Friday, January 20, 2012

I am Southern

I am Southern.

And because I am Southern,

I like to make meals that are not healthy.

I like to say ya'll instead of "you guys."

I like to eat off of my good dishes on Sundays,

and right now I'd trade all of Austin's cool eclectic style to sit on my mom's porch and rock until the sun sets.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The candy and the writing

I did something today that was kind of humbling... I asked a bunch of 8th graders to forgive me. While I sort of hated to (because they're 8th graders and some of their egos don't need even a hint of reason to think they're smarter than me) I also was really looking forward to it.

Back story. Work continues to be stressful (surprise, surprise) and last week included one of the most stressful days I've ever had as a teacher (details not necessary). As the week was tapering down, I met with my 8th grade Biology class on Thursday morning. Our lesson was on mitosis. I like to teach mitosis with candy. Though I have a really cool lab with lots of fun gadgets like a spectrophotometer, centrifuges, gel electrophoresis... when it's time for an introductory lesson, I always tend to gravitate toward candy or play-doh. Really, you can't go wrong when you teach something with candy or play-doh.

Since you're not in 8th grade, and you're not in my Biology class, I don't think it's necessary to explain mitosis to you- just know that the lesson involved candy (six pieces of chewy, sour goodness) and quite a bit of drawing and writing in a lab notebook.

As I am the teacher (and the person who footed the bill for the candy) I assumed that my students would gladly scribble away in their lab notebook because, well, there was candy. I kept saying things that I considered motivating like, "Okay, the faster you write, the sooner you get to eat your candy!" But despite my encouragements, my 8th graders keps grumbling and complaining about the writing they were having to do. They would say things like, "How many more questions are there?" and "Do we have to write all of that?"

After about ten minutes of this, I snapped. As a teacher, I'm not only a fan of candy, I'm also a fan of sarcasm. I said, in a pretty elevated voice, "PLEASE KEEP COMPLAINING! Because I would LOVE to have a reason to take that candy from you, and we will still do all of this writing WITHOUT ANY CANDY!" I have a pretty long fuse most days, so this statement caught my 8th graders off-guard. They shut up and wrote for the rest of class.

So, I got the result that I wanted, but over the weekend, I began to think about this interaction a little more deeply. I don't think the stress I've been feeling lately is isolated to work only. I wrote in an email to a friend a few days ago that I feel like most people I know are swimming in a sea of prosperity, while Andy & I are floating on God's grace. I could go all Suzy Spiritual and say that I like the floating more than the swimming, but I'll be honest, I don't like the grace float. I look around and people have houses, jobs, money, friends, family- and I sometimes feel like Andy and I are scrounging for some of those things. It's not just tangible stuff, though, it's also things like feeling understood, appreciated, and valued. Those intangibles and some obvious tangible blessings seem to have eluded me here and there over the past two years. And I don't like it. I want easy. I want candy. And I don't want the writing.

At church on Sunday, we sang a certain song three times. The song has a line that goes,
"The riches of your love will always be enough." Every time I sang it, I thought, "But I am not really believing this way. I sing these words, but during the day, I want things to go easy." I want Andy to get a job. I want to be able to save up bookoos of money and buy my dream house. I want to move closer to my Momma. I want people to appreciate me for who I am. I want, I want, I want...candy.

This made me realize that I, too, am a student. God, as my Teacher, knows what lesson plan He has for me at this time. And, like me, He has a purpose that's greater than the candy. I don't give candy just because I want my children to be happy- that's nice, but there's no depth, no greater significance than just temporary pleasure. No, I want my children to happy, but more importantly, I want them to be learning. And learning is about more than just candy. It's about candy and all that hand-cramping, whine-inducing writing.

So today, I told my students that I was sorry for losing my patience. But that God has been teaching me about contentment. And that life includes candy- the blessings that God gives us- and writing- the trials through which we experience those blessings. We need both to learn the important lessons about God that He wants to teach us. And God desires (like any good teacher) that we value the lesson and give thanks for the sweetness that comes along with it.

They're 8th graders- so they had forgotten about Thursday all together- but most of them nodded, smiled and we moved on- maybe a little closer together, and hopefully a little closer to our Teacher, than when we started.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Personal Encouragement

Man, it was tough to get back into the groove this week. I'm not just talking about finding it difficult to get back into the routine of waking early, doing my Bible study and getting to work on time. Though the rigors of my "regularly-scheduled" life presented a challenge in and of themselves, there was a deeper struggle at hand.

