Category Archives: Balance

Ordinary Extraordinary

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img_0592Just read  this post by Melanie Dale, who writes about living a life she didn’t choose. Her story resonates! 

I often struggle with our culture’s obsession with living a big-adventure, unconventional, extraordinary life. While I’m the first one up for a big adventure and extraordinary anything, let’s face it: life can sometimes be downright hard and limiting due to forces far beyond our control. The relentless challenge to live an outside-the-box, call-of-the-wild adventure can sometimes feel more cruel than inspiring.

“Ordinary,” we are told, is a sell out.  If we aren’t pursuing our dreams–and mind you, it better be a BIG dream–then we are, at best, settling. At worst, we are losers because we lack the faith or the personal gumption to “be all that we can be!”

I just don’t buy it anymore.

As a Christian, if Jesus is my model (and he should be, right?)  his version of an extraordinary life is not exactly the adventure-filled, wild ride we have in mind.  But if Jesus taught us anything about living an extraordinary life, he taught us to follow him into places we would never otherwise venture. In fact, he taught us that losing your life is the way to finding it.

What?

Don’t get me wrong. We were created to dream and to cultivate the unique gifts that each of us possess. In fact, Jesus often challenged the too-small thinking of his followers, just as he also challenged them to use the gifts they already had to accomplish extraordinary things.

At the same time, I don’t know about you, but I’ve followed my dreams right off a cliff before.  I’ve learned to be careful what I ask for!

I’m also learning to dream big but then to ask God to help me trust him to fulfill those desires in ways I cannot imagine.

One of my favorite movies is Under the Tuscan Sun. In the film, the main character is a depressed and despondent divorce who, on a whim, buys an old villa in Italy and sets out to renovate both the home and her wreck of a life. All kinds of things go awry, of course, and during one particular low point, she sobs to her only friend in the village, who also happens to be her realtor, about all the dreams she had for her house–dreams of a wedding and children and home filled with friends and family.  “I bought a house for a life that I don’t even have,” she wails.  I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but let’s just say that by the end of it, there’s a wedding, but it’s not hers. There’s a child, but it’s not hers. But she is surrounded by extraordinary love, family, and friendship.  The realtor reminders her: she got everything she wished for and more, just not as she imagined it.  But the reality, though much messier and more frustrating than her dream, was also a better and even more of a beautiful mess than she could have conjured on her own.

No one would choose a cancer diagnosis.  But because of that diagnosis, I’ve been introduced to new levels of extraordinary. Like the regular phone calls from my sons…just to talk. (If you have sons, you know just how extraordinary this is!)  Or like the  friends and family who showed up on my doorstep with food or flowers, or sat all day with me at the hospital. Or my friend, Dawn, who sends me something to laugh about every, single day. Or my friend Connie who cooks for me when we’re together, not because I can’t cook for myself but because she is spoiling me a little.  Or like the quiet back-porch nights with Barry that are even better when it’s storming.

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Or there’s my new friend Audrey at the radiation center. She’s a feisty, sassy grandmother of 10 who loves the Elks Club and likes to wear the hospital cape with the poker cards all over it. She scared, but she’s brave. I like her.

There is a certain amount of drudgery, frustration, and fear in everyday life that no one is immune to. But extraordinary usually happens right there, right in the midst of the muck and mess.  I have a vivid picture in my mind of the first time my son Isaac smiled. I was an exhausted mess of “new mom, ” who was just hoping this 3 am feeding would go quickly so I could go back to bed!  And then he stopped, looked right at me, and grinned from ear to ear. Thirty-three years later, I still see it perfectly.

Losing your life to find it is such a strange but true paradox.  I’m not suggesting that there’s any romantic allure to pain or suffering.  I’m only saying that if we look closely at the cracks in our oh-so-ordinary lives, we may find a bit of glory filtering through.

This post by Melanie Dale speaks beautifully to the whole idea of finding an extraordinary life in the least expected place.  It deserves a read!

Melanie Dale knows something about life not looking like she thought it would. After twelve years of building her family through infertility and adoption, she finally snuggled down with three kids from three different continents, cultures, and stories. She thought, “Now the fun begins,” but then they encountered diagnosis after diagnosis. With words like “autism,”…

via when you’re living a life you didn’t choose — A Holy Experience

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Thorny nests, Dips, and Cul-de-Sacs

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thorny nests

photo by Mr. T in DC

I once read that birds actually build thorns deep into their nests. Apparently, it’s a parenting issue. When Mama bird finds herself with a too-comfortable fledgling, reluctant to spread wings and fly, she says, “I’ll fix this” and begins removing downy layers, one by one, to expose those thorns. Baby bird says, “Hey–ow! That hurts! Ma! What’re you doing?!”

