What I learned in 2017 from exhaustion and related inelegance

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#1 What 2017 taught about boundaries and working at a large urban church:

Stress can still affect your health even when God is technically your boss.

Many structural and cultural shifts were underworks at my employer and personal church community Foundry UMC, a thriving Methodist church a few blocks from the White House. The staff and congregation were in what felt like a perpetual all-hands-on-deck mode especially since the outcomes of the 2016 presidential race (…the sermon Pastor Ginger preached a few days after that election gives incredible insight and encouragement…if your journey craves it!).

The work was a purposeful, spiritual dream, especially in hospitality. We’d work together in community to support disadvantaged and homeless neighbors or offer adult discipleship classes about many social justice topics, inclusive Christian beliefs, or fragile political culture. We’d share strong solidarity with LGBTQI neighbors and immigrants. So much more.

“God as boss is a noble thing!” the thought would float my mind sometimes during particularly stressful deadlines, or when passionate (well meaning) folks would approach me on my days off to help on work-related matters. My boundary setting skill wasn’t the most clear, at all.

The nobility began to transform into weariness but I didn’t fully recognize it. My husband started to comment that he would hear me say “I’m so tired” almost daily. Effects from physical and mental depletion continued (but without a vigilant, self-caring response from myself): lack of focus, ongoing frustration, ongoing anxiety, lack of restfulness from sleep, indifference, general irritation at professional hospitality projects and colleagues that were once held dear.

Then…

The turning point:

In a moment of raging dramatic angst-filled release – I screamed at my boss through various expletives and explosive (CRANKY) critique. It would be now a hilarious story if my exhausted viciousness wasn’t quite so uncontrolled, let alone unloving.

The next day, the exhausted anxious (humbling! awkward!) episode occurred again offsite when en route to work. It was the most vulnerable, strained episode of head pain, harsh breathing, dizziness, and the shakes. After an ambulance ride to the ER, it became clear that vast exhaustion was in the driver’s seat and mounting anxious depression was on the rise.

Outcome:

It was time to transition off church staff, rest up, heal up, and start anew in hospitality and storytelling work in a different dynamic.

Holy Cow 2017 taught my ego that working for a religious organization still demands vigilant self-care, better boundary setting, and moderation of pace.  Just because God’s the boss doesn’t mean ignoring one’s capacity to set healthy boundaries!

#2  What the year taught about creative avoidance:

Procrastination on personal projects (that you aren’t paid for except by passion for creative journey) causes as much fatigue and anxiety as procrastinating on work you get paid for.

It seems more obvious now that work which espouses one’s commitment warrants …committed attention. It does not matter whether that commitment stems from our heartfelt self-will and passion or from a boss that pays one’s salary. Once the commitment is self-administered — then action should simply commence; production should simply begin; …all the “don’t hold back” attitude should ideally ignite as a natural response to said commitment.

Argh to the wise “should” mentality!

Even still with hindsight – after outlining an on-the-bucket-list dream storytelling project recently, I sat on it for at least a month. As in, there was zero movement forward on it!

I’d rebel against the very project my heart had longed to do. Any and all randomness became the priority (vs actually asserting head on this storytelling work). Literally far less timely research projects would capture my focus, or a new yoga routine or meet ups with people that could’ve been easily postponed.

The turning point:

After about five weeks of this – sleeping patterns got rocky and inconsistent. A general internal hum made of both tiredness and an angst-ridden edge set in. Then an article found its way to my eyeballs about the negative effects of procrastination: it increases sleep debt and thus anxiety and fatigue (pausing to gulp that truth down).

Outcome:

After eventually asserting the project head on and finishing it – a distinct, more regulated steadiness returned in sleep patterns and inner contentment.

The work, tackled head on without restraint, will set the soul (and healthy sleeping habits!) free.

#3  What the year taught overall about fatigue:

Habitual tiredness does not equate to winning an award in workplace martyrdom.

Gently closing thoughts here with a neighborly reminder:  Beware of work martyr culture and mentality.

Here’s to you and an awesome, “all in” 2018 with lots of blessings and purpose, results, renewal, constant self-care, and patience.

