Adjusting to life after Claudia’s leukemia was hard and weird in many ways (least of all the global pandemic that landed in our laps a few months later).
One struggle I faced was the constant desire to try to pay people back for their kindness to us. I wanted to be the first on the meal train, the first to volunteer, the first to see a need. In part, this was out of a great happiness that I could serve others: there was finally margin in my life and mind that made it possible to look beyond my own nose and family needs.
I also felt deep, deep love for the people in my life and was genuinely happy to serve them in whatever way I could.
But. I would be lying if I said I felt no underlying sense of duty or trying to even the score. Dane Ortlund had a good word on this:
“The natural flow of the fallen human heart is toward reciprocity, tit-for-tat payback, equanimity, balancing of the scales. We are far more intractably law-ish than we realize.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (157)
There is no points system. There’s no conversion chart for how many lasagnas equal a visit to a hospital sick bed. I don’t keep a record of whom I’ve served, waiting for them to serve me back–and neither does any other believer I know. Ortlund goes on:
“There is something healthy and glorious buried in that impulse [toward reciprocity], of course–made in God’s own image, we desire order and fairness rather than chaos. But that impulse, like every part of us, has been diseased by the ruinous fall into sin.”
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (157)
If I tried to “pay back” everyone who helped us in that difficult season, I would be busy for years–and eventually, that busy-ness would become resentment.
Jesus addresses what our love for each other should look like:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
We cannot lay down our lives in the same way Jesus did, but we can lay down our lives (whether our time, money, or other resources) for the sake of others.
I’m not meant to pay back my brothers and sisters for their care in our hour of need; I’m meant to be ready to care for them in theirs, whatever it looks like. God’s economy is not tit-for-tat, one-for-one, or merit-based.
This year, I’m following a chronological Bible reading plan. We’re not hitting every chapter and verse, but we’re doing a sweeping overview. And the view from here feels different.
Throughout Genesis, we’re hitting the highlights, the pivotal chapters of moving the story of the promise along, and I’m seeing over and over just how big (and constant) people’s mistakes are.
But we already knew that Cain makes a big, big mistake. In fact, the Sunday School takeaway from the story was “Be like Abel; don’t be like Cain,” which I always assumed meant “don’t kill your brother…or anyone else.”
A warning against murder is good, but it misses the true warning, the one that applies to each of us when, like Cain, our hearts pull away from God.
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Be like Abel and give God His due first and cheerfully, yes. But if you don’t, check yourself.
God knows Cain, so He warns him. God loves Cain, so He warns him.
We don’t get the words that God “will also provide the way of escape” from sin until 1 Corinthians 10:13, but we see the promise here, right from the beginning. In warning Cain that sin is waiting for him, God provides an escape, a turning point. He knows what is in Cain’s heart toward his brother, and he is saying, “You don’t have to do this.”
But just as we so frequently fail, Cain doesn’t listen. He kills his brother, the first recorded murder, and doesn’t fess up to it until God calls him out and curses him.
Everything in the narrative makes sense up to this point to our earthly minds: brotherly competition, anger and jealousy, revenge, a solved whodunnit–with trial and conviction thrown in for good measure so we can wrap up the story fast. But God doesn’t just mete out swift justice and move on from Cain. He hears him.
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.
Yes, Cain will be a wanderer and unable to work the land that yields both food and satisfying, God-imaging labor, but God shows mercy in protecting him from being murdered. From suffering the fate he inflicted on his own brother.
Cain does not deserve this protection. He has not earned it, and we do not know if his future actions will show a changed man. But the gift of protection has nothing to do with Cain’s efforts; it is a mercy from God.
And this is the story God tells over and over in His Word and over our lives if we’ll cry out to and follow Him: He takes in and saves the screw-ups, the down-and-outs, the wrong, and the broken.
God didn’t give Cain what he deserved, and through Christ, he doesn’t give us what we deserve for our mistakes and wrongdoings. And that is good news.
Maybe our hospital season knocked if out of me or maybe it’s the wisdom of getting older, but I no longer feel the need to create every routine and solution for scratch. As I thought through my priorities for 2021 and our phrase “DOUBLE DOWN,” I pondered a new (to me) question.
How much of this planning can I outsource?
Here are a few things that I came up with that are making a big difference.
1 // Planner
I started the year off with no intention of getting a planner. I had a system of 5×7 notebooks that did different jobs inside a traveler’s notebook that I thought would be sufficient.
Ahem. But it wasn’t.
