On Becoming More Decisive

IMG_8870.JPG

We live in a world surrounded by choices. Though this seems to be a positive thing, we tend to be overwhelmed, exhausted, and discouraged due to so many options.

I think of the times I’ve tried to host something. Instead of getting a clear “yes” or “no,” it seems like people are more likely to say, “Maybe” or add a caveat to their “yes.” The day of the event, I get multiple cancellations via text. The event ends up being much smaller. I was happy to have people who were trying to make it work, but for planning purposes, a simple “no” might have been easier.

Then I’ve also been on the other end—the one trying to decide if she can come. So often it really is true that those of us who grew up in the texting generation say “maybe” just in case something better comes along or (as I’ve found) because we’re afraid of all the things that could happen—kids getting sick, trying to find a babysitter, whether a complicated work schedule will work out.

But usually I feel so much lighter if I just give an answer—a committed “yes” or “no.” Then it frees me to begin planning either way.

I’ve noticed that I tend to want reassurance from someone else for making a decision. I want someone to say, “That ’s a good idea.” I want reassurance that I am making the right choice or the best one. But the thing is, usually I can decide myself, and there’s often not a right answer.

I found this recently when trying to decide about what meal to make for a new mom in our church. I texted two people for their input and kept weighing the pros and cons. But then I realized: I need to choose something and just go for it. So I did. And I felt so much freedom as I planned when I would go to the store and what I would buy. Rather than stressing about the “best” option, I made a decision and freed up brain space.

I’ve mentioned that I have really struggled with meal planning. It overwhelms me. But recently I read Lindsey’s post and realized that I, too, needed to establish a rhythm. It has freed me incredibly in the last couple of weeks. I no longer dread those seven open days because I have already limited myself (what The Nester calls “lovely limitations”). Now I don’t ask, “Should we do Mexican again on Sunday or just make soup?” I know that Sunday is breakfast for dinner night and I plan accordingly. It’s life-changing!

I also find this to be true of any thing we are trying to plan—a weekend getaway, a fun outing. It’s better just to go ahead and decide.

It’s like the old story about kids playing better on a playground with a fence. (And in the Montessori tradition, I’ve found the same to be true with a rug or tray provided for a child’s activity). The boundaries bring a sense of peace that enables us to be productive and enjoy life.

Part of this is a mental exercise in letting go. Once I’ve committed, even if it was my choice, I tell myself that it is set in stone. Then I don’t waste time lamenting or questioning. I just go with the plan. I find a way to operate within the parameters rather than rebelling against them. (I could probably insert something about November 8 in here).

Recently there was a lot of political discourse (which may be too generous a term for what was happening) in my newsfeed (I’m sure yours was the same!). In addition to the general disorientation I felt after the election and the angst I felt as I saw anger or gloating everywhere, I finally realized I was feeling indecisive about responding. I kept thinking of responses in my head.

But I don’t believe Facebook is a good place for political debate. It usually just turns sour, and except for possibly making the poster and those in agreement with the poster feel better, it usually doesn’t change minds. Knowing this, I still kept waffling about adding my thoughts to the discussion.

When I finally made the decision that I would not post, I felt freedom. Even when those posts popped up (and I unfollowed a few people temporarily), I knew I had already committed to not respond. It was a limitation I placed on my life. This limit worked well for me and went along with my values. And I stopped writing semi-angry posts in my head and started living again—thinking about other things.

I sometimes feel this when I get emails from companies I love. I start to ask, “Should I take advantage of this promotion?”

It’s easier to keep those emails out of my inbox until I actually need to purchase new jeans or kids’ shoes. It makes it easier when it doesn’t seem like it should be an option to buy shoes now. I find the same to be true with grocery shopping. I tend to think of all the places I could go and all the ways I should save money. But I’ve found such freedom in committing to just one or two places, even if it may mean spending a little more (although generally I actually end up spending less).

We’ve also found eliminating too many options to be very helpful with our kids’ toys. It is incredible how much longer they will play when they aren’t surrounded by so many toys.

What ways does making a decision free you? Have you found too many choices to be overwhelming?

Living Room Visits

IMG_5539.JPG

I just finished reading “The Playground Trap,” an article that I found myself agreeing with though I didn't necessarily want to. (It's a fascinating article and well worth your time!)

