Frayed Threads and Saliva: On Knitting and Life Changes

I’ve often said knitting is the most theological of the fiber arts. (Knitting shows up as a metaphor in both the Psalms and in Paul’s letters!) 

Case in point:

I’ve been going through some stuff lately. Someday I’ll write about it, but not now. I’m trusting it’s all in the service of good and positive transformation, though that trust is easier said than done.

In the meantime, for the past year I’ve been making a temperature blanket. It’s a large project, but really easy:

  • One row for each day of the year (so the blanket will be 365 rows when I’m done).

  • Color of the row is determined by the temperature that day. For my blanket, 91-100 degrees is red, 81-90 is pink, 71-80 is purple, etc.

And since I’m running All Of The Miles this year in anticipation of my 50 miler, I’m also adding one simple lace stitch for each mile I run:

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The only tricky part is changing colors, sometimes on every row. There are a variety of techniques I looked at, but many of them involved more sleight of hand than I could manage. (There’s a reason my bio calls me a “haphazard” knitter.) The easiest method is to cut the previous yarn and tie it to the new color, but then you have a weird bump in your project and loose ends to weave in.

My mother the master knitter recommended something called spit splicing. I love this technique, not only for the ease and fun of it, but because it feels exactly like my life right now.

With spit splicing, you basically cut both the old and new pieces of yarn and fray the ends like this pink piece:

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Then you put the two frayed ends in your mouth and get them nice and slick, then twist them together so they’re wrapped around one another:

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Finally, you rub the twisted piece vigorously for a good 20 seconds up against something a little coarse. Denim is great for this, and since I wear jeans most of the time, I can spit splice anywhere. The result is a new single strand of yarn that consists of the two colors tangled together: 

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Every time I knit a new row, I think about my life and the transformation that's happening. I think I’m leveling up, spiritually speaking. It’s also possible this is a lateral move. Not all change is change for the better. Sometimes it’s just… different. Sometimes it’s worse, to be perfectly frank.

Jury’s out on all that. For now, I see a lot of spit splicing going on, both in my life and in the lives of people around me: loved ones, friends, and people I coach. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

Change isn’t “clean.” According to the YouTube video I consulted, saliva works better than tap water. I haven’t tried anything but spit, and why would I? I’ve knitted this blanket on planes and trains, while watching movies with family, and on a camping trip. Water isn’t always available. But also, there’s a stickiness to saliva, so I believe the YouTube is right. 

Change ain’t pretty, friends. It’s made of sloppy stuff.

Change isn’t comfortable. When I first started spit splicing, I was way too ginger about it, and when I would gently tug on the new strand to make sure it was properly spliced, it would often come apart. Friction is a part of the process. Lots of it, sometimes. It’s amazing how strong the resulting piece can be… but you really have to do the work.

The raw materials matter. My mother gave me the yarn to make this blanket, and it’s a nice-quality wool. Good thing, as it turns out: synthetic fibers cannot be spit spliced; only the natural stuff will do. Similarly, I’m realizing that for me to weather this change well, I have to lean into my authentic self. That means feeling what I feel and embracing the messiness. Being as real as I can. (I hate this a lot of the time, to be honest.) 

Change is incremental. In seminary we learn the phrase “liminal space,” then overuse it within an inch of its life, then make fun of ourselves for using it. Maybe I’m coming back around to the term though. Liminal space is that in-between time when the old and the new mingle together: 

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I like that the beginnings of rows show a bit of both colors. That’s where I am right now—the new color is emerging, but little tufts of the old ways are still poking out quite a bit. That feels true to me, and I think that’s OK. As a mentor used to say when asked how she was doing, “I’m in the process of becoming wonderful.” 

Where do you see change in your life? How is it emerging?

Onward,
MaryAnn

~

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P.S. Bonus link! I wrote recently about new ways to think about goal setting for the International Coach Federation blog.

The Kindest View: A Tale of Two Graphs

Content note: This post discusses weight loss as a component of my overall personal fitness. It’s an illustration of a larger point, unrelated to weight loss, but feel free to skip if that topic is not helpful for you to read.