Suddenly, the nest is not so cozy. The idea of leaving seems more inviting.

Is it possible that God himself builds thorns into our nest?  When we find ourselves in thorny circumstances, are we being prodded to leave because the nest has become too comfortable or, at least, too familiar? We refuse to budge, so God lovingly removes the cushioning, making it harder and harder to stay.

Maybe God just wants us to fly. Without exposure to those prickly barbs, though, we might never know the joy.

Over the years, when I’ve found myself in difficult situations, I’ve wondered, “Are these thorns? Is it time to go? Or do I still have things to learn here?”  Very often, I knew the answer deep down. Admitting it…well, that often takes time…and more thorns.

In his excellent little book The Dip, Seth Godin reasons that times of conflict represent either a dip or a cul-de-sac.  Every job, relationship, and circumstance has ups and downs. Sometimes, we’re just in a dip, and the right thing to do is to push through and grow from the adversity. But sometimes we’re in a cul-de-sac, doomed to endless driving in circles…unless we leave.

Dips. Thorns. Cul de Sacs. It takes time and a little cold, hard honesty for me to know when my struggle is a simple dip or a nasty thorn–poking me in such confounded ways that the idea of leaping off the edge sounds infinitely better than staying put. Seen in this light, I can let go of the struggle and come to a place of grace. No need to find someone to blame (though I admit I try).  Truth is, the thorns were probably always there. They were just covered by God’s protective grace for a time. But he sometimes he removes that protection so that I will have no choice but to brave right up to the edge and take a flying leap.

And I suspect that looking back is not a good idea when in flight.

Do What You Love. Or Maybe Not

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Love Never Fails

photo by Jhon Alfa Tumbelaka

Is it really best to do what you love? Or is it better to just get a job? What if you want your passion to remain your passion and not your job?  If you’ve ever actually tried to make money doing what you love (art, music, writing, teaching–whatever), you know that your passion can be sucked dry by the pressures and sticky details of actually earning a living. Even worse, that thing you love, that thing that was once a joy and release from the every day, has become part of the every day, so now you no longer even have your fun escape valve.

A friend of mine built a business around a passion of hers. After 14 years of running a successful but demanding business, she advocates keeping your creative passions for yourself versus wrapping your sustenance around them. Others say, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  I don’t know, though. I’ve been doing what I love for a long time, but writing as a business is a whole different animal from writing for the sheer joy of it.  It involves nasty unpleasant things like taxes, bookkeeping, billing, negotiating, and contracts.  I know. I know. This is all just reality. I get that. But is there wisdom in hiding a little piece of your creative soul away from your paycheck?

So, I’m curious. I’m really curious how others who work within their passions or creative gifts address this issue.  What do you do?

Beginnings

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Carolina morning

Carolina morning. Photo by L. Kay Johnson

The importance of accepting new beginnings has become clear in recent months. I know I’m in a time of transition, but where there’s no road map or guaranteed formulas, every morning is like a new experiment..a “why not try it this way” kind of day. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m also learning to rely on that “new every morning” mercy. A few practical routines and practices seem to help:

  • Breathing: Sometimes taking the time to breathe is an act of trust.
  • Gratitude: I’m reading Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts. Timely stuff.  (Highly recommend it, by the way.)
  • Prayer. My favorite these days:  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. Seems if I can keep these two prioritized, the rest is water under the bridge.
  • Journaling: Forgive the analogy, but when my mind is roiling, journaling is kind of like throwing up on paper. Messy and gross. But you feel so much better afterwards. And somehow it all often magicaly transforms into clarity and useful ideas.
  • Exercise. Don’t think. Just do.  Amazing how much clearer my mind is when I give myself this gift.
  • Sleep.  Do I really need to give myself permission!?  Apparently so.
  • Sunshine. Seriously. Amazing what a few minutes outside can do for my attitude.
  • Truthful Friends. No substitute for friends who listen when I wail and then tell it like it is.
  • Trust. Like breathing, all of the above require trust.

One blogger captured some great ideas about how to start the day that I thought I would share as well.  Good stuff. Now trust…and go for a walk.

Soul Weeding: Clearing the Clutter

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clutter

Photo by Emerson

 

I once read that you should get rid of the things that make you grimace every time you pass by. (I’m assuming this does not include family members.)  Still, without external pressure, I’m sometimes more comfortable staying in the weeds than going through the painful process of extricating myself from them. In fact, I start to convince myself that while the view is lousy in Weedville, it’s not so bad. There are lots of other weeds to keep me company.