In “The Playground Trap,” the author writes about America’s diverse spaces for children and adults and how this can lead to profound loneliness. We are either with our children, in spaces that are designed with children in mind or without them in spaces where they are not welcome. Our lives are very divided, and generally the child-friendly places are not inherently friendly to people without children.

I keep wondering if there is an easy solution. We’re so busy, trying to maximize our time and be as efficient as possible. This is probably why we tell ourselves that playgrounds are furthering the gross motor development of our children when in reality, we just want a safe place for them to run off their energy. This is why I feel such an urgency to use my time well when I have a few hours child-free. We worship efficiency.

What if part of the solution is relinquishing efficiency itself?

When I was a little girl, we spent time visiting relatives. In the rural Appalachian mountains where my mom grew up, she had tons of scattered relatives. To be honest, I still don’t know how some of the people we visited were related to us.

What I do remember is riding in my grandmother’s blue car to houses that always felt a little stuffy, a little brown. We would sit while my grandmother visited. I’m not really sure what we did. Sometimes we were offered ice pops, and my brother would use his youngest child wiles to get more while my sister and I gave him disapproving looks. Maybe we took our books and read. Other times, the older relative would have something that fascinated children. Sometimes they just told us stories.

Do people still visit in living rooms? Do children still spend much time with the elderly?

What do we lose by keeping our kids out of these living rooms—these places where time may stop, stories will get told, and it may feel boring but in an important way??

These older adults shaped how I thought about myself. In a way only older people can be, they were inherently approving of children and told us so. They wanted to befriend us. Even during my most awkward phases, these adults and their approval assured me that I was normal with compliments I still remember over a decade later. This adoration of children was not merited--we didn't do anything to deserve it--it was just a natural outpouring of a culture that valued children as people. It continues to shape and humble me.

Old age can seem boring. Sitting in the too-warm living rooms of the older people while they tell a repetitive story can feel stifling. But I would hate for our children to miss out on this sort of visiting, the lost art of storytelling, the lost art of friendship with people so different from ourselves.

With the Internet, has come the feeling of being in a virtual living room all the time with conversation you can control with a click away. Each word is currency because space is valuable. There aren’t the same long pauses, unnecessary anecdotes. You can just click away from such things.

And this does make us more efficient—at least at first. Sometimes it allows us to digest hundreds of opinions in a short amount of time. It may encourage us to be tolerant as we see multiple viewpoints and can seemingly walk in several people’s shoes within minutes.

But what’s often missing is the feeling of kinship that can be cultivated only in physical presence. We especially miss a whole group of people that are often absent from the online debate—the elderly. And when they’re missing, we’ve lost collective knowledge that is hard to quantify.

But these living room visits may be part of the answer to our culture’s loneliness—the  divide between children and adults. Maybe those occasional moments of boredom are a small price to pay for a friend, a story, a reassurance that though you are but a child, you are a human, too.

I saw this when my husband’s grandparents came to meet our kids for the first time this year. There was a beautiful mix of adult conversation peppered with comments on what our little boys were doing. There was a slowness—a lack of urgency, which often seems to bring out the best in children. We weren’t necessarily playing with them, but we also weren’t ignoring them—a blend that seems to result in enjoyable playtime for them. Plus there were a few little gifts—some old-fashioned books, a couple of stuffed-animals, and some new trucks.

Sometimes we’re so busy just talking to our kids or trying to have adult conversations with them around, and it can feel equally frustrating and mind-numbing. But during agenda-less visits that include them, we’re teaching our kids how to relate.

We talk about socializing our preschoolers, and this usually means some library story time or a few days a week at a program. And these programs are wonderful. They are also focused solely on activities for children.

So what about socializing them to be part of real conversations? What about visits to our own older relatives or people down the street—times to learn how adults interact with one another and with children in places that aren’t exclusively child-friendly?

I have tended to hesitate in taking my children to visit. But when we do go to visit, I’m always so filled up. I see that they can behave well, I feel that same warm, unabashed adoration of older adults, and I feel profoundly grateful for living room spaces where loneliness is truly abated for a short time.

Striving for the Perfect Christian Love Story

img_5302

I read recently that Joshua Harris was asking for stories—the good and the bad—from people who read his books, particularly I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

That book (and all the other books on biblical womanhood, purity, and courtship that I read along with it) was crucial to my own understanding of relationships, and I have mixed feelings as I think about it.

