Archive for the ‘Exploration’ Category

Tizzy Alert

I’m all in a tizzy and stuck somewhere between Heaven and Hell. Today was the third installment of my creative nonfiction writing class — the first writing class I’ve ever taken and one that’s taken 3 years to work myself up to — and now that the initial shock’s worn off a bit, I find my brain positively exploding with ideas. I’m feeling alive, creative, vital, motivated. I don’t just think, “I really should write today;” I’m dying to sit down and write. That’s the Heaven part.

I’m also afraid that I won’t be able to capture all my ideas, or that if I attempt it, I’ll get stuck somehow, and then it will feel like I’ve failed, and I will hate myself for it. Or, what if I don’t get stuck at all, but write something truly terrible, and then I’ll feel like I’ve failed, and I will hate myself for it. Or maybe I won’t realize that it’s terrible and present it to the class to widespread horror, and then I’ll feel like I’ve failed, and I will hate myself for it. (Detecting any themes?) Then there’s the tiny detail that we just moved on Saturday, and we’re welcoming 6 house guests 3 (!) days from now. For once, I have real excuses for not practicing my writing, and it’s exactly the time I least want them.

That was the Hell part, in case you missed it.

Of course, as with many things I long to do, even when given the opportunity to write today, I piddled around putting out fires instead of sitting at my desk. Where is that closet organizer? I’d wonder. And that led to a search for the magical sock drawers, which put me in a room with yet another bag of canned food that I’d missed earlier and now desperately needed to be put away. Or, I’d start walking toward my studio and realize that those boxes need to be broken down — stat. Ah, living with myself.

I’m giving myself some credit, though. I’ve come a long, long way over the past couple of years in putting first things first. I wouldn’t have been able to sustain a meditation practice without it. I notice that certain kinds of self-discipline, the constructive, nurturing kind, gets easier with practice. And after all, here I sit at my keyboard, typing all self-nurturing-like. I may not be typing those sparkly ideas swirling about in the little grey cells, not this very instant anyway, but I am writing. And relieving some tension. And maybe, just maybe, I’m having a little fun.


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At 8:00 AM this morning, I cowered in the shallow end of Memorial Park’s public pool. I felt ridiculous.

Ridiculous in my HELLO-WORLD orange two-piece, so very unsuited for lap swimming.

I had tried to find a real swimsuit, you know. For 30 minutes yesterday I squeezed and teased and finessed myself into sausage casings, only to behold spare bits of me oozing out in all kinds of undesirable ways — in a suit 3 sizes bigger than my street size. So fun. And after all that trauma, I never did find a suit long enough in the torso, which means I have to order online. Thus, I crouch in the shallow end of the pool, water up to my neck to hide my shame, watching enviously as women clad oh-so-appropriately in Speedos dive in and start crawling.

Ridiculous because — inexplicably — I ripped the foam suction stuff on my brand-new-out-of-the-box goggles on the way to the pool for my first lap session. This means I’ll have to swim one-eyed.

More sadness.

Ridiculous because I’m sure I can’t swim, and whodoIthinkIam showing up like this and pretending I’m going to do something hard like swimming. I mean, I won’t drown; I’ll flounder across the pool, I’m sure. (There was the 1 year stint on swim team at 8 years old.) But I’ll be a laughing stock.

My pride does not appreciate Laughing Stock Status.

At last, my friend/savior/volunteer-swim-coach arrives. I explain to her what I’ve been doing for the last 15 minutes. She takes pity on me, bless her, and starts me off holding onto the wall and practicing breathing. Okay, this is too remedial, so she tells me to try swimming a lap while she watches. My pride has something to say about this.


But I set my jaw, grit my teeth, and push off. Right, left, right left. Wait, how straight are my arms supposed to be? I know my hand is supposed to be angled, but am I doing it right?? Am I splashing too much with my feet? I get to the other side and slowly, oh so slowly, lift my head out of the water and look at her.

She laughs. “Alison! There’s nothing wrong with your swimming! Your entry’s good, your arm position’s good. You have NOTHING to worry about. You’re a great swimmer.”


