January is more than half over, or how to get past New Year Failures

As many people do at the beginning of the year, I reflected a bit on what I wanted to accomplish in 2020. I’ve been listening to Kate Hanley’s podcast and her New Year’s episodes offered such a different approach to goal setting as a year starts that I decided to try it.

One suggestion Hanley offered in an episode was to routinely check in with what plans you make on Jan. 1. That doesn’t seem like an extraordinary task, but it’s one that I haven’t really employed, well, ever. So I set an event in my calendar to check in every Sunday night. The first Sunday, I was proud of my dedication.

This Sunday, not so much. So I did something fairly revolutionary, and something I think Hanley would approve of (not that I need her approval, but you know what I mean): I reassessed.

I took a good 30 minutes and read everything I wrote those first days of January. I reflected as to whether they were truly sustainable actions. I felt pretty good about two actionable tasks, less good about the others. I thought, what do I really *need* in order to have a more peaceful life? Because at the end of the day, that’s what I want 2020 to be about.

I narrowed down to three things I need to do daily. But then I realized that keeping those three things in my phone or in my journal won’t help me when I come home from rehearsal, completely wiped out, or from school, completed brain dead.

So I did something uncharacteristic: I used fancy post-it notes that I reserve for other people, and used them for me. I put them in places I’ll see when I get home, and thanks to the fabulous Emily McDowell, I also get a nice little positive message at the top of each note.

So if, like me, you woke up this morning and realized that January is nearly over and you’ve already given up on something you set out to accomplish Jan. 1, let me offer this gentle advice: reassess. Don’t berate yourself, and don’t give up. Adjust. And if you can, make yourself concrete reminders, instead of leaving those plans languishing in your Notes app or a journal. Whether it’s Jan. 1 or 20 or the end of September, you can always reassess and adjust.

Punctuation matters…notice how the connotation changes based on the punctuation. #GrammarNerd

Courage: Advent 2019, Week 2

It’s getting to that time of year when I’m reflecting a lot and trying to figure out if people really can change. Every December I feel like I get to a mental state similar to any seeded sports tournament: survive and advance. And in the midst of the surviving and advancing, my brain spends time planning the future, and how I might be able to be just a millimeter better in the coming year.

Today I arrived at church a little earlier than usual so I could sit and listen to the organist and write, and see if my mind would start to figure out what and how I could change for 2020. And then I saw the title of the sermon: courage.

It takes a great deal of courage to change, and I really do feel like I’m careening toward a crossroads in every possible aspect of my life. I am skittish about changes I can control, and terrified about changes I cannot. And it would be so easy to just put my head down, maintain the status quo, and hope nothing changes at all.

I’m finding it hard to write about advent this week, probably because early in the service one of the pastors today paraphrased a passage from Winnie-the-Pooh: “you are braver than you believe, and you are stronger than you seem.”

She related it to Mary and Joseph, and how much courage it took for both of them to embark on the parenting journey that was asked of them. But it stopped me in my tracks and I didn’t think about much else the rest of the service, or the rest of the day, really.

Change is scary, and I don’t think there’s any hierarchy to it–one kind of change isn’t scarier than any other. But we can be brave, and we can be strong, and some changes will be painful and others joyful. And the best part of Advent is a renewed focus that through it all, Jesus is constant.

Hope: Advent 2019, Week 1

One of my favorite ornaments my sister Deanne made for me years ago.

It’s been a few years since I actively celebrated Advent or even decorated for Christmas, and given the past four months and the general emotional upheaval I’ve felt, I wasn’t sure I was going to do much this year to celebrate.

The gingerbread festival that has, for the past 20 years, been a stake of stability in my efforts to feel any yuletide spirit has been discontinued, I’m no longer teaching piano lessons where I spend December playing fun Christmas duets with my students, I’m not playing the primo part of a 4-hand accompaniment in the school Christmas concert.

And since I’m taking a sabbatical from my church right now, I’m not singing in any Christmas concerts or programs or playing the piano for any soloists.

All the usual pulls toward celebrating Christmas are gone this year.

I wasn’t raised with a liturgical Advent, but in recent years, I’ve felt drawn to it, so I observed it as best I could, using resources I found online. But I went to a church today, one I’ve been attending off and on for the past few months, to see what it would be like to observe the first Sunday of Advent with others.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left the service with two commissions from the pastors.

Commission one: “May our hearts be open to the unexpected places where we encounter the sacred light of God that leads us toward hope.”