Two years ago, I would have said I regretted how seriously I took dating and relationships. Today I have a slightly more nuanced view of what happened in my own life.

First, I think that when we attack books, we have to realize that it may be our own fault for how we read them. I wrote about this in regard to Babywise, a book I was very bitter with and strongly regretted reading. Some of us (like myself!) read books with too much open-minded acceptance. 

Though we need to be responsible readers, I still think that one of the crucial problems with both Babywise and I Kissed Dating Goodbye is the use of stories, particularly targeting those in a very vulnerable place (soon-to-be-parents and singles who long for marriage, respectively).

It’s one thing to read advice; it’s quite another to read that advice contextualized in stories, either real or imagined. In Babywise, I take issue with the fear-based, pretend story he creates throughout the book, contrasting a Babywise baby with a baby who is parented in a more attachment-parenting style.

In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the stories were what captivated me, even the ones full of beautiful, supposedly God-honoring heartbreak. I wanted to do things right—to have a God-glorifying love story. So many of us young Christians longed to do the right thing, to have no regrets and no messiness.

My main problem with I Kissed Dating Goodbye for some time has been the fact that the purity movement and the books and advice that went with it focused mostly on sex as the most difficult issue couples would face. The purity movement gave the impression that as long as a couple could control their sexual desire, they would make it to their wedding day with no regrets.

But what about the inherent messiness involved in relationships with anyone, particularly those we grow close to?  What if you are both in college with no jobs, a sure "no" in the courtship movement? What if your parents get a divorce during your relationship, causing you to question everything?What if your jealousy gets the best of you too many times and you feel like you’ve ruined the relationship by showing (and discovering!) the ugliness inside of you? Can you ever fight, and if so, how much? 

The purity and courtship movement implied that if you were a strong Christian heartily pursuing your faith and you found another strong Christian at the correct time and agreed to pursue marriage together while avoiding all sex and involving your families, you could have a perfect, beautiful relationship with no regrets. And you would simultaneously glorify God. 

This message left me confused throughout our relationship, and it added a lot of unnecessary angst. 

I am reading Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. This book, too, involves advice (of sorts) in the context of story. In it, a couple's love story is presented with selections of prose about love interspersed. In one such section, he writes: 

“Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

In an ideal world, marriage vows would be entirely rewritten. At the altar, a couple would speak thus: “We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today we seem like the worst decision of our lives. Yet we promise not to look around, either, for we accept that there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible.”"

I love the acknowledgement that when we marry, we choose a partner who is in no way perfect. We go into marriage picking someone who seems to answer our insecurities, someone who is flawed in ways that both mirror our own brokenness and also may help to heal us.

In my own understanding of it, the courtship movement misses the concept of dating and marriage as designed to help us see--and maybe fix--ugly parts of ourselves, parts that we may have hitherto been able to hide. It neglects to acknowledge that a good relationship will involve some heartbreak and letdown and frustration no matter how well we handle ourselves. It neglects to acknowledge that we won't always handle ourselves well. This is true in any deep, long-lasting relationships we have, with parents, siblings, and friends.

Maybe the ultimate failure of the courtship movement is its implication that Romantic relationships are so totally different from all other relationships in our lives. 

Yet I’m glad I read the courtship books. Yes, it was silly to feel guilty about using the word “boyfriend." It caused unnecessary angst to try to have a perfect Christian relationship, one that others would write about and emulate and praise (especially since all that takes now is a viral proposal video). It was ridiculous to think that the goal of a successful relationship was having the first kiss on one’s wedding day (and was I the only one who cringed at that anyway?).

But striving for a good relationship wasn't ultimately a waste. Here, de Botton is talking about parenting, but I think this applies to marriage as well:

“Whatever modest denials parents may offer—however much they may downplay their ambitions in front of strangers—to have a child is, at the outset, at least, to make such as assault on perfection, to attempt to create not just another average human being but an exemplar of distinctive perfection. Mediocrity, albeit the statistical norm, can never be the initial goal; the sacrifices required to get a child to adulthood are simply too great.” 

I'm glad we made our "assault on perfection" even if we had to mesh our ideals with reality.  I’m glad Jonathan and I were the first person the other person kissed. Obviously we would not have been ruined if that wasn’t the case. But I'm still glad this is a part of our story. I'm glad we had our earnest desire to be intentional, to try not to cause pain. I'm glad my husband is still willing to strive for something grand even though we'll never achieve perfection on earth.