The next 40 minutes passed comfortably enough, in between the panting sessions every 50 yards. Swimming is, indeed, hard, very hard, but at least I have the basic skills I need to develop my endurance. Small victory #1.

It is simply amazing how afraid I am of doing something badly — so afraid that sometimes I won’t try it at all, or at least not without big fear and trembling sessions. Perfectionism at its finest. Don’t you want some?

Lesson learned, I’m heading back tomorrow, solo, with my HELLO-WORLD orange bikini. Gulp.


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My summer has just almost begun. This Saturday marks the first day of my 3-month break from Karis Fellowships work and from aggressive efforts to get to the bottom of my back pain. For 90 days, my focus goes elsewhere. Whew. It’s time.

I begin next week with a 4 day, 3 night personal silent retreat at Villa de Matel’s Ruah Center here in Houston. Last fall, I attended a 48 hour silent meditation retreat there led by my meditation instructor. I can’t even describe the deep rest I experienced. This time I’ll be on my own and for a longer time period. I’m looking forward to lots of meditation and prayer, stillness, naps, and no technology. I was going to say “no distractions,” but the truth is that I take myself everywhere  I go, and there is a reason I sought out meditation instruction in the first place. I generate plenty of distractions all by myself.

I look forward to seeing what this experience is like. Who knows? Instead of letting go in the care of God and the nuns, I might be climbing the walls, ready to pull out my hair. I might feel like God is 10 million miles away. I might cry myself to sleep every night. These things are so unpredictable. It’s good for me to remember that. I am going as a way to explore and to seek connection, but I do not know what I will find–in myself, in God, or in the world around me–so it’s important not to get attached to a certain outcome, which is, of course, my specialty. I need these experiences in my life to pry my fingers loose over and over and over. I want to go with gentle curiosity and openness.

After that, I have a few exciting projects to look forward to!

1. The Artist’s Way —  a 12-week creativity program I discovered on the freebie table at J’s family reunion campout last August. A few family members and friends have jumped on board, and we meet for the first time (via Skype) on Saturday morning. I’m doing my homework faithfully so far (of course–have I ever in my entire life not done my homework faithfully?). I’m excited. And scared. I’m not in love with a lot of Julia Cameron’s ideas as presented in the book, but I’m refitting them to suit my own needs. Who says I can’t be creative with my creativity course? I look forward to sharing what I learn here.

2. Spanish! I’m going to work with a tutor in Ecuador via Skype over the summer. I hope to do 10 hours of tutoring per week. It’s only $7.50 an hour. Isn’t that amazing??? I plan to try this company first. If I don’t like them, then I’ll switch to NuLengua. I did one free intro lesson with NuLengua and really liked it, but it’s about $15 per hour, which is still a super deal, but I’d only be able to afford half the lessons in that case. My ultimate goal is to attend language school for 4 to 6 weeks in Antigua, Guatemala next spring (best website I’ve found on the subject so far), then meet up with my husband and various family members in Nicaragua at this fabulous eco-farm.

3. Mythology. My mother-in-law pointed me toward an online college mythology course that one of her Classics professors used to offer. The university discontinued the course, but Dr. Gibbs left all of the course materials–syllabus, writing assignments, and readings–online for public use. What generosity! I had intended to start this project in January, but Karis Fellowships work really took off and became a part-time (pro bono) job.

So, that’s what I’m up to for now. Welcome, dear summer!

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The Bird Bowl

A bird bowl followed me back home from Cozumel.

It is perfect for me in every way. I love it. I play with it almost every day. It’s wide, shallow, gently curving — it cradles everything from salads to Slow Cooker Asian Short Ribs (fabulous recipe, highly recommended!) to Chicken Cutlets with Tomatoes Saute (quick and easy) to charred-to-death poblanos and overcooked steak. Who knew I’ve had a bird-bowl-sized hole in my kitchen equipment all this time?

The bowl came with a lesson too, as all the best bowls do.

