Bit by Bit

Photo by Pam Ecrement

As I look out the window or step outside, little by little, bit by bit, the leaves are showing off their autumn finery. It doesn’t happen all at once in our part of the country so when it begins, it is barely noticeable. In our lawn, we know it will be our dogwood first whose leaves will start to tinge red, locust and maples come along next, and last the stately oaks. Each makes its entry onto the stage to show off its own shade and hue of color. Each also drops its leaves at a different time.

Autumn is my favorite time of year as we enjoy the bluest of skies often and the varying temperatures that tend to be not too hot and not too cold, not saturated with humidity, and beyond the busier seasons of readying the house, lawn, garden, and deck for the summer season or winter. 

It is also the season when I met the man I would marry and fell in love with and the season of my birth (October). I love the colored leaves and their crunch under my feet when I am outdoors and the smell of good soup simmering on the stove or a warm apple pie coming out of the oven since it is peak apple season where I live.

Getting older doesn’t happen all at once either. It happens little by little so that we barely notice how quickly time is passing except on special occasions where we get reminded of the year by that event. We discover it is different for each of us as we approach the last quarter of our lives. All we were before and how we responded to those things impact how each of us enters this season.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

Harder still to fathom is to be getting older while still seeming inside to be the same person. Each decade and season has its own opportunities if we are willing to see them. Now we have the time to reflect and consider who we are inside instead of defining ourselves by the public face of what we do.

Therein can be a conundrum.

“Of course I am all the experiences I have ever been, on one level. But on another level, I am only what people see when they look at me now. Finally, I am only what I have prepared myself to be beyond what I did.” 

Joan Chittister

Those who have known us the longest have likely a much broader understanding of all that makes us up versus simply who people see us as at this moment. They may recall when we married, became parents, bought our first home, became grandparents, walked through the aging of our own parents and more. Those we met later on the path have only a partial view of us and what has brought us to this place and season. 

I have had many roles and different experiences before now. I was a Marine Corps officer’s wife, a housewife and mother who stayed at home enjoying that role until our youngest was halfway though elementary school. I was someone who loved writing and wrote articles for our monthly church newsletter then that led to working as a correspondent for a newspaper in the next county for three years and gave me options to use a camera to help tell the stories I wrote. Both were things I loved but were not what my education had taught me to do.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

Next came active local ministry roles in leading various women’s ministry programs for another three years that gave me a chance to grow in my faith and how to reach across denominational lines to bring the body of Christ as women closer together. A very different path followed when my local school district where I had done student teaching asked me to help with a remedial reading program that fit well with the ages of our children and kept me at home without a lot of prep demands for another several years. Then one day I was asked by the superintendent to take the position of a junior high special education class. Even though I had majored in elementary and special education, this was not a position I had planned for my future and yet it seemed like an open door of what became a pattern in my life.

The pattern I speak of was how throughout my life I was asked to take on a role or job or position of one kind or another rather than seeking or applying for it. It seemed that the Lord maybe knew the path He desired me to take and left to my own devices I might muck it all up. 

The special education position was anything but easy, but I cared a lot about these students and taught them for 13 years while doing various ministry things like National Marriage Encounter with my husband and lay counseling in our local church at that time. That combination of things clarified that my love of relational things and people were at the core of me and led me (after my husband) to enter graduate school to become a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Independent Marriage and Family Therapist in mid-life and leave a tenured teaching position to enter a Christian private practice.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

I was never someone who would call myself a courageous person so each of these transitions challenged me with fears about my ability, competence, endurance, and more. Some thought I was foolish to be leaving a secure teaching position to become part of a private practice where I took an immediate pay cut and lost great less expensive benefits. But part of getting older bit by bit is how we face the fears that can confront us when we step out of one place we know into a new one.

“Fear tempts us to believe life it over – rather than simply changing. A blessing of fear in these years is that it invites us to become the fullness of ourselves.” 

Joan Chittister

I would never have guessed I would go to graduate school and certainly not in mid-life nearing closer to fifty. But something nudged me forward in that arena despite my shaky knees and sense of being not quite as capable as I needed to be. It took longer doing it part-time (5 years) while teaching full-time and still being a wife and parent, but I faced the fear and discovered more about myself than I would have otherwise.

