Run: Reflections on a Half-Marathon

Run. verb. To move at a pace faster than a walk; a form of exercise I used to hate.

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Six-year-old me looked out across the vast expanse of grass, stretching between me and my goal. My gym teacher had just done a terrible thing. She had brought us out to the phy ed field, told us to run around it four times, and clicked her stopwatch. I had been running for an eternity, it seemed, and yet the finish line was still an eternity away. There was no way my little legs were going to finish that mile. None.

I don’t remember crossing the finish line. I do remember sitting out the rest of gym class in tired anguish, and going home to report to my mom that I wanted to be homeschooled. That way, I would never have to run the mile again. My mom, I am sure, rolled her eyes as she sent me back to school anyway. Once a year, as I wheezed through another mile run, I questioned her judgment.

Fifteen years later, I ran 13.1 miles.

The irony of this is not lost on me. Though I had become vaguely athletic (I was a varsity athlete in high school, and I attempted one year of D-III college basketball), I was by no means a runner. I signed up for the half marathon anyway, just to see if I could do it.

I could. Barely.

On race day, my running buddy and I started slow but strong. Too soon, we were just going, well, slow. By mile 10, I was walking more than running. The last mile, which I forced myself to run in its entirety, felt like that never ending first grade mile run all over again. Crossing the finish line was not climactic. I desperately had to use the bathroom, and I was simply relieved to be done.

That was two years ago. Now, thanks to a convincing boyfriend and an open summer schedule, I am about to run a half marathon again. I’ve spent the past 11 weeks jogging around lakes, tracking my mile times, and building up my leg muscles. Everything I tried to forget about the first experience is coming back to me: the ache of cranky knees, the nerves before long runs, and the probable insanity of attempting to run so many miles. Before every run, especially anything longer than 5 miles, I am tempted to quit. What keeps me going (beyond the peer pressure of that convincing boyfriend, anyway) is how much running is teaching me about loving my body.

My body, like them all, is unique. I am 6’1”, broad-shouldered, with big feet and an athlete’s build. Though I can reach the top kitchen shelves without a chair, my frame often feels fraught with limitations. After all, this body does not blend in. It does not fit into pants with normal inseams. It is not delicate. It does not inspire tact in the middle school students I teach, as I often overhear encouraging, self-esteem-boosting quotes like “she’s gigantic!” whispered from new classes.

These limits provoke my mild intolerance most days. I cannot change the length of my spine, the span of my hip bones, the size of my feet, or the width of my shoulders. So I roll my eyes and resign myself to not wearing tall heels, to wearing dresses that flow gently over my hips and thighs, to joking about how easy my blonde head is to spot in a crowd.

Running helps change that perspective.

After a run midway through my training, I stood in my running shorts and confronted my bathroom mirror. Normally, I would poke my legs, noticing how they were paler and larger than I would prefer. I would examine the grossly fascinating blister forming on my left foot. I would hope and pray that all this running was firming up those glutes for the height of swimsuit season.

But after powering through long runs, decreasing my mile times, and perfecting my form, my muscles deserve more than half-hearted criticism. They have grown and stretched. They have voiced their complaints, and I have pushed them. My quads have gained definition after each run. My glutes have strengthened with every wall sit, lessening the ache in my IT band. The blisters on my toes are hard-earned, from pounding into pavement thousands of times. Using my body shows me its potential. I see all this body can do and how much it deserves my love.

The finish line of my half marathon is quickly approaching. I have no idea how those 13.1 miles will pass. Maybe my training will pay off, and I’ll be triumphant as I near the end. Maybe I’ll feel like a first grader again, counting every step towards the finish line and hoping to never, ever run again. Either way, what seemed impossible will have happened. My body will have survived a million and a half miles of training, give or take a few. And it will have earned my love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Adulting: 8 Tips for Graduates

Adulting. verb. “To behave like an adult; to do things that adults regularly have to do.”

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Photo by Megan Sugden Photography.

Dear Andrew (and other graduates),

Welcome to the real world. I’m still not sure how you got here.

When I graduated from high school, you were a pipsqueak with chubby cheeks and shaggy hair and a propensity to laugh until you cried.

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You still laugh until you cry, and until recently, you had even longer, shaggier hair. But you also look like a sort-of adult, and you run faster than I can, and you stay up later than any of us. You’ll wear a mortarboard on Saturday, and the women in our family will cry, and you’ll be so glad to be done.

Then the fun begins.

Henceforth you must be an adult, or at least pretend to be one. Adults have to do hard things. For example, they must get out of bed even if no one forces them to do so. They must ensure that they eat, because no one else will buy bread when it runs out. They must do the laundry, at some point, maybe. Target will tell you which hangers to buy, and your advisors will tell you what classes to take. But only your oldest sister can tell you this – the random list of advice that you will probably never read (but definitely should. Oldest sisters always know best.)

