Author Archives: Tanya

Pep Talk #13: Dance Like No One is Watching

Rachel Dancing
Rachel dancing, age 3

I’m feeling really good these days, despite the fact that the news is getting worse, not better. Maybe my husband is a prophet (or a pessimist), but he saw all this coming. Two months ago, he was listening to the medical advisors’ and the economic advisors’ contradictory advice, and it seemed to boil down to this: shut everything down to save lives, keep everything open to save lives. If we keep vectors for the novel coronavirus apart from each other (issue shelter-at-home orders), fewer people will die and we won’t overwhelm the medical system. Alternately, if we open the economy after a short quarantine, we may be able to prevent the collapse of our economy and social breakdown, thus saving lives. And while it is easy to criticize a leader who comes off as a buffoon, without the benefit of omniscience, we can’t really say what the correct approach to this thing is. Unprecedented means we’ve never done this before. With such disparate viewpoints and polarization over something as simple as whether to wear a mask in the grocery store, we are left each to himself to decide what it means to “do the right thing.” And once we’ve decided, we take sides and begin to tear each other apart, right? My goodness, how quickly we lose our humanity and resemble wild dogs!

So, yes, we may be facing the “end of the world as we know it,” and someday we may be able to look back and see what we should have done, hindsight being 20/20 (no pun intended). But that doesn’t necessarily help us decide what to do now, where to put our mental and emotional (and sometimes physical) energy—if we should respond with sadness, fear, anger, apathy, compassion, joy. Yes, I said joy. How you respond to this crisis might become your coping mechanism, so choose carefully. And study your history books: it’s always a slippery slope from labeling people (or hanging an auction number around the neck or pinning gold stars to a sleeve) to annihilation. If we forget what makes us human, if we forget to look at our enemy as a wayward brother, if we choose competition over cooperation, we are going to create the thing we are afraid of: complete breakdown, in which we all lose, but some lose more than others.

I choose joy. Do not confuse this with happiness, or naivete, or delusion. It is a deep-down, smile-no-matter what, focus on something good kind of joy. Joy stands in an attitude of defiance: “no matter what happens, I will continue to demonstrate love. I will continue to dance, sing, create, help others, feed my soul, and laugh at absurdity.” Where ephemeral happiness disappears with the rain cloud, joy goes under cover and concentrates on remembering the sunny days of yore and hoping for sunny days ahead. Joy can co-exist with sadness and anger, but it prevents one from slipping into hatred, apathy, fear, and self-destruction.

I am a slow learner, and joy does not always come easily for me. I am capable of doom-and-gloom, stinginess of love, taking things too seriously, snappishness, trying to control things and then whining when I don’t get my way. These things tend to send joy running. Maybe you can find joy another way, but the way I find it is in the context of faith.

For many, Christianity looks like a vast self-deception, one in direct opposition to scientific thinking. To others, it is a social construct to keep people under control. I have heard it said that it is merely a crutch for the weak, who are uncomfortable with the unknown and need a God-is-in-control narrative. To me, it is a life-raft: I am in the middle of a dark ocean, defeated as much by my own negative thoughts and behaviors as the various horrors I see in the world, my boat is sinking, and though I can swim, I can’t do it long enough to save myself—and then a bright-yellow self-inflating raft pops to the surface, someone extends a hand and I climb in—so relieved that I can’t help but whoop and holler. This is what God did—and does for me. Call me delusional and weak-minded if you like, but I heard God’s voice, and I am undeniably afloat instead of at the bottom of the ocean. We can discuss endlessly the complicated details of divisive theology, abuse done in God’s name, seeming contradictions in the Bible or in the fossil record—I am not ignorant of these things. But most of the problems with religion are man-made (big surprise there). Maybe we could discuss these things inside the rubber raft instead of while treading water in a sea full of circling sharks.

Here is some advice from the first century, from a letter written to a church suffering persecution in the Greek coastal city Thessaloniki. It is encouragement to the believers there to live lives worthy of their calling. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-22, NIV Bible).

I don’t know what else to do right now. Maybe I will be called to act or to resist action. Maybe I will soon be in survival mode myself. While I wait, watch, and take care of daily tasks, I am also playing my ukulele, writing songs, editing my book (which feels like it will never be done), playing with my kids, making delicious meals, homeschooling, writing down my thoughts, reading good books, walking and biking and kayaking, talking to friends on the phone, listening to music, praying—both alone and with a group of faithful sisters (via Zoom), and occasionally adding my two-cents-worth to the wide-ranging virtual discussions.