I pursued new things, became a learner again, and felt excitement about stepping once again into a new beginning. Facing the fear gave place to experiencing joy, discovering more of God’s purpose and plans for what gifts He had placed in me. 

Bit by bit God had used everything I experienced before now into a pattern I could never have guessed when I was younger. And I had no idea where this new path would lead me next on my way to the new now.

How we adapt to change and the choices we make and how we respond to them make all the difference. And I could never have guessed what He would have in store next.

Photo by Pam Ecrement

Don’t Let Regrets Rob You

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When we are children, our lives are most often caught up in the moment as we cannot grasp time and its meaning. The best example that comes to mind is of our middle grandson who would be aware we were traveling to visit him soon, but instead of the number of days until we would be there, he would ask his parents “how many night nights until Gram and Gramp come.” Bedtime routines he could fathom but days were not quite in his sense as yet. It was a dear memory of him as we look back in time to the handsome young man who is now 25 years old.

As we each age we gain a clearer concept of now, past, and future, but until we are truly older most of our time is still in the present and looking to the future that stretches out before. We get caught up in all the things we hope to do and be when “we grow up” and we don’t often look over our shoulder in the past or spend much time thinking about any regrets we may have. We are anticipating all the adventures ahead in the future and busy living life in the now without a keen awareness of how it is keeping a steady pace forward when we are looking elsewhere.

But as each decade passes, we begin to recognize the future is racing toward us and see some of the things we may wish we had done differently along the way. Some of those were when we simply made one choice over another such as a career path or a college choice and might now recognize we could have thought that through a bit more. Some of them are more bitter choices of mistakes and failures that we could no longer refute as a result of our poor choices. But they could yield to grace and forgiveness if we would offer them to God even later than they occurred and allow that regret to be healed.

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When we reach the last quarter of our life, the past stretches farther than the future and it can be easy to get stuck in regrets. We may think it is wisdom and now we see more accurately our responsibility of those things that hurt others and us along the way. Even though that may well be true, if we stay stuck there it can be a downward slide into depression.

“It nibbles around the edges of the mind, and we feel the weariness that comes with it. The years have slipped by without our realizing it. And now it is too late to make the changes regret demands. Too late to take the trip I always dreamed of, too late to get another job, too late to move to the cabin in the woods, too late to go to the big city where everything is surely bigger, brighter, better. Too late to begin again, or to do it better this time. Worst of all, regret demands to know why I did what I did in the first place. And I don’t know.” 

Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years

If we stay there, regret will rob us of the truth we missed in our melancholy. Often God took that choice we may think was such a mistake and turned it into something far more significant and “on time” than we are remembering. After all, He is an expert at redemption of not only us, but the time can be turned into something that grew us into the character He had in mind.

I recall so well growing up in my family with a desire to always please my parents. One of my dad’s greatest desires was for me to have a great education and go to college. It was something he had never had the opportunity to do as a result of his dad’s death when he was just 5 and his older brother’s death when he was only 13 and needed to step into the role of farming the family farm with the help of his uncles. That desire was a vow he made to himself before he even had a child of his own. He was not wealthy and unsure of how he could afford it, but he was determined to find a way no matter what sacrifice he needed to make. He was going to do something positive with the regret of his lack of a good education.

As I neared high school graduation, he went to a local banker out of his uncertainty at the big cost before him. The wise banker told him not to look at the whole four years but to take one quarter at a time and trust for the next one. My dad was a man of faith and took that as the right path because he also did not want me burdened by a student loan. 

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I was well aware of this precious sacrifice and desire, so it was with more than a little trembling that I shared that the young man whom I met my sophomore year of college and had been dating had now proposed marriage. My dad liked this young man a lot but made clear he wanted me to wait until graduation two years ahead to marry. I assured him that I would. But I decided to help things along a bit by going to summer school since my fiancé was already a year ahead of me. 

My fiance’s graduation included a commission as a United States Marine Corps officer and off he went to a state hundreds of miles away while I soldiered on toward my own degree that was still four quarters away. As we were looking ahead toward a wedding, one obvious period of a two-week leave came with only one more quarter till I would finish college. Again, I agreed that if we married then that I would stay behind and finish that last quarter so with yet another promise agreed to, we were married just before Christmas and New Year’s Day my new husband left without me to a new duty station even farther away. He told me it was unlikely he would be able to get married housing until I was finished and with that hope I returned to campus.