  1. Learn how to cook at least one thing well. You will sometimes be asked to bring food to events. Or, perhaps, you might someday want to wow someone with some nice home cookin’. (Guys – girls are really, really impressed by men who can cook.) Have at least one recipe that you know won’t embarrass you. (If you really are hopeless, Ghiradelli brownie mix works miracles.)

 

  1. Track your spending. You really need to. I didn’t do this until after college, and I wish I would have started sooner. Seeing cold, hard numbers and realizing exactly where you throw your hard-earned cash is sobering.

 

  1. Find a hobby that is not Netflix. Binge-watching is easy and entertaining. It is not fulfilling. You will be a happier (and more interesting) human being if you step away from the screen for a while and actively participate in something. Sing. Lift weights. Paint. Yarn-bomb trees in parks. Start a paintball league. Bring back planking. Take walks after dinner. Just do something.

 

  1. Meet deadlines. You don’t run the world (yet). That means that you need to respect other people – and their time. Showing up on time and meeting deadlines makes you seem mature, which is especially valuable if you aren’t so certain that’s true. It also saves you money. Let’s be honest – no one likes late fees.

 

  1. Do not begin a new relationship in your first semester of college. In your first few months in a new place, you need time to adjust. You need time to establish a solid friend group. You need time to let yourself change and adapt to your new surroundings. Don’t spend all of your time pursuing one person and neglecting the rest of your life. You need healthy balance and other healthy relationships to be ready to date someone, and trust me, it will take all of your energy to develop those in your first semester. Make yourself at home, then work on snagging that dreamboat.

 

  1. Remember your need for community and find it. We are not meant to meander through life alone. We need community. We need people to watch movies with on Friday nights, to laugh at dumb YouTube videos with, to sit in coffee shops with. Get out of your room, to events and churches and clubs and classes, and talk to people. Take the initiative and ask someone to grab dinner, or to attend a hall event with you, or to toss a Frisbee with you. You are not bothering them or wasting their time by asking them to spend time with you. People want to make friends, generally, and you are an interesting person who is worthy of being someone’s friend.

 

  1. Do not compare yourself to the Internet. Your life must amount to more than your Instagram feed or your number of Twitter followers. Otherwise, the most enjoyment you will get from a walk around the lake or a nice latte or a brunch with friends will be the likes you get on photos afterwards. That’s a piddly amount of enjoyment compared to the quiet thrill of being present in the moment and enjoying your life as it is, not as you want people to see it. And when you get snarky and jealous over the person who’s Instagram famous, remember: do not compare someone else’s public life to your private life. They don’t post the snapshots from the nights when they are convinced they’ll be single forever, or that time they failed a test, or that argument they just had with their girlfriend, or those times when they were so homesick they could cry. We are all human. We all have terrible days, and we all have good days. Filtered pictures do not change that.

 

  1. Know that everyone has one really terrible college semester. Mine was fall semester, freshman year. I didn’t feel like anyone truly knew me, or like I would ever find my place on that big college campus, or like I was any good at anything. I literally counted the days until I could go home at each college break, and I sobbed every time I had to return. But I kept showing up (I was paying tuition, after all), and tried to form deeper relationships, and gave myself grace. And like all terrible life seasons, it got better. If you’re going through one of the nasty seasons, you will not stay there forever. Things are not hopeless. Hang in there.

 

Many blessings to you, Andrew, and to all of those headed off on new adventures. May the transitions be smooth, the chances to do laundry for free be frequent, the backpacks light, and the memories stupendous.

Slow: Thoughts on Social Media

Slow. adjective. “Requiring or taking a long time for growing, changing, or occurring; gradual.”

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I was the last person in the world to get Facebook. Almost.

It was June, 2011, at the cabin. We borrowed the lake neighbor’s wifi because we did not have Internet at home yet. (We were the last people in the world to get wifi. Almost.)

I filled out my profile, deliberated over a picture, and added my future college roommates. Getting to know them was the whole reason that I joined Facebook in the first place. I sent friend requests. Then I got friend requests. My attention-seeking heart thrilled. People cared that I existed! They wanted to know what I had to say! They wanted to see pictures of my exciting life! I checked back often, wanting the accepted requests, the likes, the comments roll in. It was addicting.

It stayed addicting.

