As many of you know, we’re preparing to move a few weeks from now. We’re moving within the DC area, closer to my husband’s job. Then we have to sell our current house. Thankfully we’ve arranged things so we can move out before that happens—it needs some work to get it ready to go on the market.
We haven’t bought or sold a house since 2003. Sometime during those intervening twelve years, staging became a much bigger deal.
Back then, I remember our real estate agent giving us a few tips on making the house look good. Did you know there’s a proper ratio for how much dining room chairs should stick out from under the table? That sort of thing. I also remember walking into some homes that looked showroom quality, even though it was clear people were living there. I wondered what their secret was. I wondered where their clutter was. Now I know: staging.
These days, the real estate agent will hire a stager to take a close look at the home and put together a plan. The goal is to maximize bang for your buck, so the stager will rank and prioritize the tasks. Kitchens are important. So’s the placement of furniture. We’ll be leaving some pieces behind once we move, to help people visualize the space as well as possible.
Colors are also a big deal. Our stager gave us specific Pantone numbers to paint various rooms. Which suits us fine, frankly. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.
While we were going around looking at houses, my husband remarked how similar staging is to curating an online persona on social media. You can’t change the raw materials you have to work with. Your life is your life; your house is your house. But you go through a careful process of putting your best foot forward. We all do it to some extent, though some are more meticulous about it than others.
The problem comes when we compare our unstaged life to everyone else’s staged life and feel inadequate for falling short.
I was nervous about the staging thing at first. It’s hard not to feel judged for your design choices, and I pictured a snooty woman wrinkling her nose as she beheld our aging IKEA furniture. But our stager was great. And she won me over when she said, “You know… my house looks like a regular house—a house people actually live in. When I walk into a home that doesn’t need staging, I think ‘these people need therapy.'”
It’s a bit of a game. And naming that is important and healing.
I’m glad for the stager. We’ve made good memories in our home. That means displaying it in the best possible light so other people will see the potential for their own memories to be housed there.
This summer, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve seen friends post their vacation photos to Facebook. In the past, those pictures used to get me down sometimes. The beaches were so pristine, you see. The kids, so adorable, clutching their ice cream cones, barefoot in the perfect slanting light of dusk.
This summer I haven’t felt that way. This summer I have welcomed every photo, even living vicariously through them. A friend and I were laughing that I wasn’t bothered by the photos because I’m not working right now! That’s part of it, I’m sure (and I am working, though not full time and not in the church). But also, I recognize the rules of the game. Facebook is not reality. I sincerely hope my friends had great vacations this summer, but I also see the perfect photos for what they are—a representation of life that’s not entirely accurate.
Like my mama used to say, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Studies have shown that people can be dragged down by other people’s perfectly curated online personas. But I wonder if that will change as we “grow up” with this technology. I wonder if we are becoming more savvy about social media and the rules of the game. What do you think?
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
Fight back with beauty, friends, not vindictiveness.
I just finished the audiobook of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’d been looking for a book I could listen to while doing home stuff in preparation for the move, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s an exciting and fascinating story of an astronaut who accidentally gets stranded on Mars after a tragic accident. His crew evacuates the planet after presuming him dead. We see Mark Watney’s struggle to survive, but also the incredible effort put forth by NASA scientists and his fellow crew members to save him—once they realize he’s alive, which takes a while. In addition to being very suspenseful, it’s quite poignant.
It’s also full of lessons about the power of improvisation as an orientation, and a set of tools for surviving when The Plan gets shot to hell. Watney’s situation is an extreme one, to be sure. But sooner or later, every last one of us is going to get hit with the confusion and desolation that comes when the life we thought we’d live, the existence we’d planned for, goes up in smoke. What then?
We often think about improv as being about performance or entertainment, but improv is applicable to a number of disciplines, including engineering. I explored some of this after watching a NOVA episode about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can read my thoughts in the post, Solving the “Trouble with Hubble”.
The improvisational elements in The Martian center around the practicalities of survival—how to grow food on a desolate planet, how to communicate with Earth. But they also deal with the psychological work of moving forward without losing hope. Here are a few thoughts that came to me while listening to the book. [Very light on the spoilers here.]
