Steph Lenox

Everyday Resilience In Christ

What if not-writing was just as essential as writing? What if forcing and obsessing over becoming a working writer over-loaded my brain’s kitchen table with too many of the wrong things?

I’ve felt the load. Obeying all the talking heads and podcasts. Cultivating the single-mindedness of a working writer. Feeding my social media like a goldfish. Obsessing like a gold-star winner.

I couldn’t see any more counter space. My eyes blurred out the shapes of the people right in front of me. Everything I did became in relation to writing. Every situation I grabbed onto with the question: how can I milk this moment like a dairy cow: squeezing content into my steaming bucket? My husband and children started avoiding me. They didn’t like how I in turn neglected, then used them for my creative purposes. I found my life littered with too much of my own pursuits that it crowded out any space for them to sit.

They were mad.

I was shocked.

I had to stop.

Which meant: I had to clear the table.

Leaning hard forward, I stretched my arm over the kitchen table of my life and swept everything off with the back of my hand. It makes a terrible crash when all of my priorities clatter onto the tile. Nothing makes sense. For a brief moment, I don’t know who I am, or where I am going. I see nothing but rubble, and hear nothing but the noise of impact.

After the big sweep, I spend time sifting and carefully picking up the items I still want to keep: my marriage. My children. My home. Our one direction together as a family toward the Lord.

Writing is a part of my DNA, but done out of proportion to the rest of my priorities, it can be an insidious excuse to neglect my own life, and the people therein. Writing is built into me. It feels like a steaming pot pie out of the oven. Satisfying. Heartening. The work of my hands. But I had dangerously begun to worship it, instead of the Lord. The center was coming undone. The pile was swelling and teetering.

Take my advice: let the pendulum swing back.

Eat all the crow. Forgive yourself. Lean hard forward with your outstretched arm, and do the sweep and the spare rebuild. Only a few items are allowed back on the table. Writing can have its place, but it must play well with others. When you become wildly successful in your creative pursuit, you want your husband by your side.

Here’s the secret:

I want to be successful. I want to become a working writer: supporting myself with my craft. If I crowd out my priorities – my people and my foundation – then I will crowd out my support system. When fame and money comes, I will fall. My character will be too weak and lonely. I will not be able to hold all that is poured into my lap. I will break.

Wealth and success only magnifies whatever is within a man’s heart. If he is already a generous man, he will become more generous. If he is already prone to medicate his problems, he will become more of an addict. If he has built a strong foundation, he can raise a secure life for himself and his children.

Keep this long-game in mind.

Clear the table often.

Vote for your people with your time and attention.

Create space for Not-Writing, so that when you Do-Write, your words will shine with the wisdom learned off the page. When you become famous, your character will have the muscle memory of your true priorities.

There I was, sinking lower in the chair, even as I held an expression of attentive listening.  There was a lady speaking to us from an armchair on the video we were watching at our local MOPS meeting (MOPS: Mothers Of Pre-Schoolers, i.e. a ready-made tribe for ladies in the trenches).  The topic of the day was around gratitude.  She leaned hard on the arm of her chair, and told us funny stories alongside her own real stories of stress and shame.

Then she turned the spotlight on us.

She asked us to do a gratitude challenge.

“Here’s what it is ladies,” she explained. “Text someone every evening for 14 days.  You’re going to text anyways, so it might as well be doing something productive. (cue snickering moms) In the text, list off three things you’re thankful that happened that day.  It has to be sent to the same person, so they can be expecting your text.  That’s it.”

She said that if we did that for 14 days straight, it would raise our overall happiness level for the next six months.  I didn’t catch the science behind this claim.  But, just like flossing or praying, I figured practicing gratitude was never a bad idea.

Of course, I didn’t want to participate in this challenge or anything.  My life had plenty of challenges already.  A trip to Costco with my toddler tests the fabric of space-time and Jesus’s grip on my very soul.  No thanks.

But then the video ended, and the fearless leader of this dear MOPS group stepped up and announced we were going to do this.  We were to write our first name and cell phone number on a piece of scrap paper shaped like a bird, and drop it in a pastel-painted bucket.  We would each draw an anonymous name.  She would then be our “secret sister” for this gratitude challenge.  Most ladies chimed around with pleased sounds.