Whatever the circumstances, we have the freedom to choose our responses. We can choose joy, if not happiness. If the Titanic of our “normal life” is sinking, we can emulate the musicians playing on the slanting deck. We may fall down, have a bad day, backslide, but we can get back up, remember that we are loved and are capable of love. If people’s fear, arrogance, or hatred reduces them to snitching on their neighbors (may we never forget Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia), it may make it hard to freely do the things that bring us joy, but for now, we must continue to dance like no one is watching.

Favorite Treat on Take Two: Lemon Blueberry Pound Cake

Lemon Blueberry Pound Cake

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup cream cheese (4 oz.), softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 8-oz carton lemon yogurt (or plain yogurt + lemon zest)
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
Juice of one lemon
1-2 cups powdered sugar

Beat sugar, butter, and cream cheese at medium speed until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla and lemon flavoring. Whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, and salt in a separate bowl and add to sugar/butter mixture alternately with yogurt, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Gently fold in blueberries. Pour batter into a greased and floured Bundt pan (or two 8″ loaf pans). Sharply tap pan on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake at 350° for 1 hour; check for doneness with a toothpick and bake additional 15 minutes if necessary (bake until toothpick comes out clean). Cool cake in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pan and cool another 10 minutes. Whisk powdered sugar into the lemon juice little by little in a small bowl until desired consistency is reached (like honey). Drizzle over warm cake.

Pep Talk #12: No Time Like the Present

Sunset, Providenca

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

–Roger Waters (from “Time” by Pink Floyd)

When we traded our plot of dirt for a floating home 12 years ago, we also opted out of the “normal” life. Until we came back to the United States from the Caribbean last July, none of our children had ever attended class in a conventional school setting, played on a sports team, or owned a cell phone. They had rarely lived in one place for more than six-to-twelve months, and they almost never missed a family dinner. We came back, in large part, to give our teenagers some of the normalcy which they had missed and to help them take steps to integrate and find independence. By the fall, we were so swamped in busy-ness that we found it difficult to sit down even one night a week with everyone in the family to have a conversation at the dinner table. I was looking around at other families and wondering how they could stand it—how could this be “normal”? When everything ground to a halt in March, one of the things I felt was relief.

This week, my friend Sadie admitted that she has loved this aspect of the COVID-19 mass-quarantine. She has experienced in the last couple of months what I feel like we’ve had for the last decade. Don’t get me wrong—homeschooling five kids on a boat, traveling, working from home, cooking everything from scratch, doing laundry, and keeping a boat running smoothly—that’s a full and busy life! But we’ve done all those things out of choice, not obligation. The schedule we set was our own—if we got overwhelmed, we could cut something out to give ourselves margin. The routines we adopted upon our return, however, seemed so much harder. Taking kids to and from school, sports, activities, and appointments, and trying to live according to the clock left me feeling rushed, anxious, and guilty (when I couldn’t keep up).

Now of course, we have plenty of time, copious amounts of unstructured hours and days and weeks, while we shelter at home waiting for whatever comes next. This is not necessarily good. Without goals and a sense of purpose, time ends up getting frittered away, and as it is a limited commodity, something we can neither buy nor save for later, we cannot afford to waste it! So I am looking for the middle ground, a productive-but-enjoyable life somewhere between frenetic and idle. I am seeking this balance in the purgatory of self-isolation while we wait for a worldwide pandemic (and the looming economic and social disaster) to run its course.

Initially, we were hopeful that this would “blow over” in a couple of months, though it was clear from watching other countries that this was just wishful thinking. Things may not get better for a long while, and they may never go back to normal (which I argue wasn’t that great, anyway). If we are entering a period of prolonged instability, we’re going to need a sustainable outlook. How we prepare for a marathon is very different than for a sprint. Until we have more information about the virus and its long-term effects, it’s hard to make an informed decision about how to proceed. In the meantime, how ought we to live day-to-day?

