Layers of Memory

I’m sitting cross legged on a love seat in Plano, Illinois listening to the sound of crickets float through an open window and watching my husband and middle brother shoot basketball in the driveway. I have finally brought Richard to the place where my mother and my grandmother grew up. The rooms in this house and trails through these woods are layered with memories. Turning into the driveway reminds me of the nights I would fall asleep in the car on the way home after a long day playing in the woods. Pulling up to the house reminds me of learning to drive my grandfather’s old John Deer. And stepping into the kitchen I remember laughing with my cousins as we washed Thanksgiving dishes by hand. This remarkable property holds the memories of four generations of my family.

I can easily bring to mind many of these memories from the comfort of my couch at home. But being physically present where these memories took place is so powerful. Standing in the living room, where I celebrated many Christmases, brings back not just images from the past but smells, sensations, tastes, and emotions. The memory of drinking pineapple juice on the couch while the adults drank pre-dinner gin and tonics was so strong that I went out and bought a few cans this morning.

The next few days, which Richard and I will be spending here at Plano with my parents, my brother Alex, my aunt Judy, my aunt Nancy, and my cousin Chris, are my last days of summer. In less than a week I will start my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary. It has been nearly four months since I sat in a classroom, ate in the dining hall, studied in the library, or worshiped in the chapel. As I wander around Plano bathing in a lifetime of memories, I cannot help but wonder what memories will wash over me as I return to class, lunch, chapel and homework. And furthermore, what memories will be created in the coming months to layer upon those of last year?

Most of the memories I’ve had this week at Plano have warmed my heart. I have excitedly blurted out, “Oh Alex! Do you remember… ,” dozens of times. But when I think about our time in Alexandria over the past thirteen months, it is quite a mixed bag. There are many memories that make me smile, but just as many I don’t wish to claim. I don’t want to claim the fear, the anxiety, the over-functioning or the hours of counseling. But then I remember Brené Brown who says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.

And so, in hopes of a brave new ending: I claim those memories. Last year was hard. I was so anxious that I was often unable to be present to those around me. I sometimes felt my school work and even myself were not good enough. I compared myself to my classmates. I cared more about grades then about learning. I often did not tend my own soul.

That is how the story began. I cannot erase those memories. But I can layer them. I can layer them with experiences of VTS as an institution striving towards the Kingdom of God. I can layer them with memories of spending time with the incredible people I have met at seminary. I can layer them with practices of healthy eating, meditation, prayer, exercise, play, and rest. I can layer them with experiences of deep learning and new realizations. And when all is said and done, it is not that first layer that counts. It is the brave new ending.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred, “Trotter Bowl and Aspinwall,” Virginia Theological Seminary

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Dust Is In The Air.

April was filled with final projects, papers, and exams. I breathed deeply through that last quarter of my first year of seminary – finally giving up the fight for perfection and allowing “done” to be enough. I completed those last four classes (Old Testament, Church History, Introduction to Practical Theology, and Music, Icons, and the Contemplative Life) in triumph. Not because of the satisfactory marks I received, but the sheer realization that a full year of graduate theological studies was complete!

As the school year ended I thought I would write another blog post after commencement, “when the dust settled.” But just as my academic work began to wrap up, health issues that Richard started experiencing in February became more serious. My focus shifted to doctors appointments and then Richard’s recovery from surgery to remove a mass in his right parotid gland (details available on his Caring Bridge). As we waited for the final pathology on the mass, I thought I would write another post after his full recovery, “when the dust settled.” But then Richard was diagnosed with low grade lymphoma.

On the one hand, you cannot know what learning a loved one has cancer will be like until it happens. But on the other, it’s pretty much exactly what you would imagine. Shock. Fear. A boatload of shameless prayer. And a scramble for more information, immediate appointments, and any possible comfort. I thought to myself, “if I can just figure out how to do ‘cancer spouse’ right – this will all work out. Everything will be ok.” Then I thought, “this is going to require a lot more coffee.”

We anxiously set up oncology appointments, contacted family and friends, put all future plans on hold, read about lymphoma, and waited. Cancer requires a lot of waiting. Waiting for appointments. Waiting for test results. Rooms upon rooms dedicated to just filling out paperwork and waiting.