Because the 5×7 notebooks don’t lay open flat (particularly when banded to others and swaddled in a cute, sparkly traveler’s notebook), I would make plans for the week and never check them again.
So when a friend told me she was using a Sol Planner for the second year in a row, I found myself opening a browser tab to check it out on a regular basis. Clearly, it was time to take the plunge.
There’s just enough help with habits and routines, places to check boxes, space to brain dump and plan for the upcoming week–and even repetitive writing of priorities to help them sink in–to make this feel like the closest-to-ideal planner I’ve come across.
Now, my traveler’s notebook still houses my prayer journal, regular journal, and book log/commonplace, but this hefty planner can sit open on the kitchen counter, and the Enneagram wing 1 in me gets the satisfaction of checking things off throughout the day–without constantly remaking printables or trying to tweak things to make them perfect. Done over perfect is the key here.
(It helped tip me to buy when the planner was first marked down. Now, it’s even cheaper! Click here to see.)
2 // Fitness Guide
I’ve noticed my body feels quite differently on days that I exercise and days that I don’t. This is largely due to my goofy foot length discrepancy, which affects the way I walk and stand (when I sit, I can hold my muscles in a more symmetrical way, but as sitting is the new smoking…). So as much as I love a good long walk, I have to counter my regular steps with regular exercise.
We work out as a family about three times a week, usually cardio but also sometimes yoga. To help me the rest of the week, I purchased a Fitness Guide from a YouTuber I’ve watched and connect to. Mari recognized years ago that she had unhealthy habits and worked to change both her diet and fitness; she comes across as knowledgeable but kind and relatable.
The fitness guide is a PDF with strength circuit workouts, 4 days a week for 5 weeks. I’ll likely only get to 3 of these per week, but having a plan and moving in the right direction matter more to me than doing it perfectly. And again, I don’t have to think or plan: I just have to show up.
(Like the planner, I also made this purchase because of a sale. Mari is having a big sale that you can check out here.)
3 // Sonlight Core/HBL
This school year was a strange one–to say the least. When the pandemic ended the kids’ homeschool academy last March, we had to pivot. With new curriculum in hand, we set out to make up for lost time: we schooled without taking a summer break.
I’m happy with my choices overall, but I’m recognizing the value in someone else choosing our read-aloud titles. Right now, my approach feels a little messy as I picked the books, ordered them, and placed them on a shelf together, but I don’t have a great system for tracking or scheduling them.
So I turned to Sonlight for next year–already dreaming of being the perfect homeschool mom with the perfect schedule. Sigh. It won’t happen that way, but I’m excited anyway about what we’re going to read and that it’s already organized for me. Or at least ready for me to tinker with and tweak between now and July. 🙂
4 // Autonomous School Subjects
Teaching my kids to work autonomously matters to me. It also allows us to get more school done in less time: kids can keep working down their list, even while I work with someone else. And honestly? It just feels kind of good to outsource the stuff I don’t know (piano) or don’t love teaching (math). Let me show you how we’re doing it.
Hoffman Academy provides online piano lessons. Anyone can watch the videos for free, but the magic sauce has been in paying for the premium service–and at $18/month for the first student and $9/mo for subsequent students, it’s pretty darn cheap for really great value.
With the premium version, each child has a dashboard that keeps track of what they have done, remembering where they are every time they log in (Ellie got really into it in the beginning and did several lessons a day, so she’s ahead of Claudia at this point).
After they watch the lesson–which is always helpful, engaging, and includes a silly finger puppet skit at the end–the program guides them through practice exercises, practicing what they’ve just learned as well as reviewing previous material and completing worksheets on the theory side of all they’ve learned.
My girls’ musical knowledge and vocabulary has boomed, and in less than three months, they have already started adding chords. I have no idea if that’s typical compared to traditional instruction, but we are all very much enjoying Hoffman Academy!
We are enjoying our online math…ahem…a little less. But not because of the program itself; math is just hard. But the lectures are taught with on-screen demonstrations and audio to explain them, which the girls seem to respond well to and are learning. And they get to customize their background, congratulatory stickers (from a huge collection), and “buddies” who linger nearby like that paperclip used to in Microsoft Word.
May he rest in peace.
Ellie is eager to do anything with a computer, so she leaps at doing her math (even if she feigns “hating” it to match her sister’s attitude), and Claudia and I don’t clash much ever over math now. When she hits a snag (long division at the moment), she asks for help and I’m on her team rather than the teacher/adversary.
