Thursday, March 31, 2011

Joan's Gift

I've been friends with "Joan" for more than eight years.  I first met her during a time of excitement and transition for me (and for her too); she moved into the apartment that I shared with my sister and another friend just weeks before I got married.  Right from the start, she was a blessing to me.  I remember her helping to set up our wedding reception room and jumping in to help with some of the logistical challenges of our wedding day.

Our friendship grew out of those early acts of service as well as a common desire to grow to know God better.  Over the years, she's also been our housemate, babysitter, and my accountability partner.  I trust her with my deepest secrets; she is a true friend.  So of course I was eager to meet her sister, who was in town visiting from California last week.  Plans were made to meet her sister along with a couple of Joan's current housemates at our local farmer's market for lunch.

As we arrived at market and sought to track down our friends, I pulled out my shopping list.  I don't usually carry much cash, and I knew that we may need to skimp a little when purchasing lunch; otherwise, I wouldn't have enough for the groceries that I needed.  I was distracted with this financial challenge when I found our friends.  After we made plans for a meeting place and I left to find lunch, Joan's housemate stopped me and handed me some money.  He explained that Joan wanted to pay for each of our lunches.  My first response was to refuse the money.  I asked why she would want to do that for us.  It was so unexpected and seemed so unnecessary.  "Because Joan is Joan," was his reply.

Perhaps some background information would be helpful here.  Admittedly, I've always been a stingy person.  As I was sharing this story with some friends from church, we joked about how the emphasis on simple living among Mennonites sometimes has this affect.  Raising two kids on a single income has made this character trait more pronounced.  I've been seeing how a lot of my decisions revolve around money and how not to spend any.

So Joan's act may have seemed like a small gesture, but its impact on me was great.  I ended the mental gymnastics of how to buy $30 worth of food with $20 and the agonizing over the impact of each purchase.  I bought everything on my shopping list.  I bought lunch.  And I even bought a couple of cookies as a special treat.  I felt free, like a burden had lifted.

Joan's generosity is like God's generosity.  None of us really has what we need; we all come up short.  We can spend lots of time making plans for how we can get eternal life, for how we can be good enough.  But it won't work.  We can't make $20 into $30.  We will never have what we need without a gift from someone else.  But God, being God, stepped in and gave us Jesus.  I spend a lot of time questioning God, wondering why He allows bad things to happen, worrying that He is stingy.  But He's truly generous, extravagant, lavish.  He loves us.  He gave us His Son.   We are free to live - really live - not a life where we focus on our lack and how to account for it - not a life where there is never enough.  But instead, a life where our true needs are taken care of.

Running = Punishment (?)

Remember the Jack Daniels talk that I mentioned in my last post?  One thing that he mentioned in his talk, as a side note, really, is that in the US, running is viewed as punishment.  He took a little time to elaborate, pointing out how cross country is a sport often chosen by the weakest girls - those who have tried other sports and were unsuccessful.  (If I remember correctly, he was trying to explain why the high school athletes most prone to injury are female cross country runners - the result of a combination of a strenuous sport and a weak body).

I've returned to this statement several times in the past week.  I can relate to the story Coach Daniels told about girls choosing to run cross country.  My beginnings as a runner came during my junior year of high school.  I played softball in the spring for several years, but wasn't given many opportunities to play because I really wasn't very good.  Softball required some coordination, and coordination definitely isn't one of my strengths.  And neither was confidence.  When I was up to bat, or standing in the outfield, positioning myself to catch a fly ball, I really didn't believe that I could make the hit or the catch.  Anyway, I figured that I would try track and field.  After all, anyone can find some track or field event where they can excel, right?  Well, I was pretty weak, and it did take me a very long time before I saw much success with running.  Maybe, subconsciously, I did see this as a fitting punishment for me, as one who was unsuccessful at other sports.

My first response to Coach Daniels' statement was to disagree and to think of all of the reasons that I love to run.  But as I've spent some more time analyzing my running - my motivation, my habits - I've started to wonder if what he said is actually true for me too.

I think back over the past week, and it's been really heavy.  I've had all of the typical commitments with my family, and housework, and volunteer activities.  And night meetings and work and phone calls.  But on top of that, I've heard about or been involved in several situations that were discouraging - reading about environmental and health impacts to a community where my friend's parents live, learning more about natural gas drilling in PA, listening to several friends talk about recent struggles, visiting my 90-year-old and bedridden neighbor, watching an older family member struggle with her health, seeing some negative interactions on a team of girls that I help to coach.