Photo: “Napping” by Paula Gimeno licensed under Creative Commons

What a lost kitten taught about reunions and risk

imageIt was a quiet early fall night in DC.

The outdoors were starting to turn toward cooler breezy temps. Husband Sean and I were relaxing together in full-on chill time reading and nuzzling with Squinky-Susan (sister kitty) and also Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons (littler bro kitty).

Our lights-out time arrived; Sean had opened a window by a few inches to let cooling breezes swirl inside. Off to bed we went, in our 550 square foot home that sat four stories up from a busy neighborhood street.

The next conscious cue came from morning light that touched our eyelids awake. Sean got up first to enjoy some early a.m. silence.

After a while he nudged me to full-alert.

“Um Walter is gone,” he said. “I don’t understand….it’s a small apartment.”

I the momma scurry to the living room. No Walter.

…scurry to all the secret under-sofa-and-chair crevices. No Walter-kitten…..just his sister Squinky looking strangely calm.

…what about the old-timey pedestal bathtub. There’s a ton of secret hiding spots for kittens!

But no fuzzy Walter Wilbur-Force appeared.

I look at Sean with my eyes rounding through the tear drops.

He says again in a listless monotone: “But it’s such a small apartment…where could he have gone? It’s so small.”

His fixation on the size of the apartment made my heart ache more. He is such a fantastically logical person; his logic powerhouse of a brain was desperately equating smallness of our home to the impossibility that his cherished soulmate of a (always indoor) kitten could ever get lost, let alone disappear.

His eyes then wander over to the cracked window left open from last night: “OMG HE RAN AWAY FROM FOUR STORIES UP.”

What a heart sinker.

Walter’s escape out the teeny tiny window space was the only logical conclusion.

We ran downstairs; scoured alleyways; searched around big dumpster areas, calling calling calling Walter’s name.

No fuzzy gray paws or purrring was to be found.

Sean left for work lugging a gallon of gonna-keep-my-chin-up sadness with one last absent remark from his logical brain still trying to reconcile his disbelief: “….but our apartment is so small.”

 

More emotional context:  This occurred a few days after Prince died. So the climate of separation anxiety was already heavy!

Then after posting one more color poster outside of “Help us find our precious Walter Kitten Face!!!” I glanced back randomly toward the front glass door into the four story walk up (we lived on the fourth floor with a few other neighbors residing on the other levels).

There adhered to the glass was a crooked yellow sticky note!

My heart and brain leapt instantly over the 5 meters to the door to read that sticky:

“Are you missing a cat?! Please call this number.”

Wheeeeee!

Within seconds after calling, Walter Wilbur-Force The Kitten was back home to momma’s caress (and to his papa’s infinite joy).

The mystery in Walter’s disappearance revealed in purrrfect clarity thanks to two mindful and very tender-hearted neighbors that lived in a building adjacent us. It’s an awesome urban cat-n-mouse story minus the mouse. It’s a wonderful (and one of my favorite) family tales.

The whole experience refreshed perception about reunions and risk on a few levels:

  • What an unforeseen loss of love teaches:
    • Losing unexpected access to the one you love feels like a bucket of pine needles assaulting every avenue of your heart. I revered two things a whole lot more when reuniting with Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons:  simple presence of your loved one is the height of abundance; and returning from the hugely vulnerable world unscathed (as Walter did) is ar blessing and rarity.
  • Thoughts about risk and gambling with a stranger:
    • What had happened — Our little precious fuzz-bucket kitten had in Olympic feline fashion self-collapsed his adult frame and slid out into the world (via that four inch window opening…naive move on our end to underestimate the indoor critter). Once out on the window ledge of our building, Walter walked on the ledge; got confused; then couldn’t walk backwards to our specific window. So he walked on the rain gutter to the attached/adjacent building and sat in front of a window.
    • Late, late at night he stared inside this well-lit home through that home’s window and meowed his face off. He sat. He stayed sitting. He myeowed.
    • The couple living in that home noticed him but were wisely  leery of his nature! Was this a stray cat? Where did it come from? Isn’t this technically creepy?!
    • It would’ve been in the realm of reasonable decisions for them to have ignored Walter. The couple though pondered; revisited their first impressions; pondered some more.