Everyone’s situation is different. Those who are convalescing may feel like they are stuck inside Thomas Mann’s 900-page novel, Magic Mountain. Some people (like my husband) are busier at work, and don’t feel the slow-down at all. Others have been adjusting in stages—first enjoyment of a slower pace, and creative use of the extra time, then despondency or frustration as it seems to stretch on longer and longer, confusion over mixed messages from media and leaders, and, if your state is still closed, resignation and boredom. Still others are in survival mode and beginning to feel desperate. But what we all share is a universal feeling of uncertainty, an inability to plan for the future.

As I work through these stages myself, as I journal my thoughts and emotions, I have come to realize that planning itself is a luxury and an illusion. The majority of the people on our planet live day-by-day, hand-to-mouth, without having a choice or the ability to save and plan for the future. And even in my privileged life, I never had more than today. And neither have you. We were never guaranteed a “normal life” or anything resembling consistency. Life—and death—on Earth is anything but predictable. Our lives are a fragile gift—granted largely by circumstances over which we have little control, and we have never had more than the breath we are breathing right now. We can’t see the future, and we struggle to make sense of conflicting stories about the past. All we can do is carefully spend our limited time in the present.

All we have is now.

And now is not the time for laziness, but for learning to control our emotions, sharpening our minds, strengthening our bodies, and building up our spirits. Our humanity depends on it. Hopefully, we will emerge from this crisis stronger, because it will not be the last. What are we learning about ourselves and our values that we can bring with us into a new normal? What needs to change? How can we, individually and collectively, add love and light to a world where there is so much darkness and despair? How can we invest this time so that we’ll have something to show for it?

Without a clock, calendar, or plan for the future, we can still have goals for now. Here are mine:

  • To wake up every morning and say “thank you for my life.”
  • To do one thing every day for my mind, for my body, and for my spirit.
  • To monitor and adjust my attitudes about my daily tasks.
  • To be kind to myself and the people I live with.
  • To keep informed about what’s going on in the wide world without losing sight of the small world at my fingertips.
  • To limit my screen time, play games with my children, pursue creative endeavors (writing, painting, music), read good books, make nourishing food, keep in touch with my neighbors, get enough rest, do what brings joy and share it when I can.
  • To support those who are struggling.
  • To take life one day at a time and keep my thoughts in the present.

Taco Tuesday on Take Two: Homemade Tortillas

WARNING: A recipe so delicious you may never be able to use store-bought tortillas again and be stuck with a time-consuming cooking project every Tuesday…

Taco Tuesday on Take Two
Tortillas made by Rachel (age 9)

For 3 dozen 6-inch tortillas, you will need:

3 cups corn flour (masa harina)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cups wheat flour

Instructions:

  1. Pour the water and olive oil into a large bowl.
  2. Add the corn flour and salt and stir well with a wooden spoon.
  3. Add the wheat flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition, until the dough is stiff enough to be kneaded by hand, but still soft and pliable. It should resemble Play-Doh consistency, and it should roll into balls without sticking to your hands.
  4. Preheat a cast iron griddle (or lightly oiled skillet) over medium-low heat.
  5. Pinch off some dough and roll a ball about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and place it between two pieces of wax paper or in a quart-size plastic bag cut along the sides.
  6. Use a tortilla press or rolling pin to flatten the ball to a 6-inch round.
  7. Peel tortilla off the lining and cook on the heated griddle, flipping after 30-60 seconds. Cook for an additional 30-60 seconds. It will bubble and get golden-brown spots. (Turn heat down if it seems like it’s cooking too fast or burning easily.)
  8. When done, place in a bowl lined with a cloth napkin–tortillas should stack without sticking.
  9. Fill with amazing taco ingredients and top with guacamole or pico de gallo!

2020 Vision: Casa Agua Azul

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” —Jonathan Swift

View of Lake Izabal
View of Lake Izabal from Casa Agua Azul

I don’t know what Gail Gordon saw or felt when she first stood on the property that is now Casa Agua Azul, a home for abused and abandoned children on the shores of Lake Izabal in Guatemala, but it must have been powerful. I don’t know how, short of many miraculous coincidences, she’s been able to share her vision with the right people at the right time to make what was once a wisp of an idea into a solid place where children run laughing through the garden. And I don’t know how God will continue to sustain it and provide for the house parents and staff, and the seventeen children in their care, but I know that He will.

