Lent: on taking it one step at a time

Lent is here. It’s a time when many people choose to spend more time in reflection and prayer. It’s a time to come to grow on the inside. Like a bulb planted underground in the winter struggling through the cold dirt, we can struggle through the reality of our mistakes and imperfections, without losing hope. We can persevere like that little green shoot peeking out through the snow into the frosty air to find the sun. But all this requires patience, something our immediate-gratification-loving world is sorely lacking.

I got to thinking about patience this evening when I was trying to teach my daughter to draw a cube. She was trying again and again to make it look right, but it kept looking lopsided, like a tent.

“It’s all about getting the lines parallel,” I said. “You can’t draw it too fast, you have to go one line at a time focussing only on making it parallel to the one across from it. Then it looks straight.”

So she kept trying and filled pages with these 3-D boxes.

“Why can’t I get it right?” she asked. “I’ve done so many and they’re still not perfect!”

“It’s not about getting it perfect; it’s about practicing–building your drawing muscles so you can get better and better. And that’s why we do it with a pencil, so we can erase our mistakes, and readjust things to make it better.”

Isn’t it the same with our spiritual lives? We get easily frustrated with the time it takes to get things looking straight. We don’t want to be lopsided boxes, we just want to be that perfect cube right now! But that’s not how it works. We need to have the patience to make little strokes with our pencils, realizing we can erase our mistakes and readjust things every day. We can say sorry and begin again with new hope, that’s what Lent is all about.

Our lives are not written in stone, or even permanent ink, so we only need to humbly keep trying, while paying attention to the little things. Ultimately our lives are a picture made up of many tiny images. Every little line adds to this picture. So the only way to improve ourselves is by paying attention to the little things, readjusting day by day to try to make the picture that we want. Shaping our lives a little bit at a time, and trying to do so with patience, humour and love.

Of course, it helps if we know ahead of time what we want that picture to look like. This is where life goals come in, and knowing what kind of person we want to be helps us to take steps to get there. So having an ideal image to strive for—that perfect box, that amazing hero, that inspiring saint—can help us to break down that image into concrete pieces, and discover little positive habits that we can acquire to become not them, but the best version of ourselves.

Christmas and the fragile gift of life

It’s easy at Christmas to feel as though you should write something joyful and sparkly…like a glimmering Christmas ball…round, perfect and whole. We yearn for such happiness, particularly at Christmas, when it seems possible to snatch down a little piece of a Heaven and bask in its glow in our very homes…but for how many is this image a real reflection of Christmas?

For many people, their Christmas balls have been cracked, chipped, or even shattered. Somehow the imperfections of this life, of our particular family or health situations, stand out more strongly when we compare them with the cosy images on Christmas cards. The innocence of a child, face glowing with anticipation of the ‘perfect’ happiness to be found in the toy shop window trimmed with sparkling snow, has been robbed from many of us as life’s tougher trials have set in.

For myself and many friends, one of these trials is the suffering of seeing aging parents struggling with their health. The ones who have meant our stability and safety in the world are now often clinging to life as to a very fragile gift, one we can’t guarantee won’t break. As we grow, we realize just how many things are out of our control. Like how major surgery will go for a beloved parent on Christmas Eve. And -thank goodness!-it went well, which was the best Christmas present by far this year.

In this age of instant gratification and micromanaging, Christmas is a powerful reminder that the things that matter most–life, love, family and friends–are beyond our control–in fact are complete and utter gifts. Ones we should give thanks for every day. Ones we should never take for granted. Life is vulnerable and precious, and it is made sweeter by those who are willing to experience it with us, suffering and all.

One of them is a baby, one who chose to leave the perfect safely and joy of Heaven to lay down on straw with us, to experience cold, hunger, loneliness and fear with us. The “I am Who am” became the “I am Who am with you.” Emmanuel. God with us, every step of the way.