Improvising isn’t the same as winging it. Watney’s tale of survival is a feat of ingenuity and imagination—rationing, repurposing, and recalculating. We think sometimes that improv is this free-form practice that emerges out of nothing. But Watney had trained. He had prepared for scenarios 1 through 1000, so when scenario 2,253 happened, he had some tools at his disposal.
When I was preparing to have a baby, my childbirth educator encouraged us to “worry” about the various scary scenarios. Instead of trying to pacify us with “it’ll be OK” platitudes, she said, “OK, what if you do need an emergency C-section? What happens then? What if your child has to go to the NICU? How will you handle that? What resources do you need, what questions do you have?” And then she got us the information we needed.
There was no way to think through every worst-case scenario in my head—yes, I’m pretty creative, but life is even stranger than the catastrophes I can dream up. But by thinking through lots of possible outcomes, I had the confidence to be able to handle whatever might happen.
The truth is, we are not in control of our lives. Things happen. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Our call is to use the resources we have to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had hoped for, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whatever’s on hand.
Let yourself freak out. Then move on. There are numerous instances in the book of Watney confronting some bleak new situation and falling into despair. He makes a mistake that could be potentially fatal to him. He makes two steps forward one day and three steps back the next. In each instance, he lets himself feel those things. Then he takes a deep breath, gets up, and does what’s in his power to do.
Many of us get stuck in the freakout and never move to action. Others of us move straight to action without letting the full weight of what’s going on hit us. Watney models a good balance. As Admiral James Stockdale has said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Focus on the next thing. Watney comes to consciousness after the accident and realizes he’s completely alone and 140 million miles from home. He has no clue how to contact Earth or his crew, how to even think about rescue. But none of that matters at that moment, because task #1 is figuring out what he’s going to eat. So he focuses on growing food. This struck me as very wise. The novelist EL Doctorow died recently, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Whether you’re building a novel or an improv scene or a life, you don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out. Which is good, because you can’t know. But by taking the next step, you will get there.
Use it all up. [minor spoilers here] Watney spends much of his time in a temporary habitat, the HAB, and at the end, he must leave it to make a long journey in a rover. He’s jury-rigged the rover in all kinds of crazy ways using stuff from the HAB, and when he turns around to take one last look at it, he sees it as the decimated shell that it is. He’s picked it clean, left nothing behind that could be potentially useful. Which means there’s no turning back.
This is a perfect embodiment of Annie Dillard’s wisdom about writing and life: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.”
In my limited experience with improv, I’ve found it to be a very now-focused practice. If you have an idea, use it, don’t save it. If you have an impulse to act, do it. I guess there are some of you out there who come by this naturally and maybe need to learn to restrain yourselves more. But I bet many readers of this blog are like me, wanting to keep a little bit of life in reserve because it makes us feel safe. That hoarding comes at a cost.
Life is relentless. I mean this in multiple senses of the word. Watney’s situation was unrelenting, requiring constant activity—planning, executing, testing, retrying. He had to be a botanist, a mechanic, a scientist a carpenter. He had to be vigilant against an alien planet that seemed determined to kill him. He could not stop.
But I also mean that the impulse toward life is very strong. The basic rule of improv is yes-and—to accept what the world offers and build on it. Even when he has no idea how he could possibly be rescued, Watney is determined to LIVE for as long as he can.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Watney talks about taking samples of Mars rocks and soil, labeling them, and storing them where he hopes they’ll be found someday.
Here’s a man who knows his chances of personal survival are slim. But he’s part of something beyond him. And he trusts and hopes that someday, people will return to Mars. It’s his duty and his honor to be a a part of that relentless lurch into the future, to the extent that he can.
Did you read The Martian? What lessons did you learn from it?
Recently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.
A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid. Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.
What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.
I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.
It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.
But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.
Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.
Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.
Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)
Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:
Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.
Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.
I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.
Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.
Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.
