Work


It is a temptation.  It is a submission.  For me, fear is even an addiction.  It is a place I know how to inhabit, where I believe I gain control of what happens to me.  If I fear it before it happens, I can see it coming and prevent it.  I’ve experienced it before with other failures of my mind.  Like judgment.  Like pride.

It once took me several months to decide to forgive someone that I love.  And another two years to really get it done.  Book after book, talk after talk, wall after wall, learning how to forgive a fully repentant person.

It wasn’t just about deciding to forgive, it was about breaking the cycle of unforgiveness.  A cycle in which my mind longed to recall the ways that I had been wronged, a cycle that made me feel less vulnerable by keeping me in the place of victim at all times.  Never would I be surprised again.  A cycle that poisoned my heart and mind and relationships.

Any time we want to eschew a habit, we have to say “no” to it once.  And then we have to say “no” again the next hour, the next day, and every day after.  For me, one of the most helpful things is to replace my previous thought pattern with a new mantra.  One that is easy to remember and available to repeat at the first sign of danger.  My mentor wrote one for me once and since then I have found my own.

My forgiveness mantra is pretty simple now that so much time has passed.  Every few months now I may find a flash of paranoia, and I can say in response – I have forgiven that person and I am loved by that person.

My fear mantra will probably change over time, too, but here’s what I’m starting with:

It is an act of obedience and worship to create.  I will seek and indulge creative promptings, and I will present my work to my loving Creator with open hands.

I may crochet it on a pillow.  Except that I am afraid of needles

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When I started writing and making music recreationally, fear was hardly a factor.  Little risk, I suppose.  But with each post, each attempt, each listener, my fears grew.  Small successes actually made them stronger.  Farther to fall, and other fallacies.  I’ve pushed them down, tried to ignore them, but all it’s done is made me avoid my pursuits in order to avoid the voices.

So, my first step is to expose the fear, and I invite you to do the same.  Tell someone you trust to listen, journal a prayer, write them here in the comments.  Whatever you do, be specific.  Don’t just say you’re afraid of failure, describe what it looks like under the full light of your inspection.  Here are some of mine.

There is only so much success to go around – another person meeting their goal precludes me achieving my own.

I will make my work too honest, or not honest enough.  Too honest and people will shy away or feel they have to boost me up, or not honest enough and there will be no personality or truth on the page. 

I will include too much moral, which will make someone feel I’ve preached at them, or not enough, which will deny my belief that our surroundings are full of teachings that we should attend.

As I identify previous mistakes I’ve made, whether in writing, music, relationships, or the day-to-day, I become afraid that sometime in the future I will look back on this very moment as a mistake.  It is common to say that one regrets more the things they didn’t do or say than the ones they did, but my regrets fall at least equal, if not more toward the latter.

I did not hone my craft enough in my younger years.  I would stay in bed all morning on a Saturday reading, like many who are interested in writing, but it was typically The Baby-Sitter’s Club, not Anne of Green Gables or The Hobbit.  This means I will never understand good writing.

If I receive praise, I’m being patronized.  If I receive critique, I’m being told to quit.

The list could go on, and probably will, elsewhere.  It feels good to ask myself what exactly I’m afraid of, to answer honestly and without a filter.  With some, hearing myself out loud is enough to break the spell of fear, and with others, it is good to know what I’ve been listening to internally.  No wonder it’s hard to get work done with all that noise. 🙂

Fears found.  Tomorrow, a post on replacing them.

Garden planning.  Because we need to see things grow this year.  Because we need the Lord to be caretaker of us and our work.  Because we want miracles to sprout in our backyard.  Goodness.

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“There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth.  The first is by war… this is robbery.  The second by commerce, which is generally cheating.  The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein a man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God…” – Benjamin Franklin

You’ve seen them.  Instagram, hipstamatic, coolerthanyoutronic.  Photography apps that do the art for us.  We use them to broadcast the shiny parts of our best moments.  I can show you my dinner in a cool, cropped shot that is far too narrow to show just how dirty the kitchen behind it is.  My first inclination is to be annoyed by this trend.  Isn’t that what trends are for?  To annoy us until we buy in or move on?

This morning, though, I’m grateful for these cropped shots of life.  A childhood friend of mine is at the hospital with her eighteen month-old.  Two nights ago he tripped in the bathroom and ended up in the hospital with bleeding in his brain and emergency surgery.  They are spending their new year in worry, prayer, and cafeterias, surrounded by machinery that shouldn’t be attached to their child.