As I turned the corner into 2012, I gave the past two years of my life a long hard look in the rear view. And the view isn't entirely pretty. There are relationships that are seemingly in ruins- some finished all together, others that dangle like loose ends, unkempt and uncertain. There's a manuscript that is unfinished- a message that I once had great passion for- that, after having lived through the reality of the great need for that message, I find myself struggling to find the spiritual energy to revisit, though I haven't completely given up. There are the finances that have just never fallen into the neat alignment I planned out in my ledger, but, by the grace of God alone, never fall into the depths of debt that would sink us completely. There's the job that demands more of my time than I ever could have realized, and in which I find that, despite my best efforts and 50 hour work weeks, I am always running behind and letting someone down.

Each morning, as Andy drove me to work (our Jeep isn't working right now, so we're down to one car) I struggled with these realities- frustrated and dreading to interact with people and have to come up with new conversations and work and activities when I can hardly process what has already happened. I felt so tired and at such a great depth that there were a few mornings when I felt like I couldn't do it at all. I would have sat in the bed all day, with the curtains pulled and my cell phone off, if I could have. The instinct for survival pushes us through the motions, though, doesn't it? We can go on surviving, even when living, much less thriving is not an option. And that's how this week was for me- it was survival.

In the midst of the trial, I continued in God's word- perhaps out of a need to survive, perhaps out of well-carved discipline. When depression- which seems too simple a way to sum up my emotions over the week- drags me down, I don't think that I can fully engage in God's Word, and this often depresses me even more. But, even in those times, I see God's strength overcome. There always seems to be something, even if it's just one verse, that shines brightly through the encompassing darkness.

And for me, this week, that verse was 1 Samuel 12:23. I have it in mind to try to read through the Bible this year. I'm sure I should have a plan- one of those 2 chapters from New Testament, two chapters from Old Testament, and three verses from Psalms kinda deals- but I hate when plans fail- that makes me feel more like a failure, and I already struggle with feelings of failure enough as it is. So I decided to just read- like reading a story, and see how it goes.

I wanted to start in Samuel- for reasons I might blog about later- and I've read to chapter 12. Verse 23 resonated with me. Samuel, who is at this point a very old man, and who has had to deal with a lot of disappointment, the culmination of which is the people's demand for a king, is reflecting on his life. He knows that he has kept himself pure, even though the people around him have been evil, and, tired as he must be, he continues to rebuke and encourage the people to love the Lord and turn from idols. Samuel- a righteous man amongst an unrighteous people, a man who labored for the Lord and saw few results, a man who must have felt so tired and so tempted to despair when the people did the very thing that the Lord did NOT want them to do- ask for a king. And yet, he says, "As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you what is good and right."

I feel like a failure, like a tired-out worker whose efforts are most often overlooked. I can't finish things. I cause relationships to crumble. People around me are falling apart- and so am I a lot of the time. It would be easy to just focus on all of that failure and shortcoming and throw in the towel. But that's not what Samuel did. He looked to the Lord and understood that, no matter what the results were, he was accountable for his prayers for the people God has placed him with, and for teaching them what was good and right.

So I took this to heart, and prayed, though it was a struggle to do so- for my friends, my family, my students this week. Prayer is hard, and it was difficult to dig into prayer when deep down I felt so discouraged, but this bright light from 1 Samuel was what God had given me, so I followed it, as best I could.

Friday came, and that meant our first leader's meeting of the year. I wasn't enthusiastic when I came into the room. I had worked until 11PM the night before, trying to type up quizzes and diffusing a situation with a disgruntled parent. Praying, and teaching the kids what is good and right, during the course of the week seemed so pale in comparison to the weight of responsibility, productivity and conflict. This was on my mind all through our leader's meeting, so as I listened to Holly during her closing talk, my heart had a hard time being convinced that her words were true for me. She was talking about personal encouragement - that God provides times of personal encouragement for his servants, and that when He supplies that encouragement, it is a message straight from His heart to ours. So I wrote down in my notebook, "Look for God's personal encouragement for me today." Though I'll admit to you, I didn't expect to see anything much... maybe a good somg would come on the radio, or I would just survive the day without crying and falling apart at work.

But when I got into the car, I checked my messages and emails from the night before. I had a Facebook message from a former student, one of my Jack Britt kids. The message was about something I had taught her in Biology- she wanted me to know that she still remembers what I taught her, and she said, "You helped me see the BIG picture," and thanked me for being an influence in her life. I cried out thanks and praises to the Lord- with tears- and wouldn't you know it? A great song was on the radio when all of this happened.

Personal encouragement- from His heart to mine- words that brought me back to the reason that I must continue to pray and teach what is good and right- because beyond the failure and the exhaustion, there is a difference that God is making in the lives of teenage students- and He's doing that, by His grace alone, through me.