I read recently, though, about that moment when God calls out to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” It’s like God kept a regular sunset-watching date with his friends, but this time they were missing…hiding, as we know….as God knew.  I hear longing in that question: Where are you?  Is it possible that God actually looks forward to my companionship, but I’m so buried in the clutter of my own ambitions or fears or anxieties or agendas that I don’t even notice?

What if stopped, listened, and I answered, “Here I am. Come sit with me”?  I suspect I would gain perspective. Focus. Insight. Wisdom. I suspect I’d get rid of enough weeds to enlarge my view and find fresh perspective.

I don’t know why I hide from God’s call. I find it difficult to shut my chattering brain down long enough—even though I know it’s what I need more than anything. After all, if there’s space for God in my life, isn’t there space for everything else?

Addicted to Extraordinary

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sacred ordinary

photo by schmense

Some things in life spoil you for the ordinary. Meaningful volunteer work, crisis situations, military service, even adventure travel—these kinds of things may lead to an addiction to the extraordinary, where our identity clings like seaweed to the “importance” of what we do.  My “spoiler experience” was five-year stint as a young adult with a mission organization. I lived and worked with a pack of fired-up young people out to save the world. We worked in an inner-city mission in Amsterdam, and it seemed that everything we did had eternal significance. Nothing wrong with passion and a desire for meaningful service, but I made the fatal error of deeming that kind of work as “sacred,” while a regular job was merely “secular.”

Of course, now I see things differently. Everything is sacred. I read a book once years ago, whose title I have forgotten, where the author shared his struggle with ordinary life. He was attracted to a radical life of solitude, prayer and meditation, but this guy had a regular job, a wife and three kids. He could barely get in a quiet moment edgewise, much less hours for meditation!  In time, though, he began to realize that before there were any monastical orders, before there was even a church, before the first apostles forged unknown territory to share God’s story, even before Jesus preached or healed or died on the cross—before all of that…there was a Mary and a Joseph.

A housewife. A carpenter. They didn’t do anything any more radical than raise a child.

They got up every day and worked, cleaned the house, paid the bills, and made dinner.  It was all so very…ordinary.  But without that ordinary, or as author Leigh McLeroy calls it, that “sacred ordinary,” the rest of the story could not have unfolded.

I don’t want to miss that sacred ordinary now. Do you? Whatever you are doing, give it to God who redeems all of our work, making it sacred through his grace.

Pay Attention

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One of my goals for this year is to PAY ATTENTION. I simply want to be more aware of simple joys; to tune my ears to hear God’s whispers; to pay closer attention to kindnesses as well as to the needs of others. As an exercise to pay closer attention, I’m keeping my camera handy to capture a few things.

So…in that spirit…here are this week’s “Things that made me smile.”

 

The Chocolate Bark Company

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If you are going to be absent from your blog for a while, you really should have a good excuse. Can I just say one word in my defense?

Chocolate

As in…fully involved…grownup…chocolate.

I’ve been working a temporary Christmas job at The Chocolate Bark Company here in Sarasota, Florida, and can I just say it’s pretty much heaven? With more than 50 generous 6-ounce barks, essentially large chocolate bars, this is a no brainer for delectable treats. Dark chocolate with cranberries and walnuts, or pumpkin praline seeds, or sea salt and caramel. And that’s just for starters. There are also the truffles, including mocha, espresso, raspberry, coconut, cocoa, pomegranate, key lime, passion fruit, creme brulee and more—guaranteed to make eyes roll in bliss, tense shoulders melt into chocolate oblivion, and turn grown men and women into 6-year-olds.

Chocolate Bark Company OwnerOwner Kelli Kamm and Manager Deb Kern

When I asked owner Kelli Kamm, an attorney by trade, what possessed her to open a chocolate shop, she laughed and said, “The better question is, ‘What possessed me to be an attorney?'” It’s not that complicated, really. She loved chocolate, and she learned to use rich ingredients, like Belgian Callebaut, to make works of edible art. “The hard part about the chocolate business is the business. This part,” she said, as she filled trays with a delectable river of chocolate with grey sea salt almond, “is the fun part.”

Chocolate Bark Selection

Chocolate Bark Selections

Attention to detail and the personal touch are two key aspects of her 14-year success. Kelli and her long-time manager, Deb Kern, design and make everything in their shop, right down to the gorgeous packaging. (I should know. I’ve hand-tied hundreds of bows on boxes, packages, and bags of assorted chocolate heaven.)

Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate Truffles

Besides the chocolate itself which is (did I mention this?) divine, the customers are, hands down, my favorite part of the shop. I love watching the  newlyweds who come in every Friday for their weekly two-truffle treat.  I loved meeting the woman who teaches Parkinsons patients to dance. Another woman, a cancer patient headed for her last chemo treatment, came in to buy chocolate for her nurses.  One man bought 16 truffles the other day for himself and his wife—just because. It wasn’t even a Christmas gift. It was just a random weekday “I thought of you” gift. I love that.

The Chocolate Bark Company

It is delightful to watch people take the time to pick out such a simple, scrumptious, and elegant treat for friends, family, spouses, or even for themselves.  For just a few bucks, it’s hard to beat the certain smile such a gift will bring to the recipient’s face—and, of course, there’s the (did I mention this?) divinely rich and decadent chocolate, mixed with such surprising flavors that you, too, will turn into a kid again. Guaranteed.

Dark Chocolate Grey Sea Salt Almond

A Rachel Ray (and Kay Johnson) Favorite!

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark

Blessed are those who mourn. Really?

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I’ve been re-visiting the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the one that starts out with the “Beatitudes,” and I’m struck, again, with how strange and totally foreign these words are to our “Anthony Robbins” way of thinking. This is not a success-by-numbers speech. This is anything but.

Think about it. Who are our “golden” ones–our “blessed” ones? Those who pursue their passion. Those who set goals and meet them. Those who courageously and fearlessly plow through obstacles or face fears to win the prize. Our ideals are all wrapped up in performance.

Jesus takes a completely different stance. He says that the blessed ones are those who are “poor in spirit” and “meek.” He lauds those who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness. He calls the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted blessed. He even says that those who mourn are blessed. There is not a hint of stellar performance in these character traits. He describes people who are down on their luck, desperate, and denied. How is that blessed? He contrasts these with those who are rich, fed, comforted, and well respected. He says they are the ones to be pitied “for they’ve already received their reward.” If we are honest, doesn’t “rich” describe most of us who live in the U.S.? Can we even compare our poor to, say, the poor in Haiti? Calcutta? Zimbabwe? I don’t think so.

I don’t think Jesus is condemning material blessings. After all, all blessings come from God, but I do think he is warning us about being lured into a false sense of security and comfort by them. Those who are desperate, those who mourn, those who are hungry–they know all too well their need. Those who are comfortable and well fed can all too easily fall into a belief that they have need of nothing. When we believe we have (or have access to) all that we need because we are comforted and well fed, we’ve missed the real treasure–and in so doing, we’ve missed everything.

Brevity is the soul of communication

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(First draft 238 words.  Edited version 164.  Final version 140. Give me a week, and I can get it down to 130.)

brevity

photo by Erich Stüssi

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Wit, here, refers to intelligence. As a writer, I couldn’t agree more. You have to be smart to say what you mean and say it concisely.  Many people don’t even know what they mean. They are too busy to think about it. Thinking requires stillness and reflection. So does writing. That’s why people hire me.

Still, when they see the words I create, the first inclination is to add more GLUT.  They are terrified of leaving out something important, so they stuff a brochure like a Thanksgiving turkey. Or they assume that more words—big words—make them look smart.

Our world is noisy and cluttered. People crave simplicity.

So here’s your challenge. Finish your draft, and then cut 1/3 of it. Then cut more.

Watch your message rise to the surface.

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” said Polonius in Hamlet. The word “wit”  Wit can, of course, mean refers to both humor, of course, which Shakespeare may have meant to convey on one level. But “wit” , but it is also refers to and intelligence. Now that I’ve spent a number of years writing copy for a wide variety of clients and even for myself, After writing copy for a number of years As a writer, I see the truth of Shakespeare’s words. realize the truth of this statement all the more. You have to be smart to say what you mean and say it concisely. Honestly, Most people don’t even know what they mean. They are too busy to think about it. Thinking requires stillness and reflection. So does writing. So they hire me for that part to listen and then put their thoughts to words. Still, when they see the words, the first inclination is to   They haven’t really processed their thoughts it. More often than not, my clients have a tendency to want to The tendency of most clients is to add more STUFF versus delete. They are so afraid that they are not going to get this fact or that message into the mix. They are so afraid they are going to leave outare terrified of leaving out something important, so they  that they end up stuffing a try to stuff a small, trifold brochure like a Thanksgiving turkey. Or they assume that more words, especially big words, make them look smarter.  for Thanksgiving. With all the noise in our world today, Our world is noisy and cluttered. people want you to simplify things for them.  People crave simplicity. They may be willing to stay with you if you are writing a leisure-reading novel, but if you are writing something to convey information quickly and simply, less if definitely more.  So here’s your challenge. Finish your draft, and then challenge yourself to go back and cut 1/3 of the copy.  Then cut 10 more words. See if the message you want to convey doesn’t Watch your message rise to the surface. fore.