Comforted by this divine tenderness, let’s stir up our hearts to look forward to the new year with trust and joy, because despite all our struggles, we are always loved, and never really alone. These are my thoughts as I anticipate meeting my new baby daughter next week, 3 weeks early because my pregnancy liver condition means that sooner is safer. Little one, you are a precious, fragile gift, and I can’t wait to hold you with great joy!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and peace be with you and yours in 2018.

Why obligers need a deep interior life…and why it’s so hard for them to take time for it. 

You may have read some of my past posts about happiness author Gretchen Rubin’s theories about the four tendencies people have with regard to habit formation and meeting inner and outer expectations. As a quick review, the four types are: 

  1. Upholders (meet inner and outer expectations)
  2. Questioners (meet inner but question outer expectations)
  3. Obligers (meet outer but resist inner expectations)
  4. Rebels (resist both inner and outer expectations)

I’m an obliger, so I’m writing from my personal experience. Obligers have a keen sense of others needs, and tend to focus primarily on them. It always feels more virtuous to be doing something for someone else rather than ourselves. We have a hard time doing stuff that’s “just for me.”  


Obligers need to reflect to make good decisions about their priorities and needs, but struggle to take that time. Often they push themselves to remain in busy activities for others instead…even when that inner voice is screaming, “No!” Instead of stalling for time so they can calmly quietly decide what to, they try to silence that inner voice of resistance and force a guilt-induced “Yes, of course!” This can lead to them getting burned out and resentful–punishing those they love most with grumpiness–a bad pattern!

So if you’re someoe who falls into this, resist the temptation to say “yes” right away…make some good easy lines to use:

“Let me just check my calendar and get back to you.”
“Sounds interesting. I’ll talk about it with my spouse and let you know.”
“Thank you for the invite. I’d love to come but I’ll just have to see what my week is looking like before I commit.”

And then pray about it. Consult your calendar. Consult your gut…and listen to it! That quiet time in which to make decisions is essential. Helping your inner life to flourish can bring such strength. Taking things to prayerful refection can help you discern which things are really the most important and necessary, and also which are actually your responsibility. This is key because obligers can struggle with boundaries and often feel responsible for the perceived needs of others, even other adults. 

My Dad told me the other day something very simple but which stuck me like lightning:

“Other people’s stuff is not your responsibility.”  Really!??! Wow!!

How freeing this is! It is such a beautiful thing to just focus on the task at hand–to totally concentrate on what you’re doing, whether it’s grating carrots, writing or folding the laundry. For there is something really beautiful about just doing one thing and not thinking about anything else. Airplane mode! Just cruising without all the beeps and bells intruding from the internet. 

Alternatively, can you imagine if God was the way we are, getting so distracted by every possible thing going on all around the world? He would be completely insane because he knows everything. And yet somehow, living in the eternal present, aware of past, present and future, He is still able to simply exist. He is able to live fully and totally present in each moment. 

What a gift it is when we have a little taste of this! But to find it we have to be intentional, and block out all the noise and distractions around us,  to focus on what really matters. We need to have the humility to acknowledge that all we really need to do is take care of our tiny corner of the world. If we don’t, no one else will. And actually no one should. 

To need to be rescued is ultimately disempowering. 

Remember this. Give people the fishing rod, not the fish. Otherwise you imply they couldn’t have done it themselves, which is actually depressing. We all want to be able to take care of ourselves. And with the grace of God, and perhaps a little help (but not rescuing!) from friends, we can. 

So, Obligers, it’s so awesome that you are sensitive to the needs of others, but pack up your super-hero capes and martyr badges and stop being so afraid to say no. The world will not fall apart if you set a few much needed boundaries and focus on taking care of your own needs and duties, your own personal mission, before deciding how much you can help others with theirs. Perhaps in what the women from the podcast Project Love call  this “brave act of self-love” you will give others the freedom to do the same, and more people can find the peace that comes from simply doing what they need to do, without getting tangled in guilty knots when they can’t do everything else! 😉