//

Lenten disciplines were new to me this year. Giving up anything meaningful seemed too hard. Chocolate? Please God, no. I saw the glory of God in dark chocolate regularly. Shopping for clothes? I just gave that up a month ago. Plus, my ancient skinny jeans were about to lose a battle with the dryer and need replacing. Social media? I blogged (kind of)….and I needed Instagram for inspiration…and I’m going on a trip and I want the world to know…and…and…

The niggling feeling that maybe it would be good to go without social media didn’t go away. My headstrong, irrational opposition to the whole idea was my first clue. After all, I’d survived 18 years without status updates. So I moved Instagram from its prominent place on my phone and deleted Messenger and mustered up my self-control.

I thought it would be easy.

I was not correct.

At first, especially, I felt the ache of boredom. After work, when I’d checked my email and read the few blog posts sitting in my feed, I had to choose between staring at the ceiling or doing productive things. It made me antsy.

I noticed it especially on slow Saturday mornings. I couldn’t reach for Instagram to wake up my sleepy brain. So I stared at the light slanting through my blinds. Or checked my email, again. (What 23-year-old obsessively checks non-urgent non-work email?) Or wondered how many days it was until Easter. And then I finally picked up a book, or wrote, or did the dishes, or moved on with my life.

There was no moment of picturesque clarity during those 40 days. No rush of satisfaction. No pell-mell deleting of accounts.

But books I’d been meaning to read got picked up, and read. Questions got asked, and their answers became clearer. For the first time in years, I started reading the Bible before bed again. My room was cleaner than usual.

Maybe it’s all coincidence. Maybe not.

//

“I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness,” Rebecca Solnit says. If I have had any small revelations during my forty days in the wilderness, it is this.

I have been convinced of my need for less. Less fast and furious consumption. Less surface-level engagement in the lives of others. Less comparison to others’ relationships and lifestyles and photogenic chops. Less of what I won’t remember in a week. Less of what won’t really matter, now or in 5 years.

And this emptying and slowing makes space for thought and thoughtfulness. I actually read an article and discuss it with the man who devours deep conversation. The question that wrinkles my faith gets a fraction smoother. Books move to the finished stack, and I pass on their names to students. These things take work and energy and thought. They are worth it.

//

Lent has passed, Jesus has risen, and I have broken the fast.

On Saturday morning, I let myself scroll aimlessly through Facebook. I was content, at first. When I finished, just 10 minutes later, I was restless. My Friday night had been peaceful, and my life seemed fine. But everyone else was getting married and going interesting places and having more fun.

Hello, procrastination. Howdy, comparison.

We were back to square 1, where I started before Lent, and where I started on that June day when I first opened my account.

As I realized this, I stopped browsing. I closed the computer, and picked up a book.

 

Ashes: On the Weight of Sin

ashes. noun. “The remains of something destroyed.”

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We arrive at church on Wednesday at 7. We are shockingly on time. Our rustling echoes in the stark sanctuary, where crosses are covered.

Ash Wednesday is new to me. So is this form of church, with its thees and thous and ringing bells and kneeling at times I can’t yet anticipate. I feel shifty under the weight of its liturgy, shiftier still when we get in line for the imposition of the ashes. The priest intones, over and over, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.” His thumb is smudged black.

I walk back to my seat, forehead smeared, uncomfortable. It’s not often I contemplate my own mortality. It’s not often that I ponder how my sin has separated me from my God.

Adam flips through the missal to the confession, and I realize how, now that I’m saved, sin seems a minor inconvenience. Yep, we mess up. We apologize, to God or neighbors or ourselves. We face the consequences. But mostly, we’re doing just fine. Sin is a hangnail, ignorable. It is no great welt across the soul.

We confess, and I hesitantly pray that God would show me the gravity of my sin. It is a halfhearted prayer, like the ones I often whisper that God would show me his presence and want to then take back. The hardest days are often the ones where I see his presence most. I don’t know what this request will bring me.

I forget this prayer. But two days later, I see it answered.

I am waiting outside Adam’s apartment after school. He calls. Our plans have suddenly changed. He needs sympathy, kindness, love. Instead, I am irritated at minor inconveniences. I rarely deal gracefully with changed plans. Often, I can brush off this tendency as a character quirk. This evening, it manifests itself as selfishness. I am nasty.

I see my error, almost as soon as I hang up the phone, and with increasing clarity as the evening goes on. Apologies are made. So are wounds. I want to ask Adam to not hold this against me, to not think of this moment as he considers the future of our relationship. But he should. If he is going to truly love me, he needs to know it all: my capacity for pride, my selfish heart, the control-seeking that makes me desperate. These are the sides that make me wince and rattle off justifications for myself. These are things I want to hide.

And these are things that God already sees.

God is very aware of the idol I mold of control. He knows my irrational angst when interruptions snatch my precious free time. He hears the cocktail of excuses I mix to say that I’m not that bad and given the circumstances and if that miscommunication hadn’t happened and…and…and..