They began to re-perceive this stranger chanting myeows outside their window. They started to view Walter as less of a threat, and more of a misplaced stranger in a vulnerable way. Sean and I are grateful for their courage.

 

 

  • Closing thought on alleviating potential tensions in risky decisions:
    • Upon letting Walter enter their window, the couple started to think short-term and long-term. If Walter’s family was discovered in the next day, hooray! But if  a reunion did not take place, they were making a hospitality list for their new tenant i.e. litter box, food, and 600 little jingly toys. Their agility is a model for hospitality and for helping the stranger. They went from a risky initial decision all the way to sharing space with a stranger to planning for the stranger’s well-being. My goodness how I love this story and them.

 

Photo:  Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons when a baby, pictured with his Dad.

How emotional intelligence shaped (3) hospitality moments, and Happy New Year!

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Engaging front-of-house hospitality for community fascinates me. Hospitality is an unparalleled opportunity where customer service, sense of welcome, unconditional attention, and even spiritual uplift can all be experienced by a guest.

How can guests perceive resourcefulness?

perceive responsiveness? or perceive acts of (intended) good will?

Guests from different hospitality scenarios in my professional life have taught vibrant lessons toward these questions. And often recognizing the merit of emotional intelligence proved a key part of learnings.

Emotional intelligence (EI) affects delivery of hospitality in countless ways. It’s potent and often beautiful how keen emotional discernment can encourage (or if a lack thereof – can repel) any particular community or guest. I should swallow a dose of humility now too because at least for me, emotionally intelligent actions can be easy to overlook or harder at times to appreciate.

A friend Sarah shared last week some hospitality moments from her workplace. We then more consciously chewed on what she realized about delivering hospitality in-the-moment from those exchanges (and what stood out from an emotional intelligence perspective).

It was an engrossing conversation where (3) hospitality insights jumped out:

1.  Cultivating emotional validation 

My friend works in a community center and engages a wide range of the public with varied ages, races, and economic realities.

  • The scene — A young mom arrived and shared concerns her pre-teen child was starting to smoke cigarettes. The parent began to stutter pretty heavily, and avoided eye contact with my friend Sarah (who recognized signs of the parent’s discomfort in admitting the whole scenario).
  • EI moment — The goal for my friend became to remove any potential barriers to trust that the mom’s discomfort could possibly develop. So she (the friend) said to the parent she was so grateful she arrived at the community center, and had shared her personal concern for her child. My buddy in that instance affirmed the woman’s presence; the concern for her child’s health; and that the mother’s emotional courage was evident and admirable. The young mom ended up staying for 25 more minutes to discuss potential next steps and resources.
  • Word of caution — Sincere affirmation was the ultimate goal for this dynamic. Validating the mother’s caring nature and her action as a family leader were paramount. Conscious conversational space was made to include and legitimize her discomfort. As the community center’s representative, it would have been negligent let alone failed hospitality for my friend to have responded with an emotionally flippant or indifferent reply like “well that’s just sad to hear…”

2.  Creating an uninterrupted listening environment (if indeed time permits!)

  • The scene — Going deeper into the above exchange, my friend Sarah at the community center also asked the visiting mom questions on a few different levels: permission for time and permission to further inquire about her concerns.
  • EI moment — She (my buddy) used authentic lines of questioning to further demonstrate respect for the nervous, worried parent. First Sarah asked the mother overtly if she had “20 or 25 minutes” to further discuss her child’s smoking habit and the center’s resources to help. Next, Sarah inwardly committed to establishing a listening environment for this guest: to fully listen to the mother’s responses without interruption (as much as possible in light of potential time constraints). These intentional decisions helped to relax the dynamic; the mother started stuttering less and opening up about ways the center could be of benefit.
  • Word of caution — Checking in with this guest on whether or not she had more time to discuss matters goes beyond basic politeness in its value. It is a core hospitality-delivery tool. If the guest did not have further time to invest in that moment, then that would have cued my friend to request permission to email her further information and questions. Therefore, no matter how the mom responds to the question of time – her schedule is honored, and the dynamic to effectively provide resourceful-rich hospitality is still forged.

