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New Year – New Word (2013 Edition) January 6, 2013

Posted by mjhoward in Thoughts, Venture.
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"The Blur" venturing out

“The Blur” venturing out

Well blog, it’s been awhile.

It’s getting a bit late to write about the past year in review and thoughts for the one upcoming, but my new year really started with the birth of my son on January 10th, so I figure I’m still within the limits of reminiscing and forecasting.

Last year was amazing and hard. I figured out how to take care of my sweet little boy pretty early on, but I didn’t know how to deal with the depression and anxiety that unexpectedly followed alongside him. My word for last year was “stillness,” but there is nothing still about anxiety. I wanted to pay attention to those little moments I won’t ever get back again: Henry falling asleep in my arms, his first step, and my favorite, throwing all the books out of his bookshelf to pick just the right one for me to read it him. I did cherish those moments, but I didn’t do so with an attitude of stillness, of letting the Spirit focus me, resting me.  I fretted about sleep, about future children, about not doing enough, about doing too much.

Stillness didn’t work out so well for me in the end, and perhaps it was because I was focused on me and mine and not the world at large.  This year I want the Spirit to focus me in a new direction: outward.  My word for the new year is VENTURE.  I want to venture out in the new, the dangerous, the unexpected.

I chose VENTURE because of the risk associated with it, a risk I always need to be aware of  while I am trying the hard and the new.  I need to remember that I will fall, but like my son learning to walk, cry a bit and steady myself once more to go forward.  I will happily toddle on.  And I do think this year will be more of a toddle, which works out well since I’m raising a toddler.  We can toddle on together to explore this world.

I want this spirit of VENTURE to go with me in everything I do, but most especially the following:

  1. Write a blog post at least once a week.  Part of the reason I haven’t written in so long is allowing a spirit of apathy surround me.  No one cares.  I don’t care.  That kind of thing.  I want to venture into revealing myself and writing for the good of others.
  2. Learn the names of all the neighbors on my block.  I am a shy, introverted person who can be an extrovert, but I really have to work at it.  I want to be friends with our neighbors and that means getting out of the comfort zone of my house and venturing over to other people’s porches, getting weird looks, and introducing myself.
  3. Write a story just for me.  I haven’t written fiction in a long time.  Mostly because of time but also because of fear.  I want to venture out here and not write a story for publication or for others, but one that I would like to read.
  4. Stop comparing myself to others, and venture out to be just me.  Since becoming a mother, I am so guilty of comparing myself to other mothers on Facebook and Pinterest and those I actually know in real life, and I always end up feeling like slacker mother of the year.  I don’t craft or cook gourmet meals and I tend to read books while my child plays, but I can do a mean hokey pokey and funny voices when required.
  5. Do a craft with Henry.  I know I said I don’t do crafts, but I think part of it is because I’m scared to try.  I’ve never been particularly good with glueing cotton balls on popsicle sticks, but for the sake of my child, I want to try something new…at least just once.
  6. Conquer my fear of the kitchen.  Yes, this is a weird fear, but I want to change that.  I don’t cook right now because I have an amazing husband who loves to cook.  But I also don’t cook because I’m afraid and that’s not a very good reason not to do something. I think I’m afraid of cooking because I’m afraid to make a mistake, not to mention the open flame and sharp knives.  Part of venturing out is making mistakes, and I hope I make a bunch (you have no idea how hard that last sentence was for me to write).
  7. Spend time each day just thinking about another person.  This may seem like a small thing, but I’m a big believer that being intentional in your thoughts leads to intentional actions.  I figure if I think, and maybe if I pray about another person, that I will think of ways to be better friends with that person, to encourage them, to love them.  Thinking is just the first step.
  8. Exercise…with other people.  I have always been a solitary exerciser (when I do it at all).  I’m the queen of exercise home videos, but I think, like anything else, exercise works best in community.  So I am rejoining the Y, taking a class, and allowing myself to look like a clumsy fool in front of other people.
  9. Get more involved in my community.  Ted and I have already made steps to do this by joining a house church in our neighborhood.  We are also looking for a place to volunteer our time as a family.  The scary part is that it may not be something that is a “ministry” or “organized.”  But many times the Kingdom of God is found in unexpected, improbable, and inconvenient places.

I’m sure there are more ways that I will discover to venture out this year, but this is just the start.  I’m excited and I’m scared, but this year I won’t let the fear hold me back.

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Waiting for Baby Jesus December 24, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Babies, Spiritual Formation, Thoughts.
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This is a post I wrote last year about advent, about waiting.  My waiting for Henry culminated in his wonderful birth, his wonderful, happy, silly life.  But I also know that there are others whose wait did not turn out as expected or whose waiting came to an abrupt end.  My heart goes out to all those tonight who are still waiting, waiting for hope, for goodness, for life.  Merry Christmas and enjoy.