PS This rare sighting of the ‘creatura materna’ without countless offspring was captured by my friend Rachel Lalonde on an awesome 4 hour moms only coffee date and walk! Also… I highly recommend the podcast on boundaries mentioned above! So awesome…especially for women who tend to feel the need to always put others first, even to the point of neglecting themselves:

 The art of saying No and setting healthy boundaries

Confidence Comes From a Place of Quiet


We live in a society filled with experts. There are specialists who are eager and willing to tell you how to do just about everything. Want to clean out your closet? Feed your kids well? Wear the right colour for your hair? Thrive in the workplace? There are likely dozens of e-courses, books and podcasts to teach you how. Let’s just hope they all agree…lest the conflicting “experts” cause more confusion and give you even less clarity. 

While the abundance of information is potentially enriching, I wonder what it does to our confidence to feel we need to consult an expert or extensively research every decision. Who are we, after all, to decide for ourselves? And are we actually doing anything right??

This kind of insecurity can rob us of peace. It’s impossible to follow everyone’s advice, in the same way it’s impossible to wash your hair with every kind of shampoo that claims to be best. It would make you crazy to try. So we have to calmly make choices and stand by them.  Nobody else knows how to be you. Remember this, and don’t go against your gut because something is currently trendy or thought to be essential. These things change all the time anyway. 

But to shut out these clamouring voices, we need to seek a place of quiet. To turn off all our many devices and remember what it’s like to hang out with ourselves. With no add breaks. No interruptions. Just our own thoughts, and if we listen carefully enough, that still, small voice that guides our heart. The company of the one true Expert, the One who made us and knows every fibre of our being…who knows what challenges, graces, and gifts we need to be truly happy. In this place, we can remember who we are and what’s really important. 


So as the busy fall season approaches with all its potential activities, try to ask yourself quietly: “Which of these will actually contribute to the well-being of my family?” “What do we actually feel called to do?” “Which of these would maybe look good on a resumé, but lead us to being overbooked, overstressed, and short on time to enjoy being together with those we love?” 

If you ask such things quietly, peacefully, and in an attitude of listening, chances are your heart will guide you. And acting from a place of quiet, you’ll have the confidence to stand by your decisions, despite the storm of “expert” opinions ever swirling around you. In that inner quiet, you’ll find the freedom to be you. 

Selfishness, Responsibilty and a Blue Couch 


Selfishness is so easy. It’s so easy to focus on yourself and blame all your troubles on others. Doing so allows us to stay in a state of inaction: there is “nothing” we can do about our problems because they are “not our fault.” Someone else is to blame. But this attitude dooms us to shadow-boxing all our lives–flailing out our arms uselessly to hit the imaginary causers of our own difficulties. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we discover that the source of our brokenness is within. Even if we were isolated from all others in a tiny hermitage, we would still struggle. This is a sobering thought. It means we have to rise from our stupor and take responsibility for our lives. Only we can change them for the better. 

But while we can take positive steps towards small changes for the better, healing our brokenness is not something we can do alone. We can’t make ourselves never grumpy, annoyed, snappy, imprudent, lazy or selfish etc by our willpower alone. We are like broken light bulbs whose wires are not connected, so the electricity can’t flow through them. We need to reconnect those wires by joining our hands in prayer, so the grace of God can flow through us and help us to shine. 

In the bustle of daily life, it can be easy to forget this. We get wrapped up in our troubles and forget to ask for help. We forget to pray for our needs, and for the grace to bear hardships cheerfully. But God is just waiting to show us signs of His affection, if we open our hearts to receive it. Sometimes His generosity is very concrete. Recently my Dad and I went on a wild goose chase search for a second-hand dresser for my eldest daughter. We drove all over, even out of town, and checked three stores with no luck.  We saw a couch I liked which could replace our old beat-up red one, but I couldn’t get a-hold of my husband at work to ask his opinion. It was a hot, tiring day and nothing seemed to be quite working. 