And I'm equally glad we gave up on the idea of trying to have the perfect by-the-book relationship. I'm glad we eventually figured out it didn't exist and that there was more to life than making ourselves fit a mold.

My favorite words on this topic so far come from Addie Zierman who claims that we need more stories.

Stories are powerful, and giving lessons within them can be dangerous.

But stories can also heal. The more stories with have—with all their nuance and complexity—the better. We need stories that show real, applied grace not just in the context of sexual sin but also grace for the sad, the angry, the jealous, the zealous overachiever. 

 However, I hope that even our stories--the ones filled with the truthful, real brokenness and messiness--still show that marriage is worth waiting for and sacrificing for and being faithful to. And more importantly that God is.

img_2047

3 Ways I Escape the Dinner Rut

I am really terrible at meal-planning. It has always overwhelmed me because there are so many moving parts—figuring out what you have, deciding which days it would be good to have leftovers, determining how to buy in such a way that your chicken doesn’t go bad before you use it. Plus you throw in trying to be healthy and inexpensive, and it just gets crazy.

I’ve definitely improved, but it’s still a struggle. If, like me, you’re a terrible meal-planner, the best advice I can give you is: just do it. You’ll figure stuff out and make mistakes and let stuff go bad, but it gets easier over time (for me, very, very slowly). 

However, lately making dinner has been hard. It’s the combination of the witching hour: a generally-fussy baby, a tired mama, and a toddler who always seems to need something I’m not able to give him at that particular time. Plus we’re just coming off of over a month of someone in our home being sick, which means having to find our groove again.

However, I enjoy making dinner. More than that, I enjoy having a plan for dinner that I know in advance and then executing that plan. I love looking forward to a particular meal and then getting it on the table.

So this week, I’m making a plan again and doing as much of our shopping as possible in advance.

When you’re in charge of your own schedule, it can be hard to know what to do and when to get it done. I’ve heard several people say that one productivity secret is becoming your own manager and then becoming the employee. When you’re the manager, you’re deciding what work to get done and delegating it. That way, when you’re the employee, you don’t have to make decisions. Rather you can just do the work.

So in this sense, I sit down and make my plan (as the manager), and then each night, I just do what it tells me. I try not to let myself question it once it is made (although if we’re in the mood for a particular meal on night, I’m fine with switching).

In addition to actually having a plan (which really does make all the difference), I also have three other things that make a huge difference in my dinner fiasco.

1. Buy exactly what you need. I am a chronic under-buyer, and I love to say, “Oh, we’ll make it work.” But then I feel so uninspired about making the recipe, or I steal the heavy cream from another recipe and throw off my whole plan.

At one point, we tried a meal subscription service, and though I didn’t love it overall, the fact that I had the ingredients I needed—from the protein down to the specific spices—made it so much more enjoyable for me to cook.

I don’t like to over-buy, but I do make sure to buy exactly what I’ll need now. Plus this keeps me from letting food go to waste in my fridge because I'm missing the other ingredients in the recipe.

2. Try a new recipe. I get really uninspired if all my recipes are tried and true. Each week, I need at least one (but probably not more than two) new recipes to try. I love flipping through cookbooks or seeing a recipe on a blog to try. I look forward to these new recipes all week, even though they take a bit more time and effort to execute (though sometimes they don’t!). This week I'm trying a Grilled Chicken and Strawberry Salad Wrap  and Peruvian chicken

3. Put butter in the skillet. Sometimes I just feel lethargy. I just don’t want to go in the kitchen and make the recipe; the effort feels too great. On these nights, I get out my plan and then turn on the stove and throw butter in the skillet. The act of starting is tremendous. It makes me think of those people who say that the secret to exercise is just to put on your shoes. That first step can feel so big, but once I’m started, I’m good to go.

We’re still in a season where making dinner is hard. It’s a bit stressful and unpredictable. But I’ve realized that I’m more stressed out by not having a plan. So here’s to a new week and a few new recipes!

img_7767

P.S. When it comes to planning, I love Plan to Eat, and they just keep making their software better. I love that all my favorite recipes are there, especially the ones I otherwise forget. I love the way the planner works, as well as the grocery list. They usually have a good sale around Thanksgiving, so I've gotten it two years in a row for 50% off.