Namaste

IMG_1630Last  month I decided to take the plunge and take my previously private yoga practice public. As in signing up and paying money to go to a studio full of other people who know what they’re doing, who have perfect yoga bodies, who’ve never struggled with coordination, who don’t get anxious in situations where they don’t know anyone. (At least that’s what was true in my head.) There were plenty of reasons to stay in the solitude of my own home, including numerous painful memories associated with my attempts to participate in anything athletic. I can still feel the anxiety of the mandatory intramural sports I endured in junior high, the high school PE class, complete with locker room humiliation, volleyball games with the “young married” Sunday school class (Chris was sure he could teach me), golf outings on work trips with Chris where obnoxious businessmen with something to prove took it upon themselves to “help” me with what I was doing wrong. My experiences had taught me a painful lesson: it would not go well, I would end up feeling like a fool.

When we finished our basement a few years ago, we cancelled our Y membership and intentionally planned a really good fitness space, and I relaxed a little inside, knowing Chris and our kids would be the only ones to witness my awkward efforts to stay in shape. I tried various exercises and activities, even joined Chris in the insanity of P90X. At least, I tried to join him. Let’s just say I was reciting Tony’s phrase, “I presently struggle with…” for what felt like the majority of the exercises. He could say “Do your best, forget the rest” all he wanted, I didn’t buy it. Looking at the men and women on the screen and hearing all his extreme words too often produced feelings of  frustration and hopelessness for me. At times, I did experience the thrill of surviving something really hard that I knew was good for me, yet kindness was noticeably absent.

This past month I have found myself in a space where I was painfully aware of how much I needed kindness. Kindness towards myself and my body, reflected in the words I think and speak about it, the care I take with it, the nurture and nourishment I provide it, and the importance of having that kindness dependent on something much deeper than successful numbers on a scale or clothing tag.

You see, my heart was aching, and since my heart and mind and body are all intricately connected, my body and mind were suffering as well. Anxious thoughts ran through my mind like a racing train, often in the middle of the night, leaving me sleep deprived. I could feel the shift in my body and any desire to care well for it. One night as I sat awake again in bed, trying to distract my mind enough to get back to sleep, the idea of yoga floated through my thoughts. I was determined, even desperate enough at that point that I needed something different, so I knew even going through the motions on my own with my iPad yoga app was not going to be enough.

I went online to a local studio where I knew one of the instructors to be a person I respect. I made a deposit online and committed myself even further by registering for several classes. This is where a level of shame can be somewhat helpful – I wouldn’t want to feel the shame of being seen as a quitter by not showing up! How ironic then that the first class I was registered for was cancelled for a power outage…of course! That provided just enough time for evil’s assault on my mind to begin: “You weren’t really going to go through with it anyway, you know you hate things like this, you know you’ll end up looking ridiculous, you might as well save yourself the humiliation and stay home.”

And yet.

Alongside those words, I also heard, “It is not good to be alone…I will never leave you.” When I am suffering, not at my strongest or best, I know my tendency as an introvert is to retreat past a healthy “recharging” to isolation. I needed community now more than ever, and I needed kindness and care for my whole being.

The first class was terrible, for all kinds of reasons. And, I still had enough hope to propel me through the door one more time. As I moved my body through the flow of the poses, the instructor spoke about the importance of extending ourselves grace…another word for kindness. She shared about her own awareness of her body as a 40something woman, of the importance of good care, not harsh deprivation. She reminded us of the practice of breathing in gratitude, breathing out compassion…kindness. As I continued to move, I became very aware of all that I was feeling in my body, and the tears began to flow. In an effort to stop some of the pain I’d been carrying that felt like too much, I’d disconnected parts of my heart…and the gentle, kind and strong movement of yoga was connecting them again.

I was also experiencing the holiness of connection. Of having someone else’s face turned towards me, seeing me, and speaking Namaste, which simply means “the divine light in me sees and honors the divine light in you”. As Glennon Melton Doyle puts it so beautifully, it’s a simple practice of reminding ourselves of what is real, of seeing God in everyone. “Namaste. God in me recognizes and honors God in you.” My yoga app doesn’t do that.

Yesterday I was reminded of the second part of the thought, “It is not good to be alone…I will never leave you.” I felt the presence of Wild Jesus through the touch of a woman anointing my forehead with a simple cross and speaking the word “peace.” Our instructor called us to bind ourselves to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Master of Wholeness. Yoga itself simply means a yoke that connects heart, mind and body to something greater…today I am grateful to be connected to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Bearer of Kindness.