I was trapped.  Trapped by gratitude.

I dutifully drew a name out of the bucket, and quickly scanned the name tags on shirts I could see from my seat, trying to match a face with the name and number on the bird.  Nothing.

Do you know how hard it is to be flaky to a stranger you are going to see again?

Whoever drew my name may or may not know who I am.  I’m still new here.  So this is basically my first impression to my secret sister: fourteen days straight of unfailing gratitude.  No pressure.

But then something weird happened.

That night, after I sent my text, and set up an alarm for every night to do the same, I felt good.  Like this may not be a trigger for performance anxiety.  Maybe.

The next night, I skipped the text altogether, because my husband and I were out on a rare date.  So I sent my text in the morning.  I got a reply of “Love this!” from my mystery sister.  I was sort of expecting “Where the heck have you been?”  Huh.

The next night I was staring down the sink full of dishes with slumped shoulders, and hearing my daughter cough like she was coming down with something.  DING went my phone.  I slowly grabbed it, and went to send my gratitude text.  My mind was blank.  I kept stealing glances at the sink of dishes: like it was going to sneak off with my wallet or something.

Then I remembered: My toddler had slept in that day.  And I had a Saturday with my husband at home with me.  And he finished installing our new front door that had been years in the making.  I smirked as I sent the text.  Then I turned my back to the dishes and walked into the living room to play on the floor with my kids.

I would never have crawled onto the floor without that text reminder.

That text interrupted my slumped posture at the sink.  Something happened in that moment that I ‘m still trying to figure out.  Those miserable dishes may never get done.

It feels like we are all looking for that moment of change:

From pain to relief.

From tired to energetic.

From timid to brave.

From not-enough, to more-than-enough.

From sad to happy.

The thing that’s the most interesting to me are the moments:  the exact moment when my attitude changes from grumbling to grateful, and the catalyst for the change.

So here’s to catalyst texts.

Here’s to change.

And here’s to practicing gratitude for a happier tomorrow.

I’ll keep you up on my progress!

First, make elaborate plans for them.  Choose them lovingly from the grocery store, imagining the slow drizzles of herb-infused oil over them.  Tell yourself that your children will eat them THIS time, because they’ve never tasted the amazing flavors you’re going to cook into them.

At home, shove them under the lettuce in the bottom of the fridge.  Diligently forget about them for a week.

Remember them on Sunday, when you finish the lettuce and see them underneath.  Feel guilty, because you remember your parents telling you one time about starving children in India.

Realize your guilt may be a bit misguided at the moment.  Decide to retain a little bit, just in case.

Bravely open the bag and sniff them.  They smell as good as… brussels sprouts.  But not rotten brussels sprouts.

At 4:30pm, decide to roast the brussels sprouts.  Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees, because you remember under-cooking them last time, and nobody but the teething baby gnawed on them.

Pile the dirty dishes from one side of the sink to the other.

Rinse and chop-in-half the brussels sprouts while stirring the carnitas meat you’re trying to brown in a giant frying pan.

Grab the $7 spice tin you bought at the harvest fair, and the olive oil.  Suddenly remember that olive oil will smoke at so high a temperature, and substitute it for coconut oil.  Congratulate yourself for making conscientious choices in your life.

Toss the brussels sprouts in the oil and spices, and spread them on a cookie sheet.  Carefully turn each half facing upward, because you saw that somewhere on a cooking show.  Place sheet in the oven.  Set timer for 45 minutes.

Stir the carnitas again.  Smile at the bacony smells drifting up from the frying pan.

Change out the laundry load.  Fold your husbands work pants for tomorrow.

Wring your hands about the kids’ lunches that need to be packed.  Peek into the living room to see all of them playing happily, and decide to let them play a while longer.

Greet your husband as he walks into the kitchen, happily sniffing the air, lauding your Sunday night cooking.

Blush and turn away at his compliment, only to catch sight of the monstrous stack of dishes in the sink.  Start shoving them into the dishwasher like you meant to do that all along.  Because you sort-of did.  At times.  Sort-of.

See your youngest toddle into the kitchen, whining for a snack.  Sit him in his high-chair at the table, and set out a platter of cheese and crackers.  Call the others over to the table for a snack.