Jerry, Griselda, Wally, Sofia and Otto
Jerry and Griselda with Otto, Wally, and Sofia, Winter 2019

I know how I felt, the first time I met Gail four years ago at a Wednesday morning Bible study I attend when our boat is moored in the Florida Keys: intrigued. She was asking for prayer about plans for a property she had purchased, and about the endless difficulties of getting it cleared, cleaned up, rebuilt, funded, licensed, staffed, and operational as a children’s home. I took note but had no way of knowing how important that little piece of information would be to me, or how God can multiply one small act of faithfulness. When we found ourselves sailing into the Rio Dulce for hurricane season in 2018, I thought we were coming to Guatemala get our boat painted. I guess I forgot that God’s plans are always bigger than our own.

Marina Yacoe at the Gate
My friend Marina at the Gate

In October of 2018, as I walked through the gates of Casa Agua Azul, I was incredulous. I had seen photos from when friends of ours, fellow sailors Eric and Annie, had gone to Guatemala to help clear the land—back when it was abandoned and being used as the village pigsty. The place I saw was a hive of efficient and cheerful activity: a large clean building had been renovated and was ready for its first inhabitants, women were preparing lunch in the kitchen, and a team of missionaries was building private quarters for the house parents, Jerry and Griselda. People were moving rocks, working on pathways, and creating beautiful green-spaces under the mango trees.

Jerry and Gail, construction
Gail talking with Jerry, home under construction

I remember the people I met that day, the prayers for Jerry an Griselda, and the conversations about vision. I myself had a vision that day. While looking at the house, I saw many beautiful murals and scriptures that had been painted on the walls by volunteers. An empty wall on the second floor beckoned—and I imagined what I would paint if ever given the chance. I don’t know why I even had that audacious thought—that I would paint a mural! I had never painted art on a wall before, but I got a picture in my mind of what it would look like completed.

In September of 2019, I flew back to Guatemala to visit a friend who was having a baby. I spent a day at Casa Agua Azul, playing with the kids and visiting with people who, a year before, had been strangers to me, and were now like family. I barely recognized the property as I stood on the porch of Jerry and Griselda’s finished house: there was a playground, a covered visitors’ pavilion, a boat slip (dug in part by the hands of my own boys), a lovely garden with pebble pathways. There were now a dozen children there—laughing, playing, arguing, running around, doing all the things normal children do.

View from Jerry and Griselda's porch
View from Jerry and Griselda’s porch, September 2019

I spent the day helping in the kitchen, reading stories to children, racing matchbox cars on the floor, and singing songs in Spanish and English, sharing my ukulele with small, eager musicians. During the ten months we had lived in Guatemala, our connection to this place had grown from mild interest to full-blown engagement. Our boys had been volunteering every weekend doing physical jobs around the property, digging in the muddy pit that would someday be a boat slip, hauling rocks, doing odd jobs—whatever was needed. A fellow boat-kid, Deon, often went with them, and several of my friends from the marina had come to visit, to see what it was we were so excited about.

Aaron working with Jerry at Casa Agua Azul
Aaron digging in the pit with Jerry

We became friends with Jerry and Griselda, sharing meals at the house and on our boat. We celebrated the arrival of the first children at the home, Sofia and Otto, and watched Otto grow from a small and sickly baby to a healthy and happy toddler. After sharing my mural idea with Gail on one of our visits, I spent a month of Sundays with my nose to the wall, dabbing paint, and meditating on the scripture that is now written there: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7).

Tanya's Mural (Photo by Gail)
Finished mural

In a country with desperate poverty, a history of genocide, child trafficking, and rampant abuse and neglect, a safe place for children is good news indeed. And I got to witness it happening in real time. When our boat motored slowly out of the river in April of 2019, we felt as if we had left a little piece of ourselves behind. Being a part of Casa Agua Azul changed us from estranjeros into familia and made us feel at home in Guatemala.

When I visited in September, I found a treasure on the third floor: a simple wooden cross hanging in a window with an inscription that reads: “You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds, Oh God our Savior. You are the hope of everyone on earth, even those who sail on distant seas” (Psalm 65:5 NLT). It was a token left by Eric and Annie, and they couldn’t have known when they wrote on those scraps of wood how God would answer their prayers, or how He would give hope to these children, but they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

Window with Eric and Annie's cross
Prayers answered

This is what it means to have vision: to get a glimpse of what could be and act in faith so that what is imagined can become real.