I want these excuses to stand. I want to believe that I am okay, that I’m mostly self-sufficient after the initial salvation stuff, that I have my act together. All evidence stands toward the contrary. My inconveniences do not include being crucified. Jesus bore that with less grumbling than I bear heavy traffic.

The fact remains that I am sinful.

And so, Lent.

I am learning the tandem gravity and joy of this season. Repentance is due. No excuses. We drove ourselves from the Garden and drove Jesus to his death. So we must confess that we have sinned, in thought word, and deed. We fast, believing that it shows us with sharper clarity our need for God. We pray. We beg for reconciliation, from God and from man, after our blunders. We whisper, “Lord, have mercy.”

We wait for Easter, and victory.

 

 We have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

In your mercy

forgive what we have been,

help us to amend what we are,

and direct what we shall be;

that we may do justly,

love mercy,

and walk humbly with you, our God.

Amen.*

 

 

 

*from the Liturgy of the Church of England

 

 

 

Open: A Vision for 2017

Open. adjective. Allowing a view through an empty space; not closed or blocked up.

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My 2016 Top 9. Learned: fall, my sister, and the boyfriend are photogenic.

Last year, 2016, was a mixed bag.

(2017 will be, too.)

With this new year has come the realization that, despite the Instagram photos cheering the fresh start, new years are petrifying. This is especially true post-college. What will happen this year? runs through my mind, with all its subquestions: Move? Stay? Read? Write? Succeed? Fail? Grieve? Celebrate? Engaged? Married? None of the above?

I began last year in a similar state. I had just graduated and had one month of student teaching remaining on my calendar. The rest of the year, my future, was entirely and annoyingly blank.

The year filled out, as they always do. I got a job. The situation was serendipitous. And even so, the stretch from February to June was hard. Painfully so. I was in a school I knew, with teachers I trusted, in a grade level I liked. It should have been ideal and wonderful and fulfilling. But mostly, it was not. Mostly, it was hard.

Then came summer. I didn’t get a job. I was mad. And bored. My abundance of free time pushed me into tutoring, into taking field trips around the city with beautiful people of all different nationalities, into joining book groups, into workout classes, into making good from the unexpected. It was exactly what I needed. God knew. I didn’t.

And now, this school year.

There was some magic in this new beginning. My kids are weird and chatty and sweet. They read silently when they are supposed to. They ask bazillions of questions. They make me like teaching, most days. Even when it leaves me tired and frowny, when kids don’t always listen, when grading piles up, when I get stressed by the never-ending cycle of prep. That hope, that the pros might outweigh the cons, is a gift.

There was hope, too, when the boyfriend moved back to Minnesota. I am still giddy over this. It feels like a gift, even now, past the infatuation stage. We disagree, and disappoint, and resolve, and keep working, and his presence remains a delight. And I can see now, too, that being long distance for a season was not a tragedy. It shaped us and strengthened us, (when it wasn’t making me angsty).

Ordinary lessons string all these seasons together. I learned to budget. (This may be the most miraculous thing of all.) A Tale of Two Cities, and the songs of The Chainsmokers and Clemency, and the awesomeness of Hamilton moved up on my Favorites lists. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of monthly review posts and bought official teacher shoes. The Twin Cities overflowed with opportunities, and I took some of them.

I sit and weed through these mixed blessings, hoping for clarity. My journal fills with scrawled words. What did I learn? How did I grow? What do I carry forward, into the great and wild unknown? What does my same old soul need in a fresher, newer season?

One idea rises: openness.

This year, I have grown good (very good) at creating rhythms, establishing systems, charting courses, and setting goals. I have completed tasks (check, check, check) and capitalized on what I know and what I do well.

It is comforting and sometimes confining.

I stick to what I believe. After all, it is best and true and right and easy. Venturing out of my control, in schedule and ideas and habits and everything, feels risky. So does listening. So does soul-searching. It might shake my solid world and theology; their cores might be hollow.

This sort of living gives me the illusion of control, but it’s a lie. When I sense its power waning, I become defensive, fearful, closed. In sum, not the adjectives I envisioned. Self-preservation is rarely pretty. So, in this new year: I want my spirit to be open.

Open handed, in generosity and sacrifice of self.

Open minded, to new ideas that might (gasp) be better than mine.

Open hearted, to where the Lord might lead as he walks beside me, in both ordinary and extraordinary.

I don’t know all that 2017 holds. (I won’t, until it’s happened.) I do know that the year will fill up, with some good and some bad and much in between. It always does. In these days to come, I want to open my heart, trusting the One who surprises and delights and knows much better than I.

Here’s to 2017, whatever this bright and unknown and unpredictable and open year may bring.

 

 

Wait

Wait. verb. To continue in expectation; to be in readiness; to look forward to eagerly.

