Where Logic Meets Love

Our Digital Christmas Letter: 2011 in Review

Saturday, December 31, 2011

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Our Digital Christmas Letter: 2011 in Review | Faith Permeating Life

Mike and I opted not to send Christmas cards/letters this year; instead, in true data geek fashion, we sent out a survey to our friends and family and will be sharing the results with them in the new year. However, I thought I should at least put together a digital Christmas letter reflecting on 2011, so I can have something to look back on in later years.

What a busy year we've had!

At the beginning of the year I officially started in my new position, which is what I had been doing for the past year except it became my actual job and I got a raise. Yay! I do survey design and administration, data analysis and visualization, and basically just help other departments in the college understand what their students and faculty like or want. I also manage the entire student course evaluation process, something I love even though it's incredibly stressful.

Mike quit his part-time serving job in April to look for full-time work. He landed a new job in June as manager of a restaurant and is very happy despite the 50- to 60-hour weeks. Unfortunately his days off (Wednesday and Thursday) don't match up with mine, so it's a rare day we get to spend the whole day together.

We were able to take several trips together earlier in the year, though: We met up with Mike's childhood friends for a weekend in March, and they all came out here in June. We also went to Colorado in May to watch my brother play in the Ultimate Nationals tournament, and to Minnesota in June to see a friend get married. In July we went to Columbus to see Mike's family and to a lake in Washington with some of my mom's extended family. Mike was able to get back to Columbus four other times by himself, and I spent a weekend in Indiana with my aunt and another weekend with my friends up in Wisconsin.

At the end of June we adopted two male fancy rats, whom we named Bert and Ernie. They're pretty freaking adorable (even though they poop a LOT)!

I thought the mono I recovered from last fall had relapsed, but it turned out I just have hypoglycemia, which has been easy for me to manage. It's SO awesome to have energy again!

After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I became a partial vegetarian, and we subscribed to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from a farm in Wisconsin.

I completed a happiness project (recapped here) from January through December.

I attended two awesome conferences this year, one for women in higher education and one for 20-something bloggers, both of which left me with lessons applicable to my whole life. I also learned how to "network" at conferences.

In February I started blogging three times a week. In September I made some changes including buying a URL and creating a Facebook fan page for the blog, and in November I got a brand-new design that I love. I reached 200 posts and went from 1,135 page views in 2010 to over 17,500 total page views in 2011! I also started the Three Books on Thursday linkup, which I hope to promote more in the next year.

I hope you have felt loved this holiday season, and that 2012 brings oodles of blessings your way.

What Does It Really Take to "Get a Job"?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

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What Does It Really Take to

Last month I shared a post that ruffled some feathers, talking about how unhelpful it is to tell someone to "just get a job" when there may be so many factors conspiring against them to keep them from getting that job.

What I didn't know when I wrote that was that I was going to witness this firsthand very soon after.

I mentioned that I participated in December's Love Drop. Unlike some other families Love Drop has helped, Diomi and her son Nalee had very little and needed the basics. I don't know their whole story, but I know a few things. Diomi had lost her job after working in banking for 13 years. She has depression, and her father died this year, which doesn't help. They're very connected to their church; it was the pastor who nominated them for the Drop, because Nalee goes there every day after school -- he says he knows he'd get into trouble, like his friends, if he didn't. This kid is the brightest, sweetest, politest kid you'll ever meet. He had only one set of school clothes he wore every day, which they washed at the landromat regularly because they didn't have a washer and dryer. (I don't know this for sure, but I gather that he goes to a private school, probably due to the state of the public school system in their area and Diomi wanting him to have the best possible opportunities.)

The team rallied to figure out not just what they needed in the short-term (like food), but also what Diomi needed in order to get another job and become self-sufficient again.

Problem one: No interview clothes. They received new school clothes for Nalee and interview clothes for Diomi, and someone donated their washer and dryer. OK, now she has interview clothes and a way to wash them.

Problem two: No car. Someone donated bus tickets.

Problem three: No computer on which to create a resume. We were going to get them a computer, but they'd recently had their house broken into and didn't want any expensive things that could be stolen. So some people offered to put together Diomi's resume.

Problem four: No phone. She needed a way for employers to contact her -- obviously e-mail wouldn't work without a computer. Someone donated a tracphone with minute cards, of which she could buy more at the grocery store.

Witnessing this at the Drop, two conflicting emotions were battling each other. One was how amazing it was to see the team rally together to try to get Diomi back on her feet. The other was just how many varied obstacles we had to overcome -- and knowing how many people are out there with those same obstacles who don't have a whole team helping them out.

I volunteered my time as a job search coach, and when I talked to Diomi later, another problem presented itself: Without a computer, she had no way of even finding job openings. She could find them by word of mouth, but she doesn't appear to have much of a support system; usually the Love Drop videos have interviews with friends and family, and there was no one but their pastor on the video. I said I would look up which jobs she was qualified for.

However, there was still the issue that many job applications have to be completed online. Determined to overcome that hurdle, I went home and looked up the nearest library to Diomi's house. I confirmed that they had computers there with Internet access that patrons could use. It was a little over a mile from Diomi's house, which is a bit too far to walk in the Wisconsin winter, but there was a bus she could take part of the way.

She gave me a call to schedule the time for me to come back up there to do interview prep with her. I said that as soon as I got her resume, I was going to find a few jobs for her to apply to, but the applications may be online. Did she ever go to her local library to use the computers there?

She told me, "Oh, well... See, I have $60 in fines from when I was a kid, and I've just never been able to pay them off."

My heart just broke all over the floor at that point. This woman has nothing, she's trying to give her son the best education and opportunities possible, and when she's laid off like everyone else in this country, every possible avenue for her to get another job contains obstacles. Who would tell her she should have been working on paying off her decades-old library fines instead of putting her money toward food and her child's education?

I hadn't planned to donate money, only my time, but as soon as I heard that I immediately called up the library and told them I wanted to pay off her library fines. I was told that was private information and I wasn't allowed to be told whether she had any fines, much less pay them off.

Here's what frustrates me most: We have a culture around hiring such that it's impossible to get a well-paying job without money (for interview clothes, for resume paper, for transportation to the interview) even if you have education and years of experience like Diomi.

Sure, it's easy to point fingers and say, "She should have saved up money. She should have done this or made this a priority." I don't know her whole story, but I do know that I don't feel comfortable saying that a person's past mistakes should condemn them to a life of joblessness and poverty. Do you know how many Americans live in debt, or live paycheck to paycheck? Yet many of them, if they lost their jobs, would have friends who could hook them up with a new one, a suit in their closet already, and parents who would make sure they were taken care of in the meantime.

Isn't it in our best interest as a country to ensure that an individual who has a college degree and decades of experience should be able to get a job, even with $0 and no connections?

Certainly someone could walk into a McDonald's and fill out an application, but what a waste to have a person like that working a cash register!

I don't have answers. I just have a lot of questions that are breaking my heart and keeping me up at night. There has to be a better way.

UPDATE: I spent a few hours with Diomi in January, and we went to a different library than the one where she was told she had to pay off the fines. They waived her fines because they were so old! I was able to use the money I was going to use to pay them off to buy her more minutes for her phone. She seemed a lot more confident about her job search when I left.

Happiness Project Wrap-Up

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

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Happiness Project Wrap-Up | Faith Permeating Life

Wow, can you believe it's the last week of 2011?

Around this time of year, people begin planning resolutions for the new year and reflecting on whether they kept their resolutions for the year that's ending. For 2011, though, I undertook a happiness project modeled after Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project, so I had new resolutions every month, and my posts at the beginning of every month weighed in on how I'd done with the previous month's resolutions. You can see December's post for the resolutions that made it to the end of the year and hopefully will be carried into the new year.

This leaves me with something bigger to reflect on as the year comes to a close, which is what this yearlong happiness project has done for my life.