But those promises suddenly seemed too much when he got housing for us almost immediately while I was living in a dorm with single women. It felt unbearable to be apart from him so I made the decision to break my promise and go join him with yet another promise I would still finish. I still recall the heartache and regret I felt when I shared that decision with my dad knowing it hurt him. But off I went with no assurance of when I could or would be able to finish college.

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Little did we know that my husband’s unit would get orders to be out of country for 5 months beginning in June. But that gave me the window to fulfill my promise to my dad. I returned home and by the end of the summer I crossed the finish line not only keeping my promise and blessing my dad but becoming the first member of my family on either side to graduate from college.

That regret was met with a kept promise and a gratefulness I took that risk for those precious 5 months we had before he had to leave for 5 months. Even then we did not know in another 2 he would receive orders overseas for 14 months of separation. God used regret in this in so many ways for good.

Should we look back?

“The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us. The blessing of regret is clear – it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.” 

Joan Chittister from The Gift of Years

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Am I Important?

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I remember the day so well from 45 years ago.

At that time I was working as a reading tutor for elementary students in the school where our youngest child was still attending. We met in one of those rooms in the basement of the building with a simple table and chairs and I largely met with third grade students assigned to me following testing that showed they were below grade level in reading. None of these were excited to step out of their classroom to meet with me, but one of them, a boy named Shawn, was especially unhappy about it and wasn’t excited about anything I had planned.

We had been working together for a number of weeks and I was still looking for that spot where we could connect so I could show him the path to better reading and that it could even be fun. On this particular day when I walked into the room, I didn’t see him until I spied a stray foot sticking out from under the table we used as a makeshift desk. I chose not to say anything since I was unsure of what he was seeking to have me understand initially. As I sat down, from beneath the table I heard him ask me the question, “Am I important?”  Nothing could have surprised me more.

It took me a minute or two to consider what I would say and how but when I did answer him, I tried my best to assure him that he was indeed important and important to me and why I thought so. He waited for a few minutes before slipping out from under the desk and into his chair so we could start the work I had in mind.

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It was that moment that things began to change with Shawn, and he began to trust my direction and the materials I brought to help him grow in his reading skill.

But the thing that day left in my mind was how brave he was to ask the question. He could not know how I would answer. It was a question so few of us ever ask but can wonder about. We want to know if we are valued for who or what we are no matter what our skills may be. Only then can we begin to believe things can be better than we may believe they have been or are for us.

If we are honest, we all want to feel like we are somebody to someone no matter how old we are.

How we view ourselves can be improved as the author of The Sensation of Being Somebody wrote:

“Even though self-concept is an illusive image of self, and probably not so adequate as we would like it to be, we can gain new insights and work to overcome self-defeating patterns of thinking. The bad memories which influence us to think poorly of ourselves can be disarmed of their controlling power. Our fundamental interpretation of how we rate as a person can be changed.” 

Dr. Maurice Wagner

In Dr. Wagner’s book, he starts off by telling his readers that view of self comes from “functional aspects” made up of “appearance, performance, and status” that blend with “feelings” made up of “belongingness, worthiness, and competence.”

Page by page Dr. Wagner unpacks the good stuff from his education and experience as a psychologist with theological degrees to bring the sure foundation of who God wants us to see in ourselves. If you have never read this book, you might be able to find a dusty copy on a library shelf or used book department. It is well-worth the read even though published in 1975.

These hints from him likely can give you guesses of what might be impacting my young student, Shawn, hiding beneath the table and what he most needs to become a more skilled and effective student, but how does it work for you in this season of life no matter our age? Changes can still be made even though you may not believe that.

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“In fact, gerontology as a science – the study of the biological, psychological, and social aspects of aging – didn’t even begin until after WW II. Up until that time, any interest in age concentrated entirely on the means of prolonging youth or reversing the effects of aging. What gerontology is still lacking, however, is the awareness of the spiritual dimensions of the only part of life that gives us the resources we need to make a long-term evaluation of the nature and meaning of life itself.” 