_____________________________________________________________________________

This time of advent is a time for waiting, waiting for wonderful miracles, waiting for the Son of God to be born.  Being pregnant during advent really brings this idea of waiting into an interesting light.  I am eagerly awaiting Christmas, the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but I’m also eagerly awaiting the birth of another life — that of my son.

I find it curious that Christmas is more celebrated than Easter (though the cynic in me feels that it is probably because we have attached Christmas to materialism and things).  Easter is the holiday where we celebrate the fact that Jesus finished the work he came to do, the work that changed the world.  But I also think there is good reason for Christmas to be the “bigger” holiday.  It is the holiday of mystery and wonder.  The holiday where we celebrate not what Jesus has done, but the holiday where we celebrate hope for what he could do.  The baby Jesus is not a symbol of accomplishment, but a symbol of potential, and potential holds a great mystery.

I very much identify with this mystery because I find myself wondering what Henry will look like, whose personality quirks he’ll get, and what kind of man he will grow up to be.  I have high hopes for him, and am honored that I will get to watch this little person grow, this mystery unfold before me.

But at this time of wonder, I also feel a tinge of sadness for all those whose mystery has ended.  The little girl Ted and I sponsor at the Village of Hope died on Sunday night.  Her name was Elizabeth, and she was seven.  I met her when she was about five and wanted to be held and carried constantly.  I wonder if she still always wanted to be held, but I know for certain that she is being held now.

Jesus’s life was cut short so that he could do his greatest work.  I know Elizabeth was not taken away to accomplish some divine purpose.  Her death is beyond sadness and sense, but I know God can work miracles through tiny babies, through men laying down their lives, and through seven-year-old Ghanaian girls dying.  I don’t know what will come of her death, but I hope, I hope for light to shine in this darkness, just as baby Jesus shined light on the hope to come.

Fall, my Favorite Time of Year October 25, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Theology, Thoughts.
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'Fall' photo (c) 2010, Danielle Tsi - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Fall is my favorite season.  Perhaps it’s because all the routines of old seem fresher.  Cleaning dishes while looking at a cold, wet sky seems right somehow.  Folding laundry when the air is crisp and the towels are fluffy warm feels like home.  The tradition of going to the Fair feels more exciting than Christmas.  The cinnamon rolls, the corny dogs, that enormous slice of pizza.  They all wait around the corner.  The blue ribbon jams and jellies, the photo with Big Tex, the ride on the carousel.  They are here waiting for me, and will be again next year.  Even though we go to the Fair, year after year, eat the same foods, and go to the same events, they always seem fresh, like I’m experiencing them for the first time.

Perhaps Fall is my favorite because it feels like the beginning of something, the way every morning feels full of possibilities.  I don’t know if it’s because school has begun anew or because the air seems to have slugged off its weight into cooler temperatures, but the sky is charged with the electricity of the new.  I find myself wanting to make resolutions, to finish off old projects, to ring bells that announce the coming of our Lord.  It is now that God seems more real to me, more tangible, even if only in the smell of charcoal smoke.  To me, Fall comes to remind us that He is here and will make all things new, starting now.

Why I Love the Doctor October 12, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Thoughts, TV.
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Doctor Who

Those of you not familiar with the BBC television show might be asking, “Doctor Who ?”  Well, exactly.

I was first introduced to this show through a co-worker and was directed to watch an episode in Season 4.  My first reaction was, “Huh?”  It was campy yet serious, silly with gravitas.  I didn’t know what to make of it, so I ignored it for a while.  Then I decided to watch it again and discovered that other actors were playing the Doctor and the companion.  I thought, “Wow, this show jumped the shark for sure.”  Little did I know that this is the show’s 50th year and the Doctor has had countless companions and 11 Regenerations.  It is a story that goes on, and has basically become a staple of British culture.  I was intrigued.  Ted and I found out that all the current seasons were available for streaming on Amazon Prime and just as Henry was born, when we needed something to occupy our minds for long nursing sessions and late hours, the Doctor entered our lives.

For those of you who don’t know: the Doctor is a Time Lord who travels through time and space in a blue police box called the TARDIS, saving the universe in small ways and large while rocking some (mostly) great hair and witty banter.  Did I just lose some of you?

Well, why do I love this mad man in a box?  He is one of television’s most interesting characters: He’s mysterious and downright silly, compassionate and wrathful, dashing and nerdy.  And a Christ figure to boot, and I love me a good Christ figure.  Let me make my case for Christ (teehee) with the caveat that I am not claiming the Doctor to be a perfect approximation of Christ; no character can fit the person of Christ exactly, but I love seeing pieces of his image displayed wherever I can find them.