I spotted it in a little shop off the main square and loved it right away, but then I started second-guessing myself. Another bowl, a more finely crafted, sophisticated bowl with delicate little brush strokes and no bird, rested on the next shelf down, and I began to think that I should buy the sophisticated bowl. The bird bowl was a little crude, a little silly. It did not say, “My owner is a connoisseur of fine earthenware, and it is an honor to be in her exquisitely curated collection.” I wavered, stalled, walked away.

But a special someone saw through my youthful idiocy, someone who appreciates about me what I often can’t appreciate about myself, and said in the sweetest voice, “But, Alison, the bird looks like you! The way he looks up out of the bowl, it’s like he’s saying, ‘Here I am! And what are you going to do about it?'”

So I bought it, and it became a little gift to myself. Not only is it perfect for looking at and perfect for using, that little bird peeks up at me at our dinner table to remind me that it’s okay to be a little playful at heart, and that I don’t need to cramp who I really am to be whoever it is I think I should be.

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What is a Protestant to do about Mary? It’s a question that naturally arises at Christmas, and while I have yet to find a satisfactory resting place on the subject, I lean toward the view that the Protestant church as a whole has thrown the baby out with the bath water. Though I first engaged with this question about seven years ago when I went off to a largely Catholic college, it reappeared on my radar this year through two events: first, my trip to Italy in the spring and, second, my attending an academic conference at Notre Dame this November.

You simply cannot escape Ma Donna in Italy. She’s everywhere and usually more prominently placed than Jesus. I don’t have peace about embracing the full Catholic doctrine of Mary, but an email I received during this time opened my eyes to a new way of appreciating the Marian art I was experiencing daily. This person wrote about Jesus’ mother as

the representative of all believers in all ages.  She ascends to be with Jesus and is a joint-heir with Him.  She even births the physical expression of God in the world as all believers do when they live out their lives gloriously communicating salvation to all.  She was able to say to the angel, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord” and let God do through her what she could never have imagined for herself.  She simply agreed to whatever God had in mind for her.  She is content in her sorrow and grief, through plenty of suffering and difficulties, because she trusts God.  She is not the author of her own sorrows, but suffers in order to be part of God’s purpose in ending all suffering.  I am inspired by her quiet submission.  She doesn’t insist that God fulfill her plans.  She accepts her role in fulfilling His.  She isn’t judging the value of her role as better/worse or more/less.  She simply fulfills her part.

Isn’t that beautiful and profound? A few days later, I visited the Frari Church in Venice and beheld this masterpiece of Titian’s:

Image from Wikipedia. Click photo for link.

While I had studied Assumption of the Virgin in an art history course before leaving the States, what struck me as I gawked in its physical presence was the JOY and WONDER and GLORY of it all! That idea of “Mary as the representative of all believers in all ages” rushed back to me. Here she is, a woman whom we know to be a faithful, humble, courageous believer, portrayed as a magnificent creature ascending in glory to her (and our!) intended position as child of God and co-heir with Christ. How amazing and inspiring it is! Why must I hold on to my own flat, fear-driven ideas of my glory and who I think should and must be when God has something MAGNIFICENT in mind? That’s what I saw in this painting: the magnificence of God’s intentions for me and the paleness of my own dead substitutes. In short, I walked away inspired and deeply thankful that we have been creating art about the believer for the past two thousand years, whether or not her name is Mary.

Later, when I stopped alone in Reims, France, to visit the great Cathedral there, a second piece of Marian art touched me deeply.

Can you see how Jesus is crowning Mary? You cannot see their expressions clearly in my iPhone photo, but the beauty and, again, wonder of the scene overwhelmed me on that gray morning. This is another scene that I think can apply to all believers. Yet how can it be? How is it that I too — I, Alison —  am intended to be honored as a co-heir with my Saviour? How is this possible? It is beyond my comprehension, and so is the kind of God who would hold such a thing in His heart for me. What strange beauty. What great love.

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Remember this space?

Well, I’m finally putting that desk to use for some crafty goodness!