 

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25 Years and Celebrating

Twenty five years ago today, I married the best man I’ve ever known. Two years before, we’d met in a crazy string of “coincidences” in the parking lot at Calvin College – Chris would call them coincidence (only to save face and somehow retain his cynic persona), I’ve always known they were more.

We married  between our Junior and Senior year of college, and spent the next 18 months attending school full-time, working part-time and settling into this new reality called marriage. We were young, poor, happy and relentlessly optimistic.

ImageAfter graduation, we moved across the country to California for Chris’ first job. Away from family, we began traditions together – like making cinnamon rolls together on Christmas morning before opening gifts, a tradition that continues to this day. The distance from home and any familiar relationships forced us to “leave and cleave”, a fact I will always be grateful for.

Over the next 11 years, we moved four more times and had three children. The early days of optimism and marital bliss gave way to long days of going through the motions: Chris with his career, me with toddlers at home. I asked more than once if we were okay, if this was as good as it was going to get, because deep down I knew there was supposed to be more. Yet I didn’t have the courage yet to argue with the always logical, consistently reassuring response Chris would give: “We’re fine, don’t worry.”

Eventually, we moved back to Michigan, renewed relationships with some from the past and formed many new ones. We added to our family again by welcoming two refugee foster children. In my late 30’s, I began to lose my ability to keep stuffing all my questions and fears down, and began the process of finding my story and figuring out who I was meant to be. Suffice it to say Chris was not immediately enthralled with my desire to live with more depth – a decision he likened to throwing boulders in his calm, smooth stream. Yet I held on to what I knew about him from our first meeting: he was a good man.

At year 22, both of us wondered for the first time ever if we would be celebrating any more anniversaries. Looking back, I believe it is the point we had to get to in order to survive; brokenness coming before healing and redemption. Though it was at times an excruciating journey, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. I am more sure than I have ever been that this wild, unpredictable man was supposed to be together with this mad, renegade woman.

So, we are celebrating big. We celebrated with our amazing children this weekend, grateful for the blessing they are to us. We will celebrate more with family today. But the biggest celebration, the one we’ve been dreaming of for years, taking shape in the last 9 months, is the two weeks we will spend in Italy in September. Our time there will be a reflection of what we’ve learned in our 25 years together:

1. You need to spend time alone together as a couple, a lot of it. Plan for it, do whatever you have to to preserve it. Use that time to keep learning about each other, recognizing that there is always more to stay curious about.

2. As much as you need time alone together, you need friends; really good ones who will fight alongside you for marriage, because it is a battle. Friends who you can call when you’re stuck, when you hate your husband and can’t remember any of the reasons you fell in love with him in the first place; and they listen and kindly help you find what you never really lost in your heart, you just needed someone else to help you remember it was still there.

So we will explore the wonders of Venice and Rome alone, together. Then we will savor the slow goodness of Tuscany in community with friends. Today, I am simply grateful for the past 25 years with Chris Stark, all of it.

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Pondered in Her Heart, part 2

It’s been a few months since I’ve last written here. I knew it had been a while, but was surprised when I opened my WordPress account today to see how long it had actually been. My writing today was prompted by a gift I received from a dear friend, one that is tied to why I originally started this blog.

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My friend saw my heart, and affirmed my way of holding things deeply, pondering and treasuring them in my heart.

Since I last blogged, I began an intentional year of Sabbath rest – in particular from leading the Retelling (Journey Group) ministry at our church – something I’ve been doing for the past 9 years. This year feels like one of transition: Samuel graduated from med school and moved away, along with Rebecca and our 2 sweet grandkids, Tim left for MSU last September, Matthew is enjoying his senior year before leaving for college this coming fall, Katie has started high school, Chris started a new job, and I decided to continue my education by attending The Allender Center’s Lay Counseling Certificate Program. I wanted to have the space to honor all that I knew my heart would be feeling with each one of these changes; the idea of Sabbath rest seemed fitting.

In these last few months, I have spent much time pondering.