Joan Chittister

We spend most of our lives doing things, acquiring things, ever pressing forward without a keen observation often of how quickly time is flying by and we are aging in various ways and various speeds. Suddenly we are aware of needing to pay off the mortgage, think about long-tern health coverage, and whether the house we loved will serve us when we retire. Silently or aloud we wonder how we got to this age anyway. We were simply so busy doing life that we failed to sometimes notice those things.

Those same things Wagner defines now hit us. We don’t look the same as we once did despite our best (or less than our best) efforts. Our performance in any number of areas may no longer be at its peak and our status has slipped when we are now referred to as “old” or even “elderly.”

“What am I when I am not what I used to do? And does anybody really care? And what does that have to do with growing into God?”

Joan Chittister

Over the next few weeks as I approach one of those birthdays that catch us up short, I want to use some of my reflections stirred by those of Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years. No matter what your age, I hope you will join me in this story.

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The I Can’t Muscle

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What comes to mind when I say, “muscle memory”? 

 It’s one of those ability gifts that we often don’t pay much attention to but is a significant attribute designed into our bodies. One example that comes to mind is learning to ride a bicycle. If we learn to do that as a child, we learn not only the technique but also balance and movement. If we never get on a bicycle again until adulthood but rode often as a child, our muscle memory will help us ride again even if we are a bit rusty the first time. I think of that one because my mother never learned to ride a bike as a child and tried as an adult fairly unsuccessfully. But I learned as a child and didn’t ride again until sometime in my mid-twenties and had little difficulty getting back to it again even though pregnant at the time.

Our muscle memory is found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding bikes, driving motor vehicles, playing ball sports, typing on keyboards, entering PINs, playing musical instruments, poker, martial arts, swimming, and dancing.

Sound simple?  Well, science now tells us there are two types of muscle memory. One is neurological and stems from recall of a learned activity like riding a bike, driving a golf ball down the fairway, knowing various martial arts moves, and more. The second type is identified as physiological memory and related to regrowth of muscle tissue that relates to regaining lost muscle mass due to inactivity related or injury. 

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Of course it’s not so much your muscles actually remembering but what happens in the central nervous system made up of your brain and spinal cord when an activity is learned and neural pathways form that now can send signals to whatever part of the body needs them. When we have learned them well, they become automatic, and we largely don’t even need to think about them because of those neural pathways.

But there are other things that it seems can influence this process that falls in the psychological memory aspect of us. If we get messages in childhood that may seem incidental that give us the sense that we cannot do something in one area or especially when it is more than one, we start believing we cannot. The “I can’t muscle” can grow stronger over time so we don’t feel competent or confident in those areas and even become generalized across all areas of the person’s life.

Recently, I used this illustration to describe myself in a conversation with my husband. He grew up pretty independently without a lot of instruction about anything and as a result, he became a problem solver who figured out to do whatever he needed to do and grew in trusting he could even when it was new or a challenge. He just knew he needed to figure it out and did. 

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He sometimes is puzzled that I don’t always operate similarly even all these years into adulthood. My family background gave me a different message though I am sure it was not their intent. Instead of it resulting in my believing I could do something, I believed I likely couldn’t, and it grew my “I can’t” mindset when faced with a new skill or task. Perhaps it came from my difficulty understanding math in middle school due to some ineffective teachers. I struggled with math homework and what I heard from my mother was “I was never very good at math either and could not do well with it.”  I soon believed I was in some way deficient, and my parents hovered over every homework assignment with no real helpful instruction that little-by-little cemented the belief in my memory. The result was that I continued to have challenges with any area of math throughout my school career. Math finally began to make more sense to me when I became a teacher and had the benefit of the teacher’s manual that not only gave me answers but also instructions about “how to” do the problems.

This sense of lack of ability or competence spread to other areas as well and with it grew a sense of fearing failure, so it was better not to try. I was shocked when I would win a superior rating in a music competition and earn a spot on the honor roll (despite math). The sense of growing up thinking my family did not think I could, became a muscle of “I can’t.” Over time I was blessed with some very discerning teachers who began to give me other messages and when I met my husband early in college, he never failed to believe I could. He saw potential, strength, and possibility to overcome the old messages.