Five minutes later, hear the indignant squeals of your daughter protesting that the baby ate all the cheese.  Tell her that if she had come to the table on time, there would be some left for her.

Make a mental note to instill time-management skills into your parenting.

Forget mental note as you hear the carnitas sizzle change into pops.  Frown at them because they look like they’re turning into jerky.

Look to your husband as he chats with you.  Melt into adult conversation.  Follow him onto the couch in the next room over.

Remember to turn off the burners before you follow him.  Congratulate yourself for multi-tasking so well in your domestic life.

Sit down with your husband, and have meaningful, heart-felt conversations.

Hear the oven beep, but decide to give it five more minutes.  You remember hearing that the brussels sprouts are a hearty vegetable and can stand up to the heat.

Get interrupted by children running into the room and tackling both of you.

Stand up to dump them off your lap, and saunter over to the oven.

Squeak open the oven door.

Gasp in horror.

Slam the door shut immediately, and turn the oven off.  Walk over to the sink, uncertain why you’re walking to the sink.

Hear your husband squeak open the oven door behind you,saying, “Whoa.”

Feel your head sinking backwards into tunnel vision.  Suddenly be transported to all the failures you have ever committed.  Feel the weight of it all piling onto your chest.

Swallow and say clearly, “Yeah, I burned the brussels sprouts.”  Walk from the stove to the sink a few times, and open up the fridge, just for good measure.

Avoid eye contact.

Hear the kids shrieking and fighting with each other in the living room.

Feel sudden rage bubble out of you as you shout terribly at them in return.

Feel your husband now close to you.  He asks, “What’s wrong?”

Hold his gaze in one brief moment of suspended disbelief.  Wonder how he could not see that your life was a tightly sealed Ziplock bag of failure?!

Crumble.

Ugly cry.

Grab two oven mitts, and take the blackened brussels sprouts straight out the back door.  Set the tray on the big A/C metal box outside to cool.  Lean on the fence.  Look up at the sky.  Breathe.  Compose yourself.

Then collapse into sobs again.

Cry so hard your husband has to steady you.  Cry about everything that you didn’t realize was bothering you.  Talk, and cry, and blow your nose on a stray piece of laundry.

Again try to deep-breathe composure when your oldest walks over.  Show her the charcoal brussels sprouts as the reason for your tears.  They’re as good a prop as any.

Feel her hug your belly and see kindness in her eyes.  Watch her disappear around the corner of the house.  Feel immense pride in her beautiful heart.

Talk more with your husband. Slowly realize there is more time in your life, and in your family, than you realized.

Hear God’s gentleness in his words.

Eventually see your oldest come back over, reporting that she told her younger sister about what happened, and that she cheered out loud at the death of the brussels sprouts.

Smirk, and find your feet to trudge back into the kitchen.  Let your husband hug you for far longer than you expected.  Chop some carrot sticks, and slice pieces off of a loaf of bread.  Spoon carnitas jerky onto plastic plates.

Discover that neither you, nor your husband are hungry.   Feel surprisingly connected to him in this fact.

Set out plates of this weird dinner for the kids.  Gather everyone to the table, but turn on cartoons to distract them from complaining.

Take a sip from a glass of iced mineral water your husband poured for you.  Feel it trickle down your throat, and sting your nose: a reminder that you are alive.  This hot swollen feeling of shame is not what God meant for you.  He meant you for refreshment: for cool, effervescent relief in Him.  Thank Him for sticking it out through your crazy.

Slow down.

Later that night, under cover of darkness, bring the tray of black lumps back into the kitchen.

Peel off the outer layers to find that the insides were still green, soft, and well-seasoned.  Laugh and cry about this.  Try it.  Find them delicious.  Decide to eat the edible ones all yourself.

Tuck yourself into bed.  Hold your husband’s sleeping hand.  Think about how you burned the brussels sprouts.  How you yelled at the kids.  How you forsook yourself, but your family still took you back.

Squeeze your husband’s hand under the covers.  Decide that God is still good, that your heart survived this near-death experience.  And that you *may* be too hard on yourself sometimes.