3. Utilizing self-restraint 

  • The scene — My friend remembered that toward the end of their discussion, the parent asked a question about potential treatment. Sarah felt some compulsion to respond immediately in that moment. But she refrained. Why? Because she also saw sensitive options (that could help the mother’s child) that would do well with written, deeper context.
  • EI moment — So to ensure benefits and risks would be expressed more clearly, and do the mother’s concerns better justice, Sarah underscored the value of the parent’s question and offered to reply more thoroughly over email. She also invited the mother to set future appointments anytime for more personalize conversation.
  • Word of caution — Delaying a reply in this way is not intended as procrastination, or as a means to avoid sensitive, difficult discussions. The core intent was to acknowledge that a compulsive albeit reasonably informative reply was likely going to come across as scattered and unclear. Sarah’s emotional discernment was to avoid that potential guest perception as much as able. So she instead, mindfully affirmed the mother’s question and ensured an emailed clarification would be forthcoming.

Photo attribution  Peace on Earth, good will towards men by Amy V. Miller licensed under Creative Commons

Recounting melancholy, and what it led to spiritually

 

I recall when air-quote dares hid tight behind the basics:
Pant legs drawn; floss used-tossed-n-gone…a drab routined mosaic.
One day Freedom accused Life: “Hey you’re numb & twisted!”
Life yelled back: “Oh Yeah?! Well you breathe like it’s fleeced & fisted!”
See Melancholic angst had trapped their debate like collaborative balloons crammed with fudge:
Their capacity for color could complement eachother but only thru dunes of loaded grudge.
Then one day these writhing pains sought restoration,
and caused Life n Freedom to lock arms toward healthy transformation.
They embraced psyche’s sandy sinks of vulnerable festoons;
they clutched & forgave bewildered pasts
none too soon.
Now Freedom spoke new prayer: “God …God…I’m yours for safe keeping,”
And God rekindled Life’s … sustained joys for the breathing.

How reflections on truth-listening & truth-telling showed up in prayer

What does it take to build authentic relationships and thus, authentic ministry?
It’s a hefty question to grapple with that last week’s sermon took on without restraint.  I gained a lot from it. Pastor T.C. Morrow gave a fantastic sermon answering this question of building authentic relationship through key messages like:
  • “Don’t hold back in authentic truth telling – or truth listening – in your relationships.”
  • “Don’t hold back in remembering God loves you, even if you are telling a truth that’s uneasy to say (or listening to someone else’s raw but truthful viewpoint).
She worked thoroughly with the story from 1 Samuel 3: 8 about mentor Eli insisting with his young pupil and future prophet Samuel — to not hold back telling the truth.
This particular story was new to me (ha, much of the Bible still is!). But she made her “Don’t hold back” words of empowerment resonate in different, very accessible, ways based on this particular story:
  • Don’t hold back from seeing Christ in the unhoused neighbor, the sick, or the hungry;
  • Don’t hold back in seeking God’s voice; it is all around us but often we do not recognize it;
  • Don’t hold back to transformation ourselves through ministry with others (it’s not just ministering TO others; greater authenticity is enabled by our openness to be transformed when we are engaged in ministry truly WITH others);
  • Don’t hold back your pain, your peace or joy, your torment, or your experience of resisting evils.
Authentic relationship and works toward justice take all of the above and even more of regularly not holding back. The sermon continues to reverberate in reflections.
As an initial don’t-hold-back response to T.C.’s sermon, out came this prayer and some sense of play.

Have a great weekend!