How many unexpected places might I encounter God’s light this month? I will spend hours at school teaching, working basketball games, supervising newspaper deadline, helping with musical auditions. I will spend time with friends and family and see movies and read books. The commission to be open to God’s light reminds me that I can find it in so many places, and will have opportunities to be that light to others.

Commission two: “May we see every Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.”

I’ve never thought of a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope. Instead, I’ve seen it as a symbol of what I don’t have. As I’ve often said to friends when they ask if I’m decorating for Christmas, “Why should I put up a tree when there’s nothing to put under it?”

But shifting my Christmas paradigm a bit to see a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope feels revolutionary, subversive even. I think of the ornaments I’ve collected over the years—gifts from students, tokens from places I’ve traveled, heirlooms from family members—and my Christmas tree morphs into a symbol of a life well-lived.

Hope, as our culture has come to define it, can be hard. When coupled with faith, we tend to equate it with wishing for things: an illness to heal, a child to love, a spouse to care for. Or maybe we hope-wish for a better home, an air fryer, or the latest tech gadget. And when those hope-wishes don’t materialize, it can feel like hope is futile and faith is weak.

But what if the biblical definition of hope points us to something else entirely, something unrelated to dipping our toes in the prosperity gospel pool?

Looking at the Greek base, the word hope is more closely related to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.

Those words as synonyms for hope carry a purer meaning for this first week of Advent—the expectation that Christ will come, the confidence of what His coming means for the entire world in terms of peace and salvation.

Reframing my definition of hope is vital to observing Advent and celebrating Christmas, because I do expect Christ to come, and I expect that with confidence. A biblical hope isn’t reliant on medicine or biology or another person’s choices or how much money is in my bank account. A biblical hope is simply expecting Jesus to come, to teach, to save.

So despite my usual feeling that putting up a tree and other Christmas decorations is a general waste of my time, this year I’m going to pull out the tubs of ornaments and nativities and try to remember that what they all truly represent is hope.

After This…

How many times in my life have I said “after this…” then I would be able to do the things I’ve always wanted?

I set goals, I long for change, yet the day-to-day spirals beyond my control. The lie I tell myself, the lie we all tell ourselves at one point or another, is “after this…then I’ll be able to do that.”

As if life will somehow slow down or stop entirely, allowing us to engage in a Thoreau-like existence of meditation and self-improvement in wood cabin, off the grid, away from society.

I caught myself thinking “after this…” today, as I once again face down three months of rehearsals and individual practice time for the musical, while still teaching, while overseeing a student news organization and co-managing sports broadcasts, while still serving at church, while still maintaining relationships.

“After March,” I caught myself thinking. As if March and the end of the musical didn’t signal a chain of interviewing journalists for next year’s staffs, or commence soccer and baseball broadcasts, or who knows what else. Life won’t get easier in March. Or April. Or May.

Even in the summer, though I’m not tied to as strict a schedule, the days and weeks somehow fill and I catch myself saying “after summer…”

I’m sure life has been like this for a while now, a constant stream of responsibilities and personal pursuits, at times quarreling for my attention because I say to one, “After this…” and ignore the other. For some reason—age? experience? necessity?—I’m grasping more fully the reality that “after this…” doesn’t exist.

Each year as people start making and sharing resolutions, whether it’s setting SMART goals or selecting a word to live by or scribbling a bucket list of longed-for accomplishments, I am tempted to join in. As if “after December 31” will signal a complete change of character and I’ll be wealthier, thinner, smarter, more productive, or less single in 365 days.

Instead, I’m shifting my paradigm in 2019: eradicating the trap of “after this…”

I need to embrace the 14-hour days as evidence I am physically and mentally healthy enough to handle that kind of load. I need to look at my calendar objectively, and find the pockets of time that appear—and then fill those pockets with endeavors that don’t include time-wasting vortices. I need to say yes a bit more often to friends and family, to view that time spent as energizing (because it almost always is).

“After this…”, I’ve learned, is a surefire way to collect a few regrets. So if you are also feeling the pull to start something new, as many do with the advent of a new year, I have two suggestions:

  1. Do things.
  2. Don’t wait until January 1.

What Hallmark Channel is Selling Me.

I’ve been watching a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies, and here’s what I’m being sold* while watching:

  1. A magical eyebrow shaper.
  2. Nordic Track/Bowflex/Peleton.
  3. Wayfair. All the time, Wayfair.
  4. Life Alert bracelets.
  5. Balsam Hill Christmas trees (which, by the way, can run up to $1,000).


*In addition to the science-fiction fantasy that Christmas is a magical romantic time where all my dreams come true.