It has been one of the greatest privileges in the traveling life of our family to be a part of Casa Agua Azul. On our journey, we have seen such heartbreaking poverty: the ravages of systemic inequality, greed, human selfishness, war, ignorance, and environmental damage. We sometimes feel powerless in the face of the forces that shape our world and that push so many to the edge of survival. When we can, we help in small ways, but it is in partnering with ministries like Bluewater Surrender that we see the power of good multiplied. It is one thing to give financially, and entirely another to participate personally, to put our hands to work, and to engage with our hearts. Both are needed.

Since Gail first shared her vision for that property on the lake, many have come alongside her to support the growth and maintenance of Casa Agua Azul. I’m writing this with the hopes that you too will want to participate and to help meet the needs of 17 at-risk children. Normally, there is a large fundraiser this time of year that helps sustain the children’s home—and though they can’t hold the event, the needs haven’t changed; if anything, they have grown. But the work being done in Guatemala is crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty and abuse for the kids that call Casa Agua Azul home. Investing in children by placing them in a family setting where they can experience unconditional love offers the potential for real change. I know that what gets donated to Bluewater Surrender goes directly to caring for the children at Casa Agua Azul. I have witnessed the transformation firsthand, and I have seen how the vision is carried forward: one step at a time, with prayer and hard work, and partnership.

Lunch at Casa Agua Azul
Lunchtime at Casa Agua Azul, September 2019

Vision means seeing where God is already at work, joining that work, and becoming the answer to our own prayers.

Will you join our family in supporting Blue Water Surrender and the Casa Agua Azul? Whether you make a one-time gift or offer monthly support, you’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself.

For more information or to donate directly, go to https://www.bluewatersurrender.org/

Kids Swinging Casa Agua Azul 1
Kids swinging

Book recommendations:

  • In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence by Philip Darke
  • When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

Pep Talk #11: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.” –Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

IMG_4217
First Mate Tanya & the Crew of Take Two in the Tongue of the Ocean, Bahamas, 2014

If my title holds water, I can stop right here and save you my ruminations…but of course I’m more of a writer than a photographer, so you know I’m going to say something anyway. I’ve been using some of the endless expanse of time after school and chores are done to go through old photographs. Our external storage drive is full of folders like this: “Unprocessed 2014.” That’s a photo-dump—every picture we took in 2014, un-sorted, un-edited, sometimes un-looked-at since it was taken. I’m enjoying, organizing, and labeling the happy moments in our life at a time when everything else looks like it’s heading to hell-in-a-handbasket.

There is a lot of bad news right now, and not just in the mainstream news. I have friends in low places, countries where children are dying of malnutrition faster than people in cities are dying of the new virus. Things that were bad before seem to be getting even worse. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, reports of disease, famine, violence, and death come riding across the internet, and even though I would like to close my eyes and stop my ears, some of these stories are touching people who are like family to me. My heart is breaking, and yet I still have to function in the day-to-day. I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get through a day without springing leaks.

I know we’re supposed to live in the present, but when the present is dark, we can also dig into the treasure-trove of the past. No matter what happens going forward, here’s something that can’t be taken away: yesterday’s happy memories. We stored them up for such a time as this.

Today I found this one: on a hot and boring passage to the Bahamas, we did what we often do, put the engines in neutral, toss drift lines off the transoms, and jump in. We were crossing the Tongue of the Ocean—1000 fathoms of indigo water. If you put on a mask and look down, it gives you the feeling of standing on the old Sears Tower lookout deck (now Skydeck Chicago), more a fear of heights than of depths. You feel like a water strider on a pond, and the next step in your imagination is the predator from the deep coming up for a snack. It’s terrifying, invigorating, and fun. I will never forget that day, and I loved having the photo to bring it to the surface.

So many times since we returned from the Caribbean in July, I have found myself expressing gratitude for our travel memories. I’m so happy that we took the plunge, sold our house, and went sailing with our children. I know you have memories of happy times, too: dredge them up and let them bring you joy.

Previous post on a similar topic:

Hummus is Yummus: A Favorite Passage Recipe

Hummus is Yummus
Spicy Hummus

2 cups cooked (or 1 can) chickpeas
1/3 cup sesame seeds (or tahini)
1-2 tablespoons water
1-2 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
Garnish: Fresh parsely, ground paprika, or cayenne pepper

Blend all ingredients on high in Vitamix (if using a food processor or blender, use tahini and mince the garlic).If too dry, add water or olive oil until consistency is thick and creamy. Sprinkle with parsley, paprika or cayenne if desired. Serve with pita, fresh veggies, or tortilla chips.