But the next day, the reason for our fruitless search was made clear: there was something  better waiting for us. A block from our house, my Dad spotted an estate sale with gorgeous furniture. There was a beautiful maple dressed in perfect condition for $45. And even more lovely, an antique Coombs couch and matching armchair, with wooden finish and lovely blue upholstery for $250 together. I don’t know what their original price would have been, but the reupholstering alone would have cost $2000 in the ’80’s! Talk about score. Furthermore, they were willing to deliver the furniture to our house, which was another godsend, because some things are just too darn big for my double stroller (we don’t have a car). 


So this is just a little reminder, to myself as much as to anyone else, to take time to join my hands in prayer, reconnect with God and let His love flow through me. If we could all shine our little lights, instead of staying in the darkness of anger and blame, how gorgeous the world would be. Like a glowing Christmas tree, every little light sharing its warmth with the others. In a time of uncertainty and violence, I think the peacefulness of this image is one worth focusing on, hoping and praying for. God bless you all. 

Every “No” is also a “Yes”

Many people struggle with saying “no.” It is so hard to disappoint people, to imagine letting them down. It feels easier to take on added stress than to refuse someone and upset them. But this attitude can lead to burnout and resentment, and endanger the peace and well-being of the person giving. Boundaries are necessary to protect these things, and having healthy boundaries means being able to say “no” without excessive guilt or worry. 

Perhaps reframing things would be helpful to those who struggle with saying “no.” Within each situation where something is refused, another positive thing is chosen. Saying “no” to taking on an extra work project over the weekend means saying “yes” to quality time with your family. Saying “no” to joining an extra committee means saying “yes” to being able to take care of your own work and family, without getting so frazzled and stressed. Saying “no” to that late night movie means saying “yes” to gettting the rest you need. Every decision involves discerning and affirming your priorities. Decisions are a way to say “yes” to the life you wish to live…and that life requires the boundary of various “no’s” to maintain it. 

I think the key, which I am trying to learn myself, is to allow yourself to say “no” calmly, without the guilt or worry that can lead to harshness or sarcasm in order to protect the fragile boundaries around yourself. It is ok, and even necessary and good to take care of yourself and make sure that whatever you do give is given freely, with a cheerful and generous heart. We need to give this good example to our children and those around us. Love can only be given freely, and that means also having the freedom to say “no.”


Many of these helpful ideas are found in the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No, to take Control of your Life by psychologists Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend. I believe I have written about this book before because I found it so eye-opening and transformative. After discussing boundaries with various people– family, spouses, children, co-workers, etc– the book ends with various tips and questions to see how you are growing in your ability to maintain your boundaries. The best quick check for responding to a request was this: if you hesitate to say “yes,” the answer is “no.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself into things because of fear of disappointing others or appearing badly. 

Remember, every “no” is also a “yes”…a “yes” to what you are able to do, what you desire to do, what makes your life better, what helps you feel free. Of course we should practice generosity and strive to live affectionately with those around us, but in the security of knowing that their love for us doesn’t depend on our unconditional “yes” to every request. And hopefully by learning to say “no” with confidence, we will also greatly respect the “no’s” of others, and never receive them with bitterness or resentment. 

“Open Wide Your Hearts”

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of emotional connection in marriage. Now I’d like to discuss how deep friendships and a wider support network are also an essential element to personal growth and spiritual wellness.

I feel extremely blessed to have many friends who help me grow in various ways. People who are willing to share their passions and talents and help me expand my horizons in so many areas….from fashion to faith, homeschool, writing, healing from grief, forming better habits and growing in virtue, self-care, intellectual openness and more. All of these people help provide the “atmosphere of growth” author Gretchen Rubin claims is an essential part of happiness. They encourage and support me to become a better me, in ways I certainly couldn’t become alone. And I think it’s meant to be this way…that the company of kindred spirits helps one’s unique talents and beauty shine.

In their insightful book, “How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth,” authors of the popular “Boundaries” series, Drs Cloud and Townsend, strongly emphasize the need for vulnerable, authentic connection with others. Rather than promoting an individualistic faith that is between God and the person alone, they present the love of other people as the lifeline between our hearts and God’s. Thus healing from deep wounds requires not only intellectual knowledge of God’s grace and forgiveness, but real experiences of the heart. We need to feel His love, and the way we can is through the support and love of other people.