We’re sending Christmas cards and newsletters for the first time this year, so while on one hand I’m discovering how overwhelming the process can be, on the other hand I’m finding that it’s an awful lot of fun. I picked blank cards from Paper Source and then dolled them up with these little guys:

Do you know about stickles??? Okay, you probably do, but humor me in all my newbie enthusiasm. Stickles are the bomb. They make my day. They make everything pretty. You can apply glitter (I love glitter!) quickly, easily, precisely, and with no mess. No kidding.

Out of 80 cards, there are 4 or 5 different patterns, so each one ends up looking a little different. Here’s another print, though it’s hard to see the glitter and gem stones in this light.

This is a new area of exploration for me. I’m trying to bring more fun, self-expression, and creative play into my life, so I made over my sunroom with, among other things, crafts in mind. It was a bit of a leap of faith because I haven’t done anything like this since before high school. But it’s great! When I’m feeling too brain dead to read or too tired to do anything active, crafts fit the bill perfectly. I find them soothing and surprisingly cheering. I had a brief blue bout this weekend, but after half an hour with stickles in hand, the world seemed just a bit brighter. And prettier too.

I hope to finish printing off newsletters, writing messages in the cards, addressing and stamping envelopes, and dumping the whole pile in the mail by the end of the week. After that, anything’s fair game. Pillows for the living room, perhaps?

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J and I are having the BEST time cleaning the house together on Saturday mornings.

I know.

I approached him with this proposal a few weeks ago in desperation. Try as I might (and, oh, FlyLady, how I tried!), doing more than the barest maintenance on a daily basis wasn’t working. My problem is not time, but energy. I have to choose what I’ll do in a day, and when it comes down to it, it’s more important to both of us that I meditate, pray, exercise, journal, go to health appointments, and read (all of which consume massive amounts of energy) than it is for me to shoulder the full housekeeping load. Neither of us was willing to give up any of those deeply important activities for me, and J was getting worn out playing catch-up in the evenings, so we agreed to try doing all the housework in one fell swoop over the weekend.

It worked. The burden doesn’t feel only half as big now, it feels one-tenth as big. There’s just something about the energy of working together that makes the whole thing FUN. J blew me away when he turned to me this Saturday and said with feeling, “I really, really like this routine. I love doing this with you.” What?!

That just goes to show how wrong a girl can be. I felt like I was proposing some kind of drudgery, something he would resent.  (I’m always afraid of J resenting me; it’s just one of my things. I hate feeling like I’m not pulling my fair share of the load, whatever that is, and I think I must be externalizing that judgement of myself. It’s crazy.) But there we were, working together, putting our shoulders to the plow, and enjoying it.

So, on Saturday mornings these days, we sleep in, we cuddle, we saunter up the street to our favorite breakfast spot and enjoy an oh-so-leisurely meal with fabulous conversation, then we stroll back home, roll up our sleeves, and start scrubbing. One-and-a-half hours later, we’re done; the apartment is gorgeous. And somewhere in there, even the paperwork gets scanned, filed, mailed, or whatever else it needs! Now that is a miracle. I’ve been looking for ages for a way to make a paperwork routine for myself, and then — poof! — it just happened. It felt so natural to toss it in, and now that I’m doing it every week, it’s a piece of cake.

Then we get to enjoy the fruits of our co-labor. We admire our apartment. Sometimes we improve it a little. This weekend we installed wall lamps (photo coming). Or we watch a movie. Or meditate together. Or have friends over.

It puts a big smile on my face. I’m so thankful for this simple gift. What is it about working with someone you love that’s so satisfying and rewarding? And it’s not just about physical labor either! When J and I work together on our relationship or communication or just areas of personal growth, there’s a similar spirit. What a great gift. What joy.

This routine may not last forever; perhaps this is just a season, but it’s a season I want to notice and appreciate as long as it’s here. I want to remember this feeling and use it for my encouragement. One obvious application is the prospect of parenthood, the Great Unknown that, when I listen to what most people want to tell me about it, scares the pookie out of me. Yet, what is good parenting but partnering with your Love to accomplish some of the greatest work of your lives? What could be a more rewarding and satisfying co-labor than to help these strange little beings, these fascinating people who are so not you, begin developing into the glorious people God created them to be, and at the same time, to plunge headlong into the fire yourselves on that very same Quest?

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