Pep Talk #10: A Tree is Known by its Fruit

Frutas del Mundo Farm, Jack Fruit
The Distinctive Jackfruit

A crisis reveals a lot about you and the people you love. When normal life and decorum are stripped away, you may be left exposed and raw, emotional and fragile, or you may demonstrate a strength of which you were previously unaware. You may be alternately strong and weak, or both simultaneously. When you are hurting, you know your friends by whether they stand by you or criticize you, or abandon you altogether. You find out how well you love others—whether you have a reserve out of which to give. Patterns from your childhood may reassert themselves, or you may find that the only solid ground to stand on rests on the healthy habits you have formed in adulthood.

I have made some observations about myself, some of which are not pretty. I have laughed heartily at all the introvert/extrovert videos circulating, at how true they are. I am married to someone who once told me “I would be perfectly happy on a deserted island.” This idea filled me with horror…I would be suicidal on a deserted island, or, like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away, I would be making friends with inanimate objects. I am surprised at how resentful I feel at Jay’s ability to remain calm, steady, happy, industrious…so normal despite the abnormal circumstances.

We have been isolated before—I mean, we live on a boat, right? But I’ve discovered that I can handle about three weeks in paradise, surrounded by the six people I love most in the world, before I need a new face to look at, a new person to talk to. An extrovert needs people like a plant needs sunshine. Some days, I’m fine, and the two-dimensional substitutes for a real live friend (facebook, phone, Zoom) are good enough. Other days, I feel trapped and cranky—I can’t even be nice to the people I am around. What’s wrong with me?

When I have very little control over the circumstances around me, I always go back to the mirror. Not to stare like Narcissus, but to examine my responses, which I can control, and to look at who I really am. It’s the oldest question in the book: Who am I? And the second, Why am I here? These questions invariably lead me back to the bedrock of my spiritual faith; either I am here by cosmic accident or I am here because Someone put me here. Both answers require faith—no one was there at the beginning to see how it all got started, and it requires an astronomical amount of time and a stretch of the imagination to get from an amoeba to a human mind.

For reasons with which I could fill a book, I have come to the conclusion that Someone put me here, that it wasn’t an alien civilization (because if it were, I would still have to ask who created the aliens?), that I’m not part of a computer simulation (because if I were, I would still have to ask, who is the programmer?), that we are more than mere physical manifestations of the life force, and that life has meaning, and that Good is as real as Evil, and that the source of that Good is personal and knowable. If you’ve read what I’ve written before, this comes as no surprise.

But I also see the darkness in my own reflection—my capacity for meanness, sadness, selfishness—a human nature at war with better impulses. I see the choices before me: to be patient or angry, to sow peace or discord, to respond to irritations with gentleness or harshness, to spend my time satisfying myself or caring for someone else, to offer thanks or complain, to forgive or hold a grudge, to focus on the negative or the positive. And the Someone who has me in the here-and-now has given me the power to exercise the better option, according to a favorite quote, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control” (Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, verses 22-23, New International Version of the Bible).

Fruit of the Spirit, by Rachel
Fruit of the Spirit, by Rachel

Just like grapevines need rocky soil and harsh conditions to produce good fruit (in better conditions they produce only foliage), I myself grow spiritually during hardship. Circumstances may grow worse, or they may get better. But whatever the environment, I want to be the tree producing good fruit. Nothing could be simpler…or more difficult.

Because love is a choice I make, not a fleeting emotion, the small decisions I make every day become essential. To choose loving actions, I must make a connection with the Source of Love. I must learn to love myself—to accept that I am loved—in order to love others. Then, maybe then, I can “love my neighbor as I love myself.” Right now that means loving well the people in my direct environs, and the people with whom I have contact because the gift of technology brings humans together in an unprecedented way.

Paul warns the Galatians, just as he would warn us now, in an age when a person can hide behind a digital persona and say ugly things to his fellows with impunity, “if you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…the one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians chapter 5, verse 15 and chapter 6, verses 8-9).