To connect with God’s love, however, we need not only people, but also need our hearts to be available to those people. We have to be open and vulnerable for the grace and acceptance to do any good. Many people “fellowship” with others, but they share so little as they fellowship that nothing happens at the heart level. As Paul told the Corinthians, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us. As a fair exchange–I speak to you as my children–open wide your hearts to us also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13). So for growth to occur, it must include experiences where hearts are open with each other. Otherwise, it is just known in someone’s head and never experienced at the levels God has designed. (How People Grow, p.128)

I think we can all relate to the power of a really good “heart to heart” chat with a close friend. Such closeness and sharing can make the unbearable seem possible and restore hope. The loving mercy of a friend who encourages us gives us the strength to not give up and the inspiration to try better, while knowing we are already loved exactly as we are. Receiving this kind of grace requires vulnerability and courage, and can’t be had by hiding and pretending we have it all together.

The point here is that grace can be available to us, but we might not be available to grace. We can be around a lot of acceptance and grace, but until the hurt and guilty places of our heart are exposed, we do not experience grace, and the gap between our head and heart continues.

To confess one’s greatest failures and sins, and then still be embraced with love and encouragement, is to experience the unconditional nature of God’s love. This kind of mercy has the power to be transformative. Deep suffering can break one’s heart open, but if we allow it be be exposed it to the healing love of trustworthy people who will comfort us, it can enable us to grow.

When we lost our baby Josephine, we were immensely supported. We could feel ourselves being held up by the prayers of friends, loved ones, and even strangers who heard our story. We experienced the emotional equivalent of a train wreck, but we got up and kept walking. This is not because of our strength, but because of our acceptance of our weakness…we weren’t afraid to lean hard on others so they could help us up again. To me this was a kind of miracle–a sign of God’s love–lavished on us by so many of His children, all participating in one way or another in the communion of the saints. By this I mean not a club for the ‘saintly’ but a vast family of imperfect people struggling to live with hope and love even in the midst of tragedy.

We experienced this all grace because we were open to it…when in pain my natural tendency is to reach out. Some people shut down and hide. It is hard for the warmth of affection to reach them. Recovery can be much slower, and on top of that, hidden wounds are very lonely.

A dear friend told me once she thought I was brave to be so vulnerable at Josephine’s funeral, letting tears fall as we carried her tiny coffin out of the packed church. Honestly, though, I simply couldn’t help it, but exposing my raw grief enabled others to reach out and comfort me. I could receive their love, and my heart could start to be healed, even as it lay broken and shattered.

I hadn’t really meant to go into all this, but I guess my point is, whatever your suffering, don’t try to do it alone. Let God love you by letting others wrap their arms around you so you can feel His nearness. Stop hiding your face under a protective veneer of pretense, as if huddling under a dark umbrella. Throw it aside and let the rain of grace pour over you and wash away your tears. And with your hands now free, reach out and hold the hands reaching towards you.

3 Steps to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s almost mid-January, and as we struggle to get back into the routine of the New Year after the Christmas holidays, it can be easy to get discouraged about our New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps, like many households, you’re been hit with the flu (yup, us, too) and have been living in your pajamas for a week. This is not the time to be harsh with yourself! It’s been a “put your money where your mouth is” challenge to my desire to be more aware of my mood and conscious of being happy, but just cause I got a little grumpy around 5 pm a few times doesn’t mean it is time to give up. The only real failure is giving up forever!

I think that rather than seeing January as the beginning of a race to a ‘new me’, it should be seen as a month of reflection and planning for a great year. December is way too packed already to plan then. Furthermore, as Maria, a young woman I know put it, “Making New Year’s resolutions while you’re stuffing yourself with Christmas cookies just feels stupid.” So I propose we see January as the time to dig deep and see where we could make our lives better, happier, and more joyful by improving our habits and character. If happiness is a project, it surely requires some planning!