A lot of what I said in the middle of the year is still true. The project has helped me to focus on the big ideas that are most important to me, like my faith and my relationships. It's helped me greatly reduce those tiny irritations of life such as forgetting to bring things to work, letting myself go too long without eating, or having the nagging guilt of not exercising regularly. It has given me the boost I need to "just do it now" so chores get done sooner and I have more time to focus on what I want to be doing.

But what about the big question? The whole point of a happiness project is to be happier, right? So... am I? Am I happier?

The trick to answering that is this: I don't think it's possible to say that my life is happier now than a year ago. What I call happiness isn't so much a feeling that pervades my whole life as one that is attached to specific positive events. I mean, right now, sitting at my computer typing, I wouldn't say that I'm particularly "happy" -- more of a baseline neutral, and that's totally fine with me.

So if my happiness project hasn't made me happier, what has it made me?

1) It's made me more peaceful, more patient, and more easygoing. What I've noticed is that things don't ruffle me as easily as they have in the past. That's not to say that things don't upset me still, but when they do, they're more likely to be related to those big things that really matter to me, like if I think I've caused a rift in a relationship. If Mike is upset about something, it's a lot easier for me to completely forget any concerns I had about myself and just focus on being supportive for him; before I was more likely to get all, "Ugh, why is he dumping this on me when I'm already cranky?"

2) It's made me get my priorities straight. I think my ability to be more easygoing is because I've placed more focus on taking care of myself. When I'm well-rested, fed, watered, not too cold or too hot or in pain, and I haven't let stress overwhelm me (the hardest part of all!), I'm in a much better place to address the needs of others. And because I'm putting effort into making sure the things important to me get taken care of, when something else goes wrong it's not as likely to faze me, because I know it's not that important.

3) It's made me worry less. Part of my project was devoted to what I called "preparedness." In addition to putting together an emergency plan and emergency kits, I compiled step-by-step directions for the evaluation system I manage at work, and then last month started working on power of attorney paperwork for me and Mike. I set up Prey Project for my laptop and Find My iPhone for my iPad and iPod Touch. I did most of this because I felt like I "should," but I'm surprised at how much stress it has relieved that I didn't even know I had. Case in point: I used to have dreams all the time about my purse getting stolen, and now I can't remember the last time I had that dream.

4) It's made me more vocal and quicker to act when something is wrong. Because I've spent so much time thinking about what's important to me and what's not, I can better determine what's actually worth making a big deal of. If Mike does something that upsets me, I've gotten better at figuring out what I can just shrug off and what I need to talk to him about right away so I don't end up stewing for several hours. At work, rather than saying yes to every project, I've gotten a lot better about listening to my body's reaction; if something makes me feel panicky, I'm better at identifying that and then responding accordingly. ("Thank you for asking me, but actually making cold calls is not a strong suit of mine. Is there someone else you could ask?") I've discovered that even if I can't come up with a good alternative myself, just voicing my concerns about or discomfort with a situation will often cause the other person to suggest a better solution.

So, was it worth it? Absolutely! I would definitely recommend trying out your own happiness project, if only for a month. You don't necessarily need to follow the blog or read the book. I used this framework, but yours might look different:
  • Come up with your happiness commandments -- guiding principles for your life.
  • Each month, pick a theme, like relationships, health, or faith.
  • Come up with 1-5 resolutions you'd like to accomplish in that area, either habits you'd like to build or a one-time project you want to complete. Often I'd review my commandments to find ways to apply them to that month's theme.
  • Figure out how you're going to track your progress. I used a monthly calendar template and added checkboxes for each of my resolutions, then printed it off and kept it on my nightstand to check off each night. Send me an e-mail if you'd like a copy of the chart I used.
That's it! The concept is fairly simple, but the continued follow-through is the tough part :)

On Sunday, I'll share my goals for 2012. I'm going in a very different direction than I did for this year!

What do you think about the idea of a happiness project? Is it something you've done or would consider trying?

When Love Came Down

Sunday, December 25, 2011

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When Love Came Down | Faith Permeating Life

I've been thinking a lot about love these past few days.

Specifically, that love by itself is an abstract concept. Love is made manifest through relationships and through actions. We understand love because we see it and feel it.

On Thursday, I had the privilege of participating in the last-ever Love Drop. It was amazing to see how all it takes is a little direction (Love Drop picks a family in need) and support just comes pouring out from all over. People who didn't know each other and didn't even know the family worked together to make sure that they were going to be able to get through the winter and that Diomi had what she needed to be able to land another job.

Another awesome part of the day was that what started with a "let's try to meet up for lunch" tweet ended up with Emmy picking me up from my apartment and driving me two hours to the Drop. We'd never met in person before and yet she had no hesitation offering me a ride there because she is awesome.

On Friday morning I woke up having not seen Mike since Monday night because he went to Ohio to see his family for a few days, and then drove back Thursday night, slept at a rest stop, and went straight to work. So I went and surprised him at the restaurant he manages. He only had a few moments to chat with me, but apparently he told everyone I was there because his servers kept coming over to introduce themselves and tell me how much Mike says nice things about me. It made me feel like a queen!

Mike got home from work Friday afternoon in time to give us an hour together before we had to head to my parents' house for the weekend. We packed up the car, then opened the gifts Mike had brought home from his parents. I had completely forgotten I'd asked for a ZÜCA bag, so I was ridiculously excited to get that from my mother-in-law, and promptly unwrapped it and started wheeling it in circles around our apartment because I'm a huge dork, haha. I had also asked for the supplies to finally make to-go emergency kits for Mike and me (remember those?), and my father-in-law not only bought us two nice backpacks but had filled each one with everything we needed! It was pretty awesome.

Friday night I met up with a bunch of my friends from high school. As often happens around holidays, someone threw out an invitation via e-mail not knowing how many people would show up, and almost all the old gang ended up being able to go. I got to sit and catch up with quite a few of my friends, and marveled with one of them that we have all known each other for over ten years now. It's amazing to me that these relationships have stood the test of time, and that we all still love getting back together when we can. As I was driving back to my parents' house, I just kept saying, "Wow. I love my friends so much."

Yesterday was Christmas Eve. My family and I went to church, then came home and started preparing our traditional snack food dinner. My sister and I worked together on the mini-hot dogs in rolls, talking and laughing together. I feel very blessed because I didn't have a close relationship to either of my siblings growing up (my sister and I always got along, but she's 12 years younger so I was more of a mother figure for most of her life), and now I feel like in the past six months I've started to develop real friendships with both my brother and my sister. When Mike got home from work we ate our dinner and watched the hilarious AFV Holiday Special my mom had recorded. Then we commenced a half an hour of attempting to take a family photo, which spiraled in ridiculousness and uncontrollable laughter by the time we were done, and finally we sat around and opened gifts from one another.

I have felt so loved the past few days, and that has been what has really hit home for me what we are celebrating on Christmas. We are celebrating the moment when God's love was made manifest in a human being. When God showed us what love really meant by offering us a human relationship with Him and then demonstrating love, here on Earth, through His actions. What an amazing gift! God's love is too large for our human minds to fully grasp, but we can witness His love in the physical person of Jesus Christ, a love that resonates through our relationships and actions today.

Wishing you and yours a very merry Christmas full of love and memories.

For the One Who Has Everything: A Gift Guide of Experiences

Thursday, December 22, 2011

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For the One Who Has Everything: A Gift Guide of Experiences | Faith Permeating Life

Recently I've seen a lot of bloggers posting gift guides -- suggestions for what holiday gifts to buy for various people. So you can get advice for everyone in your life from the Jane Austen fan to the ballet dancer. (And Macha's tongue-in-cheek Catholic Christmas gift guide is pretty hilarious.)