Written version of the video-prayer is just below:

I pray for strength to grow your justice 

for neighbors hungry and denied… Oh God trust us /

we need you, we need your liberating hand

to free our minds from self-addicted strands /

 

Oh God pride, it’s our pride high-5ing in endless selfie thumps

Lord transform, God transform our ego-echoes with your Holy Fist Bump /

And expand our doubting squints toward our lost, lone neighbor

to a wide-eyed willingness to lift her labor /

 

Now compel oh compel any privileged toward acts of sacrifice

so deprived neighbors thrive on — more than beggar’s lice / 

Please freeze our greed & melt it away with merciful justness

God seam anew all ego-separations to grow your justice /

I pray for strength to grow your justice. 

Amen.

One husband + awesome courage

Roughly five thousand years ago (…it seems that long sometimes!), some friends including a philosopher named Sean Stickle agreed to help prepare me for a speech contest called Table Topics. Each friend wrote up a handful of surprise questions to ask in front of the group. One by one a buddy would pose a question my way while the rest of the folks stayed quiet and observed. Then for the next 2 minutes after each one, I’d stand in the middle of the seated circle of listeners and offer an impromptu response (aiming for any degree of cohesion!).

The speech contest would eventually be conducted in a similar format as with these friends, but in front of a crowd of strangers at a district-level Toastmasters‘ competition. I remember feeling really grateful to these supportive hobbits for their help. Then it came time for that Seán Stickle to pitch his question:

Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

Two things happened within seconds of hearing his question…as in huge rushes of heat burst in my heart on two different levels.

First my crush on this man went over the moon in that instant. He delivered that question with such an unforgettable, intense meteor of eye contact. He expressed himself with a distinct expectation of response too. Which granted, the whole goal of this friendly gathering was to jolt my brain into lots of improv-yet-still-clear responses. The depth though, and confident willfulness in Sean’s ask came as an unexpected wake up call on what primal vulnerability can feel like.

There was a layer to this vulnerable feeling that was lathered in urgent self-confrontation and morality. Sean presented in that moment a common sense purity as if any-and-all newspapers worldwide were confronting the very same question. The man had turned an informal speech prep session with friends into an arena for moral growth and assertion. It really was one of the hottest things I’d ever encountered.

…The other simultaneously occurring rush of heat in my heart resonated something like ‘Holy Cow how’my gonna answer this in under two hours let alone  under two minutes?!’

Words and phrases exited my vocal cords eventually (specifics though escape current memory). But years later as Sean and I celebrate 17 years of marriage, the core of Sean’s past question still engages inner ponderings between logic, humility, and human value. But what leaps out from that whole exchange with him during those young-days-of-a-crush, was his willingness consciously or not to jump into the arena of inquiry and growth. He didn’t shy away from that arena — he just went for it! There is a type of life lens for me that this has inspired over the years with him:

  1. Spiritual (and emotional) growth requires the taking of what may feel like vulnerable risk, and investing trust in these inner acts of courage.
  2. Love enables growth for individual hearts, for coupled hearts, and healing throughout partnership.
  3. Love does not mean side-stepping reality, or the uneasy or uncomfortable  truths life can present. To side-step such truth is to short circuit capacities to heal, forgive, grow.

 

A spiritual jolt of lopsided proportions

All the so-familiar-they-are-like-wallpaper features of my morning neighborhood scene were, I thought at the time, about to appear as expected:

-the neighborhood coffee shop was on the left…yes.

-the two clothing stores on the right…yes.

-that little jewelry place up a few meters past the coffee shop…there.

-tons of honking northbound traffic on the east side….yes, honks abound.

It’s all there.

Then I turn the corner, and there stand twogigantic twenty-foot reindeer made out of metallic twigs. 

The artistic splash; that zing of larger than life magic; the towering delight of height all gurgled up in an instant. In my belly there swirled a freshly carved capacity to be energized by surprise!

The sight evoked such a special air of odd and twiggy beauty. And my internal radar went from the normal moderating hum to what felt like pure spiritual aliveness. What an awesome inner charge. Then an existential question did a mental jumping jack:

Why after this encounter does my heart somehow feel more open to God and strangely…feel more awake and in the moment?