 

 

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5

In the early morning hours, I laid in bed, tears streaming into my ears. I was listening again to his wails through the intercom on my nightstand.  I tried to muster the energy to rise for the baby again, after waking countless times that night. Unable to dig deeply one more time, I fell limp and wept.  As my husband held me in bed, I cried out to God to rock the baby to sleep, himself. My mama’s heart ached. Deeply craving sleep, I felt my body flushed hot with shame, feeling selfish that I could put my needs before my child’s.  I prayed in loud sobs for a long time. By the time I had finished, the intercom fell silent. The baby had finally fallen asleep, without me.

What felt like minutes later, my husband’s alarm rang.  I peeked at him buttoning his shirt beside the clock. It read 5:30 a.m.  

“How could the day already be starting?” I thought breathlessly, “How could I do anything after that night?”  As if to answer my thoughts, he looked over at me and said something surprising:

“Be gentle to yourself today.”

I blinked at him.

“I mean it,” he said, “You need to be extra gentle to yourself today.”

Who says that?  Where, in the “do-more, be-more” media feeds of our lives, do we as women hear the message to be gentle?

Yet, in the Bible, this is just what Paul was urging the church in Philippi to do.  He called the believers there to a lifestyle of gentleness so ubiquitous, that it became their reputation in the bustling trade city.

How in the world was I to be gentle to myself after a night like that?  How could I parent three small children, while running on fumes?

How do we develop a reputation of gentleness, when the only thing left in our hearts are angry un-met needs and expectations?  How do we act gently when feeling weak, sick, tired, or grieved?

Remember Paul’s words: “The Lord is near.”

I must receive it first, from the Lord, in order to show it to others, or myself.  Being gentle to ourselves is a product from bringing our hearts to Jesus, and feeling him treating us gently.

We are not alone in our weakness.  When we are in His presence, we can relax, and be gentle to ourselves.

This was the door to unlock my day.  I set out to be gentle with myself: lowering my expectations, and letting myself off of as many hooks as possible.  It was wonderful. My attitude even softened toward my little kids, and the constant care they need. We all breathed a bit easier that day.  

We as moms may feel selfish when we are gentle to ourselves, saying ‘no” to the constant demands of the world, in order to protect our hearts.  But this gentleness spills over into our loved-ones. As we draw near to Jesus, it will become evident to all that we serve a gentle God, who faithfully draws near to our tired, empty hearts – for His glory – and fills us with His life.

They say that the unnatural glow from a computer screen disrupts the natural sleep cycle of our brains.

Thank goodness.

In the pre-dawn hours, I’ve been up, staring into the blue glow of my Chromebook screen, reading articles, listening to podcasts, and putting myself through “writing school,” as I put it.

You see, this school year, I organized.

I have more writing on my plate than ever before.  I’ve been asked to host a separate blog for an organization dear to me, on top of feeding my own blog, as well as developing a book idea around resilience.  So I needed to organize, or all would be lost.

It happened this summer; I lost my game completely.  I barely did chores.  I barely cooked.  I barely wrote.  I’m not kicking myself for it.  How was I supposed to focus with the kids underfoot all calling for outings and playdates?  I was outnumbered.  It wasn’t my fault, really.

But by August, I became perpetually hungry, frazzled, anxious, and I realized I needed to do something differently.

Scrutinizing my schedule, I saw a few windows:

If I get up with my tradesman husband, I can kiss him goodbye and still have an hour to myself before the kids get up.

Midday, while the kids are in school, I have a block of time to myself during the baby’s nap time.  Sure, he’s two-years-old now.  But he still naps, and he still is my baby.  It’s my solemn right as a mother to call him my baby until he’s 42.

Here’s how I’m working out the schedule to do all that I have to do, and all that I love to do:

  1. Fill:  In the early morning hours, it’s time to read.  My Bible.  A book.  Do research.  Listen to a podcast and take notes.  It’s my time to fill my brain and heart.  When I do this, I’m weirdly more awake and human than when I actually get more sleep and roll out of bed when the kids do.
  2. Chore:  After taking the kids to school, I have a set chore that must be done that day, or else I don’t get to write.  It’s a rule I set for myself.  I’m amazed that if I have an end-time to my chores (Baby goes down in a half hour!  Can I vacuum the house by then?  Let’s try!) my dragging-feet whip into a sprint, usually with the baby on my hip.
  3. Pour: Now it’s time to write.  I take what I’ve learned that morning, and pour it out of my brain onto the page or screen.  This is the time for blogs, Instagram posts, returning emails, toggling the design of my website (which for me, takes forever!), and scratching my head about an email newsletter.  That’s my next frontier: a newsletter.  Any tips?  Pointers?