So at $3.59/child/month (but paid annually), it is beyond worth it for my kids to receive quality math instruction in my home while I work with Roger on other subjects (TT doesn’t start until third grade math).
5 // Kid Lists
Just as it’s been helpful to outsource certain subjects, it’s been very freeing for my squirrel brain to outsource all of the “what are we doing today?” and “what do I have left?” questions to a simple spreadsheet on a clipboard.
If I have other things I want/need them to do on a given day, I’ll put a Post-It on top. For example, yesterday, I had Claudia start doing multiplication flash cards with Ellie. Ellie needs to learn them; Claudia needs to review. It’s a win! I also put “match socks” on both Post-Its as we have half a laundry basket (HALF!) of loose socks…and I loooooooooooathe matching socks. Anyone else?
Ellie and Roger are expected to finish their school subjects by lunch, unless there are extenuating circumstances, or they don’t get their 20 minutes of computer/Kindle Fire in the afternoon. Claudia has too much work to finish before lunch, but she has to finish before she has that screen time.
I spend so much less time being the bad guy. The list is the bad guy. We can collectively blame the bad guy. Until bad attitudes spill over into other arenas; then, I’m back to bad guy duty.
6 // Writing Accountability Partner
The only reason I’m actually working on this post is because I know I have to email Diana on Friday to tell her how many words I wrote. I don’t know her, we don’t write about the same things, and it’s perfect because those things don’t matter. Just knowing that I have “email Diana” on my weekly to-do list makes me write more. And her academic work is fascinating to me in an armchair way, which is another win.
I still haven’t met my weekly 2,000 word goal in 2021 yet, but tracking and having accountability has made me write more than I would have otherwise (if I had bothered at all). And I’m on track to finally hit that goal this week!
Small wins add up, my friends.
PHEW! That was a lot! Our days are full, but these are the things that make it manageable for me and my easily-overwhelmed-by-choices brain.
I love the Lazy Genius podcast/book/Facebook group. The author, Kendra Adachi, talks about “being a genius about what matters so you can be lazy about what doesn’t,” and I feel that that’s what I’ve accomplished with this list:
Teaching math myself doesn’t matter, so we outsource it.
Teaching writing so I know they know it way down in their bones does matter, so I’m a smothery mother on that one.
Reading great literature together matters to me, but picking each title and scheduling out the reading doesn’t, so I trust Sonlight to put together a great list.
Writing this year matters, so I created accountability; what I end up writing this year doesn’t matter (though maybe it will in the future?) so I don’t need clearer goals than word count.
And on and on and on. I highly highly highly* recommend Kendra’s book The Lazy Genius Way to help you figure out ways to make space in your life for your priorities while getting the other things done or off your plate with as little effort as necessary.
We hauled our old, lumpy queen mattress to the curb this morning. And since our city restructured its waste management, this was our only “freebie” pickup, so we tore through the backyard shed to make sure we got our money’s worth.
Ten minutes later, I looked at the pile. A tableau of ten years of life, right there on the curb. Two little mattresses, a hand-me-down toddler bed frame, an old crib, a car seat, a broken bike, a raggedy office chair, a play kitchen, the stroller I put hundreds of miles on–all so worn from use that there’s no life in them for a next guy. (Believe me, I’ve tried to give some of this stuff away.)
We wrung the life out of that stuff, sucked out the marrow as Thoreau says.
Later in the morning, Roger and I were working on his reading lesson. This particular lesson had taken us 30 minutes when we first encountered it last week–half reading, half cajoling and disciplining.
We spent this week reviewing previous lessons, so that when we tried it again today, he (mostly) breezed through it. He grinned at me when he finished, proud of reading eleven sentences with minimal help.
There is something desperately, hopelessly beautiful about teaching your child to read. Most of it is pure frustration and anguish, but then there are those moments where they are starting to get it and you don’t want to breathe because the moment is so fragile that you worry any air pressure change will shatter it.
This reading lesson book is a $4 used copy from eBay. I taught Claudia using it, I taught Eleanor, and now I’m teaching Roger. There are pages with angry notes from frustrated readers, pages with happy drawings from content ones. Likely peanut butter smudges.
We are wringing the life out of it, sucking out the marrow.
Things are made to be used up, but people are made to be filled.
But before I unpack what exactly “double down” means (and gloss right over the fact that it’s two words rather than one…), I’d like to look at how having a word of the year has affected me, particularly my understanding of how any given trip around the sun plays out.
Initially, I thought of having a word of the year as the means through which I would muscle my brilliance into the world and grit my teeth and pull up my bootstraps to make things happen.
