Gaining courage: why and how to do it

 
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Tomorrow we will move out of our Cretan house, our home for the past three years. Three lovely Greek men are boxing up our possessions, finishing up the job, in various corners of the house as I type. Their voices echo across the bare tile, and I can make out the odd Greek word and phrase when I try. I sit, too, on the hard tile (the chairs are all gone now) and lean my back against one of the built-in wall dressers that grace so many Greek houses.

The other day I was listening to a WhatsApp message from a faithful friend. “I’m going to have to gain some courage,” she said. She was talking about tackling some decisions that faced her, stuff she hadn’t quite figured out how to handle yet. Feeling unsure about exactly which steps to take. You know the feeling. Some things weigh heavy because they’re just necessarily daunting - making decisions that affect our lives and our kids’ lives. It is never fun to weigh up options and see clearly the risks and concerns in each column.

I needed to gain some courage too. I know that’s why her words jumped out at my like that, from my iPhone’s speaker straight into my heart… because that dose of courage is equally necessary for me. We’re moving again in just two weeks. Our kids are older now and the stakes feel higher. They’re nervous about their new school, finding friends and fitting in. I’m nervous too, and the list is long. To rent or to buy a house? What if we make the wrong choice? Will everything be OK? Will the schools work, OK, will we find friends, a church? Will people be nice to us?

I’ve found that there’s nothing that makes me feel so vulnerable as moving makes me feel. Moving makes you feel like you’re alone, adrift and afloat upon a wide sea, unsure which direction land may be or how long it may take to get there. In the early days and weeks you’re without mooring, without bearings. Everything must be built from scratch. Sometimes when I think about it, it makes me feel exhausted and weak.

This is where the courage comes in, and why I need some. You need some too, perhaps, even if you’re not moving. You maybe need it for some other facet of your life. There are rarely seasons in life where courage isn’t needed in some form or format.

What does gaining courage mean? I think it means two things. First, it means praying for it. After all, we’re a people at war, though we often forget it. There’s truth to be walked in and lies to be vanquished. Goodness to be harnessed and evil to be shunned. Beauty to be grasped and ugliness to be turned away from. A path to be walked. To start, we must be on our knees. Praying for vision to see and then courage to Do The Things. And praying for a heart to hold steady when risks feel too risky and stakes feel too high. Prayer becomes the boat, or perhaps the anchor, in our moments of vulnerable floating. Tethering us to Him.

Second, it means gathering. Courage is ours to be had, but we must work for it. We must speak to ourselves about it, spur ourselves on. We must seize faith actively, reminding ourselves of how God was faithful in the past, and believing that God is who He says and is leading us like He promised. This takes work, and the weaker we feel, the more work it may take. But this is the work we’re expected to do, and the work we must do.

Courage doesn’t mean you stop feeling weak. It means you walk forward even amidst the weak feelings, praying and gathering as you go. Knowing that it will be worth it. That what is done with Him and for Him is always worth it.

The Lord stood near Paul (when he was in jail and his life was at risk) and said, ‘Take courage!’” He said it to Paul, and he says it to us. Shall we go and pray and gather… and heed the call?

Screen time, the thief: 5 ways screen time robs our kids (and us)

 
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I have four kids, ages 7 to 13. We move every three years or so and currently we live in Greece. I have my sleeves rolled up, as a mom, on everything from battling the dailyness of dinner for six, translating littlest’s Greek homework, correcting t(w)een attitudes, enforcing piano practice, chauffeuring the after school activity loop. You know the stuff I’m talking about - you probably live it too, in your sphere with your specifics. But the thing that probably consumes the biggest part of my parenting energy and thinking is technology. You know, screens- TV, video games, tablets, mp3 players, phones. My brain’s forever full of questions like: are we setting the right limits and managing what we have now in the best way? What’s the smartest way- and timing - to start phasing in components we don’t have yet? And ultimately… how do we play this game and not lose?

Simply not playing the game isn’t an option in today’s world. Every year the technology surrounding us (and our kids) increases. More hours on video games, and more new games. More kids on tablets in the grocery store line. More cars with built-in TVs. Kids getting phones at younger ages. And our crew isn’t anti-technology, wouldn’t qualify as Luddites, but you wouldn’t know it from my children’s perspectives, or comments. Most of their peers are more screen-centric than they are, so they call it like they see it (and fair enough). No matter that we have TV, a family laptop, a family iPad, individual Kindles, an Xbox, an mp3 player, nearly daily TV or video game time. Our screen time limits are still stricter than most other people’s, and none of our kids has a phone or iPod.