As a Woman of a Certain Age, I have reluctantly accepted that I have to be intentional about my health. Positive habits don’t just happen; they must be practiced. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy foods I love and occasionally overindulge (*cough*gorge*cough*). But at almost-50, I have a lot less margin than I used to when I was 20. Which means when I do make less-healthy nutrition choices, I try to get back on track as soon as possible. Consistency-ish, not perfection.

I’ve set a goal to run the JFK 50 miler in a few months. It’s a huge physical challenge, and not something I’m positive I can pull off, which makes it both exciting and scary. What I do know is I will have an easier time if I’m not carrying around extraneous weight, and if the weight I do carry is relatively high in muscle and low in fat.

So in addition to my running, I’m strength training several times a week. I’m also prioritizing lean quality protein and reducing carbs, though not eliminating them altogether (the joys of being an endurance runner—we need quality carbs aplenty!). I’m paying attention to how my clothes fit as a sign of what my body’s doing, and also taking some measurements from time to time to gauge body composition.

And… I weigh myself every day.

This is a controversial practice. I know it can be triggering for some people. Even those who aren’t triggered can get wrapped around the axle with the inevitable daily fluctuations: overreacting to a higher number by restricting calories beyond what is healthy, or even going on a food bender as reward for a “good” result. I’ve learned, gradually and still imperfectly, to look at the forest rather than the trees. What does that mean? It means I take the measurement most mornings, but I kinda blur my eyes mentally, if that makes sense. I pause before I even step on the scale to get myself in a neutral, detached place. I try to see the number as one indicator among many, and not even the most important one at that. How I’m feeling, what else is going on in my life, where I am in my menstrual cycle, how much stress I’m experiencing and where I’m carrying it physically—all of of these are more important than weight. I’m not always successful at keeping this perspective, but I find it essential to try. I saw it written some time ago, “Your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy.” I couldn’t agree more, which for me means holding lightly the number on the scale as just that—a number.

Anyway, lately my weight has been slowly trending down, which at this stage is what I want it to do. But this brings me to the point of my post. The app I use allows me to see the trend line over various periods of time: a week, a month, two months, etc. Here’s what I see when I look at the three-month view:

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A pretty good trajectory, eh?

By contrast, here’s the the year-long view:

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When I look at this graph, I remember every poor choice I made, every late-night snack session, every work trip in which I let all my healthy habits fly out the window. And no matter how positive the last several weeks have been, I want to berate myself for letting things get out of control.

This is not a kind way to treat myself.

I’ve been reading and doing a lot of processing around self-acceptance and self-kindness. My latest revelation has been the work of Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, especially her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. This approach may come easily to some of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. I’m someone who sees life as one big self-improvement project. Which isn’t bad in itself, but when that self improvement is grounded in a sense of not being enough, it’s a problem.

When I look at the first graph, I feel empowered, like I’m taking control of my health in a positive way. There are fluctuations, but the overall trend is clear.

The second graph makes me want to give up.

The thing is, both graphs are “right.” The data are accurate, and you could argue that the year-at-a-view is more accurate because it contains more information, a longer-term picture. Sure, it makes me feel bad, but hey, numbers don’t lie, and that upward slope is the price I paid for making a series of bad choices. I made my bed, now I have to live with the consequences.

That’s my own self-punishing voice talking, but it’s not just me. There’s a real punitive undercurrent in our culture right now. Perhaps it’s always been there—a harsh, Puritanical edge, what Anne Lamott imagines as the purse-lipped high-school principal leafing unhappily through your files—but it seems especially acute at this moment in history. This line of thinking is very vigilant against anything that can be seen as inflated self-regard. Just look at how we sneer at people who express any weakness or vulnerable emotion: Snowflake.

In the prevailing view of this culture, it would be self-indulgent, even dishonest, of me to ignore the year graph and just focus on the one I happen to like.