  • The day we moved Tim into his dorm at MSU and then had to drive away was a day full of both celebration of the man Tim has become and grief at the realization he is moving out into the world on his own.
  • Shopping with Katie and Matt for outfits for their school’s homecoming dance was an experience that brought delight in their respective personalities and how they express that in their style, along with a little anxiety – how can my baby girl be old enough to go to a high school dance…with boys?!
  • Watching our boys place themselves on either side of Katie as we took homecoming pictures, ready to protect her from anyone who tried to get too close, my heart was filled with gratitude for the genuine love they share.
  • Thanksgiving brought another layer of gratitude as we joined good friends in what has become a new tradition of celebrating the day with our joined families – full of laughter, good food, and a lively game of football to finish off the day.
  • Christmas week was full of many moments to ponder, with our family all together under one roof again: hot tub conversations, the annual Christmas tree hunt, Christmas morning celebrations in our pajamas, everyday interactions that felt sacred.
  • One week ago Chris and I returned from leading a four-day marriage intensive. Our fellow leader-couples were all friends who have fought alongside us as we all battled for our marriages. My heart was overflowing with thanks for deep, honest relationships that have brought so much life.
  • My birthday last week unfolded with special moments from first light until I closed my eyes in sleep, and I was reminded of a line from the movie Hope Floats, “my cup overfloweth.” That felt true.

As I thought about the gift from my friend today, I was reminded of my desire not simply to ponder, but to put words to some of that pondering as well. It is too easy to savor the moment, but then let myself get pulled back into the heart-numbing reality of everyday life. I want to take seriously God’s command to remember…remember the love my heart has been filled with in all these moments; speak (or write) it out loud so I have something tangible to remind me it was real on the days it seems impossible to believe. 

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Hope and Therapy

For the second time in just a few days, I was struck by a clear, yet out of the ordinary picture of hope. Last night our middle son, Matt, wanted to go hear some bands that were playing live in downtown Grand Rapids. He and Chris have gone to hear The Mines play at a variety of venues over the years, and he is a big fan. The Mines were performing along with 3 other bands in a show that was going until midnight. Good news for Matt, since he also wanted to attend his school’s football game first!

When he returned home from the game a little after 9, he was jazzed up and ready to go. Chris was not as enthused after a long week of work, but recognized the importance of a father-son bonding opportunity and they set off together.

Fast forward to 2:45 a.m., when Chris finally climbed into our bed and woke me with these words: “Janet, I just want you to know there are 4 people sleeping in the house.” Through the fog of my sleepy brain I remember thinking, “I know that, there are four of us here now that Tim is at MSU!” I must have said something to this effect out loud, because he replied, “No, there are four additional people, people you don’t know sleeping here, and I didn’t want you to freak out in case you get up before I do and stumble across them.” He gave me enough information to be reasonably assured they weren’t axe murderers who could kill us in our sleep, so I returned quickly to sleep.

Chandler, Dan, Matt, Hope and Drew

Turns out one of the bands Chris and Matt heard play last night were from St. Louis, and didn’t have a place to spend the night. Their local contact had fallen through, money was tight, so they announced to the (very small) crowd that they were in need of a place to stay. Chris and Matt are very similar in their ability to make friends just about anywhere they go, so they went up and chatted with band members after the show. Matt asked if they were kidding about needing a place – he thought it was a joke, but indeed it was not. My kind husband felt compelled to offer them room, which they gratefully accepted.

This morning, I was the only one home when the band members got up. I had already seen Matt’s excited Facebook post about spending time with them, and heard more from the guitarist, Chandler about their conversations with him the night before. When Matt returned from work, they were still here, so he took Chandler to his room to show him his guitars and play some tunes. This is the point at which I began to see my latest picture of hope materializing.

Matt and I had just had a difficult conversation earlier that day. He was stressed out and being quite hard on himself, unfortunately a generational hand-me-down. When I suggested he go play his guitar because in the past, it had always been a good thing to ground him, he lamented that it had been so long since he’d played with his busy summer, that it felt like work. Having witnessed so many times in the past the way it helped him connect to his heart, the joy it brought to his face when he would play for us, my heart ached for him to pick it up again. Yet I have learned as a mom that the best way to get him to never play again is to tell him he should!

Enter a hip, friendly, genuine-guitar-playing-band-member who takes the time to ask what he likes to play, raves over the vintage amp Matt was given by a neighbor, and teaches him the chords to one of the band’s songs. He tells Matt to keep playing, just for fun, not make it “work”. As I watch my son’s face transformed once again into one of pure joy, I contemplate the band’s name. I don’t believe it is a coincidence: Hope and Therapy.

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The boot is on the other foot

I started the day feeling pretty good about how well I was managing to get around by myself in spite of my handicap – only having the use of my right leg. I’ve developed a pretty creative system for getting me and my scooter out of the house: prop open door, s-l-o-w-l-y ride scooter down 3 steps, park it in the hatchback of my car, hop on good foot to driver’s seat, holding onto roof rack for support. It works, I’m proud of my independence.