Yesterday, I went out for a long run, and I pushed myself.  Hard.  I haven't run at that pace for that distance in months.

Is running how I work out this heaviness and pain?  Is running punishment - am I punishing myself for feeling badly that I can't stop all of these hard things from happening?

As I was reflecting on some of these things during my run yesterday, I came upon a bright spot.  It was one of the girls from the team that I help to coach - the one that's been experiencing some negativity - bounding down the street, the brightness of her smile and laugh matching that of the sun, which shone on us, driving away the dark.  Maybe I do use running as some strange form of punishment sometimes, but the good that's come from my running definitely outshines any bad.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Focusing on the Task at Hand

Thanks to my husband, I recently had the opportunity to attend a running clinic sponsored by Runner's World Magazine.  Jack Daniels, one of the most well-known and well-respected running coaches in the US, shared from the wealth of running wisdom that he's accumulated over the years.  You can read more about his visit here and here.

I've used some advice from Jack Daniels before, so I was eager to know what he would share with us.  After hearing from him, I want to focus more on my stride rate (to run efficiently, we're to shoot for 180 steps per minute) and my breathing (running at a good pace should result in a breath in over 2 steps and a breath out over 2 steps).  And I want to learn to focus on the task at hand.  This seems very simple, but in a racing situation, and especially in a marathon, it's very easy to get overwhelmed and to fixate on how far I am from the finish.  The distance and time remaining can feel burdensome, crushing, even impossible.

This concept was echoed in a youtube clip showing highlights from this week's LA marathon and an interview with a female runner named Amy Hastings.  Her first marathon, she finished in second place with a phenomenal time under less-than-ideal weather conditions.  She said that she experienced pain different from anything she's never felt before, but that when it came to pushing through and finishing, she began to focus on getting through each quarter mile and then each mile.  Great advice for finishing a running marathon, but also valuable for finishing life's other "marathons" too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Water Makes Me Smile

Today is World Water Day.  Not unlike a birthday, the holiday encourages us to take time to be grateful for water, and to hope for its presence, health, and abundance in the future.

I've been working on trying to use creative means to express gratitude for various things in my life.  This is definitely a stretch for me - I've never seen myself as a creative person.  Today, as I was reading up on water conservation, I found a link to some poetry composed by some New York City public school 5th graders.  Feeling inspired, I thought I'd write my own poem (please keep in mind that the last time I scripted a poem may have been when I was a 5th grader!)...

Water grants the deepest of joys
Giver of life
In you we splash and jump
You bind us together in happy memories
We marvel, we wonder, we celebrate

Bubbling, flowing, rushing 
You're a fountain of beauty being poured out
On you, on me
Making us clean and new
Cooling the heat on the inside
Healing us


Roses are red, violets are blue.
I'm grateful for water.
I hope you are too!

Maybe you have your own poem to share.  I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No Toilet, No Bride

I remember feeling glad a few mornings ago, when, as my body was bent in an awkward position in an attempt to scrub our toilet, I realized that sometimes it's nice to have one toilet instead of two.  After all, it makes for less toilet-cleaning for me.  There have been times when I've longed for an extra toilet - when my kids were potty-training, or when we've had guests in our home.  Often, I don't remember to be thankful that we have a toilet.  In some parts of the world, this is considered a luxury.  How often I forget that we are living among the richest of the rich, by the world's standards.

It's hard to picture how the lack of toilets impacts life for people, especially women, all over the world.  Sorry men, but I think it's a little different for you.  In our city, it's not terribly shocking, but still disturbing, to see men huddling next to a tree or ducking into an alley (including the alley between our house and our neighbor's house) to relieve themselves.  A friend once told me that when his family was on a missionary assignment a few years back, the region where they were living stressed that men pee whenever, and wherever, they felt it necessary.  To hold it would increase their chances of impotence, they thought.  (A funny side-note - this led to some questions about the word impotence from my friend's 11-year-old son, who was sitting at the dinner table with us when this story was told.)  Yet in some places in the world, there are considerably more public restrooms for men than for women.  Being a woman, I know that I'm likely a little biased, but this makes no sense to me.