Ever since I wrote about the importance of experiences I've been toying with writing a post about giving experiences. I like this idea because I'm very particular about what I put on my Christmas list and since last year have requested that people give to specific charities rather than buy me something not on my list, simply because I don't like having too many "things" in our little apartment. And many of the people I know don't really need or want a lot of things either; my dad always struggles to put enough things on his list that everyone in the family can buy him something.

I put this to the side because (family spoiler alert!) I didn't actually buy any "experiences" as gifts this year and felt that I was being hypocritical... but then I kept coming up with ideas, and I thought, well, maybe this will be helpful to someone who's trying to find something last-minute for that person who doesn't really need anything.

So here's my best attempt at a gift guide for giving experiences, not things.

Relaxation
I am not the kind of person who typically spends money on things like manicures and massages, but I do enjoy them enough that I'd get them on someone else's dime. I think there are a lot of women who are in this same boat: They enjoy getting pampered, but don't feel justified spending their hard-earned money this way. If you go this route, I suggest a gift card to a spa or similar place where there are a variety of options (massage, facial, manicure/pedicure), as what's relaxing for one person is uncomfortable for another.

Fun
This could be any number of things, depending on what the person enjoys. A round of golf (or mini-golf). A day at an amusement park. A zoo or museum membership. A gift card to get movie tickets or concert tickets of their choice. Something that gets them out of the house and doing something they find fun.

Food
You can go either way with this one, either actually giving someone food (cookies, jam, their favorite snack) or giving a gift card to their favorite restaurant. Either way, they have the enjoyable experience of eating delicious food and then don't have anything taking up space afterwards. (Unless you give them food they don't like, in which case it will go in their pantry out of obligation and then stay there until the end of time. At least in my experience.)

Subscriptions
Not magazine subscriptions. Unless you know it's something they've really wanted but haven't subscribed to for some reason, a magazine subscription can easily just become another piece of mail to deal with. I'm talking about virtual subscriptions. This could be anything from Netflix (movies) to Pandora One (music) to Hulu Plus (TV shows). If you know someone's using a trial version or free, ad-supported version of some service, paying for a subscription to the premium service could be a great gift.

Microlending: Not Quite Money, Not Quite Charity
There are two potential defaults for someone you don't know what to get: Give them money, or make a donation to charity in their name. Neither one is ideal, since money is kind of boring (and, if given to me, will likely go into the bank and not actually get spent on me in any kind of fun way), and charity donations don't necessarily have meaning unless you know for a fact that someone is passionate about a particular charity. As an alternative, check out Kiva.org, where you can lend money to entrepreneurs in developing countries. You can buy gift cards to the site, which means the person who receives the gift card gets to go through and decide who they want to lend the money to, then eventually the money will be paid back and they can reinvest it or cash it out to PayPal. It's doing good, giving an experience, and giving money all in one! This was my birthday gift from Mike, and I had fun looking through all the different businesses that people had and deciding whom to give money to. Similar sites include Microplace and Global Giving.

Your Words
Last December I was scouring the Internet for gift ideas for my grandmother. She was spending Christmas with us so I had to get her something, but she's at the age where she doesn't need anything, doesn't want anything, and is actively trying to give her things away. I finally hit on this suggestion: Send a postcard a week for all of the next year. I didn't talk with her very often and writing a letter seemed too time-consuming when I never felt I had much to say, but writing a few sentences on a postcard every week, I could do. I ended up ordering some custom ones with our picture from Vistaprint so she'd have something special to open, but just a cheap pack of postcards will do -- it's your time that you're giving. This entire year she never failed to mention to my dad every time she talked to him how much she loved getting my weekly notes, and every holiday when she sent a card she would write a little P.S. about how much she was enjoying the postcards.

I purposely avoided labeling this last section "Your Time," even though that's basically what you're giving, because I often see suggestions to give people homemade coupons for your time, whether you can cook for them or mow the lawn or whatever. I've given and gotten these types of coupons before and, at least in my experience, they don't work because no one actually cashes them in. No one feels comfortable going back to someone a month or two later and saying, "Here, I want you to cook me a meal tonight." Maybe you've had a different experience, which I'd love to hear, but I've never seen this kind of gift work except in a kind of "it's the thought that counts" way (i.e., you are giving the offer of cooking, but not the actual cooking).

I'd love to hear your suggestions for what other ways you can give the gift of experiences rather than physical things. What's the best experiential gift you've received or given?

Lessons in Driving... and Surviving

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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Lessons in Driving... and Surviving | Faith Permeating Life

The stories about teachers shared on Sunday's post made me think it's probably time to share my horrible driver's education experience.

To get the proper context for this story, you have to understand that I was terrified of driving. At one point I said I never wanted to learn to drive, but by the time I got to high school I decided I'd go through with it. Then, I had time to get worked up about it because I turned 16 in November of my sophomore year but couldn't fit driver's ed into my regular school schedule, so I took it during summer school the following summer. (I missed the cutoff by a month to take it the summer before I turned 16.)

My dad took me out for some lessons once I got my permit, and I was just a nervous wreck. I remember one time he asked me to turn and I put on my turn signal, but I was so focused on the thousand other things I was trying to remember that I forgot to actually turn. My dad was smart enough to wait until I was past the intersection to calmly mention that I was supposed to turn, but that it was OK and I could just turn at the next light. I was embarrassed, but my dad was incredibly patient with me.

Several of my friends were taking driver's ed through school the same summer and we were allowed to pick our driving partners, so I figured it wouldn't be too bad. My best friend Missy and I paired up, which was great because she and I were always supportive of each other and I didn't have to worry about feeling judged.

By her, anyway.

The driving instructor we got was supposed to be one of the good ones, as I remember, probably because he was "cool," with his buzzed hair and sunglasses and his loud, joking style. If I'd had the kind of self-awareness then that I have now I probably would have realized that he was not going to be a good fit for me. Not that I could have done anything about it, but maybe I would have at least been prepared for what lay ahead.

Two problems became immediately apparent. The first was that he clearly favored Missy over me, something she doesn't dispute. This will become painfully obvious when I tell you about our final driving test.

The second was that he liked to listen to talk radio. LOUD talk radio. And no one was allowed to change the channel, least of all me.

(To be fair, it was actually a music station, but one that had a morning show during the time we had our lesson, so it was mostly talk.)

For Missy, he would sometimes change it to a country station instead, her favorite kind of music. Still ear-splittingly loud, but at least you could kind of mentally drown out the music in a way that I couldn't do with the talk radio. I always ended up listening to what they were talking about instead of thinking about the 50 different things that you have to remember when you're first learning to drive a car.

Considering how anxious I was and how hard it was for me to focus even with my patient dad in a silent car, you can imagine that my driving skills didn't exactly improve when I was put into a car blaring talk radio with an instructor who thought that my protests about the radio were hilarious. He would always say the same thing, "You need to learn to drive with distractions! What if people are talking in your car?" And I would always reply, "I am not distracted by people talking in the car. I am distracted by this radio station, and when I am the driver I will not choose to listen to loud, distracting radio stations, because that is something I have control over."

On one of the rare occasions that I argued with him so much that he switched to the country station, I must have started unconsciously singing along while he was talking to Missy, because I remember him saying, "Look! She's singing along! The music relaxes her!" I started to protest and he busted up laughing.

So that was the atmosphere in which I learned to drive.

I was an overly cautious driver. (See also: I was terrified of driving.) I usually waited until I had lots of space before I would turn out of a neighborhood onto a main road. And naturally, my instructor would berate me for "taking all day" to get us out of the neighborhood and just generally insult my judgment of when it was safe to move. I will never forget the one time he had to use the passenger-side brake to stop me from turning out in front of a car that was coming up too fast; I was mortified, but looking back it's not surprising that after having my safety instincts routinely insulted for several weeks that I would eventually go in the opposite direction and get overly daring just to shut him up.