I had a rough week, and maybe you did, too. I’m struggling to discipline myself and keep us in a routine that fosters productivity and positivity. Even if I limit the news coming in, I know things are bad—I am hearing from friends around the world about horrific circumstances that put my petty complaints into perspective. And so I write these pep talks as much for myself as for someone else who might benefit. I must wake up every morning and tell myself the truth: “God loves you. He has a plan. Don’t live in fear, but in love. Choose kindness. Be thankful. Don’t give up. Be the tree that bears good fruit.”

Pep Talk #9: Feeling Blue

Blue

Despite the fact that I live on a boat and homeschool my kids, I’m not the kind of person who lies around in my PJs all day. For my own mental health, I have gotten up every morning for the last 18 1/2 years (as long as I’ve been a stay-at-home mom) and started my day dressed for success. For me that means a sundress or skirt/skort and top, or maybe blue jeans if it’s cold, and a matching necklace. If I’m having a really rough morning, I might put even put on a little makeup to spruce myself up, but those extreme measures are rarely necessary.

This quarantine has probably pushed all of us to the edge of our emotional comfort zones, and maybe over the edge in some cases. For people who have never been at home full-time with their kids, it has probably been extremely challenging. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are single people suffering from isolation and wishing they had family around to keep them company! Though I am more accustomed than most to being in a small space with my family, having nowhere to go to get off the boat even has me struggling a bit. I woke up Saturday feeling so blue I didn’t bother to get dressed. I wasn’t able to pep-talk myself out of my funk by the first cup of coffee, so I took the second cup down to my cabin and wallowed. When my youngest kid came down to see what I was up to, I responded this way:

“You know when you’re having a bad day, when you have a bad attitude and everything that comes out of your mouth gets you into trouble, and I have to send you to your room to get control of yourself? Well…I sent myself to my room. And I’ll come up when I have control of myself.” She accepted this explanation and did a great job of entertaining herself the rest of the day.

Later, Jay came down, worried, and tried to snap me out of it by offering the old “we have a lot to be thankful for” speech. I acknowledged that he was right, assured him that I was feeling grateful…but that I still felt sad. That I could both realize what I have (food, family, health, home, love) and grieve at the same time (suffering of others, loss of normalcy, missing time with friends, loss of freedom, ruined plans). To make matters worse, the weather had turned hot and buggy for a few days and the mosquitoes and sweat had lowered my sleep quality. Nothing like physical discomfort to enhance the experience of wallowing. And hormones, don’t forget hormones.

So I spent the whole day just being sad. In the afternoon, I reached out to a friend, whose elderly mother lives with her. I had just read some news about how nursing homes are death-traps right now, and I got outside myself long enough to send a message saying I was so glad her mom was at home with her, even though I know that care-taking has been hard sometimes. She responded, and asked how I was doing. I answered honestly, and she called. Bless her—she’s no stranger to anxiety and depression—and she seems to have a knack for speaking kind words and making me laugh. We had a long talk, and by the end of our conversation, I no longer felt like crying. When we hung up, she sent me some photos of her daffodils, which are blooming, and it made me smile.

Daffodils (courtesy of Kimberly Ward)
Kimberly Ward’s Daffodils

I got up, took a shower, got a haircut (thanks to my teenage daughter’s newly-acquired hairdressing skills), watched the sunset with Jay on the foredeck, and made a nice dinner. I woke up Sunday feeling much better. And now I’m asking myself: is a day spent wallowing a waste of time? Is there something else I should have done? Does camping out in the valley sadness have a purpose? My conclusions so far:

  • Wallowing didn’t make me feel better. That’s the point. I was choosing to stay in my sadness, literally rolling in it. But there’s a fine line between sadness and self-pity.
  • It’s okay to experience the whole range of human emotions, as long as we don’t let them run the show. It’s okay to go to the edge of the lake, dip our toes in, get wet…but if we wade in over our heads, we might drown. I have a healthy fear of the deep end.
  • Crying out in sadness is a universally human thing to do. I love Bible stories with wallowing characters: Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, Elijah running into the desert to die, David pouring out his soul to God in sorrow, Hannah on her face in the temple begging for a child, Paul asking, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” Woe is me. They are not talking to themselves, though, but to God, with hope that help is on the way. We can let our grief become a prayer.
  • Sadness/grief that doesn’t move toward acceptance or healing can become simultaneously selfish and self-destructive—choosing to dwell in disappointment prevents us from caring for ourselves and others.
  • There are things I could have done despite my sadness: go for a walk, listen to music, take a shower, write in my journal, complete a task, read a book, play with my kids, practice ukulele, help someone else: any of these things could have done the trick. Sometimes, when we don’t feel like doing something, that’s exactly when we need it the most.
  • I have never battled depression. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to live with a life-sapping melancholy. I am talking about one day of sadness, something a pep talk can address. If you are depressed, if your feelings of hopelessness or despair are keeping you from being able to live your life, get help. Reach out and talk to someone who understands. You are not alone.