Despite many cups of coffee, a lot of internet research, and numerous conversations with wise friends/family – I did not figure out “how to do cancer right.” Of course, it does not exist. It is simply the fantasy of an anxious overfunctioner. And so is the idea that one day “the dust will settle,” and our lives will suddenly be neatly organized and easily manageable. There is dust in the air. That is life. When it rains hard enough to clear the dust, then you are dealing with a flood. All plans, all of life is contingent. Our reality can change as quickly as the word cancer slips from the mouth of a doctor on the other end of the phone. What we have is the present moment.

So I am writing from the dust cloud. Richard’s PET Scan showed that he is cancer free. The mass that was already removed left behind such a small amount of cancer it is undetectable on a scan. This is great news! And now we are WAITING to meet with a radiologist to see if he will need precautionary radiation or not.

In the present moment we are drinking cardamon vanilla lattes at Rare Bird Coffee Roasters. Mine is hot, his is iced. We will probably get groceries later, sit on the porch with our amazing neighbors, and walk the dog. But who knows – dust is in the air. And sipping coffee across the table from this incredible man is certainly enough for this moment in life.

The Night Heralds the Dawn

It’s a warm Saturday morning here in Alexandria. I’m sitting at a high table in a local coffee shop enjoying the warm morning light, the laughter from the tables around me, a gluten-free breakfast sandwich, and an almond milk latte.

I am soaked in gratitude, warmer than the morning light, for a day set aside for sabbath. A day free of classes, homework, appointments, dishes, laundry, scholarship applications, and email. While third quarter certainly did not warrant my level of pre-quarter panic, the work load was formidable and I am breathing easier on the other side. As I invite gratitude to soak through to the depths of my soul, it is the moments of grace over the past eight weeks that come to mind rather than the moments of anxiety, fear, panic, sickness, and failure.

I think of the first really warm day of the spring when I took a folding chair and some homework onto the front stoop to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. One of my neighbors soon joined me and before long a group of eight or more of us had gathered with a dozen children playing in the courtyard behind us. As we chatted and laughed, I remember looking around the circle and wishing the moment did not have to end.

I think of the evening spent planning a group project at our campus bar, 1823. The meeting was filled with laughter and shared confusion over the projects instructions. And when I left someone called out, “Bye Sarah,” as the door closed behind me.

I think of the day that Richard and I decided to adopt the dog we have been talking about for months. Richard took one look around and picked out Grace right away. She was so excited when we brought her home and walked her around campus for the first time. I’ve grown to love the sound of her running from the back office to the front door to greet me, tail wagging, when I come home from class.

I think of the tearful laughter during the moving homily celebrating the life of my beloved aunt, Mary Ann, plucked from earthly life too soon by pancreatic cancer. The familiar words of The Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer connected Mary Ann with all the saints who have gone before her and those of us celebrating her life with all those who mourn and commend the lives of loved ones to God.

In the throws of overwhelming panic, fear, anxiety, and grief these moments are nearly impossible to recall, nearly impossible to count on. And yet I cannot come up with a single situation in my lifetime entirely devoid of kernels of God’s grace. We live in a broken world. Pain and suffering reach to the far corners of the earth and hit close to home. It is truly a labor of love to seek out the kernels of love, grace, hope, and faith in this world.

As I continue to work on living into enough and letting go of anxiety, I took up a Lenten practice of Night Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. One prayer in particular has brought me great hope, comfort, and strength over the last few weeks:

Lord,
it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.
Amen.

From Night Prayer, the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, page 184

Photo Credit: “Stooping It” by Richard Allred

The Next Insurmountable Book

It is Friday night, three days before the beginning of my second semester of seminary. I have spent the afternoon working on one of three papers for the two classes I took during Jan term, “Camps, Conferences, and Retreats” and “Curriculum Critique and Development,” and I just lost about three hours of work when Microsoft Word crashed unexpectedly and failed to “auto-recover.” I know: I should have been manually saving every few minutes.