Sometimes, even that men have access to the same number of toilets as women seems ridiculous.  I was reminded of this last week when I had jury duty.  When we were dismissed for formal bathroom brakes, the women's line snaked out the bathroom door and around the corner.  Meanwhile, there was no line for the men's bathroom.   We women joked about how we needed to stage a take-over of the men's bathroom.  Men, you can let me know if I'm wrong, but women just have more reason for access to private toilets.  Pregnant women coping with the frequent urge to pee, menstruating women dealing with "that time of the month", for as much as we try to control and hide it, we're leaking when we like to be clean, so we're feeling the need to take care of it.  And we always have to sit and wipe.  Come on now; all of this just takes time.  There should be more stalls for women than for men.  It almost makes me wonder if when men enter their bathrooms, they're swallowed up in some kind of toilet heaven, where there is a private stall for every man, and they can ease in and out and be back and ready for action, making the women look foolish.  Those silly women, taking too long in the bathroom again.  They're probably chatting, or fixing their make-up.

OK, that was probably entirely too much information.  And I'm getting a little carried away.  FOCUS!

I love the "No Toilet, No Bride" movement in India, initiated by the Haryana government, encouraging potential brides and their parents to refuse potential grooms who don't have toilets in their homes.  A world of difference this makes in the bride's future - no waiting for access to a public toilet and running water when she wakes in the morning, no concern about rape or violence due to the search for a safe and secluded spot to take care of her business, less worry that her daughters will miss school because their school has no toilet (learn more here and here).  Maybe this movement will call attention to the fact that all people, males and females, should have access to basic sanitation, bringing dignity and hope, and eventually allowing for more education, more productivity, and more meaningful work for women.  To read more about it, and to learn what a "flying toilet" is, please check out New York Times article The Female Factor: Improving Women's Status, One Bathroom at a Time.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Good Life

Something seems a little off.  Our thermostat tells us that the room temperature is 68, but it feels like a chilly 68.  A message reading "system malfunction - please call technician for maintenance" confirms that we have a problem with our furnace.

This is the third minor issue in a couple of days.  First it was the driver's side windshield wiper that flew off while clearing the wetness from my view.  Next we had a problem with the chain connecting the handle to the flush valve on our toilet.  And now we're having some difficulty with the furnace.  These are just small annoyances, but enough to rouse a little anxiety, especially after a day of consuming higher-priced food and gas and hearing (again) about the impacts of climate change and political upheaval in the Middle East.  I've been working on praying about the small things - the things that deep down, I'm not sure really matter to God - and also trying to model this prayer attitude for my children, so I ask them to pray about the furnace.

Natalie's enthusiastic response:
"Dear God, please help us to fix the windshield, and help us to have a good life.  Amen!"

I smile.  Where does she come up with these ideas?

I ask Natalie what it means to have a good life.

"In a good life, bad things don't happen."

At age 3, Natalie already shares my perspective; often, my thoughts, words, actions, and prayers reflect this view - the view that good is just the absence of bad.  Frequently, I make choices in an effort to avoid the bad, but in the process, I think I miss out on a lot of good.  When I get stuck there, in that place of being scared of all that in my opinion, is bad, I'm living a life of not doing much of anything at all.  And if I don't take action, if I just say no to spending money or potentially offending people or failing at a new endeavor, I may miss opportunities to deepen a friendship, speak the truth, or find a new love.

The good life evokes images of large homes, fancy cars and clothes, impeccable health, career success, educational opportunity, vacations to exotic destinations, and intelligent, well-behaved children.  It looks secure and happy.  But is a good life truly built upon these things?  When I can quiet the urging of TV ads, facebook, and even my own misguided thinking, I discover that the good life must include some bad things to actually be...good.  Who can resist the wonder that rises up inside upon hearing stories of a reconciled relationship, a homeless man now able to provide for his own financial needs, a drought-stricken community that now has clean water, a back-of-the-pack runner who wins her race?  Are all of these reasons enough to make me wish for the bad?  I'm not there yet (i.e. I really want my warm house back without needing to pay a service technician!).  But remembering this makes me feel open to the possibility that something good can be birthed from something that, upon first glance, has the appearance of something bad.

This blog was birthed out of some decisions made after an experience with our old, broken-down dishwasher.  And I love what's been happening in me as a result of this blog.  Writing is so life-giving to me.  Like a tall glass of cold water after the longest marathon training run on the hottest summer day; right now, it's exactly what I need.  Thank goodness for the possibilities and opportunities presented by the broken.

What thoughts come to mind when you dream about the good life?  Is it a life that feels distant or unattainable, or could it be that the life you're living right now - the one that includes the monotony of laundry and snotty-noses, or the struggle of caring for aging parents, or the never-ending deadlines - is actually the good life?  Have you seen something good, or even life-changing, result from a difficult situation?  I'd love to hear from you!