When I order my mornings like this, then by the time I bring the kids home from school, I can focus on them, and the afternoon/evening events of homework and dinner.  My husband comes home to a tidier house, and a more content wife (because her brain breathed that day!).

Part of me rolls my eyes about making and keeping schedules.  When my husband started noticing me rolling out of bed when he did, he asked me, “Why are you getting up so early?”

At that time of the morning, there is no small-talk in me. No good intentions.  No inspirational quotes.

“Because I get time to do what I want to.” I said while opening my Chromebook and squinting at its blue glow.

That’s the truth.  You can tell what a person really loves by what they seem to find time for.

I don’t watch my own shows.  I don’t have any recipes pinned.  I don’t garden.  I don’t go out at night.  I don’t craft.  I spend my time upon my kids and husband.  And I schedule out time to read and write, because that is the slant the Lord has formed into my heart.

What do you seem to find time for?  What do you love to do when procrastinating from what you have to do?  I’d love to know.

 

I sweated and hefted a box overhead, balancing it dangerously in the air for a beat.  Then I tipped the edge to meet the shelf, and shoved it into place.  I thought of how some people have spring cleaning.  I, apparently, have fall cleaning.

It was getting hard to walk through the garage.  My husband and I agreed that we should condense the piles, sort them, and bring things into the house as we could.

But there was a problem.  Though we live comfortably in our home, it doesn’t afford much storage space. It’s an older house, before built-in cabinetry became standard.  What cabinets we did have were shallow and small.  It was as if wives of the 1940’s didn’t have anything more to store than a few fry pans and quilting scraps.  The fry pans I own: along with the Ninja blender, the Kitchenaid stand mixer, and extra rolls of wrapping paper from last Christmas. The quilting scraps I do not.

I made it my project, one week, to tackle the job while my husband was at work, the kids at school, and baby napped for an hour or two.  Surely it wouldn’t take that much time to tidy things up.

I was half right.

It didn’t take much time to re-shelve beach toys and lawn chairs that had been taken down and not put back.

But I found it took a monumental amount of time to find a new place for something in the house.  It had to be somewhere where I would find it again, and thus, USE it.  But that meant going through the house cabinets and clearing out space for the garage things.  The surprise was seeing what the heck we DID have in there.  I found more mason jars squirreled away than I could count.  Much of what I found I had forgotten about.  Which is silly, because again: these are tiny cabinets, in my own house.  I realized that I zoomed around the same familiar circles of my home in my daily chores, leaving much of the corners and cabinets un-examined.

Opening their doors, I stepped into another dimension.  I went back to an earlier time: a younger time of intention, of anxiety and sleepless nights with infants.  I went through a process of seeing and touching each item, assessing whether I have ever used it, or would ever use it again.  I suddenly realized I was taking stock of my past and future: my values and direction.  A sense of freedom washed over me as I ordered the things in our house to serve us as we currently are.  Well-meaning intentions of a younger time fell away.  I could feel myself owning who I am now, with who my husband is now, and who our children are now.

It was marvelous:  now in our late 30’s, we have never been this old before, with this much perspective.  My husband and I have found our place with each other, and are carving a place for the kids to grow.  Though it takes far more time than we budget, finding a place is foundational work.  Even after 12 years of marriage.  Even after 7 years of living in this house.

It is the same with finding a place for roast pans and the knitting box.

Hi.  I’m Steph Lenox.  And I’m growing up.

I asked my mother-in-law on her birthday what she liked about reaching her age.  “Becoming comfortable in my own skin,” she replied.  Then she went on to describe how with each decade of her life she relaxed a little more into herself.

I want this too.

So I will find a place for the things we have.

I will clear room for the the things we want.

I will stretch out my arms and legs and take up more space in my own life, surprised to find a place for myself within my own skin.