When I realized Richard could not recover the work, a familiar feeling of panic set in. The same panic I woke up to earlier this week, in the middle of a nightmare. The details of the dream had already vanished, but the overwhelming emotions  remained. For moments or minutes I lay in bed, the sheets wet with sweat, feeling small and worthless, incapable and ashamed, fearful, furious, and paralyzed. I kept thinking, “I can’t. I can’t do it. I am not going to make it through the next semester.” No matter how many times I pull up my grades online and see the evidence that I am capable of academic success in graduate school, I cannot shake the feeling that the next class, the next quarter, the next assignment, the next book will be insurmountable.

I have always been on the anxious side of the spectrum, but I was not diagnosed with Generalize Anxiety Disorder until I became very sick  with a stomach condition in 2010, which turned out to be unrelated (but that is another story). I had no idea that academia was a trigger for my anxiety until I arrived at VTS in August and discovered there was no  system of accommodating those with learning differences (I am Dyslexic). At first I was confused because when Richard and I visited VTS last February, I asked if VTS provided services for those with learning disabilities and the Academic Dean told me to contact the Writing Center. Over the summer, I contacted the coordinator of the Writing Center, explained my situation, expressed my needs, and arranged to meet with her once I arrived on campus in August. Shortly into our first meeting, I realized that while she is a wonderful editor but does not have experience working with learning differences. Certain that there was someone who could help me navigate course scheduling and assistive technology, I met with one person after another until arriving in the office of the Academic Dean. Our meeting took place a full twenty-nine days after I arrived at VTS, as I was completing my August term classes. Almost two weeks after that meeting, I finally received confirmation that the Dean would reimburse the purchase of Optical Character Recognition software that would allow my computer to read aloud PDFs and scanned books.

Those first six weeks I struggled with anxiety every single day. I felt stupid for not making sure that VTS had disability accommodations before applying. I felt trapped into failure having moved not only myself, but my new husband 400 miles to this program I now had no hope of succeeding in. I felt ill prepared compared to the other students. Unworthy. Alone. And furious that VTS provided no one to help me.

I had two anxiety attacks. Something would remind me of the impending academic work and my heart would beat faster, my hands would sweat, my chest would tighten, and my breathing would get faster. The trapped feeling would become overwhelming. And I would just cry, my thoughts circling downward, “I am not capable of doing this work,” “I am not going to be able to keep up,” “I am not smart enough for this,” “I am going to fail and disappoint.”

All of a sudden, in my late twenties, I was in middle school again being made fun of for mispronouncing words as I read aloud in class. I was in second grade again, comparing the paragraph the girl next to me had written to my scribbled sentence. I was in high school again, asking my friend to check what I had written on the board before I turned around and let the whole class see it. I was in shame.

I thought about dropping out, but it didn’t seem like a great option considering I had no job, we had just spent a bunch of money moving here, and we had no other place to live. So I stayed. I listened to one book at a time (thanks to the OCR software), wrote one paper at a time, and completed one exam at a time. Until the semester was done.

But here I am again, face to face with the book list for the coming semester, the reading list for next week, the classmates who have already started the work, and the software program that failed to save a nearly completed assignment. But even in this hopeless moment, I know I am not alone. The people that love me will never stop reminding me that I am enough whether I graduate from this program or fail out. That every insurmountable obstacle is tackled one step at a time. And, that we are an Easter people. Death and fear do not get the last word. I get to write the story of my summit.

A Note About Anxiety

It is hard to be with someone as they struggle with anxiety. You might not understand why they are so worried about whatever it is. The kindest thing you can do is listen. Ask them to tell you what they are feeling, affirm how difficult it must be to feel that way, and find out more about what they are experiencing from a reputable source such as Mental Health America.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred

I’ll Be Home After Christmas

A few weeks ago I wrote an exegesis paper on Exodus 16:2-16 for my Old Testament Interpretation class. In the passage, the Israelites have just escaped from slavery in Egypt and are beginning their journey in the wilderness. They are facing a season of living between promise and fulfillment. God has promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they have not yet arrived. The Israelites must figure out what it means to live in the “not yet.” This experience is not foreign to most of us. We often live in the wilderness, actively figuring out what it means to live day to day in a new reality as we wait for what is not yet.