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For the past two weeks, I have been holly and jolly with the best of them. But today my holiday cheer is shaken.

I checked Facebook after work and stumbled upon grim updates from Aleppo. The news from CNN clarified the situation and the horror. Syria and its situation won’t leave my head.

I don’t understand.

I get to sit here, admiring my twinkling lights, chaperoning field trips to plays, and sending group texts between my siblings about Christmas gifts. On the other side of the world, people are running for their lives, ducking bombs, and sending tweets they believe may be their last.

I do a yoga video and feel the tension in my hips, simmer soup, hang laundry, and silently rage at God. Why is this happening? If he is God and he is love, what in the heck is he doing? Why is he allowing children to die, civilians to be used as human shields, and entire cities to be decimated?

This is one of those murky mysteries of faith I haven’t yet learned to navigate without stumbling. How does evil exist if God is all-powerful and good? Why does he allow atrocities to happen? Why do the intercessions of his faithful seem to fall on deaf ears?

I don’t have answers to those questions. Theology class notes and cliché Christian platitudes shrivel in the face of real humans flinching when bombs drop too close. I know we need to trust God. I know he redeems all things. I know he’s saved us from a fate worse than death. I know. But these questions, these Syrians’ faces, still throb in my heart. Those answers don’t seem like enough.

The contrast of Christmas cheer and utter tragedy seems sharpened tonight. Such quandaries feel wrong in this season. Or at least in the way our Western culture perceives it, with Santa and sleigh rides. Jingle bells aren’t mournful, no matter how you shake them.

But the more I ponder, the more I believe that Advent is exactly the season for asking why evil is in the world and what precisely God is doing about it. Advent is about waiting. In Advent, we wait for God to make himself known, for him to join us in the mess that is humanity.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel has been on repeat this evening as I muck around in questions. It’s long been one of my favorite Christmas carols, but it feels especially appropriate tonight. Israel is captive, waiting for release. They plead that God would ransom them from captivity. They beg that Emmanuel would free them from the depths of hell. They beg that their Lord would put death’s dark shadow to flight.

And, most miraculous of all, they try to rejoice while they wait. They believe that their Lord will be faithful. He will not abandon them. He will not ignore their groans of suffering. He will come.

I can only echo these sentiments tonight. Lord, bring release. Intercede. Free us. Come.

A weary world awaits you.

 

 

Home Making

Home Making. verb. The process of creating a space that feels like home. Not to be confused with the stereotypical image of a woman who bakes and does laundry.

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The former view from my bedroom door

I’ve been hanging pictures this week. I am settling into a new apartment, and arranging, and rearranging, and doing creative (code: weird) things like hanging lockets from walls is part of my home-making ritual, the way I mark my territory. I ponder whether there is too much white clustered together, and whether those similar shapes need to be separated, and if I’m doing it right. While browsing Pinterest for inspiration and trying not to be overwhelmed, I see The Nester’s motto: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”

This is reassuring. No recent college grad, on a teacher’s salary, with an inclination towards vintage quirkiness, is going to have the perfect apartment. The perfect gallery wall does not exist: buy all pieces to coordinate and it looks factory-ordered (and costs an arm and a leg); use what you have and there’s always one awkward space that messes with the symmetry. The pursuit of a perfectly clean kitchen is futile, because snacks are too important. But none of the clumsy nail holes or crumbs on the floor mean that the spaces where we live aren’t beautiful.

As I sift through the memories I left in my old apartment when I moved out last week, this mantra feels right. That space was far from perfect. But moments in it were beautiful.

My roommate was living hours away when we were searching for a home, so I toured the apartment myself. I was leaving four years of dorm dwelling and had low standards. I knew nothing about apartment hunting, other than to turn on the taps to see if the water would run and that my budget was barely anything. Thus, we lived in a basement with a charming view of a garage. Laverne and Shirley, the 70s TV characters who yelled out their basement windows at passersby, would have been proud. Then we hung pictures and turned on lamps and put down rugs. It started to look more like a home. When we invited people in, it began to feel like it.

Two girls came over almost weekly. We navigated 1 Corinthians and graduate school decisions and job applications. We sometimes missed meetings, sometimes rushed through on the way to other obligations. But sometimes we curled up in our usual spots (them on couch, me on chair) and had treats and the conversation went deep and when they walked out the door, I felt known and loved.

My family camped out at the apartment sometimes. It wasn’t ideal for getting ready for weddings, with one tiny bathroom counter and no place to set a straightener but the toilet. But we moved around each other, made space. We sat on the floor when seating ran out, passing around pints of ice cream, or chips and salsa, or chocolate pretzel bark, and we laughed. My parents stayed the night once, and seeing my mom tucked into my bed and my dad’s air mattress taking over the living room made me smile.