Here are three steps to help you make good resolutions and keep striving to achieve them:

  1. Reflect: What makes you happy? What drains you of joy? What would you like to change? How can you become a better version of yourself, more truly you? Author Gretchen Rubin says that “to be happy, you need to consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” Being reflective helps us open up to positive change.
  2. Plan: Break down your goals into concrete, doable steps. Be specific so you can easily measure how you’re doing with them. It’s better to be faithful to a small resolution than to periodically do something huge when you feel like it. So “I will eat a salad every two days,” rather than the vague “I will eat more healthy food.” Or “I will turn off my iPhone at 10 pm,” rather than indeterminate “I will get more sleep.”
  3. Be accountable: To a friend, a group or yourself. I have a few close friends I check in with to every few days to discuss how it’s going.  But especially if you’re going it alone, make sure you have a tangible way to keep yourself on track, like a resolution chart, with some fancy gold star stickers you hope to put on most days. Have something or someone outside yourself so there is a kind of consequence if you stop trying, and also an encouragement to continue. It’s easy to give up on goals because we simply forget…make to harder to do so.

Rubin wrote a book called: Better Than Before about making and breaking habits, and in researching it she discovered 4 basic ways people form habits. You can take her quick and easy quiz to see what kind of habit former you are, and get her tips on how to help yourself succeed in building the habits you desire: Four Tendencies Quiz. If it peaks your curiosity to know them, the options are Upholder, Questioner, Rebel and Obliger. I found it really helpful to know that there are different ways people respond to internal and external pressure to change…maybe I am not a terrible new habit former after all, I just haven’t been approaching it the right way! Hope!

The Power of Positive Speech

Do you remember the childhood rhyme, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you”? Well, apparently there is some truth to this. Happiness author Gretchen Rubin describes this phenomenon, called “spontaneous trait transference.”

Studies show that because of this psychological phenomenon, people unintentionally transfer to me the traits I ascribe to other people. So if I tell Jean that Pat is arrogant, unconsciously Jean associates that quality with me. On the other hand, if I say that Pat is brilliant or hilarious, I’m linked to those qualities. What I say about other people sticks to me–even when I talk to someone who already knows me. So I do well to say only good things.” (The Happiness Project, pg 156)

No wonder we don’t like spending time with people who complain about others a lot! To solidify this image in your mind, think of it this way: every adjective that comes out of your mouth sticks to your face like ketchup (so hard to get off!). So saying: “My boss is so annoying, demanding, and thoughtless etc”…means all those characteristics are stuck on your face. Yuck. Really gonna need some baby wipes.

I started thinking about all this recently after noticing my older kids picking at the younger ones at the table. Like little parent parrots they repeated things like, “Chew with your mouth closed! Are you finishing that pickle? Eat your food and stop being fussy!”

Hmmm, if that’s the kind of parenting talk they hear a lot, that’s what they’ll imitate. Since it takes three positive comments to combat one negative one, I better up my ratios of positive comments dramatically! So as they griped at each other about fussy eating habits, I started talking about all sorts of things I liked. “This is good. I love pickles. It’s nice we’re having lunch together. I am so glad you got the groceries delivered; now we’re all set for the weekend. It will be fun to read stories after lunch,” etc. It felt a little silly but you’ve got to start somewhere!

I want my kids to be people who speak well of others, so I need to be a good example, even at home. Actually especially there, even though the long 24/7 shift makes it the hardest place to do so consistently.  Possibly my mother-in-law is now running to the store to buy me a year’s worth of duct tape…oh, well, perhaps there’s a back to school sale? 😉

 

 

The Million Dollar Question 

The most important question each day

is not so much how much we received

but how lovingly we gave all we could.

If we see things this way, 

then each day hands us a blank cheque

on which to write the amount of our generosity,

the value of our loving work

offered as a gift to God

and to our fellow man.  

How rich life is when we live to give!