This Christmas marks many firsts for me. It is the first Christmas Eve in five years I have not been directing a Christmas Pageant. It is my first Christmas with Richard and as a married woman. It is my first Christmas away from my mother, father, and brothers. And it is the first Christmas that I have felt like home is the place I will go back to after the holidays.

Although I have not lived with my parents full time in almost a decade, I have continued to call their house home. Since 2012 alone I have lived in five different cities. I have fond memories of each place. While living in these places I have learned, loved, and grown more than I knew was possible. But the past 4 1/2 years have been a wilderness of sorts, a time of discernment, a period of navigating the reality of day to day life and wondering about the future. Each home has been a “not quite yet.”

As Richard and I packed Polli, our Prius, and prepared to visit our families for the holidays, I realized I am living in the land flowing with milk and honey. This marriage, this home, these people, and this work no longer feel like the wilderness at all. I have arrived in a place God has been leading me. A place God has prepared me for. I am, for this season, home.

This Christmas will still be filled with love, family, food, light, and laughter. Perhaps even more than usual now that I get to celebrate with both my family and Richard’s. But this year, I will be home after Christmas. And I am grateful.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred

The Slurping of Coffee. The Turning of Pages.

It’s a cool November Saturday on campus. The sun is shining and there are children playing between Red Bud and Osage Orange (two of the new apartment buildings). Construction on all four apartments is finally complete and a sense of gratitude is in the air.

We are well into the second quarter of the year now. Between Church History I, New Testament II, Old Testament I, and an elective of our choosing, the work load is mounting for our class. In the library and the coffee shop, dorm rooms and apartments, one can hear the slurping of coffee and the turning of pages.

I have not written in a while. The pace of chapel, class, lunch, work study, homework, cooking, family time, sleep, wake up, repeat is all consuming. Even more than the overwhelming work load, though, I wanted to be able to say, “It was a rough start, but things are going great now!” But it seems like just as one stressor eases, another takes it’s place. Life is messy. Transition is hard. And living comfortably in my new reality cannot be forced.

I still have some grieving to do. I miss living near friends who know and love me deeply. I miss having work I am really good at. I miss seeing the children of St. Mary’s grow. I miss financial security. I miss knowing each holiday will be spent with the people I’ve celebrated with for twenty-seven years.

I keep thinking if I didn’t have some much school work I would make time to cry for those losses. I keep missing the job where taking time to care for my soul was expected because you cannot pour into your ministry from an empty cup. But perhaps you cannot pour into your own learning from an empty cup either. Perhaps it is not structures around us that prevent us from caring for our souls, but our own priorities. Perhaps God is calling me to a transformative seminary experience that is about more than completing the required reading. I can say for sure that at the end of these three years I would rather be able to say that I loved myself and those around me well than that I completed all the reading.

This balance is not easy. Holding the tension between soul tending and “productivity” is a life long practice. When I stop to grieve I know that all over the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary pages keep turning and coffee keeps dripping. But today I am steeping a cup of tea.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred

Where is your sending parish?

I am thrilled to be writing this morning from my favorite chair in our permanent, three-year apartment at Virginia Theological Seminary. We moved in on September 27th after 7 1/2 weeks in temporary accommodations on campus. It is everything we could have hoped for and more: spacious, well designed, well lit, quiet, beautiful, sanctuary. I am so excited to get everything in order.

As we make our home in apartment 203, Richard and I continue to settle into the rhythms of life at VTS. Richard is setting up a home office in the second bedroom of our apartment, getting to know the local disc golf courses, and riding his bike in the evenings. He also attended his first S.P.I.R.I.T. meeting, Significants Participating in Really Interesting Things. I am beginning to navigate the many expectations of students at VTS a bit more gracefully. I am enjoying my classes, especially New Testament, and I am loving getting to know my classmates on a deeper level.

As I continue to meet members of the VTS community who were not on campus during August, I have found myself in the following conversation over and over again:

Community Member: Nice to meet you!

Me: Nice to meet you too.

Community Member: Where is your sending parish?

Me: Actually, I do not have a sending parish. I have been living in the Diocese of North Carolina, but my home parish is in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

Community Member: Oh, are you an M.A. (Master of Arts) student?

