On Power and Autonomy and Working It Out in Unlikely Places

I sit on the couch, eyes red from crying, as she asks me, “So you’re wanting to take back your power?”

Jarred out of the sea of my emotions, I respond with an emphatic, “No! I don’t want power!”

Curious, she leans in, “Hmmm…why not?”

I tell her, “If I have power, then I am responsible. I am accountable. I am to blame. If things just happen to me, I am a sympathetic character. If I have power and want things and make choices and people disagree with those choices, they will blame me, not have sympathy for me. I don’t want that.”

Questions of identity swirl around in my mind these days. Who am I? What is most important to me? What am I doing with my “one wild and precious life?” Where am I going?

And the fact that I have choices – that I am a responsible actor, an agent in my own life – is an ever-present under-current.

Isn’t it odd that I’d lost sight of that for a time? I have this beautiful life, and I absolutely set myself along this path. I have always wanted to be good, and I have striven to live up to that ideal. I am a Christian wife, a homeschooling mom to four kids, two of whom are adopted, I have spoken at women’s retreats, and I am smart and I am kind, and I am generally good at most things that I do. And yet something has been missing for me, in me, along this path.

And I’ve wondered, as I’ve moved forward, am I a passenger, or am I the driver? I have sometimes lived as if I am walking out a formula, doing all the right things – not like I’m having an adventure in this beautiful world.

I realized recently that all of this is part of what I’m working out, what I’m practicing, in what is perhaps an unlikely arena.

I remember starting to ride horses. Miranda had a scary fall and was resistant to getting back up on her pony right away, so I rode him around for a little while before we got Miranda back up there. It was intimidating! It felt like I was so high up in the air (two years in, this is hilarious to me – he was just a pony!) – and like I didn’t actually have any control over what we were doing. But also? I had fun. And I took the risk of asking if it would be ridiculous for me to take lessons with the girls after that. It felt vulnerable to pursue something that I knew I wouldn’t be good at and something that would be just for my enjoyment. And then when Courtney said it would be fine for me to start doing lessons with the girls, I was both anxious and excited.

I’ve shared before about what I was learning through riding – about having fun, about being the learner instead of the teacher, about being vulnerable, about asking questions, and about persevering.

I’m still learning, but I’m finding that the lessons are different right now.

I’ve started jumping recently, and I love it. For a second, you’re flying. But it requires more of you as a rider, and there is more risk involved.

I’m learning that sometimes what looks the most intimidating ends up being the most fun.

I’m learning that the people around you matter. It helps to watch, to pay attention to what others are doing and to be able to observe and reflect. It helps to have a guide – someone on the ground who can tell you when you’re going too fast and when you’re pulling too hard on your reins and how to use your seat and what in the world just happened there.

But I think most of all, what I’m learning is that if you want to be a good rider, you cannot be a passenger – you are responsible for riding your horse. You cannot just sit there and expect that things will go well. Whether you take action or not, you are still responsible for the outcome. Where your horse goes and what they do along the way is, in large part, up to you. There are a lot of things you cannot control – but you are still responsible for working with what you have. You use the tools you have, you work on developing your skills, and you grasp at the glimmers of deeper understanding that flash before you. Even if you’re not the rider you wish you were, even if you don’t really know what to do, you are still responsible for doing your best and trying to make it happen.

Courtney tells me that I’m not as afraid as I should be. I’m certain that this is largely because it has been a long time since I’ve fallen. I know that another fall is coming, and I’m scared that once it happens, I’ll lose that willingness to try anything Courtney and Kris point me toward. I don’t want to lose it. This is where I’m practicing being brave.


Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 6): Day 99: Activities Outside Our Home?

Obviously, as homeschoolers, the primary structure of our lives was already set up pretty well for staying home before the pandemic hit. However, my kids did lose all of their activities outside of our home – in addition to play dates with friends, we used to be part of a homeschool enrichment group, all four kids swam 2-3 times per week, the big kids and I usually rode horses a few times per month, and we attended other activities (art shows, concerts, museum shows, etc) as we could. We stopped all of that abruptly mid-March. That seemed like the wisest course of action – particularly for our family, with multiple vulnerable members.