How did God fit into the picture? I began to see how He pursued and used so many who did not appear to be the best choice. Some had messed up miserably and He still chose them, and they became leaders and models. For me, I became a champion for every student who came into my classroom of believing they could be more and do more than they thought, and I watched with excitement as they grew “I can” muscles. That translated again when I finished graduate school and became a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and met for 25 years with persons whose lives were upside down and they also believed “I can’t” and without a doubt I believed with God that they could.

As I grow older, there can be a sneak attack of the old “I can’t” that creeps in even now but I have experience to combat that negative system even though my first impulse might occasionally revert to that. The truth is that I will never forget what I have learned about this and how God can use it for good as I pass along messages to others of “I can.”  This is not the memory that should guide us in the last quarter of our lives when we reflect on the life we have behind us.

“The fact is that every life is simply a series of lives, each one of them with its own task, its own flavor, its own brand of errors, its own type of sins, its own glories, its own kind of deep dank despair, its own plethora of possibilities, all designed to lead us to the same end – happiness and a sense of fulfillment.

Life is a mosaic made up of multiple pieces, each of them full in itself, each of them a stepping-stone on the way to the rest of it.”  

Joan Chittister

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Our Stories – More Than We Think

It can be easy to think we know our stories – at least for the most part. We can start through a timeline from the time we were born to the present and list various key things to share depending on whom we wish to tell. And over the years we learn more about ourselves, things that don’t go on a timeline and gain from lived experience and what we discover along the way.

Part of that discovery is growing to makes choices about what will define us despite all the other people and forces that want to shape us. It means discovering who we were meant to be. Even though we thought we knew at big event markers like graduations, jobs or professions, weddings, etc., the quest is truly to become who we were meant to be.

Patti Callahan Henry describes it this way in one of her novels:

“You see there are moments in life when the smallest action leads to the biggest changes. We don’t know – none of us – when those moments are happening. We understand only when we look to the past, and sometimes not even then.”

From The Perfect Love Song

It’s only later, looking in the review mirror, that we can get glimpses of the unseen moments, things, places, and people who have influenced those actions.

When we are very young, we believe we are the ones making the choices independently and that leads to the temptation to take the credit or the blame without seeing the complex interplay of so many pieces of the puzzle that is us.

One of the challenges in so many of our relationships is that we often only know that person in the now or recent years. We miss all the things that have shaped this person and the deeper understanding of who they are as well as why they are who they are. What a treasure to have even a few relationships where we can know such things. How much we could gain if we knew the before.

As I was reading and considering this, I was fascinated by what Eugene Peterson wrote about this:

Apart from the before, the now has little meaning. The now is only a thin slice of who I am, isolated from the rich deposits of before, it cannot be understood.”

From Run with the Horses

How profound a truth Peterson writes in this quote! Even when we are older and have perhaps been married for a long time as my husband and I have, it would seem we know everything and yet we discover little slivers of things even now.

Just a bit later, Peterson fleshes out that statement:

The before is the root system of the visible now. Our lives cannot be read as a newspaper reports on current events; they are unabridged novels with character and plot development, each paragraph essential for mature appreciation.”

From Run with the Horses

But the priceless truth is there is One who knew me before. We see that clearly in Psalm 139 when the psalmist writes these words:

For you formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

Psalm 139: 13-14 (TPT)

Do you see? God knows me – God knows you – in the before. He knows each of us before the timeline we can recite. He knows things we cannot even begin to fathom because He created us for a part, a special part He is inviting us to play. When we are born, we arrive in the midst of a story that is already going on. It is not only the story of our birth and family of origin, but God’s story.

Yes, we have choices, but He has created each one of us and when we enter the story and the role we play is special indeed.

Once again Eugene Peterson expands our perception as he writes:

“Before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important, God singled us out as important. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. We are known before we know.”

From Run with the Horses

And then this…

“The story into which life fits is already well on its way when we walk into the room. It is an exciting, brilliant, multi voiced conversation.”

From Run with the Horses

If we can remember this, it can begin to give us a glimpse of God’s perspective, even though we can catch only a glimpse as the created ones as compared to the One who has created the whole story that unfolds moment by moment into eternity.