You may be wondering why I didn't report our instructor for harassing me during our entire driving experience. This was because he happened to be the brother of the guy who was in charge of the whole driver's ed program, a guy who himself didn't have much of a reputation for being friendly. I decided I was safer just grinning and bearing it.

So then it came time for our final driving test. I don't remember exactly how it worked, but I think you had to pass your driver's ed final in order to get clearance to go to the DMV and take the actual written and driving tests to get your license. You would have points deducted anytime you made a mistake and you couldn't have more than 30 points deducted or do anything that was an "automatic fail" like the instructor having to use the passenger-side brake.

In case there was any doubt that he favored Missy over me, I present you with some snapshots of my driving final vs. Missy's driving final*:
  • Me: Told to stop on a neighborhood street and then do a "hill park." Note that the street in question, like many streets in Illinois, was completely flat. I asked whether I was supposed to do an uphill park or a downhill park. He gave me a smirk and said, "I can't tell you that," then refused to tell me if I did it correctly and whether he took any points off.
  • Missy: Tried to back around a corner and drove up onto somebody's lawn. His comment: "Hope they didn't like their grass!" No points deducted.
  • Me: Pulled up to a T-stop, to the left of which there was a row of big trees you couldn't see around. Stopped maybe a foot past the stop sign (still well behind the corner) so that I could actually see around the trees before turning right. The instructor said, "You just failed your final. ...But I'm going to be nice and only deduct 8 points instead."
  • Missy: Turned left in front of an oncoming car that had almost reached us. The instructor said, "Wow, you almost killed us there! ...But since we didn't die, I'll only take 4 points off."
In the end, Missy passed with no problem and I came a few points short of failing, but thankfully didn't.

Then, since our town's DMV was rumored to try to trick people into failing, my mom took me to a DMV in another town where most people there were really old people renewing their licenses. I almost cried with relief when the DMV examiner said she was going to try to give me slow, clear instructions and that if I had any questions or needed her to repeat anything, to just let her know. I was thrilled when she asked me to "please do an uphill park" (on yet another flat street, of course). I did everything perfectly -- except right at the beginning, when I was so nervous I put the car in Neutral and then hit the gas. Whoops.

Needless to say, driver's ed was a pretty terrible experience for me, and this doesn't even include the fact that the classroom portion was so incredibly boring it hurt. Like, I understand the phrase "bored to tears" now; I was so bored in that class that I wanted to break down crying because I felt like I was trapped in the classroom and that it would never end.

And each time it did end, I got to go spend half an hour being humiliated and harassed about my driving skills. Yippee!

Please share your driver's ed experiences in comments! I hope they were better than mine.


*I should note that I'm not trying to imply that Missy is or was a bad driver, because she totally isn't. These were probably the only two mistakes she actually made during her test, but they just stood out in my mind because of our instructor's extremely muted reaction to them compared to his apparent determination to fail me.

Also, I got Missy's permission to use her name in this post :) Thanks, Missy!

Sitting in My Shame

Sunday, December 18, 2011

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Sitting in My Shame | Faith Permeating Life

When I was a senior in high school, my AP English teacher would give us practice AP test questions for homework, and we'd come in the next day, discuss them in small groups, and then each group would turn in one copy to get a grade.

One day, after our group had turned in our paper, my teacher called me out into the hallway. He was an imposing, brilliant man who was also our head speech coach, and the kind of person whose opinion could make or break your feeling of self-worth. He asked me how it was that my group had only discussed the questions for five minutes, then turned in my copy of the questions and gotten a perfect score.

He thought I'd cheated. He didn't say as much, but I knew he thought I'd gotten the answers over lunch from someone in his earlier period.

I stood there, shaking, and explained as calmly as I could that no one else in my group had had any idea what the poem we'd read meant, and I was the only one who felt I understood it, so I'd explained what I thought it meant and then we picked all the answers that matched that explanation, which were the ones I'd chosen for homework.

He nodded, once, and escorted me back inside the class. He believed me.

And yet that experience is still burned into my memory because of the immense shame I felt at being suspected of cheating. How much worse would I have felt if he hadn't believed me, had brought me to the principal's office or called me a liar in front of the class? Here I had done nothing wrong and yet I was on the verge of a breakdown at the accusation of having done something wrong.

It's always been strange to me that when I actually knowingly do something wrong, I might feel a little guilty and embarrassed about it, but when I'm scolded for something I didn't do or didn't know was wrong, it tears me apart.

For example, one time I was waiting to go into a concert with friends and I took a picture of the group with my digital camera. A security guard who was probably 7 feet tall came over and started yelling at me that I wasn't allowed to take that camera into the arena and I needed to go turn it in the security desk. (Apparently videocameras weren't allowed in the arena, and even though my camera didn't have video capabilities, they wanted me to turn it in so it wouldn't get confiscated inside.) I felt utterly and completely humiliated by the incident, which never made any sense to me because there was no way I could have known beforehand about the rule that I was breaking -- in fact, hadn't even broken. Yet the shame of being scolded in front of my friends by this man was devastating to me.

I finally figured out why.

I'm reading The Spirit Level, and there's a chapter called "Pride, Shame and Status." The authors talk about how sensitive we humans are to how we are perceived by other people, and reference a researcher who calls shame "the social emotion," meaning it is entirely to do with our relationships to others. We may feel guilty about something we've done when only we know about it, but we feel shame when someone else calls us out on something foolish or wrong that we've done.

This message was repeated by our priest at Mass last night, talking about how we have such a great need for other people that we feel shame when we cause any kind of rift in a relationship, even unintentionally.

I always thought of myself as not needing the approval of others because I don't tend to cave to peer pressure; I am who I am and people can take that or leave it. Even when I choose to do something I know I shouldn't, it's still a choice I make, and I've usually factored in how people may view me because of it.

What I realized was this: The reason I react so strongly to being scolded for something I didn't do or didn't know was wrong is that I have no control over the situation. I feel ashamed and humiliated and there's nothing on the other side of the equation to say, "Well, you knew it was wrong (or would be perceived as wrong) and you made a choice to do it," to help me hold my dignity together. I'm utterly laid out and at the mercy of the other person's opinions of me.

All of these realizations came to me because I felt this way last night. The details aren't important but to say I was scolded harshly for something Mike and I agreed resulted mostly from a misunderstanding. (He was not the one doing the scolding; he defended me.) I was lying in bed feeling ashamed and humiliated and trying to make the feelings go away so I could get to sleep.

Then I remembered something from the book I'd just finished, called Liberated Parents, Liberated Children (on 'Becca's recommendation). The authors write that parents often want to protect their children from painful feelings so much that they react in a way that is not helpful. They try to distract ("Here, I made your favorite cookies"), minimize ("It will all be better in the morning"), or take over ("I'll call up that teacher and give her a piece of my mind!").

But children need to learn that it's OK to have negative feelings. They need someone to say, "Wow, those words must have really hurt, huh? It's OK to feel sad about it. I would feel sad too if someone said that to me." Or "You feel pretty embarrassed about what happened, don't you? It stinks when embarrassing things happen. They just make you want to curl up in a ball and hide."

And so I let myself feel. I told myself how hurt I felt, how embarrassed, how confused. How worried I was that I'd damaged a relationship with someone I admired and cared about. How scared I was that trying to straighten out the misunderstanding would make things blow up even bigger. I just lay there and let myself be in pain.

And at some point, God said, "That's enough." And His love and forgiveness and peace enveloped me, and I could sleep.

Because when it comes down to it, I'm not in control of my life and I can't control what anyone else thinks of me. God is the only one truly in control.

And as long as He loves me -- and He always will -- that's all that matters.

Let's Get Real About Sex and Marriage

Thursday, December 15, 2011

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Let's Get Real About Sex and Marriage | Faith Permeating Life

This is a follow-up to my last post, in which I explained that I care a lot more about whether people are having sex in a context of love and service than whether they're married. I want to talk some more about why I'm willing -- and why I think it's important -- to share these kinds of beliefs that run contrary to the usual Christian talking points. But first...