I Need a Vista

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As any good writer knows, you need time away from writing projects in order to see them with fresh eyes.

Photo by Kay Johnson

The distance of even a few hours provides fresh insights into what you really want to say. I think that’s what vacations or retreats do for our lives.  We get stuck, don’t we, in the weeds of our own lives.  Distance brings remarkable clarity to those areas where we’ve allowed weeds to choke away our gifts and passions.

photo by Kay Johnson

It isn’t always possible to take a vacation, given life’s demands and financial limitations, but we can still get away regularly, even if only for a drive or a walk.  Every time I get away, especially if I can afford a bit of distance and time, I am amazed at the perspective I gain.  When I come home, it is almost shocking to see how quickly I can delete useless emails.  Priorities and passions crystallize, while useless and destructive time suckers become obvious.  I can suddenly see the light along my pathway.

We can’t always afford to hop on a plane and get away, but we can keep things in perspective through daily “retreats”—even as simple as a few backyard moments to breathe, pray, meditate, and just be with our Maker.

photo by Kay Johnson

 

The Facebook Looking Glass

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This last week, I was struck by a weird God-like feeling as I perused Facebook posts, catching those minute glimpses of all that is happening in so many lives.

Here’s just a quick snapshot:

  • On Monday, the death of a good family friend was announced.
  • On the same day, a young girl I know had her first baby. (It’s a boy!)
  • On the same day, another friend welcomed her 2nd grandchild into the world (also a boy!)
  • Another friend lost a cousin in a bizarre murder.
  • Another friend met her soon-to-be adopted child in Africa.
  • Another posted pictures of her first weekend at home with her just-adopted child.
  • A couple of friends grieved the loss of their mothers in the recent past.
  • One mom grieved the absence of a son who is in Iraq, while she also celebrated her daughter’s recent new job.

You get the idea. Remember in Bruce Almighty where Bruce can actually “hear” all the prayers of people all over the world–and it almost drives him mad? I had a Bruce Almighty moment reading these Facebook posts.  Even news headlines can be dizzying.  In 3-day time period, we saw a notorious terrorist killed, a swarm of tornadoes rip through the South, and a stunning royal wedding full of beauty and promise. Facebook may be one of the best tools for helping us understand how truly finite we are and how desperately we need the guidance of an infinite mind. The tragic and joyous cycles of life are squeezed into television and social media outlets and then broadcast back to us in such as way that we are confronted with our absolute inability to take it all in, much less make sense of it or even do anything to help most of the time.  To do that, you’d really have to be God. And I am decidedly…not.

How does God DO this?

Where do you get your life?

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water

© Olga Donskaya | Dreamstime.com

A friend recently told me I was giving too much life to a situation I was chewing over. Of course, she was right.  And the truth is, for all the energy I expend in worry, I will get no Life in return!  We do that, don’t we?  We give lots of energy— in the form of anger, unforgiveness, anxiety, or jealousy—to people and circumstances. We exchange pieces of our lives on problems that we cannot solve or situations we cannot change.   We give our lives away—not in teaspoons, as Eliot said, but in heaping cups.

So I’m paying closer attention to the things I give life to. Maybe even more important, though, I’m also asking myself, “Where are you drawing life FROM?”  Are you trying to extract Life from something or someone that cannot possibly give it?  Are you drawing water from a dried-up well?  As a Christian, I suppose I should pay attention to Jesus.  He says that he is Water, Light, Bread, the Vine…Life. (He also said he was God. Therefore, go to God–the SOURCE–for things that feed your soul and give you real life.)

It’s so easy to draw life from just about anything BUT God: career, kids, romance, food, friends, jobs, wealth, fitness, hobbies, or even the next good time.  All of those things are part of this crazy, joy-filled, tragic, and magical thing we call life, but none actually breathe LIFE into our souls. For that, we have to turn to THE Lifegiver. And I think we probably need to pay attention when we do find ourselves giving life to something that is incapable if giving life in return. When I find myself doing this, it’s a red flag: I’m looking for something that people or circumstances cannot always give–whether it’s love, forgiveness, justice, understanding, encouragement, acceptance, or affirmation.

Whatever it is, there is only one perfect Source for true Life-giving sustenance. That’s where I need to go. (Feel free to remind me!)

vine

© Galina Barskaya | Dreamstime.com

Bread
photo by Kay Johnson