It has been a long few months, though, without that social interaction, without the ability to swim (especially now that the summer weather has arrived!), without the ability to move our bodies in ways other than walking, running, and biking. Matt and I have been talking about whether there are ways we could give ourselves and our kids some opportunities to leave the house and have fun without seriously compromising our safety. We’ve been reading articles about how the coronavirus spreads and looking at rankings of activities in terms of their risk levels.

Where we’ve landed is that we need to maintain our separation from most of the activities in which we had previously engaged. It just isn’t safe to go hang around indoors with large numbers of people. It isn’t even safe to have sustained close proximity with others outdoors.

But the one activity that seemed much less risky than others was horseback riding. It’s basically an activity that requires social distancing – if you get closer than one horse-length away from another horse and rider, you’re putting your horse (and yourself!) in danger of getting kicked!

I talked to our trainer, who has put into place guidelines limiting numbers of people at the barn at any one time, which made us feel safer returning. She also has rules about social distancing – essentially, if you can’t tack up your own horse, you can’t come right now, because that would require having someone outside of your household super close to you as they helped you prepare to ride and take care of your horse after riding.

I returned to lessons a couple weeks ago – obviously taking care of my own horse and riding outdoors and staying distant from everyone else. I love having an activity that challenges me in a different way than my everyday life and that is purely fun.

And this week, I took the girls to ride, and we made sure to schedule their ride for a time when no one else would be in the barn. They aren’t self-sufficient, but having a mom who participates in the same activity as you and can help you catch and care for your horse has its advantages.

It was so nice to give them this opportunity to leave the house and get back to riding! This was only the third time since March that Miranda had even been in a car at all. And this was the only actual activity they have done in months (other drives included exciting missions such as “going to the hospital parking lot to change a flat tire” and “going to throw rocks in the river” and “taking recycling to the drop off sites” and “just going for a drive”). This was significantly more interesting 😉

They didn’t do a lesson or focus on building skills – this was all just about having a chance to ride and have fun.

Miranda was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help a pony who has a pretty low weight limit (and thus can’t be ridden by most of the adult and teenage riders who have been at the barn recently) get back into work.

MeiMei wasn’t sure she remembered horses being this large!

It took a bit of time for them to get used to being back in the saddle, but once they got going, they were back to trotting, weaving, and riding all around!

I’ve certainly enjoyed getting back into riding, and I’m glad the girls were able to go this week, too. In this world in which we almost entirely stay home, it’s nice to have one very low-risk activity we can do!

Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 5): Day 76: Staying Home in the Midst of Re-Opening

It is now day 76 of our staying home whenever possible. America is strange right now.

There is no vaccine for the coronavirus. While there are a few treatments that may offer glimmers of hope, nothing has proven to be dramatically efficacious.

And yet Americans are tired of staying home. Some believe the coronavirus is not as serious as people are making it out to be. Others are annoyed that they can no longer be served as usual – there were protests in my rich, white hometown (just miles from Milwaukee, in which the Black community is suffering and dying at alarming rates). Some are convinced that they personally are young and healthy and are likely to survive, so they would prefer to risk exposure in order to return to business as usual. Whatever the reasons, many people want to be out and about and would like to return to their lives as they existed pre-pandemic.

I really resonate with this tweet –

Wishing for something doesn’t make it so – but we seem to be pretending that it can.

For our governmental leaders, the move to re-open the country seems to be primarily politically motivated. People are filing for unemployment at unprecedented rates. Many do not have savings to sustain them for long periods without a paycheck. People and businesses need relief. The solution presented by our politicians is that the country should begin to open again. However, as businesses re-open their doors and call employees back to work, even those who do not feel safe returning are rendered ineligible for unemployment benefits. It is a terrible situation to face. I wish that, in America, we were willing to look for economic solutions to economic problems – instead of forcing people back to work in situations that may cost them their lives in the name of preserving the economy (and/or politicians’ political futures).

Our family is incredibly fortunate that, at least for now, Matt and I are both able to work from home. We don’t have to go anywhere on a daily basis.

Even we, though, have not been able to maintain our policy of zero tolerance for contact with the outside world.

Matt, who suffers from interstitial lung disease, was having lower oxygen levels than his pulmonologist wanted to see, so he needed to go in for additional testing and an appointment. He actually had to be tested for the coronavirus (video here) before he could do any of that because of the high risk nature of all of the patients in the pulmonology clinic and the risk of spreading the virus during the types of testing they do. I’m thankful he was able to go, though, as he is now feeling better, and he now has access to supplemental oxygen when he needs it.