Given my repeated defense of those who choose to have sex outside of marriage, you might find it strange that I personally saved sex -- and my first kiss -- for marriage. Here's why it makes sense to me.

I have zero regrets about saving sex for marriage. As I've said previously, to me marriage meant a commitment of unconditional love. And as I said in my previous post, I believe that sex should be in a context of love, and to me, that couldn't be conditional love. I felt that because the gift of my body in sex was one of the most valuable gifts I could give to someone, I didn't want to give that gift outside of a lifelong commitment.

I know this isn't true for everyone, and I don't pretend everyone is like me, but if I'd had sex with someone other than Mike, I would have felt like I left a piece of myself with that other person that could never be recovered. And until I made a commitment at the altar to Mike, I couldn't feel confident that we would be together forever either, and I didn't want to risk that. Waiting meant that once we were married, I could give my whole self to him with no worries and no reservations.

And if he'd turned out to be abusive or controlling, sexually or otherwise? That wouldn't have been OK, despite the rings on our fingers. Abuse is abuse is abuse.

I waited because I knew that it was a decision that would put me most at peace with myself, and I believed it would have the fewest negative consequences for me. And it had many positive consequences, as Mike and I spent our five years of "courting" time really getting to know each other (we weren't kissing, so there was plenty of opportunity to talk!) so when we got married, I felt confident that I knew, as much as I could, the person I was committing my life to.

So that's me. And if that's you, too, then more power to you. If it's not, I hope that you have thought through your own beliefs about what sex means to you, what marriage means to you, and how you can act in a way that is congruent with your own values. I care way more about all of those things than whether you and your sexual partner are married.

The problem I see with laying down rules like "sex can only happen in marriage" is the same one I talked about in How Short-Term Fear Makes Your Children Bad Loves: It's an external guideline that people can either follow or not follow. If someone doesn't agree with your rule about sex and marriage (or your religion's rule or your religion's interpretation of the Bible), they're just not going to follow it. Continuing to beat someone over the head with your black-and-white beliefs isn't going to change our culture, and it's definitely not going to help with the actual problems we should be concerned about when it comes to sex, from the big problems of sexual violence and abuse down to adolescent confusion about sexuality and what constitutes consent.

We need much more than rules if we're going to start tackling real problems that cause real hurt to thousands of people.

We need to be having conversations about what it means to have a healthy sexuality, to be comfortable with your own body, to have standards for who you have sex with and when that are consistent with your own personal values, to talk with your partner about sex, and to take your partner's desires and comfort level into account.

We need to stop pointing fingers at whole groups of people: gays, or unmarried partners, or whoever, and trying to blame them for problems like pedophilia and sexual assault. We need to look deeper and work harder to figure out the real reasons these things happen, and then find ways to bring help and interventions to those people whose distorted views of reality cause them to use sex as a tool.

We need new frames and new discussions of right and wrong when it comes to sex: Not married vs. unmarried, but loving, serving, and accommodating vs. abusing and coercing. (Not that it's that black and white either.)

It frustrates me when people want to shut the door on conversations about sex by boiling everything down to "This is what my religion says. This is what the Bible says. If you're doing it this way, you're right, and if you're doing it this way, you're wrong. End of story."

I think that, as in so many other situations (see also: overpopulation and abortion), we can easily get sucked into having the wrong conversation.* Sometimes I have conversations with people who are spouting rhetoric they've heard from their religion about how the world works, and I want to say, "Are you actually looking at the world around you? Are you talking to real people, who are different from you, about their lives? Because I feel like all it takes is going out your front door and looking around you to realize that gay people or unmarried people or 'liberals' or whoever else aren't all how you've been told they are."

I linked to an article on my Facebook page yesterday called "What's a Christian to Do with Dan Savage?". Essentially the author says that while he's not entirely sure Dan's views on sex are "Christian" (and certainly many would say they're not), he keeps coming back to hear what Dan has to say because it's a way more realistic and open conversation about sex than is happening in Christian circles.

I don't mean this to come off as preachy or judgmental. I'm just so tired of dogma running our conversations of serious issues. I want to start talking about things as they really happen, in a way that makes sense. I want people to disagree with me in a way that makes sense, and not simply because their version of truth is different than my version of truth.

Sometimes I think this is a pipe dream, and that I should be saving my breath rather than trying to reason and discuss with someone who sees everything in concrete, immoveable moral categories.

But then I read something like this article and the amazing responses it generated, and I think maybe there's hope after all.

So I keep writing.



*Overpopulation: I think the wrong conversation is "The world is overpopulated" vs. "The world is not overpopulated." I'd rather ask, "Is every person able to get food, shelter, and basic care, and if not, what can we do about it?"
Abortion: I think the wrong conversation is "Abortion should be illegal" vs. "Abortion should be legal." I'd rather ask, "What leads to fewer abortions? How can we make alternatives to abortion more practical?"

Why Do I Think Sex Outside Marriage is OK?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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Why Do I Think Sex Outside Marriage is OK? | Faith Permeating Life

Disclaimer 1: This post is about sex.
Disclaimer 2: This post talks about rape and sexual abuse and has the potential to be triggering.
Disclaimer 3: This post is kind of long. Sorry.


Sometimes there are questions that I avoid until you guys make me confront them head on.

I've talked before about why I don't think it's fair to jump to conclusions about people who have sex outside of marriage or who wait until they're married to have sex. There are too many judgments and assumptions on both sides of the equation, and no two people are exactly the same.

I've also linked to a blog post by John Green about how actually attaching a concrete definition to "sex before marriage" is all but impossible.

But as someone who identifies as a person of faith and comes from a community of faith that says in no uncertain terms that you shouldn't be having sex outside of marriage, I figured I'd have to defend my own personal views sooner or later.

So here I am, after having received a comment on my previous post essentially saying that the problems of sexual assault would go away if we just kept sex within marriage. I couldn't even get myself to start on this post last night because I just kept making loud noises of frustration every time I re-read the last paragraph.

Keep in mind that I had just read this post on Jen's blog.

This commenter talked about the widespread problem of sexual abuse and sexual assault, and then she said, "I do not believe that sex in general is inherently wrong but I do believe that sex in the wrong context is one of the most destructive sins of all. It ruins lives and causes trauma. And that's is why I am rather conservative in my views about sex and believe that it should be reserved for marriage. I think that it is worth doing whatever possible to protect as many women and children (and men, in rare cases) as possible. If everyone saved their sexual impulses for the right context-- a monogamous marriage--I think the world would be a better place. And we might finally be able to view sex as what it was meant to be--a gift from God." [emphasis mine]

Tell that to the woman getting raped by her husband every night. You think that's not traumatic because they're having sex in the "right context"?

Think about that a minute.

To me, what's important is that sex happens in an atmosphere of love and mutual respect, as a way of expressing love and caring for one another by the gift of oneself. I don't see it as much different than the spirit of service that should pervade the rest of a relationship, except that God decided to make it physically pleasurable.

I don't believe a marriage certificate is necessary for the above. And I believe you can have a marriage certificate and not have the above.

The idea that we have to restrict sex to marriage seems to stem from this idea that we have too much sex, that our "sexual impulses," as she said, are just running wild all over the place, and that that's the problem. That sexual abuse and assaults wouldn't happen if we could just have less sex in the world by limiting it to certain contexts.

But here's the problem with that argument: Sex is not the problem.

Let me say that again: Sex is not the problem.

By and large, sexual crimes are not about the sex. Let's face it, if a guy just wanted an orgasm, he has the ability to achieve that all by himself. What we're talking about are crimes of power and domination and control. Sex is the means, not the end. It's a tool. A weapon. Something that is taken, rather than given. And that is the problem.