This past weekend I had the joy of preaching for two friends who are on sabbatical/away for the weekend. Here’s
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 19, 2015
Trinity Presbyterian Church – Herndon
“Moral Bucket List”: Feeding the 5,000
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It is wonderful to be here as a guest preacher for Becca and Stephen, two of my most treasured colleagues.
One of the things that the churches I used to serve know about me is that I often get hung up on very small things in the scripture. So when I was talking to Becca this week, she said, “What will you be preaching about?” There are so many possibilities in this text—Jesus’ healing, the miracle of more than 5,000 people being fed—but I told her I would be be preaching on the words “this” and “it.”
When Jesus heard “this,” he went away to a deserted place.
Then it says the crowds heard “it” and followed him.
What did they hear? What are the “this” and the “it”?
Well if you skip back a few verses, you know it’s terrible news.
It’s the death of John the Baptist. He’d been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and according to Mark, his wife asked for his head on a platter… and she got it.
Why? Because that’s what unchecked power does.
That’s how power proves its own dominance and might.
They did it for entertainment.
They did it because they could.
That’s the “this” and the “it” that got Jesus and the crowds to their feet and on the move: the death of a prophet at the hands of the state.
It’s the kind of news that would get its own graphic on CNN.
It’s the kind of news that starts trending on Twitter: Hashtag Hebrew Lives Matter.
When Jesus heard this—when Jesus received the news about the death of his cousin—he went away to a deserted place. And when the people heard “it,” they went after him. Jesus’ flight into the wilderness is understandable—he probably needed some time and space to grieve and collect himself. But we don’t know why the crowds went. Maybe they’re feeling scared for Jesus—maybe they worry he’ll be next and they want to protect him. Maybe they’re curious to see what he’ll do. Maybe they’re frightened for themselves. All kinds of possibilities there.
I was drawn to “this” and “it” this week, because of all the “thises” and the “its” that we’ve been confronted with lately, that we’ve been hearing. For us this summer, IT is Charleston. IT is the confederate flag. IT is Baltimore on fire. Just this week, IT is six deaths in Chattanooga in an act of horrific violence. IT is a black woman in Texas who died in jail under suspicious circumstances after being arrested after not using her turn signal. IT, by the way, is also the realization that Atticus Finch may not have always been the shining paragon of virtue we thought he was or wanted him to be.
And in the midst of the thises and the its—here we are, like that crowd, come from our homes and towns, for our own various reasons, but maybe because we really need to be close to Jesus. With so much horror in the world at the moment, I’m calmed and oddly cheered by this image of people flocking to one another in the wake of John’s dastardly execution by Herod. Coming together, clinging to one another, receiving Jesus’ healing and the bread from heaven. What else can we do in these dark days?
Since I’m not your regular preacher, I can tell you that we pastors have our version of gallows humor. When terrible things happen in our world—things that demand a comment and a gospel response from pulpits like this one—one of the things we grouse to one another about is why they so often seem to happen on Friday and Saturday?! …usually when the sermon has been written and finished. Or even if it isn’t, you’ve been working with a gospel text that seems to have nothing to do with the tragedy that has just happened. It leads to a lot of late Saturday nights and a lot of laments: Why couldn’t it have happened on Tuesday? Tuesday’s good.
I know it’s silly and sad. When bad things happen, the least important part of it is whether it inconveniences the clergy. But make no mistake—over email, and in private Facebook spaces, the pastors like to feel a bit sorry for themselves.
And yet, if terrible things are going to happen, maybe Friday/Saturday is the right timing, so people of faith can come to their churches and synagagues and mosques, can draw together and pray to God, and receive comfort and strength for the living of dark days.
Back in the late 1950s, a researcher named Stanley Schachter conducted an unusual experiment. Schachter convinced college-aged women that they would receive a series of electric shocks about 15 minutes later. Some were told that these shocks would barely tickle, and others were told they would be very painful. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to wait for their shocks in a room alone, or with other people. Those who believed the shocks would be mild generally did not care whether or not they had neighbors in their waiting room. But people who believed that shocks would be painful strongly preferred being near others, On Schachter’s logic, this exposed a powerful rule about social behavior: in times of anxiety, people seek each other out. Like penguins in February, we tend to face adversity by gathering up.