I hosted dinner for friends in our apartment once. I started cooking in a frenzy after school, and the boyfriend ran late with the appetizers, and I scorched the green beans because of bad advice on the Internet. But we used a tablecloth and arranged the dishes. When they were empty, we lingered, laughing, around the table. We went out for dessert and returned, glowing, not bothered by the dirty plates and pots.

When the boyfriend came to visit, we stopped at the apartment. After dropping him off again, I returned to my room, saw the pictures of us together, and cried. The hard conversations ricoched around the living room and lodged in my chest. But the middle times were golden. We ate peach and strawberry tart, after midnight. On the couch, our feet touching, we talked of eternity and of lives worth living. The fish sauce we used while cooking pad thai made us run for windows and fresh air, and laugh.

In transitions, I am always restless to feel settled. I want to hurry the work of laying down roots and carving my name. But this work cannot be rushed. Making a home requires more than a trip to Ikea and a frame hung just so. It takes time, and good luck at thrift stores, and love.

It takes the picture of your family, that time at the state fair when you laughed yourselves into tears at the karaoke stand, in a dollar store frame. It takes the chalkboard with the quote selected for the season. It takes the mirror leaning up against the wall where you checked your hair before leaving for weddings and birthdays and school. It takes the forks and spoons and knives you put in drinking glasses because you couldn’t find a sorting tray to fit in the tiny narrow kitchen drawers and you couldn’t bear to jumble them all together. It takes ignoring the weird smells in the hallway but saying hi to the one man who smokes every morning when you leave. It takes the phone calls from that chair, those people on the couch, that hug while the pot boils on the stove, those celebratory dance moves around the kitchen after phone calls with job offers, those shoes kicked off by the door, those pages read under that blanket.

It is imperfect, and it is beautiful.

Adventure. sort of.

Adventure. noun. “An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” Conditional because it’s not unusual or exciting, most days.

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It’s been quieter here. I’m probably the only one who noticed.

I was going to write a cheery May Goals post this week. I was going to be victorious and cocky because I did every one of my goals for April. I worked out twice a week and checked out the Red Balloon Bookshop and brought my reject clothes to Goodwill and made salad for my siblings and practiced fancy letter formation.

And then I stopped. Because I could think of one goal for May. And going off dairy for 3 weeks as a skin-improving experiment does not an entire blog post make. For this blogger, anyway.

The issue is: life feels hard and ordinary.

I tell those who ask about my job, “Every day is an adventure.” It isn’t a lie. But sometimes it’s an adventure that I don’t particularly want to be on. Sort of like when a camping trip starts off as the cute kind of adventurous, when there are lots of stars and you’re eating s’mores and you should be in an Eddie Bauer ad. But it truly becomes an “adventure” when the bears get into your food and there’s a leak in your tent during a  thunderstorm and there’s that one mosquito that keeps buzzing in your ear and you want to set things on fire.

This current adventure won’t end for too long. There are four weeks remaining of school, and I have hours left before I’ll be scraping the bottom of my energy reserves. I’ve been avoiding writing, trying to form neatly processed thoughts on this season, because the challenges haven’t changed. The kids are still crazy. Maybe more so, with the sunny days when they beg to go outside and get less than the usual little done. I haven’t slain the dragons that slither through my classroom when the desks are empty and hiss that maybe I’m bad at this. Maybe my classroom management sucks and will always be pitiful. Maybe I’m incredibly boring even though I’m trying to keep kids interested. Maybe my seventh graders are reading this because they continue to Internet stalk me, and they’re nodding and saying “Yeah, really, Ms. Christenson, you are terrible. Your class is lame, and we don’t really like you.”

I know, I know, I know. This isn’t true. My boyfriend tells me every time I talk to him. A kid in my hardest hour asked, “Do you complain about us to your boyfriend?” and I tried to skillfully avoid the question because I do. And he’s nice and tells me that I’m trying and that I haven’t stopped caring and that middle schoolers are crazy weirdos and it’s not my fault. My parents say the same. They say it will get better. Some days I believe them.

I saw a college friend at church last week, and I asked him how teaching was going. We both started in the middle of the year with similar situations. “It’s so hard,” he said. And I exhaled and nodded because it is. He said that he’s not getting through things, that he doesn’t like how he responds to the challenges of keeping a classroom under control, that he’s so ready for the year to be done. Me too. This is the hardest dang adventure.

There’s this quote I keep seeing. It says: “Are you living just a little, and calling it a life?”

Right now it makes me sigh. This teaching thing is supposed to be a profession where we make a difference! and inspire! and do something that matters! Instead I spend my days saying life-giving words like “You need to stop talking,” and “Take your seat,” and “Take your headphones out of your ears” and “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP YELLING. WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?” (internally).