Not the legal status of the people involved in a sexual act.

I would argue that the man who is forcing himself on his wife at every opportunity is doing way more to corrupt and distort the beauty and Godliness of sex than the couple who is lovingly serving each other in bed but don't happen to have had a wedding ceremony.

I'm focusing on sexual crimes because that's what this commenter was trying to argue about -- that having sex outside of marriage is somehow the reason for sex being distorted in this way. But I don't think that's the only way that sex can be distorted. A woman who withholds sex from her husband as a way to bargain with him or "punish" him for something he did -- that's a distortion of sex too. That's using sex, or the lack thereof, as a weapon.

I'm also not a fan of casual sex -- e.g., hookups, first-date sex -- not because it happens outside of marriage, but because I don't think it's generally an expression of love and service to one's partner in those contexts. If you're having sex with someone you just met, or with a "friend with benefits," then sex is more than likely intended to be solely about your own pleasure. It's a lustful, selfish kind of sex. (And it does have consequences. I did a research paper on "hookups" in grad school and the whole appeal is that it's supposedly sex with no lasting consequences, but there are almost always emotional, if not physical, consequences.)

And really, sex can be lustful and selfish even within marriage. Like I said in the comments of my previous post, a couple could be adhering to all of the supposed "rules" about sex -- having it in a monogamous married relationship, with no barriers to conception -- but be doing it solely as a way of feeding their individual pleasures and not out of any affection for each other. And I think that is a shadow of what sex should really be.

I believe that sex in its truest form is an expression of love and service. And that's true regardless of whether the partners involved are straight or gay, married or unmarried. Sex is not distorted by taking away the religious or governmental recognition of the partners' commitment to each other. Sex, as given to us by God, is distorted when it's used as a form of domination, of violence, of selfishness.

Now.

Having said all of that.

You may know that Mike and I saved sex for marriage. In fact, we saved our first kiss for marriage. So I feel that to give this topic its full due, I also need to talk about why we made that choice. That will be Thursday's post. [Update: Here's that post.]

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Update: Dianna E. Anderson wrote a fantastic post on this same issue that responds even more directly and beautifully to the problems in the comment I received.

How Do Christians Have Sex?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

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How Do Christians Have Sex? | Faith Permeating Life

If you got here by Googling a question, you might like this follow-up post!

I've been mulling this post over for a while. Sometimes I feel like a broken record talking about how Christians need to stop treating sex as something evil, and then I come across something like this and it makes me want to tear my hair out. There's no way to know if this particular story is true, but it wouldn't be the first time that someone has implied, or even outright said, that "sex is evil."

Perhaps this person meant unmarried sex was evil. Or sex with condoms. That's possible. You can go back to this post if you want a reminder of just how many rules have been put on sexual activity in the name of Jesus, but the point is that this kind of thinking backs sex into a corner: It's only "holy" if you are a straight, married, fertile couple having intercourse without any barriers to pregnancy and you're not trying to pleasure each other in any way that isn't directly leading to the man ejaculating inside the woman.

Sounds like a ton of fun, huh?

And that's just the problem. Sex has turned into such a rule-laden activity that I think even people who are acting within the confines all of these various stipulations are made to be afraid of enjoying themselves too much.

What started me thinking about this was Emmy's post about an article (now unavailable) on changes to Francine Rivers' novel Redeeming Love, a romance based on the Biblical book of Hosea. Rivers had to make some changes from the original version, published by Bantam, before it could be published by Christian publisher Tyndale. You can go read the article for side-by-side comparisons of several changes, but what struck me most was that the references to sex, although between a married husband and wife, were... toned down. We get vague references instead of the burning sexual passion that is clearly evident in the original version.

And it got me thinking.

How often do you read about a Christian married couple having hot, passionate, explosive sex?

On the other hand, how often do you read about (or watch a TV show or movie about) a non-Christian couple having hot, passionate, explosive sex?

Exactly.

Here's another link for you, with this great quote from Jon Acuff:
I think to some degree we’ve bought the lie that the world gets to have wild, crazy sex and Christians, holy folks like us, get to have black and white, two dimension sex.
Now you guys know I'm not big into judging people for having sex outside of marriage, so I don't agree with all his premises in this article. But I agree with this: for all those Christian folks who are trying to keep sex limited to married couples, they're not doing themselves any favors if they're, at the same time, trying to sanitize any and all descriptions of married sex to be vague and, well, boring.

I've mentioned the One Extraordinary Marriage podcast before, but what I haven't talked about is how incredibly rare this couple seems to be in the world of marriage podcasts. They're a Christian couple who talk as easily about oral sex and sex toys as they do about Jesus Christ and God. They talk about the importance of sexual intimacy to a healthy marriage and aren't afraid to mention when they've had really great sex that week. It's amazing, and amazingly rare.

I'm grateful I discovered their podcast because when I was originally looking for a podcast on marriage, I only found two kinds of podcasts talking about relationships: the "wholesome Christian family" type ones that talked about having a Biblical marriage and wouldn't be caught dead talking about sex (unless they were talking about the evils of gay and unmarried sex) and the "explicit" sex podcasts that were all sex, all the time, and probably wouldn't be caught dead talking about God.

The two different categories were so clear that it was almost like you had to pick a side when choosing a podcast: Do I care about having a Christian marriage... or do I care about having good sex?

So many taboos have been put onto how Christian couples are allowed to have sex that somehow it's become sinful to speak positively about sex, to be creative in the bedroom (or go outside the bedroom!), or even to enjoy oneself too much during sex.

Think I'm exaggerating? Imagine living next door to a Christian couple. You see them going to church every Sunday. They're always doing kind things for other people, visiting the sick, and offering to pray for people. They talk openly about God and how important He is in their marriage.

If one day you heard them having noisy, wild sex, would it surprise you? Would you smirk and think to yourself, "Hm, maybe they're not that holy after all?"

But why? Why should their passionate married sex make them somehow dirtier or guiltier than before?

Like Jon Acuff, I don't exactly have a solution to this, but I think it's something that warrants more discussion. And I think that the more that Christians concern themselves with the sexual mores of others, the more that feelings of guilt and sinfulness and dirt begin to coat all aspects of any sexual activity. If we spent more time celebrating what is good and beautiful about sex and less time pointing fingers at the "wrong" ways to have sex, I think we'd all find a lot more joy and pleasure in our own relationships.

That's what I think. What do you think?

If you liked this post, check out some other posts I've done on the topic of sex.

Stop Telling Me I'm Too Skinny

Thursday, December 8, 2011

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Stop Telling Me I'm Too Skinny | Faith Permeating Life

If you got here by Googling a question, you might like this follow-up post!

Here's a question for you:

If someone you hadn't seen in a while said to you, "You look like you've been eating quite well lately," would you be offended?

How about "You certainly have a lot of meat on those bones"?

How about "Look at how fat you are!"?

If you heard someone say this to someone else, would you tell them their comment was impolite?

Even though these kinds of comments are undoubtedly said, I think it's pretty well understood among most people that telling someone they are overweight is considered rude (unless you're, say, a doctor talking to a patient). It's insulting to tell someone they're fat, right?

What I want to know is, why is it considered a compliment to say the opposite?

"It looks like your wife/husband hasn't been feeding you!" "You need some meat on those bones!" "Look how skinny you are! Come eat some food."

I'm not talking about actual compliments, like if a friend who was on the heavier side loses some weight and you say, "Hey, look at you! You look great!" That's congratulating someone on being at or moving toward a healthy weight, and in certain contexts and relationships, that's appropriate.

I want to know this: Why is it considered an insult to comment on someone's body weight if they supposedly have too much of it, but a compliment to comment on someone's body weight if they supposedly don't have enough?