In reality? Having a word of the year has largely shaped the way I see what God is doing in my life. And it’s awesome.
I had big goals and plans for 2018. I was going to get fit and get pretty, finally figuring out how to dress like a grown-up. I was going to build better routines, even better relationships with my kids, and an online presence so I could sell my dang book.
Ahem. Largely, none of those things happened, though I did launch that book into the world.
But at the end of 2019, I saw what God was building in 2018:
UAMS brought Matt on as an assistant research professor, ensuring we’d live five minutes from a children’s hospital in 2019.
That also meant a pay bump for him, making my freelance editing work more optional. I could work when I liked the job/client or had a goal to save for, but our bottom line worked without that income, which meant I had more time (and mental space!) for homeschool and general parenting.
With that work life off my shoulders, I was floundering a bit. How do I keep the pressure on to get my stuff done? How do I not fall into lazy habits? So 2019 was the year I would ATTEND to things: house, people, relationships, etc.
Until June 24 when Claudia started throwing up blood clots, was diagnosed with Burkitt’s leukemia, and didn’t leave the hospital for 40 days. We spent the rest of the year in and out of (mostly in) the hospital. Attend was the best word possible because that is all I did.
I attended to Claudia’s needs and heart at the hospital.
I attended to my own stress and trauma during short breaks (read: break room/cafeteria for caffeine/sugar/YouTube to numb all feeling).
I attended to Ellie and Roger as best I could when I was home with them (and came up so, so short. We’ll get to how God smoothed that over in 2020…).
I attended to Matthew with solidarity, neither of us able to give much else.
That makes it look pretty bleak. And it was. So much of it was. But God held us, held our daughter, and showed us His sustaining grace in ways we would never have known otherwise.
Claudia’s chemo treatment ended in December. We had a couple last niggling hospital stays because of fevers (having a port and a fever means automatic ER visit because port infection is very serious, even if it’s unlikely), but we were done with staying overnight at the hospital.
And ready for a change.
When Claudia’s immune system recovered in January, we hit the ground running. We still had to go in weekly for blood draws (then monthly, and in 2021, every other month), but we went back to church, co-op, and select play dates, anticipating doing more when cold and flu season were done.
We even headed down to Orlando for Claudia’s Make-A-Wish trip: she wanted to see the ocean and Harry Potter World, but the MAW Orlando package also includes Disney and a weeklong stay at a magical resort just for Wish kids (if you have a few spare dollars, would you consider supporting this awesome organization?).
We packed in all the magic we could and went home tired but so full of hope.
And came back to lockdowns.
2020 took a turn I wasn’t ready for, and I spent a few days moping on the couch about it. It took a while to pivot, but we came up with a new plan, and it ended up being really good for us.
This year has been devastating between the virus, natural disasters, seeing how deep and dark systemic racism still is, loss of life, and more. The pandemic has affected every person–and some have paid so dearly, whether in the lives of loved ones or jobs or mental health. But for our tiny family in our little nucleus, this year has been better than the last–which feels terrible to say in the midst of so much pain and darkness.
But God has redeemed, for us, the time we lost. We have had steady days upon steady days at home without much deviation. My younger two are not jumpy or concerned that I’m going anywhere. Matthew and I don’t panic over every passing discomfort Claudia mentions. I sleep now. Even having to give up our co-op made me see where our homeschool needed to adapt.
And that’s the other “renewal” part I didn’t expect: change. We are not the same. We know God’s care more deeply and walk in a steady confidence we never felt before. Where the pandemic illuminated hidden things, we have stepped into new light, more certain of the path before us.
2020 was bad, but God still did good, and we are excited to step into what He’s doing in 2021. Which brings me back to…
Early in December, Matthew sent me the link to a TEDx talk about marriage. As we texted about it, he said something to the effect of wanting to “double down and triple down on us.”
And it stuck.
He’s been brought on full-time as a tenure-track professor, which means we’re not going anywhere (until we buy a house, yay!)–and means we’re not changing from homeschool. At least, we don’t feel that pull yet. So since many things in our lives are not changing (but hopefully this vaccine rollout will mean some things can change…), it’s the perfect time to double down on exactly what God has put in front of us.
I’ve even simplified how I classify those things. Here’s what I’m doubling down on in 2021:
Caring for my family.
Caring for my body.
In previous seasons and mindsets, I’d break that down in the nitty-gritty for all the internet to see, but I don’t feel that need anymore. It’s a short list, but it’s getting as much of my waking attention as I can give.