This summer, you all are in a sermon series of sorts, consider elements of the “moral bucket list.” Today I want to suggest another one:
Find one another.
But not just any kind of gathering will do.
When the people flocked to Jesus, they came on foot. They didn’t bring their donkeys and camels, assuming they even had those things. They came only with what they could carry, which probably wasn’t very much. As we’ll find out later in the story, the didn’t even bring that much food with them.
When the people came, they just brought themselves. They went to a deserted place, in search of compassion and healing. They came in their weakness.
And then after Jesus is finished with them—dispensing a little teaching, offering a little healing, notice what the disciples say. Ok, it’s over now. They’re hungry now Jesus, so send them out to buy food. To buy food. Send them back into the marketplace; throw them back into the machinery of commerce. We don’t have anything for them here, but that’s OK, they can buy a little food, a little sustenance, buy a little comfort.
Becca mentioned to me that some of you attended the Taylor Swift concert earlier this week. Anyone? Guess what, I was there too with my two daughters. One of the things I love about concerts is this feeling of community. And she talked about that on stage. She said, “I need you all to know, that when I have tough days, I will remember this time we spent together.”
I believe that’s true… and at the same time, let’s be honest that this is a community that was created because we all bought very expensive tickets, and came together for the purpose of being entertained by a 26 year old pop star. And entertained we were. But that’s not the kind of community I’m talking about.
One of the seductive challenges of our culture is how many opportunities to have that Taylor Swift kind of experience. It feels like community, and on some level it is—but it’s not long-standing, and it’s not on the deep level that we need to confront the “thises” and the “its.” The disciples’ quick fix solution—send them out to go shopping—reveals how conditioned we are to transact our way into a sense of security… whether it’s a gated community, or a concealed weapon, or just surrounding ourselves with people who look like we do, think like we do, earn what we do, come from where we come from, shop at Trader Joe’s and listen to NPR.
And Jesus will have none of that. He rejects the disciples’ suggestion that the people engage in a little retail therapy. He sees that solution for the failure of imagination that it is. He says, Don’t go out and buy something. Everything we need is right here. Have you even taken stock of what we have? Can you trust that God can work with what’s already here?
And when he takes those gifts and cradles them in his hands, he looks to heaven and he gives thanks. Not a magic trick. What Jesus is doing is putting the focus on God, where it’s supposed to be. He’s modeling what we are called to do when we find one nother, when we come together. It’s not about saying, OK, we’re going to be all right because there are a lot of us. If we just huddle up, we’ll make it through. It’s not about strength in numbers. It’s about weakness in numbers. It’s about God doing something amazing in that weakness.
We must find one another—not in our strength, but in our vulnerability, trusting God, not our own abilities, to bring us through every this and it life may throw at us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book about the worst Rally Day EVER. She had worked her fingers to the bone, rented a cotton candy machine, helped pull together all the needed stuff for a burger cookout in front of the church…all to attract new folks to join the journey of House of All Saints and Sinners. And 26 people showed up. And nobody put one red cent in the donations basket. So no new people came, and those that did were cheap.
It was a whole lot of nothing.
Until she remembered the joy of the people who came, because they started serving food to folks on the street. And the prayers she had received for her aching back. And she remembered that nothing is God’s favorite building material. When she shared the story at a Lutheran conference that same week, community was built over lunch on shared stories of failure, failure that God somehow transformed into a feast for thousands. And that was enough. That was five paltry loaves and two measly fish feeding 5,000 grieving and shell-shocked people.
Joy Harjo writes in one of her poems about the power of people coming together around the simple human vulnerable act of eating. She says, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
“The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”
But then she makes a shift away from joy:
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Sometimes it feels like the world’s coming to an end. Or maybe just the world as we know it, though that can feel just as cataclysmic. How vital, then, that we find one another.
John Lewis was about four years old, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama, all the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin. One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:
The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.
Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.
The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.
We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.
That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group (New York, 2013), p. 105. Quoted by Michael Kirby in a paper for The Well preaching group.