It feels like living just a little. We are not having interesting conversations. We are not diving deeply into literature. We are barely even getting in good directions and effective modeling because they interrupt me too much. It is the adventure of can we survive this day without the teacher losing her mind.

At the end of a day, my life feels so full. I’ve emptied myself, and I end on the couch, hoping for just 10 more minutes to recharge before I have to begin again. But I wonder if I am living just a little. I don’t know how to make it a life. I don’t know how to fix these challenges. I don’t think I can.

All I can do: show up. Drink tea, every morning. Try not to count the days until summer (try). Be kind even when I want to yell. Keep trying. Keep caring. Keep hoping that someday (maybe) this will turn from fight-for-survival adventure to the kind that’s fun. The kind that builds a life.

 

 

Surprised

Surprised. adjective. To have discovered unexpectedly; being led or brought unaware.

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Student teaching is over. After a week, I’m still blinking, looking around in wonder.

Back in November, when this last leg of student teaching was beginning, I clunked through the transition. I didn’t feel ready for new: a new school, a new group of faces to remember, a new schedule to learn, a new (earlier) start time. Everything felt overwhelming. But I had to go. So I put on a brave face and downed some caffeine and showed up.

The first day was okay. The next day was better. Then, slowly, middle school surprised me.

I grew to know the students in that windowless ELA room. Not just their names, but their personalities. Which ones should not sit in a pod together. Which ones would always volunteer answers, and which ones rarely would. I learned that one kid would like to be famous for eating the most gummy bears in a year, that most think the best teachers give out food, that some twelve-year-olds are stressed by unnecessary noises just like me, and that 7th graders are curious about topics ranging from what’s inside a bowling ball to how planes stay up to “how the world started (besides Jesus)” to whom they’ll marry. I overheard conversations about whether or not Bill and Hillary Clinton are married, about “dabbing,” about how eye size doesn’t change from the time a person is a baby until they’re an adult. Their spurts of wisdom, of enthusiasm, of vibrance, made me grin.

I began to take over more responsibility. My cooperating teacher was gone one day, and it was me (plus a sub) against the world. We survived. The kids didn’t go bonkers. They might have even learned something. We started a research unit. I circulated the room during work time, answering questions with my hair on fire. The hour blazed by and I was not bored once. The teacher shoes began to fit, molding to me. I liked them. It was harder than expected to give them back as my nine weeks ended. For once, I felt like a real teacher. My cooperating teacher had told me early on that I was doing well. It took time for me to actually believe her. But I began to.

One of the miracles of teaching is the hidden growth students sometimes make. The blossoms don’t appear immediately, and their blooms take unexpected shape. When I was leaving, one of the boys from my hardest hour came up to me. He had been a quiet one, distracted, reluctant to write unless he could dictate his thoughts. I thought I had annoyed him more than anything. “I’m really sad you’re going to be leaving,” he said. “I am too,” I said. Then I found a thank-you card from him in the pile I received. It was short, neat, written by himself. It touched me more than most. Among the other notes, another girl had written a sweet, thoughtful letter. Among her sentences: “You always helped me when I needed it, you were sooo cheerful and happy and it honestly made my day better.” She, too, had been quiet in class. I had no idea.

On that scared morning at the beginning, I did not anticipate any of these exact things. I couldn’t have. That’s the stickiness of new adventures. Though I suspect that good might come, I always always always want to know precisely what to expect.

It’s undoing me right now, now that student teaching is done, now that I am waiting. Waiting on everything. On my plans for tomorrow and whether I’ll have a sub position or not. On my plans for next month and whether I’ll have a job. On my plans for next fall and whether I’ll be here or across the world. I long for sketched-out plans for my relationships, for my career, for whether I’ll be able to pay rent at the end of the month. Instead, I have nothing concrete for the rest of my life.

But I’m learning, with agonizing slowness, that not knowing, that openness, that waiting, leaves room for God’s surprises. When I let go of my narrow visions of what life could be, it creates space for him to work ordinary miracles. My loaves and fishes look like groceries and job openings and friendships and a car that mostly works.

The unknown, the waiting for assurance, scares me. But so do all great adventures, if they truly deserve the word. I can trace God’s unexpected hand in these past nine weeks of student teaching, if I look. I’m choosing to trust that, in this new season, he’ll surprise me again.

Graduation

Graduation. noun. The receiving of an academic degree; a ceremony marking the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. See also: commencement.

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Dear freshman Anna,

On Friday, you graduated from college.

Right now, you think this day will never arrive. And when it finally does, you will not have high expectations.