Me: No, I am an MDiv (Master in Divinity) student, but I am not a postulant (a person seeking Holy Orders).

Community Member: Oh. Tell me about that.

While it can feel lonely to be the only MDiv student in my class of thirty-five who is not in the ordination process, my sense of purpose seems to grow with each retelling of my story and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it.

Why I am a non-postulant seeking a Master in Divinity at VTS

I had been working competently as the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for two years before the work really came alive for me. When I arrived we had volunteers in place to lead the children’s formation program, Godly Play, although the class was not thriving. In the fall of 2014 we switched the program to week day afternoons and I had to recruit an entirely new group of leaders. We created a wonderful team, but no one knew the stories so I began to lead weekly. I did not realize at the time how God would use this situation to call me deeper into relationship with God, others, and the Church.

My growth did not happen rapidly, but the sacred space of our Godly Play classroom was fertile ground. The support of parents, church staff, and Godly Play leaders began to rain down and the inquisitive children forced my roots deep into the ground and leaves up towards the sky. “What is a parable?” they asked, and “Why did they kill Jesus?” “Why did Jesus send out the disciples if he knew they were going to die?” “How did Abraham live that long?” As their wonder increased, so did mine.

I began to live for the moment of connection I saw in Godly Play and feel the presence of God as soon as I sat down in the circle. I saw God when one child saved the blue and purple pillow for another child who would only sit on that pillow during the story. I saw God when one child was finally able to wait for another to finish their work before taking it to her own mat. I saw God when I began the story and a child cried, “You forgot to ask me about the best part of my day!” I saw God in the mother who left work early to bring her son to class. I saw God in the prayers the children said before the feast and the stories they told during work time.

Somehow, along the way those classes became the most joyful moments of my week. Although I often left exhausted and there were many moments of excruciating frustration, when I sat down in the circle to begin the story everything else in the world melted away. I think that I was able to come close to the person God created me to be in those classes. When I talked to people about Godly Play my heart actually began to beat faster and I could go on and on. In response to the joy I was experiencing I rooted into the rich soil, spending hours writing notes to each child, emailing parents, and hand-making story sets.

Sometimes calling is a deep sense of internal peace, sometimes calling is a feeling of inadequacy or excitement, sometimes calling is a deep furry, and often it is a combination. The experience of leading Godly Play called me to children’s ministry first through excitement and astonishment as I watched the children grown and then a deep sense of inadequacy. Their theological questions amazed me. I wanted to give more than I was able. I realized that I needed more education in order to nurture children’s spiritual development to the best of my ability.

When I first began hearing the call to seminary, it seemed like a call to personally provide the best children’s formation possible by engaging in theological education. But over the course of a year or so, the call began to expand. I witnessed St. Mary’s Godly Play program grow from five children a week to thirty-four, while other churches programs dwindled. I saw our parents marvel at the Bible stories their children could recount while parents outside our congregation yearned for a way to engage their children in spiritual growth. I watched our clergy teach from a strong Biblical and theological foundation and found lay formation leaders around the diocese often lacked the training needed to give young people a firm foundation for spiritual development.

Noticing these dynamics, a deep frustration grew within my soul. I dreamed of vibrant, deep and transformative Episcopal ministry with children, but heard about failing Sunday School programs. I dreamed of collaboration between parishes that gave young people experiences of serving, but heard about toxic charity. I dreamed of systems of support for children’s ministry in our diocese, but I found nothing. I dreamed of Episcopal scholarships that would enable children’s and youth ministers to receive Masters in Divinity and found few.

At Baptism, the celebrant addresses the congregation saying, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” I have answered, “We will!” with congregations dozens of times. This is a big promise. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires teaching them the stories of our faith in a developmentally appropriate way. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires meeting families where they are and supporting parenting as a spiritual practice. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires answering deep questions about the Bible, the Episcopal Church, history, and theology. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires letting go of traditions and programs that no longer have energy. And so, there is much work to be done.

I am a non-postulant in the Master in Divinity program at VTS first and foremost in response God’s call to be the best provider of Christian formation I can be and secondly, to advocate for increased theological education and support for lay Christian formation leaders.