Last weekend our youngest daughter invited two of her classmates over for a playdate, the first of its kind. She was jubilant when both accepted, and we talked through what they might do during those couple hours. Beforehand we brainstormed driveway chalk, hide and seek and kick the can, Legos, extended snack (she had baked a cake). She asked if they could watch a show together or play Minecraft; I said no. She fretted that they’d be bored, and it turned out her concerns were grounded. “Your house is boring,” one of my daughter’s guests announced after an hour. “There’s nothing to do here.” I overheard and stepped in with a few pertinent words, plus an encouragement toward new options, after which they resignedly came up with a game. My daughter whispered fiercely in my ear, “See? I told you they’d be bored.”

Afterwards I found myself pondering the level of expectation of all the kids - my own included - that electronics will be part of time together when they hang out. Will be and should be. It will be a fun playdate if (and only if) some portion of the time includes screens. And preferably, because I know how this goes, as much time as possible. But I saw it this way: they’re seven, the sun was shining, and their allotted time together was less than three hours. Screens are not intended for such a time as this.

We allow our oldest to play Fortnite, and we closely monitor the amount of time he plays. He gets 30 minutes or less on slow weeknights when there’s extra time, and up to two hours a day (an hour at a time) on weekends. This seems like a lot to me - too much, at times. It’s seemingly less than most of his peers he plays online with, though; he’s always the first to have to get off. And he’s also, to his chagrin, the least skilled among the players.

This month I was talking with a Greek acquaintance about smart phones. Her oldest children are 13 and 14, and they got phones this year for the first time. “I didn’t want to get them so soon,” she said, “but they were the only children in their classes without phones. It felt unfair to put them in that position. If there were even one or two others without phones, I would have waited,” she said. Now, she told me, the single biggest point of contention and conflict between herself and her kids are their phones. “It is all we fight about,” she said, “and we fight about it all the time.” She told me it seemed like today kids don’t know how to talk to each other except on their phones, and that even flirting between boys and girls seems to place only via phones.

When it comes to the discussion about kids, screens, and safety, it seems people often think about physical safety, like “stranger danger” from predators. Or they think about exposure to porn. These are real concerns and cross my mind too, sure, but for me they’re not the central part of the Overall Screen Angst I feel for my kids and their generation. For me, the deeper concerns relate to their development and their soul formation. They’re whole person concerns.

When I think about screens and my kids, here are the things that make me feel most dismayed.

I lament:

  1. The life-giving things kids could and would be doing if they weren’t so excited about their screens. The stuff that used to seem fun fulfilling - bikes to ride, hoops to shoot, roads to wander, games to play, treats to bake, art to paint, wood to whittle, skits to enact. The escapades and antics of childhood, the stuff that makes memories for a lifetime, aren’t found when attention is focused on screens.

  2. The initiative-taking, self-reliance, creativity, and diligence that kids could access more easily if recreation weren’t handed to them on a pixelated, adrenaline-inducing platter. Screens are a lazy-man’s sport, and Sitting Around is their lifeblood. The ingredients of virtue and valour largely ebb out of the picture when kids engage, beyond the minimum, in screen time.

  3. The meaningful connections that could be forged but aren’t because of the loneliness that screens promote. Loneliness grows both among kids who continually utilise screens and also among those without them who sit on the outside of the club, looking wistfully in. Either way, the more there are screens in the lives of the worlds’ kids, the more there is loneliness.

  4. The depth of relationship, the stuff of solid friendships, that kids aren’t able to foster because connecting via screens, or sitting next to each other while both focused on screens, don’t lend themselves to cultivating depth. More than most things, I long for my kids to have close friendships, but it’s harder today. Really knowing and being known - the crucial ingredients to friendship - aren’t fostered through screens.

  5. The “freedom of brain” that prior generations grew up with, that now seems idyllic and almost naive. Reaching for a screen and its contents means a mind isn’t free or at rest. And today kids must struggle against addiction their whole lives, to greater and lesser degrees, since they become entwined with screens’ addictive elements at such young ages.

  6. The innocence that kids could enjoy more easily when screens weren’t a huge part of daily life. Engagement with screens, in all their forms, makes children encounter everything at younger ages - everything from bullying to porn to mature topics like sexual identity and cutting. It’s all the doorstep of the whole world, which means it’s that much likely that all the kids will know about it.