On the morning of graduation, you will be a cranky monster. The day will seem anticlimactic, since many of your friends will have already graduated and you’ll have four weeks of student teaching remaining. (You’ll stick with that double major you’re doubting right now. It will be painful sometimes, like when you have to continue student teaching even after graduation, but hopefully it’s worth it.) Worries about being late and not wearing the right thing and still having to go to school on Monday will be overpowering. You might have accidentally say “Can we get a move on?” out loud during rehearsal.

But graduation day will turn out to be surprising and complicated and sweet. In fact, your whole college experience will be surprising and complicated and sweet.

Right now, the campus buildings are still becoming familiar. You still don’t remember exactly where the registar’s office is (much less what a registrar does). In four and a half years, those halls and classrooms and sidewalks be stamped with memories.

You’ll spend hours in that office in 3rd floor Naz. That professor intimidates you now, but eventually you’ll work for her and she will find out all of the details of your life. You’ll learned the value of a juicy red pen and write sentences about a grapefruit named Ruby, who will go on dates and have picnics by the lake.

You’ll pound out workouts in the gym with the basketball team. You will be forced to play intramural volleyball games at 11:00 pm, and you will barely tolerate it. During the basketball season, being a freshman benchwarmer will knock the perfectionism right out of you.

You’ll live in Hartill 254 and 255 and 155 and 259. Now, you tote an Audrey Hepburn poster and a vague hope for community as you walk into Selah 2. You will find: some of your dearest friends, 2 staffs of Hartill RAs who will share stories and laughter and birthday cards and movie nights, a hall of girls you’ll lead and love for a year, much late-night conversation, brownies eaten straight from the pan, and the ability to hang decorations without nails. Your sister will live in two of those rooms a few years later, and that fact will amuse you.

On the island, you’ll swim on warm evenings and canoe on spontaneous dates. In a few weeks, your hall will go stargazing there, and when you’ve finished singing worship songs, you’ll accidentally witness a boys’ dorm initiation. An entire hall will streak by in their boxers, jump in the lake, and run back, yelling. They will never knew you were there. (You’ll also live in an apartment with the RA who organized this stargazing trip, which will be a random gift from God.)

You will not do much homework in the library. When necessary, you’ll find the tables by the big windows passable. The people-watching is the best there. Don’t go upstairs, where it’s too quiet, unless there’s a nice guy who you need to study Chinese with.

You will never establish one precise spot to sit in Maha, though you’ll prefer somewhere the right side, a few rows down. You’ll sing worship songs every Friday, and learn the names of people you will never meet as you scan their IDs, and tell 500 freshman about your search for identity. In this same auditorium, you will graduate.

On graduation day, you will walk in behind the World Languages banner, though you could have fit equally well under English & Literature or Education. You will feel a flicker of accomplishment when the president congratulates you for your honors, when you move your tassel and become alumni. Your boyfriend will surprise you after the ceremony. (Yes, you will get a boyfriend, if you follow the library and Chinese studying instructions.) You won’t be expecting him for another five days, and you’ll almost lose your mortarboard when you see him walk toward you, bearing flowers. One your current roommates will be there, catching the ceremony between her brother’s hockey games. She will have shared endless YouTube videos and buckets of support with you in the past years. Your family will take you out to dinner at one of the coolest restaurants in St. Paul, a former warehouse with tall skylights and excellent salmon. You’ll forgot your car on campus and the Public Safety officer on duty won’t ticket you when you call and beg for mercy. You still won’t like talking on the phone. The day will end with Sebastian Joe’s ice cream cake, a sweet finale.

Right now, as a baby-faced freshman, you think that this graduation day is a magic ticket to being a competent adult. You watch the seniors, who walk around campus so purposefully, and assume that in four and a half years, you too will have everything figured out. You think that you might have a job lined up, or the promise of a ring by spring, or maybe even style.

Hate to break it to you, honey. But at graduation, you will still feel as clueless and uncertain as ever. Right now, you value your own efficiency, discipline, and ability to excel. You place your identity in those things. In four and a half years, you won’t anymore. You’ll lose confidence in your own merit. You’ll realize how messy life is, and you’ll lose hope that working hard can fix everything. But you’ll gain more important things. You’ll find composure in front of a class of middle schoolers. You’ll discover passion for investing in relationships. You’ll gain definition in your cheekbones. And the things you’re learning in life are just beginning.

Every graduation speaker will tell you that commencement does not mean end. It means beginning. (Pretty sure you said this in your own high school graduation speech, actually.) It’s horribly cliché. But it is also true. You’re launching into the rest of your life soon, a new beginning, and it’s scary. You won’t ever feel totally ready.

But if you’ll learn one thing over the next four and a half years, it’s that you’ll make it, even through the scary and unknown and intimidating.

Have fun, kid. Make some memories.

– Me