A theory:  the huge-a-mongo proportions of the reindeer themselves really struck a cord. I think that’s a key factor to what felt like a distinct inner clearing in which God seemed to say: “Hi!” The visual contrast of simply seeing wee little humans engulfed by soaring mythic reindeer was super stimulating. But that proportional thrill stimulated something else. It emerged a form of inner sensitivity (alertness?) to expecting what was not previously visible to appear — and not only appear but expect it to be knowable. This inner sensitivity lasted for a good few minutes.

This all brings to mind a time when I spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually did not expect God to exist. I held no conscious expectation that a relationship with God was viable or knowable. It just wasn’t apart of understood possibilities in my heart or mind.

But then different experiences and conversations and “what ifs” shaped a new spiritual curiosity. Eventually a changed inner life made way for a capacity to not only expect God, but relate to God. Even as my intellectual cues still expressed doubt …my transformed spiritual terrain had already opened up to fellowship with a higher power. It was so proportionally different than previous reality. The heft of which remains so beautiful and strange. Even with persisting doubt, this new reality could not be ignored.

Thanks to the creators of these towering reindeer! …and this chance to encounter fruits of lopsided proportions for things visible and unseen.

“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”

Edgar Allan Poe

How a coffee place soothes the rough edge of a storytelling dream

Creamy caffeine magic joins the day’s new sunshine and me most mornings. It’s a liquorless frothy coffee drink that smoothly glides in a glass as if it was beer on tap; but it’s simply swirled coffee, espresso, and milk combined: the Black & Tan drink.

I used to think coffee was coffee was coffee whether it came from Bucks n Stars or grounds or whole bean or Grandma’s cupboard of microwave instant. But a place near home in DC’s Chinatown has inspired a ton of gratefulness for a particular coffee experience, hospitality, & education.

Tackling bucket lists & craving comfort 

So here sits early days of November, and National Novel Writing Month is in full throttle. You may know of NaNoWriMo already, as an inspiring nonprofit that years ago designated this month to everyone and anyone across the world who sought to write a novel — at least 50,000 words — in the month of November.  The group offers an online community, write-ins, and tons of resources to enable any eager-writing brain to commit to and write a novel in 30 days.

It’s been a holy-cow-love-that-concept entry on my bucket list for years.

It’s happening now.

Got 4,400 words on paper with about 46k to go ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

It’s good & intimidating & thrilling.

….and grueling in the self-discipline, try-not-to-suffocate-this-creative-opportunity type of way.

In light of this goal, my inner self craves comfort these days. Writing that out loud sounds a little indulgent. When creative risk though intersects with a deadline and sense of vulnerability – a fragile (fun too!) inner collision can unfold right? …is anyone  else thinking “right…?!”

Somehow this neighborhood coffee place, La Colombe, eases the push to Get. It. All. On. Paper. by 11:59pm 11/30th. It does this with that delicious Black & Tan and other creative caffeine things. It does this by offering friendly, confident hospitality, education.

The crossroads of these factors create an inviting sense of welcome for those seeking good coffee or some mental reprieve & a little architectural beauty too (with that alluring internal red brick they have).

Each factor engages with the others to shape a reliable experience of caffeinated comfort that this brain is grateful for (…while seizing  arty hopes and word counts this month!).

Ongoing gratefulness to this place and team for being such a neighborly, spiritually rejuvenating (& so tasty) destination.

Austin – an entrepreneur, podcaster, and possessor of great energy. He was the first associate to offer welcome when my husband and I moved to the area this summer.  I’m grateful.

Patrick – opened this particular coffee store & taught me unique elements and tastes within coffee crops.

Hope – Sharp wit, great hair, hearts the cats

Troy – kind introvert with gifted humor

….observed Troy once dancing with coffee in one hand and pondering aloud how good it would be if Siri could engage spiritual questions like: “What would Jesus do?”

Kelsey – Wonderful hospitality & headed to Peace Corps next year.

Chelsea – Extends reliable kindness no matter how crazy busy the shop is.

…Here’s to inspired caffeine and manifested dreams on (and off) the page for all of us!

P.S. Do you have a favorite place that inspires your creative wanderings, and helps you surmount your version of storytelling angst?