  1. The Doctor is God-like, able to literally be resurrected after dying (called regeneration in the show).  He transforms lives with compassion, daring, brilliance, and never in ways you would expect.
  2. He is pretty all-powerful, but he needs to be in relationship with others (called companions).  They become his friends, his heart, and sometimes his conscience.  Sometimes he needs them to keep his mercy in check.
  3. Part of what’s great about the doctor is who he chooses to surround himself with.  The companions he chooses are so very ordinary.  Rose is a 19 year-old shopgirl.  Donna is a blustery middle-aged temp who never quite made life to be what she wanted.  Amelia Pond is the lonely little girl in need of a rescuer.  He loved these companions because he saw strength in their weakness; he loved the wonders of their smallness.  Interestingly, the most successful of the bunch, Martha Jones, a self-assured medical student, was perhaps the least loved (though she was loved, but not in the romantic way she desired).  She already had a path for her life, and wanted the Doctor on her terms and not his.  Perhaps that is why she is also the only one who willingly leaves him.
  4. The Doctor has such an appreciation for all the mysteries of the universe.  For example, when he comes across a werewolf, he doesn’t run in horror, but exclaims, “How beautiful.”  I love that he sees beauty where we would only see monsters.
  5. What I love best about him, is the way he really sees into people, and that for the moment they have contact they are changed, electrified that there is hope in the world.

And that is why I love the Doctor and am eagerly awaiting my mad little Christ figure on Christmas Day.

Here are some clips of the 10th Doctor (my fave!) so you can see a bit what the show is like.  Spoilers are included, but they won’t make any sense to you if you haven’t seen the show.

What It Feels Like September 1, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Parenting, Thoughts.
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My mind is in a fog, and I can’t find my way out.  I know there are words that will save me.  But I can’t form them in my mouth.  I can’t even picture the letters in my head.  Instead, I feel a weight on my chest, making it difficult to breathe. The night is oppressive.  It’s always the night.  I’m afraid, but I don’t know of what.  The feeling stays and stays until the morning comes.

The morning brings an end to the night.  And everything is not so bad.  But it will be.  The dark thoughts will come again.  The anxiety will turn my stomach to sand, sinking me lower and lower, covering me over until I can no longer breathe.

But the morning will come again.  But so will the night.

This describes a little of what postpartum depression and anxiety have felt like to me.  I debated whether or not to post this (the above portion was written about 3 months ago), but finally decided to just suck it up and put it out there.  I know other mothers struggle with this, but usually not in public.  They struggle in the dark of their homes. Of course, I was being secretive myself, searching only for these others on the internet.  I searched for blogs or websites, for real moms struggling with exactly this, not just medical sites that tell you warning signs and how to get help.  I wanted to know how someone else, someone real, got out.

At first, I just had the baby blues, crying every night, overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for something so small and so helpless.  Then it got a little better.  And then it got a little worse.  And then it got much worse.  It got to the point where I couldn’t even identify what I was crying about, what I was anxious about, or what I was sad about.  It just was.

The night I found myself on the bathroom floor, unable to catch my breath, wishing I hadn’t had my son, I knew I needed to do something about it.

I was hesitant to take medication because I’m breastfeeding and want to keep doing so.  It turned out that, in my case, no drugs were necessary.  (Update: Actually, they were.  I waited until I had weaned my son, started taking Lexapro and realized that I should have done that a LONG time ago).  I I told my friends.  Releasing the weight of what I had been feeling alone was spread out, diffused.  They helped me to bear what was unbearable.  I went to a therapist.  I didn’t particularly like her, but she did make me talk.  She made me form the words I was searching for, words I had forgotten.  Words like “control” and “no control” and learning the difference between them.  Words like “attitude,” words like “prayer” and “mercy” and “hope.”  Words like “others” and “kindness” and “goodness.”  Words like “creativity,” and “silliness,” and “lightness.” I had covered over these words, marked them out in black ink, writing over them with words like “worthless,” and “can’t” and “despair.” The fog had made these words sharp, polished to hideous perfection.  But I have and continue to claw my way back to the other words, scratching out, sometimes with ragged nails, the new words to get back to the old.

I realized that I was feasting on the anxiety and depression, allowing myself to gorge on the dark thoughts, starting with one that would create a domino effect for the others.  I had to say “no” to those words, to those thoughts.

It’s all a matter of getting the words back, those good and merciful words, seeing their shapes in my head, and fitting them in my mouth again.