So this morning I followed my ritual and went to meet a friend for coffee. I was thankful as I pulled into the handicap parking space, thankful for the sidewalk ramp and wide open spaces between tables, all of which make my life easier right now. Feeling optimistic, I decide to stop by the grocery store as I pass on my way home. Now this is the store I shop at every week, so I am familiar enough with it to know they have those little electric carts. I haven’t used one yet because I couldn’t figure out how to get from my car into the store to get one. I would say I have progressed from novice to intermediate level hopper, but not advanced enough to go that distance.

As I pull into an open handicap parking spot, I breathe another prayer of gratitude – sitting there waiting just for me is a motorized chair, complete with rather large shopping basket. Sweet! I eagerly climb aboard and begin zipping towards the entrance. Wait, zipping isn’t quite the word for the speed at which I was traveling, maybe meandering would better describe my pace. I take note of the slow speed and decide that the carts are probably used most often by the senior population, so management wants to keep things safe. No worries, there’s nowhere I have to be.

As I move into the produce section, my optimism and sense of adventure begin to fade a little. I became acutely aware that I was sitting. Which means I was much lower than most of the towering displays of fruit and vegetables. I managed to stretch for my limes, avocados and grapes, then had to wait for another shopper to feel every pepper before moving her cart to so I could reach some peppers and green onions for myself. I encountered the same woman a few feet later as she gave me an annoyed look and told me to go ahead so she could get back to her cart. I felt a familiar heat begin inside that I’ve learned is an indicator of shame – why am I feeling shame? I can’t help the fact that I broke my foot and thus need assistance getting around! Perhaps it was the combination of the disapproving look and my physical “one-down” position; whatever the reason I was eager to put some distance between myself and Ms. Joy-Killer, so I turned the handle, hoping for a little acceleration. Instead I was met with an even slower speed.

I soon realized it was not my imagination, my not-so-zippy cart was about to become a dead cart. I ran through scenarios in my mind of what I was going to do if I was stranded in the dairy section, unable to move, waiting for someone to come and ask if I needed help. Since I don’t enjoy being at the mercy of strangers, I took matters into my own hands and began to use my good leg to propel the cart along toward the entrance, where a whole row of fully charged carts was waiting. Have you ever tried pushing something motorized without the motor assisting? Then you know what I felt: resistance.

My fading optimism, which had morphed into shame, was now racing towards despair. I just wanted to get out of there. As I painstakingly made my way down the aisle towards the cart return, a store employee passed by. “Uh-oh, looks like we have a dead one!” she cheerily proclaimed, then continued on her way. “A little help here?” I thought to myself, but the carts were in sight, so I pressed on. After transferring my groceries to another basket and moving myself, I proceeded to quickly grab my remaining items. As I passed other shoppers, I was anxiously scanning their faces for more signs of judgement or pity – shame was in full force. Internally I was aware of a churning that could easily produce tears at any minute. I instinctively told myself to get a grip, I was almost done and would NEVER do this again.

Approaching the checkout lane, I slid into place behind an elderly gentleman. After he unloaded his own groceries he turned to me and said, “Can I help you unload your basket?” I didn’t hesitate a second before telling him that would be most helpful. As he turned to greet the cashier, I heard her ask for his frequent shopper card. He replied he didn’t normally shop here, was just passing through. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just took note. I paid for my groceries, broke the rules by driving the cart OUTSIDE of the store to my car, and made my way home. Is it bad that I didn’t even feel guilty?!

It wasn’t until I was inside my own home, with the freedom to let myself feel, that the tears began to well up. I found myself thinking about the judgements, both real and imagined, that I felt sitting in that cart. I recalled the embarrassment I felt as a young girl when my grandfather began to use one to get around – why was that what I felt? I was painfully aware of how many times I had passed the same judgement I imagined on others that I saw in the position I was just in.

And then I remembered the kindness of the man in front of me, the one who was “just passing through”. And my heart returned to where it had started – gratitude. Gratitude for a random act of kindness, gratitude for a God who cares about me so intimately that He could provide just the right person at just the right time to renew my hope.

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Fall Risk

Yesterday was our anniversary. 24 years ago I married my best friend and first love, Chris Stark. It feels like a lifetime ago: it’s more than half my lifetime, as I’ve been married to him longer than not.

We spent the morning enjoying laughter and the company of good friends. Chris and I had plans to celebrate just the two of us later in the day. It was a beautiful day outside, a day to savor the warm but not hot summer beauty. We decided to set off on our bikes on the Kent Trails along the Grand River, thankfully not under water with the lack of rain this summer. Since returning from The Cooper Institute, I’ve been exercising regularly, enjoying the resulting increase in strength and stamina. I felt strong as I kicked my bike into high gear, keeping up with Chris and his challenges to push harder. We discovered new trails that had been added since we were last there, some that were only gravel, and decided to explore them. He commented on the fact that I was more willing than I had been in the past to trust him in that, to be okay with not knowing exactly where we were going, to risk. It was a good reminder of how far we’ve come together.