This morning this mother posted an instagram of a coffee mug. Not what I expected to see from her today; I’d gone to her page for an update on her boy, maybe another picture of his wound or hospital room.  But there was her coffee mug.  She put a caption that she’d brought it from home to fill up on the newly routine trips to the Ronald McDonald House, something normal to keep her grounded.

I was struck then with the up-side of this micro-view trend.  On the ever-shrinking, increasingly connected globe we inhabit, it can be hard to find focus.  Hard to sift through the headlines and friendlines, to distinguish between filler and pertinent information.  But an artfully cropped take on the situation gives new direction to this task we have of weaving order from chaos.   I’ll take whatever help I can get to highlight the small, important things, no matter how trendy.

The big picture is important, but in many ways it has little to do with us.  If we pay attention to what is before us, the tasks and blessings and talents of the day, we keep going.  We show ourselves worthy of the small jobs, whether it’s writing a chapter, or wiping a table, or holding our son’s hand in a prayer for intervention.   And we trust the outcome to someone greater.

I work at a grocery store.  The week before Thanksgiving is our “hell week”, so to speak.  Kicking off the retail season with the toughest work we’ll do all year.  Unpracticed customers are often cooking from scratch and entertaining family at the same time – enough to put anyone on edge.  Add to that the modern-day demand that your Thanksgiving meal be some forward-thinking, healthier, tastier, prettier, more impressive version than last year’s, and you can hardly blame folks for the panic they feel.

However, alongside the panic is perhaps the most communal holiday celebration of them all.  There is little political or religious offense available when you wish someone “Happy Thanksgiving!”  Smiles abound and reasons to be thankful even slip into short conversations about turkeys and vegan gluten-free stuffing.

From the chaos of carts and smiles and scowls yesterday, I went upstairs for a quick lunch and to make a last-minute plan for our own small Thanksgiving meal.  I flipped through month-old magazines, their covers torn off and sent back to the publisher for reimbursement, rejected and ready for recycling, but still full of fancy recipes, a few of which I may be able to pull off.  And there, of all places, on the third page of Real Simple, my friend, Mr. Chesterton, interrupted to have a word… and what a word it was.

“You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

G.K. Chesterton, from an early notebook (mid-1890s)

So much fussing over a table of food, but is that really the focus of the harvest season?  Or the first thanksgiving feast my nephew is re-enacting at preschool?  We recreate the details we’ve inferred, with some plain omissions and substitutions.  (Or maybe there were marshmallows on the sweet potatoes back on Plymouth, too, I don’t know.)  We hope that somehow a lot of food and taking a turn before the meal to impress each other with the very deep things we’re thankful for will… will what?  Set us up to indulge in laziness for an afternoon?  Make amends with family members in time to get a better Christmas gift out of them?

What’s the goal of the day?  Is it a time to revel in our resources?  Maybe.  Is it a time to celebrate the grace that brought us here?  Definitely.  Would we celebrate if we were alone?  I wonder.  To whom would we voice our thankfulness?  What is grace or gratitude without community?  Where can they live without relationships?

So often in the what and how of holidays, I skip right past the source of celebration – my community.  A God who loves and cares, people who are vulnerable and allow me to be so.

Say grace, says Chesterton.  Speak blessing and thankfulness before meals, before the play and the opera, before reading a note that may be full of spelling errors, or hearing a song that may very well be better than the last one I wrote.  Speak grace before dishing up a serving of lumpy gravy.  Speak favor and pardon to one another.  Speak grace to the turkey (or soy bean) who gave its life for your sustenance.

Thank you to our community, near and far, for the gifts you bring to our lives, for the examples of grace, for the beauty you bring us from chaos.  Favor and blessing on you on this day of feasting and on each day that follows.

I was not an Anne of Green Gables girl.  I didn’t read the entire series of Little House on the Prairie. When I was given a Skipper doll I immediately cut her hair off to have a tomboy cut.  Or maybe it was my sister’s Skipper.  I did watch BBC’s “Pride & Prejudice” a few times in college, but that had less to do with the fancy outfits and more to do with good company and the opportunity to feel like a rebel as we indulged in a Mike’s Hard Lemonade while watching.  And the fact that I had an inkling that I, like Elizabeth Bennett, was one of the few with the stellar combination of wit and intrigue to one day win a worthy but seemingly unwinnable man like Mr. Darcy.  I was right, but that’s another story.  🙂

Somehow in spite of all this tomboy training, last weekend I was home, car-less,  with hot tea in hand and a severe thunderstorm outside when I happened on an episode of Downton Abbey, a BBC Masterpiece Classic I had not heard of before.  It would seem I’ve finally caught the bug for historical fiction in fancy dresses cause two days later I had watched all seven episodes.  The story begins with the introduction of the family of a British earl during the days of the waning power of royalty and aristocracy in England.  The earl has three daughters, none of whom can receive his inheritance, and is surprised by the news that his nephew, who was to come and care for the abbey and his family one day, has died in the sinking of the Titanic.