Additionally, FangFang receives quarterly Pamidronate infusions to strengthen her bones, and she was due for another one this month. These aren’t absolutely life sustaining, but they greatly improve her quality of life. They also reduce the risk of serious fractures, any of which could necessitate an emergency trip to Omaha for surgery, which would be a much higher risk situation than a day at the hospital for an infusion. I consulted with her endocrinologist and decided to go ahead with the infusion but moved it up to May 7 (as soon as possible after Missouri’s re-opening date of May 4, to minimize the likelihood of widespread community transmission), and she and I spent the day at the hospital. The hospital has policies in place to minimize risk (only one parent and no siblings allowed to come with her, no waiting in the waiting room, no playrooms, no wagon rides, placing us in a private room with a private bathroom, and everyone was asked about symptoms and had temperatures taken upon arrival, and we were required to wear masks). We also brought all of our own food, so we would not need to interact with any food service personnel.

And then, in an unwelcome development, when we came out to the parking lot, we saw that one of our tires was completely flat. Matt had to come put on our spare tire so we could drive home, and the next day he took the tire to get patched. As low as we would like our exposure to be, we need our van to be drive-able.

I’ve been missing the ability to interact with friends and family, and while it is 100% worth it to me to keep our family safe, I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go see Courtney while her risk of exposure was minimal. For a couple weeks, her workplace was closed to the public, and she wasn’t doing appointments or lessons at all, employees were wearing masks and keeping their distance from one another, and she stayed out of stores and public places and didn’t do any of her supplemental jobs. After two weeks of that had passed, I got to go visit her for a weekend, which was a nice time of relaxing and fun.

We continue to order our groceries to be delivered (and try to tip well for those who do that work and assume the risk that we are avoiding). We order everything we can online, whether books, household supplies, or clothing. This past weekend I made my best guess at shoe sizes for the older girls – we’ll see whether they fit when they arrive! Matt had to go to Menards one day to get some supplies that we couldn’t easily order online to fix our leaking freezer, and we took advantage of that opportunity to have him pick up some paint and supplies so we could paint our hallway – ready to tackle some quarantine home improvement projects!

We’re still trying to stay home as much as we can, and overall, life feels pretty peaceful. In addition to our regular school work, there is time for board games, playing outside, and reading books for fun.

We have acknowledged that, two months in, we need to use wisdom, not absolute zero, as our guide for interactions outside of our home. Life is not black and white. We have very high risk family members. We will not be taking any significant risks. But we do have weigh the different risks involved in the various shades of gray and make the best decisions we can for our family. We can’t allow our health to deteriorate or our van to become un-usable or our freezer to leak perpetually, so we take those risks. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw caution to the wind and engage in ridiculous behavior. Some of the most dramatic examples of people flouting expert recommendations are coming out of Missouri this past weekend. It’s hard to have standards that we know others aren’t following.

I am mourning. Our neighborhood pool is opening for the summer, and while others enjoy that lovely activity, we’ll be at home, trying to find other ways to cope with the humid, 90-degree weather of Missouri summers. Our two almost-swimmers will not be mastering that skill this season. As Miranda’s swim team resumes practices again, she’ll be staying home.

We see pictures of friends out at parks or gathering together. We miss our people, too. We miss feeling like we belong to a community (an experience obviously exacerbated by having resigned our membership in our long-time church just months prior to a pandemic). We see others returning to life, more or less as normal.

Psychologically, it’s a strange experience. It feels almost like collective gaslighting. So many others are acting like there is no problem at all – like everything is normal. I’ve had moments of beginning to wonder whether I’m the one who has the truly skewed perspective. Am I over-reacting? Are the lengths to which I am going to keep my family safe (and protect anyone with whom we would need to come into contact) absolutely ridiculous?

And then I look at the statistics. And I read the stories. And I remember – the risk is DEATH. And for several members of my family, that risk is high. And we have no way of knowing the risk factors of anyone with whom we may need to come into contact. I’ll trade my summer at the pool to give us the best chance to preserve their lives. Everyone has to make their own choices. But as for me and my house, we will be staying home.

Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 3): A COVID-19 Easter

This Easter weekend was one of the strangest I can remember. Holy Week didn’t feel quite like Holy Week. Easter didn’t feel quite like Easter.