I've been blessed to have a healthy body weight my whole life. I can't think of a time when I was much under or over an appropriate weight for my height and age. And yet throughout my life, people -- particularly older relatives or family friends who I saw infrequently -- have felt the need to tell me I'm too skinny. And never has it been in a way that implied they were actually concerned about my weight. Like, nobody ever pulled me aside and said, "Jessica, I'm concerned about how thin you look." It was always in this teasing way that I believe was intended to be a compliment.

Growing up, I never heard anybody chastised for saying things like this the way I heard people chastised for commenting on someone being overweight. And so it never occurred to me, until I was an adult, to respond in an offended way, despite how uncomfortable it always made me.

The same thing goes for age. It's pretty well understood, I think, that telling someone they look old is not very polite. Yet Mike and I are both constantly -- constantly -- told how young we look. Again, usually by older adults, and intended as a compliment.

And again, I never say anything. Because no one wants to be the one to turn a friendly conversation suddenly serious or sour. And in cases where I've tried to respond in a way that indicates I don't like being so young-looking, I always get the same response: "Oh, you'll appreciate it when you're older."

Well, 1) maybe I won't look young for my age anymore when I'm older, and 2) this negates the actual issues that this causes for me currently, like the fact that I'm constantly mistaken for a student at the college where I work, or the fact that it makes it more difficult to be taken seriously when trying to go about daily business as an adult (eating at a restaurant, dealing with customer service, etc.).

Despite the complimentary intent of these kinds of remarks, I find them offensive. I don't see what good can come from taking a look at someone and telling them there's something lacking there, regardless of whether it's meant positively.

I guess it's not surprising when the magazines and advertisements we see seem to have two messages: "Here's how to be thinner!" and "Here's how to look younger!" Somehow it's been extrapolated from this that the skinnier and younger-looking the better.

I don't want to be told I'm a toothpick who looks like a teenager. I am a mature 26-year-old with a healthy body, and I'm proud of that.

Anyone else know what I mean? Do you have any suggestions for responding to these comments without completely trampling on the light-hearted spirit in which they're made?

The Joy of Experiences

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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The Joy of Experiences | Faith Permeating Life

It's something I've heard a gazillion times: Money is best spent on experiences, not things, if you want it to make you happy.

And yet I suck at remembering this.

Even when there's no money involved, I'm happier when I'm out doing things and being with people rather than staying at home on my computer. (In moderation, of course. I'm still an introvert.)

One of the paradoxes in my life, which I hadn't really thought through until doing my happiness project this year, is that my short-sighted impulse is always to choose the option that involves staying at home, where I can be warm and comfy and have control over my environment; yet, going out and doing things brings me the bursts of happiness I need to feel fulfilled and connected to other people.

I'm extremely glad that one of my happiness project resolutions this year was "Say yes to social events." This means that rather than deciding whether to do something based on how I'm feeling at the moment, the decision is made for me: Yes.

"I'm directing a play at a local high school. Are you interested in coming?" Yes.

"Some people in our office are going to this scholarship event and performing on stage. Would you like to be a part of it?" Yes.

"One of my hosts is in a play on Saturday night. Want to go see it?" Yes.

This last one was a text from Mike earlier today. I replied Yes without hesitation, in accordance with my resolution, then remembered that we'd planned to go see The Muppets movie on Saturday night using some free movie tickets I'd won in a sweepstakes. So I thought, well, I guess we'll have to do that another weekend. Oh well.

But then I thought, hey, we always go do stuff on my weekend nights (Friday and Saturday), but Mike is off Wednesday and Thursday. So I asked if he wanted to go see the movie tonight. And we did! It was great. We were the only ones in the theater except for a little girl and her dad, and the movie was awesome. It was a lot of fun and I laughed probably every five minutes while watching the movie. We'd also gotten free large sodas so we bought a large popcorn, which I haven't had in forever because we're usually too cheap to buy refreshments when we go to a movie -- which is a rare treat to begin with!

The tradeoff, of course, is that I'm now up way past my bedtime blogging, and I'm going to pay for it when I try to wake up for work tomorrow, but you know what? That's OK. Because my innate tendency is to be totally boring and follow the same routine every week, and I don't want to look back on my life and say, "Here's what I did with my time: I went to class on Mondays, worked out on Tuesdays, went to prayer shawl ministry on Wednesday, went to choir practice on Thursdays, worked out on Fridays, and went to church on Saturday and Sunday."

While I'm proud of learning and being involved in my church and exercising and all that, being responsible only gets me so far.

I need fun.

I need laughter.

I need spontaneity.

I need other people.

I need experiences.

My favorite marriage podcast talked last week about giving the gift of experiences this Christmas, as in thinking less about giving "things" and more about giving experiences, things the person might not do otherwise but that will create memories for them. Then the Get-It-Done Guy podcast talked about the same thing. I found it a really good reminder not just as a broader way to think about holiday gifts, but as a way to think about how I spend my own time.

If you're spending X amount of money on someone, they'll likely get more joy out of that money being spent on a memorable experience than on a thing that they may only use for a short time. In the same way, if I only have so many hours in a day or week, do I want to use all of that time up on things that will be forgotten in another week (another workout, another pile of dishes, another blog comment)? Certainly things need to get done, but I can't let them consume all my time. There will always be more dishes. The apartment will always need more cleaning.

Sometimes I just need to put down the vacuum or shut the laptop and go outside and do something.

How Do I Know I Want Children?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

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How Do I Know I Want Children? | Faith Permeating Life

I've received quite a few reader questions recently, from how I clean my DivaCup in a public restroom to how Mike and I deal with our different perceptions of what is yelling vs. just raising your voice.

But the one really caused me to think was this: How do you know if you want kids?

(Or I guess if you're asking me specifically, it would be "How do you know that you want kids?" since I've already shared that I do.)

Since I come from a faith tradition that expects you to have children if you're married and doesn't even think whether you want children is a question, some people would judge me for having this discussion at all. But in case you haven't figured it out by now, I don't consult the Catholic Church for what to do before making all my life decisions.

That said, I find this a difficult question to approach logically. It's like asking me, "How do you know you love Mike?" or "How do you know you're heterosexual?" or even "How do you know there's a God?"

I just... do.

I can picture our future with kids as easily as I was able to picture spending the rest of my life with Mike when I started dating him.

I tried approaching the question from a different angle: "Why do you want kids?"

But the truth is, you could sit me down with a piece of paper and force me to answer that question, and I would, but it would be a bad answer. It's like we say in survey design: If you ask someone a question, they'll answer it, whether or not they're really capable of knowing the answer. Or it's like those studies where they make people pick their favorite jam, but when they ask them to pick and explain why they like the jam, people end up changing their minds about which one is their favorite.

Yes, I just compared having children to tasting jam.

Sorry. This is hard.

Let's leave this question for a minute and revisit an equally difficult question instead, which is how I know I don't want to be pregnant. If you've read that post, you know that that particular feeling of mine has caused me a lot of stress and guilt.

But here's what I keep coming back to: Again and again I hear women talk about how desperately they want to be pregnant. I hear pregnant woman talk about how excited they are to be pregnant and how long they've wanted it and dreamed about it. And I feel nothing like that.

Actually, I recently found an article by someone who wants to be pregnant but doesn't want children. And that has caused her a lot of stress, for obvious reasons, but I was struck primarily by how equally strong and yet completely opposite our feelings are.

I'm open to the possibility that my feelings may change. But right now, the idea of being pregnant is as distasteful to me as coming down with some horrible illness. And I know that there are other women -- probably most other woman -- who don't feel that way. So I'm left to conclude that this is part of who I am. That for whatever reason, God doesn't need me to be pregnant. Maybe because He knows how many kids need to be adopted and knows that Mike and I have hearts for that, and this seals the deal.