Pep Talk #8: Food for Worms

Dead or Alive?
All dead…or mostly dead?

I am really bad at keeping plants alive. Even the hearty aloe is not safe on our boat. The one I have kept since the last one got doused with salt water and I sent it, literally, to greener pastures to be revived, isn’t looking so good. With a tiny bit of hope (a last-ditch effort), I watered it this morning on deck, where it sat waiting to go ashore, to the top of the marina dumpster where there is a “free pile.” If the thing is all dead (not just mostly dead), at least someone could re-use the pot. This dead plant got me thinking.

With lots of bad news circulating, the death tally growing, I have been observing people’s responses and seeing very different reactions to the threat of COVID-19. There are people taking it seriously, people scoffing, people suffering anxiety, people arguing for a utilitarian response (where the ends justify the means), and people echoing the words of Revolutionary Patriots—”give me liberty or give me death!” With everyone eyeing each other suspiciously over a mask, fear is in the air.

There is a lot to fear right now: the pandemic itself—of getting sick, the possibility of interminable isolation, the loss of livelihood, the possible loss of liberty, the uncertain future—and, of course, the biggest fear: Death. We face (or run from) this fear every day as a life form on planet earth. If we have been ignoring our own mortality and the questions that surround it, the bad news all around us has probably brought them to the surface. And what we believe about life and death shapes both our responses to the pandemic and our reactions to how others are dealing with it, including elected officials.

We must face our fears, our worst fears, and we must find courage to get up every morning and do what needs to be done while we wait for whatever comes next—keep our spirits up , care for the people we love, and do our daily tasks as best we can. I want to say that I am not afraid, that my sense of God’s love and presence leaves no room for fear, but maybe it’s because death to me is still a concept, a number on a graph, or a news story. I don’t work at a hospital; I am not surrounded by the sight, sounds, and smells of death. But the first-hand accounts are harrowing, and anyone who says otherwise has their head—or heart—buried in the sand.

But I also want to say something about fear’s opposite. And it’s not fearlessness, but faith. My faith is not an ignorant, callous, blind thing that says, “let the chips fall where they may.” It is a fragile thing—fed by hope and a history of God’s goodness to me personally—and it leads to compassion: I see fear and suffering in my fellow creatures and want so much to alleviate it. I believe that how I treat people matters more than dogma and theology. I believe in a God that allows evil (without good and evil, there can be no free-will choice and thus, no possibility of love), but that there is a plan in place to remedy it. I believe that God did send his spirit here in the form of a human being, who had the power to show us what love is, and that he was given the power over death itself, so that we can have communion with our Creator, both now and in a time to come. When death comes, I don’t have to face it alone (in a spiritual sense), and since it isn’t the end, I don’t have to fear it.  

Because I am freed-up from the tyranny of fear (not that I never feel it, only that I won’t allow it to camp out in my soul), I can use my mental and emotional energy to love better. I can reach out to friends who are struggling. I can be creating instead of consuming. I can pray for healthcare workers, elderly in nursing homes, the sick and dying, my enemies, my hurting neighbors. I can give when called upon to meet needs. I can feel joy in the middle of hardship. I can focus on something other than cripplingly-dark thoughts. And I hope that you can, too.

Lastly, and because my poor little aloe got me thinking, I believe that loss and pain can serve a purpose, that my life (and yours) in all its glory and its mess, its triumphs and mistakes, has meaning, and that God can recycle all the bad and make something good of it. Maybe that little greenish spike will come back to life and my plant will get a second chance. But maybe it will die and “return to the dust from which it came,” becoming fertilizer for new life in the future. Without death—death of the selfish nature, death of a Messiah, death of organic matter—there can be no new life. It’s a hard teaching, but one that can also bring comfort.