After 90 minutes, I was a good kind of tired, ready to be done but still feeling alive enough to enjoy how well I’d done. As I was cruising along, pondering a story Chris had just shared, my tire slipped off the side of the paved path and before I could think how to correct the trajectory of my bike, I was thrown sideways. The bike and I tumbled together, and I felt the pain of each body part as it collided with pavement – foot, bent backwards, shoulder, hands, and finally head. My head, safely encased in a not-so-fashionable-but-highly-effective bike helmet; able to process thoughts of gratitude to God for protection.

After holding me long enough to get me somewhat calm, Chris managed to get me back on my bike, so I could pedal the remainder of the way with my right foot. I had to work hard to keep my thoughts from turning against me, urging me to agree with familiar accusations about clumsiness, stupidity, lack of athletic ability, and on and on. I was reminded of Dan Allender’s words about Evil not being very creative, recycling old methods that worked before, but not today. I enlisted help in speaking the struggle aloud to Chris, he kindly kept speaking truth.

After a brief stop at home to get cleaned up, we made a detour on our way to dinner at Bistro Bella Vita to the Urgent Care center. I hobbled in on crutches we own, thanks to Tim’s knee surgery, and made my way to the triage room. The kind nurse there asked all the pertinent questions, took my vitals, got me a wheelchair and then apologetically placed a yellow strap around my wrist announcing to everyone that I was  a 

Really? Isn’t that fairly obvious? Since  I’m here because of a fall?  You’ve even put me in a wheelchair to make it easier to maneuver me around, so wouldn’t it be kind of hard to fall? Overkill, perhaps?

I swallowed my pride and the shame that threatened to bubble up and laughed instead. Yup, I’m a fall risk alright. Thank God! I am a woman (the adjectives “wild” and “renegade” have even been used) who is embracing what it is to live life fully, not safely and comfortably, definitely at risk of falling. While I wouldn’t have chosen to fall yesterday, it really couldn’t have been a better set-up with my minutes-earlier awareness of gratitude for our marriage and celebratory acknowledgement of how much has changed thanks to…risk!

I could continue with a Jesus Juke (thanks Tracy Johnson) about standing firm, being careful not to fall; examining the prideful and haughty spirit which might have preceded the fall; recall how my gender was cursed thanks to the fall. Not to worry, I’ll save that for another day. Instead, tonight I am simply smiling at the irony of those two little words, grateful for the truth in them. Smiling as I recall one of my best “falls” ever, 26 years ago the day Chris walked into my life. 

 

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Kindness and Anticipation

Chris and I arrived in Dallas last night. Our destination, The Cooper Wellness Institute. We are here with several other members of the executive team at the new company he works for, and their wives. Contained within those 3 short sentences are numerous opportunities for me to experience shame, contempt, and anxiety.

I am away from home, I am a homebody at heart. I am at a place focused on exercise and fitness, I have struggled my entire life with physical strength, endurance, coordination or lack thereof. I am here with people I don’t know, but that I will need to know for the sake of my husband’s career, I am an introvert at my core, being with strangers and carrying on small-talk conversations will always be uncomfortable and draining for me. (I could think of many other more descriptive adjectives, but I’m attempting to minimize my contempt.)

Most of all, I look around me and see perfection and am internally measuring how far I fall short.

So this morning as I was getting ready for the day, I was thinking about the running dialogue of comparison and contempt streaming through my mind, and it occurred to me that I could fight back in this battle. I could see this as an opportunity to do something good for me personally, rather than focusing on having to do something I didn’t choose.

Thankfully I am not alone in this battle. A wise friend reminded me of the need for kindness, I can hear her voice in my heart. My good husband reminded me of a picture that he received recently – the difference between anxiety and anticipation. Anxiety narrow our focus to where we can’t see anything clearly, anticipation opens us up to the whole, expansive picture. I have been anxious, something that comes naturally for me. AND I have learned in the last few years how to anticipate, I can choose that today.

This good man recognized that even that isn’t enough, however, and came alongside me to pray against all the places evil is lurking here to take out my heart before I even have a chance to try something different. I am walking into the day with 2 words running through my heart: kindness and anticipation. May they move from my heart to my mind and body.

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