…And We’re Back! August 31, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Stillness, Thoughts.
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Apparently, I took the summer off from my blog.  There are several reasons: a part-time job that took up all my baby nap time; post-partum depression and anxiety rearing its ugly head, sucking all the fun out of those things I enjoy; and just figuring out what to do with an increasingly active baby.

But now that those things are done, receding into the background — well, not the active baby part, I’m ready to focus again.  And the baby now has an attention span long enough to wave a wooden spoon around for 10 minutes while mommy writes.

I will now focus the precious baby nap time on this blog and writing in general.  I want to attempt a series of blog posts about Sabbath living to fit in with my year of stillness.  I want to write several times every week, not just the occasional binge of posts every few months.

I’ll write about baby stuff because, come on, that is my life right now, but I’ll also write about theology and books and random thoughts.  And the State Fair.  The State Fair is a month a way people!  Ted and I are very excited to take our little guy to the fair for the first time.  We hope he likes it as much as we do!

So there you have it.  Just wanted to let you know.  I’m back.

I’ve made it about me April 17, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Church, Thoughts.
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Nursing affords me a lot of time to read, and frequently what I read are blogs.  One blog I’ve been introduced to has really got me thinking about how I bring the Kingdom of God to others, especially this one about interacting with the poor.

Right now, my audience for the Kingdom of God is one.

My one

I show him love with frequent diaper changes, long nursing sessions, and silly faces.  Some days, my audience of one is enough, but then I realize there is a whole world out there – full of somebody else’s “one.”

Taking care of Henry, Ted, and my house is good, but I know that this insular existence is not what God has in mind for me.  He wants me to reach out and be kind, be friends with people unlike me.

And that is where it stops for me – the knowing, but not the doing.  I am fortunate to live in a diverse neighborhood, a neighborhood we chose because we could get to know people who live much differently than we do.  But here we are, 6 months later, and we’ve only met the affluent couple who own their house (they are very nice).  I don’t know anyone in either of the apartment complexes across the street.  Now, you might say, “Give yourself a break!  You just had a baby.  You’ve been adjusting.”  Well, I am still adjusting and will always be adjusting, so I don’t think that is a good excuse any more.

I just don’t know where to start.

For a while, I searched online to find places where I can use my gifts conveniently with the plus one of a baby.  But after reading Jessica’s blog, I’ve realized that I need to cultivate a life of “interruptibility.”  A life made vulnerable to new relationships and the needs of those people, not something I was necessarily planning to give.

Yet, I sometimes hope I can join a very organized, very regimented effort to help others.  Something that can be done on the first Saturday of the month that doesn’t require much of my time or cause me any heartache.  Something that still keeps me separate from others, safe in my little world where my biggest concern is laundry.  Something that doesn’t require me to involve my heart in the lives of others.  I like things planned and organized, something to make me feel like I’m doing something to help others.  And I think that’s the problem.  I don’t really want to help the poor.  I want to feel like I am.

Believe me, I was very disturbed to learn that this is the truth.  But it is. True.  My desire to help the poor is about me and not them.  It is about “should do” and not “want to do.”  It is about pride and not love.

So, how do I make it about love?

For me, making a relationship with someone, being kind to them, being their friend and allowing them to be mine is probably the best way to make it not about me.  But then, my introverted little self thinks, “I can’t just go talk to someone and introduce myself into their lives.” And I hear a whisper from God, saying, “Exactly.  You can’t do that, but I can.”

I’m still afraid and have no plan.  But maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Word of the Year 2012: Stillness February 1, 2012

Posted by mjhoward in Stillness, Thoughts.
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It has taken me a while (a month into this year) to figure out what I want this year to be about.  At first, I thought about words like “flexibility” or “change” since I will have to be more open to change with the arrival of my son.  Then I thought about a word like “explore,” being open to all the new possibilities being a stay-at-home mom would bring.  But after spending the past three weeks with Henry, I know exactly what word I need to keep in my thoughts:  stillness.

I like being a productive person.  I find great satisfaction from making a list and crossing items off that list.  I will often even write down something I finished, just so I can cross it off.  A good day for me has always been one where I achieved a lot, at work and at home.  Well apparently, babies throw a wrench into the idea of having productive days.  A productive day for me lately has been getting Henry adequately fed and comforted and then attempting to get myself adequately fed and clothed. 

I was pretty upset one day when I didn’t get a shower, a change of clothes, lunch, or ANYTHING else done other than holding my son all day.  And that’s when I realized that I was already missing it — missing the idea that time with my son is enough.  Time holding Henry, stroking his hair, kissing his baby acne cheeks, filing his nails, and laughing at his ridiculously pouty face is the most productive thing I can do.  It doesn’t matter that the laundry doesn’t get done, that I don’t get out of the house for a week, that the kitchen dishes pile up.  All that matters is being still, really being still and not worrying about all the other things I could be doing.