  7. The adolescent self-esteem issues that could be basic and simple - awkward rites of passage encountered by all humans - instead of amped up and intensified by screens, especially social media. The pressure to curate one’s life, make it interesting and appealing to others, is hard enough for adults to manage well (including for me), let alone for kids. Seeking to earn “likes,” the endless selfie culture, cyber bullying, seeing every event one is not invited too - these detract far more from social and emotional health more than add to it.

  8. The absence of conflict between parents and kids around issues of technology that prior generations enjoyed. Today, kids’ natural drive toward technology and parents’ right concerns and corresponding effort to limit technology is among the biggest stressors in parent-child relationships. (Ask me how I know.)

(OK so there are 8. Turns out I couldn’t stop at 5!)

Screens are robbing kids of all this, and they’re robbing us parents too. There’s nothing wrong with the tools themselves; they’re in fact very helpful in many ways! But as a society we’re putting something with dangerous potential into our kids’ hands, and then we aren’t paying close attention to its whole-person, whole-society consequences. When you think of the call toward “whatever is good, whatever is noble, whatever is right, if anything is excellent and praiseworthy…” - bottom line is that screens (and their effects on kids) aren’t, more often than they are.

All Debbie Downer here, I know; the post is a lament, so this is what you get here today! In general I’m not one for negativity, partly because I’m a born problem-solver. And I do think there are solutions to the problems we all now accrue from the world’s excessive screens. We can mitigate the damage, and we can camp out in the positive spaces (which do exist). Here though, I’m just wanting to look the thing square in the face and admit: there’s a bit of a monster out there.

More thoughts on how we can tame it - or at least, how I’m trying to tame it at my house - in posts to come.

Do you feel dismay when it comes to screens and culture (and especially screens and kids)? Do you feel robbed? If so, what parts vex you the most? Your thoughts on how to counter the challenges?

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The painting

 
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These days I generally write on my Facebook writer page, so musings have been finding their home over there instead of here. In recent weeks I’ve written about moving; about technology and rootedness; about new beginnings; about the human enjoyment of dressing in costume. In February I wrote about when faith feels far-fetched, entitlement that surfaced in a trip to Budapest, and the demise of our ever-faithful, old car the Beast (sniff, sniff). It’s an ever-changing world for a writer, and different “homes” for words seem to make sense at different times. Also when time is short and reflections are brief, the informality of a Facebook page fits better than a full blog post. My ducks feel like the need to be in a good row for a post here, whereas a few cohesive thoughts seem workable for the Facebook page.

This week I wrote a post about protecting moments of connection with our kids, fragile and infrequent as they may often be. It was in poem form, which felt substantial enough for an actual post on the blog (!), so I thought I’d share it here too.

Let's paint together, I said
and she agreed-
readily, happily.
Sister playmate was out 
and time with just mom,
especially creating, 
is a jewel to be seized. 
This she knew.

And then the fight.
Of course the fight, 
when plans to connect are
on the table, nearly ready.
Paints out and water cups
almost full.
She suddenly stubborn and I 
suddenly angry, punishing.

Being together is so often hard-
harder than reasonable.
Simple idea grows
tangled and marred.
Voices raised.
The joy of the Thing so easily 
squashed before even it
is fully underway.

But I caught him, that intruder,
at least one part my pride.
Pinned him down and showed him,
for today anyway, the door.
I took her in my arms,  
confessed anger. Suggested we
put it aside and go on
to the painting.
She exhaled smile, relief, so on
we moved to table and paints.

From that ground of humble
grew up our minutes together 
and our treasures.
Our brushes moved as the sun
warmed our backs.
Progress came quickly, like the life 
that flowed back to our fingers and
our hearts.

————

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In praise of Mary Oliver

 
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When I first met Mary Oliver, I was living in Virginia. I was in a raw season in my life, a time of digging and scraping at my soul.  I’d discovered buried pieces of myself, strands and whole chunks, and was trying to unearth them. They were painful days, wrenching at times, my confusion and prayers and tears my bedfellows.

