular Baptist.

(Oh, BTW, my sincere apologies to the friends I would have loved to see in California, but it was a whirlwind one-day visit for my Grandma’s 90th birthday. Go Grandma!!! *insert pom pom shake here*)

I always wanted to be a cheerleader. I love, love, love synchronization. Whether it’s dance moves, or coordinating colors, or plot lines. It’s all so lovely to watch. Movement, staging, timing = favorite things.

When I think about why cheerleading was so hard for me (high school was not my first attempt to make the squad), I can acknowledge now that, in addition to being terribly uncoordinated, I’ve always been too self-conscious. There’s a certain amount of just going for it that a person needs in order to cheer well.

But, I’m getting pretty decent at cheering from the sidelines these days — as long as I keep it under a certain decibel. My yell is weird. And sort of screamy. The voice comes out not at all what I imagine it to be in my head. Something about watching my babies do stuff out there just makes me lose my self-consciousness and yell out their names. Which they just LOVE!

As much as they may hate it in the moment, they will remember mom (and dad) shouting praises from the sidelines for the rest of their lives.

Because praise, encouragement, cheer… everyone needs this. Everyone.

In fact, nothing simultaneously makes me angry and breaks my heart more than hearing parents yell from the sidelines in angry, disgusted tones at their kids.  I’ve been at games where I wanted to tell some parents to GO HOME. I cannot imagine listening to anything more discouraging than your voice. Your baby has run 18 miles today in the blazing sun. Give him a break!

All of us need cheerleaders. We do. Especially at critical points of life when discouragement clings to you, sucks you in, and threatens to drown you like quicksand.

I’ve been reading “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker and in one chapter she puts on her old cheerleader voice to tell her readers some things. I needed to read this pep talk and maybe you do, too.

Here’s what she said that just lifted me right out of my pajamas, into the shower to ponder, and back into my bathrobe (keepin it real here) to write this post:

We will cheer each other on, refusing to speak doubt into our gifts. When you are scared, I will declare, ‘You can do this.’ When you whisper a dream, I’ll holler through a bullhorn that you are brave and wonderful and important! When I am beaten down, you will remind me that I am an approved worker with no shame….Let’s do this. Let’s fulfill the good work we’ve been commissioned to. Silence any voice that whispers ‘not enough’ and stand in truth as an approved worker. You are. Jesus made you so. If God surveyed the cross and declared it finished, then it wasn’t sufficient for everyone but you. If Jesus covered it all, then He covered it all….If you need to deal, then deal…Forgive, release, acknowledge, confront, feel the feelings, let something go, believe the truth, whatever you need to do. Then dust your hands off and get ready to go….This really is your one wild and precious life. You matter so much. You are writing a good story for your children. Your community and church need you, your neighbors and family need you, God adores you and Jesus is obsessed with you. Here we are, your community of women running this race together, proud of you, moved by you.

-Jen Hatmaker, For the Love

I need people in my life who cheer for me. My husband, my kids, relatives — they do an amazing job at this. And oh how I love my dear friends who speak even the smallest words of encouragement to me. Friends who believe I can. And should.

I’ve got enough negative words in my own head about myself. I don’t need more. You don’t need more. We’re stuck in an ugly, losing game sometimes. Heckled by our own hearts.

Maybe you feel beaten down and discouraged, too. Maybe you don’t have cheerleaders in your life, or your cheerleaders are fighting their own battles. Maybe you need to do what I’m going to do and Stuart Smalley that quote from Jen Hatmaker right onto your bathroom mirror and “silence any voice that whispers ‘not enough’ and stand in truth as an approved worker.”

And if you’re dealing with a husband, wife, child who is struggling with addiction (or anything else for that matter) take some time to think about your role in their life.

Are you the voice on the sidelines (maybe you need to get back to the sidelines) calling out every wrong move, every failed attempt when they’re fighting to get on their feet? Or do you cheer them on toward victory?

Cheering on someone you love through recovery takes selflessness and patience. We have to set aside our uncertainties, insecurities, fears and allow hope to fill us and give us grace and encouraging words. And pray for wisdom. Lots and lots of wisdom.

I suppose the same is true for any relationship, really.

Encouragement revives.

* * * * *

Who in your life needs your words of encouragement? A child, a spouse, a pastor, a friend?

Sometimes, you just need to go for it.

But maybe not with pom poms.

…encourage one another and build each other up…

1 Thessalonians 5:11