As rather “older” members and sometimes leaders of our last church, we generally hosted large Easter gatherings in our home – the kind of open invitation gathering where everyone brings a dish to share and food and people overflow everywhere. The week leading up to Easter would be full of not only contemplation of Christ and His gift of Himself for us, but also the planning of the main meal and the coordinating of logistics as we tried to work out how to cook and serve a meal for a large group of people in between a church service and toddler naptimes.

This year was different. I’d gotten Easter candy for our kiddos ahead of time (though I forgot to get an Easter egg decorating kit – oops). Matt wanted to make turkey and mashed potatoes, so he took responsibility for that, and I only needed to throw together some simple sides for just our family. We knew we’d be going nowhere, nor would we have any obligations, so we could take a pretty laid back approach to the entire day.

Sarah Bessey’s Holy Week meditations were my saving grace in the days leading up to Easter, the one thing that made me feel like we were, in fact, approaching Easter at all. Having left our church recently, we have been attending another church that we really like, but we’re not exactly plugged in yet, so we’re not even really connected to church people virtually. We did watch the livestream of that church’s Easter Sunday morning service, though, which was sweet.

The most notable thing about Holy Week for me this year was Saturday. Every other year, it has felt simply like the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a day to use for cleaning the house and preparing for Easter. And this year it felt almost like the main event – because we are in a Holy Saturday kind of world right now.

I found myself frustrated by the memes that loudly proclaim, “It’s Friday – but Sunday’s coming!”

Yes. That is true. It is so very true.

But the disciples didn’t know that. Jesus’s mother didn’t know that. We can’t just skip over the devastation, the suffering, the agony, the questions, the fear, the anxiety. They were so real. They mattered. That in-between day mattered.

Jesus’s people thought He was the One. They thought He was going to usher in a new era – in which He would rescue them from their Roman conquerors and set them free. They didn’t understand that He came to offer a different sort of rescue and a different sort of freedom. We can look back now at their foolishness, at their failure to understand, and scoff condescendingly. We can dismiss their Saturday, that in-between time in which they had to live with their brokenness, sitting in the reality that they had just witnessed their world fall apart.

Or we can look around us at this Holy Saturday world in which we live right now. There is so much uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know. Schools are shut down, businesses closed. We stay at home. I have not driven my car anywhere in over a month. We all have so many questions.

As of the evening of Thursday, April 14, Johns Hopkins is reporting 2,158,250 cases worldwide with 144,243 deaths. Within the United States, there are 662,045 cases with 28,998 deaths. Of those, 5,560 cases (with 170 deaths) are in Missouri. Unemployment is ravaging the country, with more than 20 million people filing claims in 4 weeks.

And no one knows what to do to fix it. We wait for doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine. We wonder if there might be treatments for the virus, medications to mitigate its effects, to decrease the probability of its fatality. Politicians debate when we should reopen the economy and get people back to work, uncertain of how best to care for millions of suffering people – or perhaps uncertain of how people will weigh the loss of others’ lives against the loss of their own financial security as they decide how to vote this fall, wondering if perhaps a loss of a couple million lives would give them a more appealing result than the continuing job losses of millions more. Our governor today extended Missouri’s stay-at-home order from April 24 to May 3. That is only a little over two weeks away, but so much can change in two weeks. We’ll see what happens. For now – we stay home, and we wait. It’s a dark, Holy Saturday kind of time.

And yet…we can also enjoy the glimmers of Easter hope. We can see some moments of flickering beauty –

Kiddos watching a dancer worship with her talent as part of the Easter church service we watched.

Snuggles with my little kids.

Andrea Bocelli singing Amazing Grace to the empty plaza in Milan – giving of what he has to sing out hope to a hurting world.

And Easter dinners with family.

May there someday be a fulfillment of that Easter morning hope after our time of Holy Saturday darkness.

And in the meantime, may Sarah Bessey’s Easter benediction be true for us all –

May you be given the gift of believing today.

May you know God in the dark.

May you abide in the country of grace even while you are in exile.

May you know and experience God With Us.

May God wipe away every tear from your eye, may there be no more death or mourning or pain – someday.

May everything be made right, may the old order of things pass away.

Even if you are beginning the resurrection from the dark, may the light break through.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life,

and so may it be well with your soul.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.