A gift came to me in those days, and the gift was poetry. I’d loved poems as a teen and young adult, but they had been on a back shelf for more than a decade… lodged so far back they’d all but vanished. God brought me a poet friend who revived my interest, and as an opening present she bequeathed Mary Oliver to me, lending me several of her collections. I would let my eyes run across the lines by lamplight as I lay in bed, receiving the words and images as a balm. Mary’s steady observation of the world, her outward gaze and heart-ward questions, her stubborn hope… they spoke to me.

Mary’s “Wild Geese,” one her most famous poems, became like a mantra for me in those days. I memorised it the day I first encountered it. Here are the beginning and end:

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves…

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting  

over and over announcing your place 

in the family of things.”

My soul needed to know, in those days, that it didn’t have to be good. It needed to know that simply being was enough. It had strived to be good for a long time and was reeling from how insufficient the results felt. Having my soul’s loves, its very self, validated brought freedom, and so did affirming that it had a true and irreplaceable spot “in the family of things”. I was treasured and I belonged; Mary and her wild geese assured me of this. They assured not my head, which had long known these truths as pious platitudes, but my soul. Poetry, after all, is language against which the heart has no defense. (~David Whyte). When the soul comes to learn what the head knows perfectly well, this is the place of transformation.

Other Mary Oliver words moved me, too, but they mattered less than the woman herself. She was observant, reflective, diligent. living a life as quiet as the sky at dusk. What profoundly touched me was her bravery. Because of her intense privacy she almost never consented to be interviewed, but I was moved by what i discovered in this interview (one of several exceptions).

Mary had a terrible, painful childhood that included abuse; she left home at 18 and never looked back. She suffered terrible loneliness; poetry was her salvation. She had a lifelong partner, Molly Malone Cook, a photographer; they were together more than forty years. In the years following Molly’s death, Mary came out from behind the walls of her house. She became involved in her community as she hadn’t before, and she started seeing a counselor. She was 70 at the time, and she did five years of work to understand herself, accept her past, and find freedom. At age 75, she said she’d finally “come into her own” and was the happiest she’d ever been. The words she wrote reflected some of the new connection with God prayer. In this last era of her life, she wrote this poem called, “Outside our Church: the Eucharist:

Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine.

They have been blessed.
What now?
The body leans forward

to receive the gift
from the priest’s hand,
then the chalice.

They are something else now
from what they were
before this began.

I want
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds

or on the shore,
just walking,
beautiful man

and clearly
someone else
besides.

On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.

Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.

How many people begin a therapy journey at age 70, I ask you? Not many. Mary’s bravery, her quiet resolve, to undertake the journey of examining her wounds and coming to healing - it humbled me. When I met Mary I was meeting with a counselor myself for the first time, unearthing my hurts and releasing them, coming to new freedom. Mary, a fellow traveler, touched and inspired. She could walk out this bravery, and so could I. And so it was that the courage and truth-wrestle within Mary’s heart turned her ever more toward God. And so it was, life always begetting life, that Mary was still publishing new anthologies when she was 80. And

Would that every 70-year-old would have courage and resolve like this. Would that new life would spring forth from each of us, as we embrace truth and display the tenacity to keep growing. Would that 70-year-old me will be growing and learning, doing the hard inner work, as Mary modelled. Would that I would hold fast to, and continue living out of “that wild, silky part” of myself, as Mary called it.

Would that each of us would soul-wrestle so beautifully, and with an eye toward the work and presence of God. Jesus, make it so. Thank you, Mary, for your gifts to me and so many; God rest your soul.

<The lead image was taken on our Virginia farm. It seems a fitting one to commemorate the naturalist and beauty-lover Mary Oliver, and honor the season of my life in which I met her..>

When you want to go home

We have a little Bible study, a few fellow moms and I, of the simplest kind. We gather in one of our homes, read a section of the Bible together, and discuss. We drink a hot drink, nibble a bit, share life and pray a little at the end, and call it good. It’s one of my favourite times of the week.

Last fall we did the book of Philippians, which I hadn’t studied in a group for ages (if ever). The apostle Paul is the writer, and he’s writing from Rome where he’s on house arrest. He writes the letter to a fellowship of Jesus-followers located in Philippi in Macedonia. Here’s one of the sections the girls and I read together.

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare… But think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him… Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him.”

Epaphroditus isn’t a big character in the Bible; his isn’t a name you remember. I’d never paid this section any heed at all… till now. Here’s a guy who volunteered to journey out from his home to visit Paul and serve him. He stayed with Paul, helped him, got really sick, improved… and now is ready to go back to where he came from.

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