So the best thing I can say is to be open to your own feelings and honest with yourself. Think about playing with a child or children. Think about witnessing a baby's first words and first steps. Think about staying up all night with a sick child. Think about holding a child in your lap. Think about a child having a temper tantrum. Think about helping with homework and discussing tough topics and watching their mind mull over new concepts. Think about people you know with children and their whole family dynamic.

When I think about all of that, I think "Bring it on!" It makes me smile. I get excited thinking about our future family.

If you don't have that same reaction, that's OK. As much suspicion, disappointment, and other negative feelings as our culture often lays on childless individuals, I'm not here to tell you that you must have children to have a fulfilling life or make God happy.

Then there's the other question this person raised: What if you don't think you want children, but the person you're dating does?

I'm not going to tell you that you need to break things off, but I do think this is why it's important to know yourself and be honest with yourself. The last thing you want is to leave it undiscussed and think, "Well, maybe I'll change my mind" and go into marriage with completely different perceptions of the future than your partner.

Have you read Eat, Pray, Love? At the beginning, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about being physically ill every night because her husband was pushing the issue about having children soon, and she couldn't admit to herself that she dreaded the idea of having children, so she was trapped between not wanting to disappoint her husband and absolutely not wanting children. And it literally made her sick.

Basically I'm saying, don't let it get to that point.

The last part of the equation is, if you do want children, do you want children now?

(I could write a whole post on how unhelpful it is to pressure women into having children as soon as possible, but that's for another day.)

I've written about this before, but as much as I'm looking forward to having a big family, I know we're not ready for that right now. As a couple, we have some things we want to work out before having children. And financially, we're hoping to adopt several children fairly close together, so we need to save up a good amount of money now since Mike will be staying home full time once we have our first.

I didn't do a great job of answering this question, if it's even answerable, so I have to defer to you, my wonderful readers. If you have a child or children, how did you know you wanted children? (Or maybe you didn't until you got pregnant!) If you want a child or more children, how do you know? Is wanting children part of who you are, or a decision you make? (Or perhaps, a mandate from God in which you have no say?)

What do you think?

The Happiness Project: December Is Boot Camp Month

Thursday, December 1, 2011

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The Happiness Project: December Is Boot Camp Month | Faith Permeating Life

Since you got no post last Thursday, you're getting two posts this Thursday!

(Or because the first of the month is on a Thursday. Whatever.)

You have all been patient accountability partners for me this year in completing my happiness project. I promise to do a wrap-up in January of what difference I think the happiness project has made in my life, but for now I've got one more month to get through.

First, let's talk about November.

As has been typical, my monthly goals (creating a plan to finish our art project and a more attractive meal planning system) were completed last-minute, but I'm OK with that; they were on my calendar not to prove I could complete things well in advance of the deadline, but to actually give myself a deadline for things I wanted to get done. Mike and I have a plan for finishing our art project, which might even get done by the end of the year (month). We'll see.

Inspired by my new blog design, I figured out that a clothesline with clothespins was a cute but functional way of displaying the weekly meal plan. This way I can clip recipe cards from my recipe binder, new recipes to try that I print off the Internet, or any of some pre-made cards that say things like "leftovers," "go out to eat," or "tacos" (which Mike doesn't need a recipe for). The magnetic shopping list pad and the prep calendar (e.g., Wednesday: Take chicken out of freezer) will remain on the fridge. I haven't put it all together yet, but when I do I will take a picture and share it.

Finally, I'm really glad I made myself do a 5-minute cleanup before bed. Having it on my nightly checklist not only gave me a push to do it, but also made me less irritated with Mike when things were messy because I felt more of a personal responsibility for picking things up, regardless of whose things they were. It's a good reminder that everyone's happier when things just get done, even if the way they get done isn't always "fair."

For December, I'm following Gretchen's suggested theme of "boot camp," which she explains in her book as the month where she tries to successfully complete all of her daily resolutions that she wants to carry into the next year. So here are all of the resolutions that I'll be trying to keep this month, with links to the months where I first started trying to do them:Besides all of these, I need to actually create my meal-planning setup and also buy some more layers with the gift card I got from my mother-in-law for my birthday.

Recently I posted on my blog's Facebook page a link to a great article that essentially says, if you want to be thinner and healthier, start acting like a thinner, healthier version of yourself today.

That's essentially what I'm doing with my happiness project: When I think about a happy version of myself, it's someone who takes care of herself physically, who has a positive and grateful attitude towards life, who takes small steps to prevent bad days, who maintains strong relationships with friends, who cultivates a strong spiritual relationship with her husband, and who tries to live in a clutter-free environment. I'm consciously taking actions now to build those into effortless habits.

January is a new year! Have you thought about starting a happiness project for 2012? What are some areas where you might create resolutions?

3BoT Vol. 3: Three Books Every Parent Should Read



3BoT Vol. 3: Three Books Every Parent Should Read | Faith Permeating Life

The first Thursday of every month, I share three related book recommendations with you. You are invited to link up at the end of the post with three recommendations of your own! Click here for more information about Three Books on Thursday.

You may remember that I devoted September to researching and discussing parenting ideas with Mike. These books, however, aren't about specific parenting approaches, like whether you should breastfeed or homeschool or spank your children. These are three books that help parents understand their children in a more complex way than our cultural narratives about parenting usually encourage.

Even though I'm still several years away from becoming a parent, I found each of these books helpful in that they provided me with useful background knowledge before discussing those other, more specific decisions about raising our children. They've helped me remember and understand what it's like to be a child, so I can take that into consideration when deciding how to parent.

#1: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards by Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, with Dr. Diane Eyer
We're all familiar with certain milestones children reach, like rolling over, crawling, walking, first words. But there are many, many other developmental milestones, like the first time a child realizes that spreading objects apart doesn't mean there's more of them, or that other people have different thoughts and feelings than they have. The authors point out that we can get caught up in the pressure to show off that our kids are learning and end up focusing on things like memorization rather than on developing complex, creative thinking. (Think about it this way: Who is more likely to end up on a viral video or a talk show: The 3-year-old who has all the American presidents memorized or the 3-year-old who is playing imaginatively?) They argue that if you want to raise smart, inventive children, the best thing you can do is let them play, not cram facts into them.



#2: Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax
If there's one thing I learned in my Women and Communication class in college, it's that gender is a social construct, that all the ideas we have about what it means to be male and female come from our culture. Insinuating that some differences might be biologically rooted would cause people to start throwing anecdotes at you of someone they knew who didn't fit that distinction. This author injects some sanity back into the nature vs. nurture debate by consulting the research about what is biologically different, in general, about males and females, and then exploring how that might affect parenting and education. For example, he explains how differences in the makeup of the female eye vs. the male eye make girls more likely to create "acceptable" drawings that are of people and flowers and use many colors, whereas boys are more likely to be discouraged by teachers and parents for only drawing action shots using a single dark color. I don't agree with all of his recommendations (like spanking younger boys or pushing nerdy boys to be more athletic) but I think the research he shares is good information to have.




#3: Reviving Ophelia by Dr. Mary Pipher
Although this book was written almost 20 years ago, the core messages are still relevant: 1) Being a teenage girl can be really, really rough, and 2) you probably don't understand the pressures your teenager faces if you're assuming they're the same ones you faced as a teenager. Even though the book is about raising girls, I think it's important for all parents to read; boys face many of the same pressures to have sex and use drugs and alcohol, and it's just as important, if not more, to teach our boys not to sexually harass girls as it is to prepare girls to deal with sexual harassment (not to mention that boys can be sexually harassed as well). The book highlights problems more than it does solutions, but a picture starts to emerge of how to balance acknowledging what's important to your teenager (feeling attractive and accepted) with providing enough structure that they don't flounder in confusion.

What other books would you recommend that parents read? Share your suggestions in comments!

Click here for other 3BoT posts!

Please note that this post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you click on a book cover and make any purchase at Amazon (including but not limited to the books suggested here), your purchase will be supporting Faith Permeating Life. Thanks!


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