If you are reading this and feeling discouragement as the new year begins, I hope that you will pray and ask God to give you personal encouragement today. And I hope it stirs and strengthens your heart, as it did mine.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Yesterday, I resolved to write more in 2012. When it comes to the "balance" between writing and teaching, I can't ever seem to get it right. Seems like I'm always doing one more than the other and the absence of one, makes me want the other all the more.

I'm reading Stephen King's new book right now, 11/22/63, and I'm loving it (despite the vulgar language, which you can skip when you're reading, as opposed to movies where you've actually paid money to be sworn at) Anyway... the story line is great, but I do think that one of the reasons I like the book is because the main character is a teacher-turned-writer-turned-back-to-teacher, a position I can relate to, whether I want to accept it about myself or not. Here's a line that sort of speaks for itself... "Those days of (teaching) reacquainted me with a basic fact of my personality: I liked writing, and had discovered I was good at it, but what I loved was teaching. It filled me up in some way I can't explain. Or want to. Explanations are such cheap poetry."

Having said that, teaching is also exhausting- especially when you have five classes, three of which are new preps, and also when you're a perfectionist, and let's face it, almost all good teachers are perfectionists by nature. Those are the reasons that I hardly wrote at all this past fall, and- just as I had missed teaching the year before- oh how I have missed putting my thoughts down through my fingers. So, it is a resolution, then, to write more.

I had a plan to write about places I enjoy going in Austin, and I was going to start yesterday. It was a beautiful day in Austin, a balmy 72 degrees with just a little breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Winter is actually a better time to enjoy the outdoors in Austin than summer. That's my opinion, anyway. Winter is about the only time you can stand in the sunshine without being reduced to a human faucet, sweat gushing from every pore. Last winter, I learned that, though Austin would get bouts of chilly temps here and there, before you can say "brrr" the sixties have moved back into Central Texas, and you can enjoy Austin's great selection of parks, hike and bike trails. One of my favorite places to spend a few hours on such a perfect winter's day is Zilker Park, so it was my plan to go to the park, read, picnic, play ball with Gatsby, snap a few photos and report back to this blog about a perfectly lovely afternoon...

There was a picnic, there was reading, there was sunshine. And there was ball. Too much ball. After probably an hour and a half of going at it hard, my best ball player, Gatsby, started to low crawl. He had a funny look in his eye, and I knew what was about to happen. I said to Andy, "He's not right!" and we both rushed over toward him. Seconds later, his muscles tensed and he began to shake uncontrollably.

Gatsby had his first seizure at the end of the summer. I was home for the afternoon, and we weren't doing anything active- watching an Oprah re-run, in fact. All of a sudden, he tensed and his eyes couldn't focus. He lost control of his bladder, and spent a miserable 90 seconds or so without control of his little body. I prayed through it and talked to him gently. When it was over, he stood up, got his ball and acted like nothing at all had happened.

The seizure yesterday was pretty similar, but in some ways was a little bit "better." First of all, over-exertion can bring on a seizure, so there's an explanation, at least. And I like explanations of that sort- cheap poetry though it may be. Also, he kept control of his bladder and seemed a little more in control of his balance as well. He fell over a couple of times, but corrected himself. Still, it was heart-renching. While Gats is having a seizure, I am very calm, praying, talking to him, asking Abba to help my sweet boy. But after Gatsby regains his composure, I lose mine. I was a ball of nerves and tears yesterday afternoon.

For better or for worse, I think that yesterday's trip to Zilker Park in some ways sums up a reality about New Year that is both sobering and comforting. The sobering reality is that life is never what you plan it to be. We all know that. Even our best laid plans change, and nothing is what we think it's going to be... though we delude ourselves for the first three weeks of each January. But the comforting part is that even in those unexpected changes, God is with us, and His mercy is unfailing.

My Gats is home and resting. He's still having some involuntary muscle/nerve spasms and watching it is making me want to tear up every few minutes or so. Andy and I are watching the Broncos while my collards and black eyed peas simmer. I'll start the fried chicken soon. I'm stressed out about starting school and all of the work to do, and Andy is still looking for a new job. Life is good, unexpected, sorrowful, stressful, and wonderful all at the same time. This year will be what this year will be, I can't control it and there's little that I am able to change. But one thing remains the same- His great mercy, unfailing love and devoted attention to us- all four of us.

I thank Thee for personal mercies,
a measure of health,
preservation of body,
comforts of house and home,
sufficiency of food and clothing,
continuance of mental powers,
my family, their mutual help and support,
the delights of domestic harmony and peace,
the seats now filled that might have been vacant,
my country,

-"Divine Mercies" from The Valley of Vision