This year I will follow stillness, and sit with my son in our ancient blue recliner, reading to him from his Bible story book or whatever book I’m reading and think: “this is enough.”

Waiting for Baby Jesus and Baby Henry December 22, 2011

Posted by mjhoward in Babies, Spiritual Formation, Thoughts.
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This time of advent is a time for waiting, waiting for wonderful miracles, waiting for the Son of God to be born.  Being pregnant during advent really brings this idea of waiting into an interesting light.  I am eagerly awaiting Christmas, the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but I’m also eagerly awaiting the birth of another life — that of my son.

I find it curious that Christmas is more celebrated than Easter (though the cynic in me feels that it is probably because we have attached Christmas to materialism and things).  Easter is the holiday where we celebrate the fact that Jesus finished the work he came to do, the work that changed the world.  But I also think there is good reason for Christmas to be the “bigger” holiday.  It is the holiday of mystery and wonder.  The holiday where we celebrate not what Jesus has done, but the holiday where we celebrate hope for what he could do.  The baby Jesus is not a symbol of accomplishment, but a symbol of potential, and potential holds a great mystery.

I very much identify with this mystery because I find myself wondering what Henry will look like, whose personality quirks he’ll get, and what kind of man he will grow up to be.  I have high hopes for him, and am honored that I will get to watch this little person grow, this mystery unfold before me.

But at this time of wonder, I also feel a tinge of sadness for all those whose mystery has ended.  The little girl Ted and I sponsor at the Village of Hope died on Sunday night.  Her name was Elizabeth, and she was seven.  I met her when she was about five and wanted to be held and carried constantly.  I wonder if she still always wanted to be held, but I know for certain that she is being held now.

Jesus’s life was cut short so that he could do his greatest work.  I know Elizabeth was not taken away to accomplish some divine purpose.  Her death is beyond sadness and sense, but I know God can work miracles through tiny babies, through men laying down their lives, and through seven-year-old Ghanaian girls dying.  I don’t know what will come of her death, but I hope, I hope for light to shine in this darkness, just as baby Jesus shined light on the hope to come.

Lessons on Thoughtfulness April 22, 2011

Posted by mjhoward in Thoughts.
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I’m not a thoughtful person, but I want to be.

I’m not one of those people who sends notes or even text messages a verse to uplift a friend.  I’ve never sent a gift to anyone just because I thought they needed it.  I never even call up a friend I haven’t seen in a while, just to ask how she’s doing.  I hear of other people doing this kind of stuff, and I think, now why didn’t I think to do that.  Then I go on with my busy life.  Well, the busy life stops here.

I’ve come to understand that the small things really do matter.  I never realized how much until I was on the receiving end.  When I was in a serious car accident in 2002, one of the Bible classes at church put together a basket of gifts, one that I could open each day.  They were small, silly things like a crossword puzzle book or even a little bag to put medicine in, which I still use it to this day.  I looked forward to these presents because it seemed like the only good thing that might happen that day.  When you’ve moved into your parents bedroom and can no longer even shower by yourself at the age of 19, reading a card someone wrote or playing with an egg of silly putty can bring just enough levity to make it through the day.  I’ve never really thanked anyone for what they did for me that summer, so I’d like to do that now.  Thank you, the many of you who supported me and my family through that rough time with your cards, gifts, prayer and presence.

But even after something like this, I didn’t really get it into my head that I should be bestowing my thoughts, my energy on someone else, even just for the five minutes it takes to write a card.  Granted, I was in pain and focusing on recovering, but I feel like something as dramatic as that might have changed me into a more thoughtful person.  Nope.  It didn’t.

Several years later, this past year in fact, when Ted’s Grandaddy died, it really meant a lot to us when friends came to his funeral or his visitation.  Seeing who came for us brought me to tears as they walked past Grandaddy’s casket.  Still — I don’t think about going to funerals much even though I’ve realized how much it can mean.

Even though I have received such love in small ways, I never think to do it.  

So here is my solution:  I’ll pray about my thoughtlessness, asking God to transform it into thoughtfulness.  And I do think thoughtfulness is the right term.  Doing something small for someone else first requires that we do a little bit of thinking about them, praying for them.  It is a transformation on the inside that will eventually manifest itself outside. And it will be slow.  But I think God can do anything — even turn my thoughtless self into a card writer, funeral shower-upper, or silly putty giver.

How do you remain focused on others?