To the dismay of everyone involved, the earl must now pass on his great wealth and title to a third cousin, a middle-class lawyer.  The lawyer is a prideful man who smugly regards himself as “self-made” and snubs his nose at the frivolous lives led by his family and at their request that he now live as they do, with more servants than family members.  One evening at dinner he made it known that he had no wish to give up his vocation and would just find time to manage the affairs of the vast abbey on evenings and weekends.  At this, the earl’s mother, played by Maggie Smith, turned to him and said, “Hwhaattt…. is a wheek… eendt??”

Jaron and I, along with many others our age, are in ways trying to undo the dynamic that this lawyer’s generation began.  We are trying to carve out a life that is not about our employment.  For days and episodes after this scene, those words kept returning unbidden.  I’d get home from work and feel entitled to use the rest of my day for leisure, talking myself into ignoring chores or even productive hobbies because I had earned my free pass being on my feet all day at the store.  And there it would be… Maggie Smith’s voice again.  What is a weekend?

Work and responsibility, as Maggie’s character so perfectly pointed out, are utterly distinct from employment.  In a time when the five day-work week was just beginning to dominate, the upper and lower class still had no use for it.  A task was a task, regardless of the day of the week and their life and work were largely indistinguishable from each other.

A life’s work couldn’t very well be expected to fit into a specific schedule of employment.  It’s an important distinction for us, as people who wish to have a life’s work to show.  We live in a time when being an artist, writer, musician is not often a viable career choice.  We also live in a time when the culture tells us that the career is a means to fund the entertainment.  We “work” so we can “play”.  We must be diligent if we don’t want to get caught up in the confusion – if we want to be people who know the glory of working hard in every area of our lives and the peace of rest in each part of our lives, as well, rather than the exhaustion of mere employment and the numbness of being entertained.

In Annie Dillard’s book of essays, Teaching A Stone to Talk, she writes brilliantly about the Antarctic explorers at the turn of the 20th century.  I don’t think I know anyone who would read those old journals so intently as she did, nor anyone who would so seamlessly compare the silly confidence of those teams to the foolishness with which we church-goers approach worship.  Unconscionably ill-equipped, but determined to the end to find the thing we seek.

I can’t help but re-imagine the scenes she described as I think about our musical and career endeavors, the things that propelled us to this fine city.  Established and talented craftsmen have contributed to our album: musicians, engineers, fine artists.  A sizable amount of money has been spent, and we are captain of the whole outfit, through no qualification except the desire to go… somewhere?  We’ve an idea how we hope the destination will look, but little knowledge of the terrain.  It feels very much at times like we are those Antarctic explorers.  Soon to be found packed in a glacier, poorly dressed for the elements and clutching the silliest of resources.  (In the case of one expedition, this meant light dress clothes and fine silverware.)

At times each small decision feels momentous, and at other times we realize we have failed to think of something vital.  Like forgetting food but having spent hours organizing the board games.

Yesterday was a day for catching ourselves in the mirror and laughing at the captain’s hat on our head.  How did it get there?  What fool allowed it to happen?

But tonight, sort of by accident, I found myself sitting with Jaron, listening to the soothing voice of Madeleine Peyroux, trying to shun the temptation to compare myself with her, and looking at pictures of antique table fans.  They could never be produced now – there would be a 99% chance that a child would stick his hand into the path of the brass blade through the barely existent shield while Dad was texting.  Our society can’t support such dangerous household items.

But these fans are charming, if sometimes a little silly.  Framed shapes of frogs and palm trees and pigs.  If you had more than one your home would immediately turn into a country diner.  But I’m glad they’re around.  I suppose I’m glad people dared to explore the poles?  I’m most certainly glad we continue to delve into the unknowably terrible and beautiful potential of our worship services.  And I’m glad we’re doing this thing in Nashville, whatever it may turn out to be.

As we were sitting together tonight, Jaron turned to me and said, “So far, I really like growing older with you.”  His trick of perspective changed the room.  Our cramped apartment became quaint.  The garage sale antique fan on the bookshelf became a symbol for risk and small beauties.  And the end of my twenties became the chance to really earn my already-gray hairs.  Our fifth anniversary is two weeks away, but I’ll make a toast a little early.  Here’s to continued expeditions – may we find ourselves surprised by our own silliness and the Lord’s grandeur for years to come.

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And here’s a preview of our album artwork, by Hollie Chastain.

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