Except the three-month graph inspires me and helps me want to live better, both in terms of good choices and accepting with compassion when I make less-than-great ones.

Tara Brach tells a story of a man who carried a lot of anger and resentment from his upbringing, to the point that he lashed out at his family regularly. He heard Brach’s teachings about self-kindness and acceptance as the path to healing, but he bristled: I don’t deserve that kindness, he pushed back. I’ve been way too hurtful to the people I’m supposed to love and support. In response, Brach simply asked him: Has that self-judgment helped you be less angry? Has the punitive approach chastened you and put you on a path toward wholeness?

…Is it working?

The questions were a revelation. Once he began seeing himself in the kindest possible way, he was able to do the work of transformation. Over time, he changed to the point that his wife was able to say, For the first time in our marriage, I’m not afraid of you. A miracle.

I shared all of this with a friend recently, who summarized it thus: “self-acceptance over self-improvement.” Not that we can’t grow in our capacity for grace and goodness. But we do so through self-kindness, not self-punishment. Self-acceptance doesn’t ignore our missteps, but it frames them in the midst of our own belovedness, and focuses on the part of the picture that helps us live happy, joyous and free.

It’s been a minor revelation to realize that I can simply choose the kinder view, and that I don’t need anyone’s authorization to do it.

On the Edge--Where Change Occurs

It’s August, so I know I'm not the only one who's ready for the brutally hot and humid temperatures to leave. Well, I'm seeing some signs of hope... and I'm not just talking about the weather:

Speaking of fall, I've got a full speaking calendar the next few months, with events in South Bend, Indiana; Ft. Worth, Texas; Savannah, Georgia; and lots of places in between. Check out where I'll be--I'd love to see you!

I'm also excited to announce that God, Improv, and the Art of Living is available on Audible! Got a long commute? What better way to yes-and those miles in the car or public transit. Audiobooks help you pass the time while cleaning or weeding the garden? Improvisation is what it's all about.

What's emerging for you these days? I'd love to hear.

Onward,
MaryAnn

~

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"The Music of the Genuine" -- Howard Thurman

I’ve been thinking about these words from Howard Thurman since receiving them last week courtesy of Richard Rohr’s newsletter.

Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman

There is something in everyone of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. . . .

Sometimes there is so much traffic going on in your minds, so many different kinds of signals . . . and you are buffeted by these and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? . . .

Now there is something in everybody that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people. . . . I must wait and listen for the sound of the genuine in you. . . .

Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.

I long for a world that tends to the “sound of the genuine,” don’t you? I wonder what that would look like.

Yes We Can. Yes We Shall.

This summer my 11 year old has been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As of this writing, he’s finished Two Towers and will be diving into Return of the King. I’m thrilled he’s reading these classics, but feeling a bit wistful—we began with my reading Fellowship of the Ring to him (more about that here), but he got tired of the read-aloud pace and commandeered the book on a recent trip with his grandparents. Sadness. Anyway.

Like the rest of the family, James is a big fan of the LOTR movies. I think they’re as close to perfect as a 12-hour work of art can possibly be, with the exception of the cast being painfully white. So it’s been interesting and fun to hear him critique the similarities and differences between the films and the books.

The other day, we got to talking about this pivotal scene:

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

Here we see Gandalf fighting the Balrog in the mines of Moria, basically holding off the monster so the rest of the Fellowship can escape to safety. Gandalf falls into the abyss with the Balrog, and it’s not clear until The Two Towers what has become of him. Something wondrous has become of him, but that’s another post.

In the book, Gandalf says this to the Balrog:

You cannot pass… I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

In the movie, he says much the same thing, except the final line. There he says, “You shall not pass.”

…Actually, he says

YOU!
SHALL NOT!!
PASS!!!!

(Yaass Queen!)

In our conversation, James and I mused on the difference between “you shall not pass” and “you cannot pass.” On an aesthetic level, shall sounds WAY stronger. Substantively, the latter (cannot) implies that the Balrog lacks the ability to pass, while the former (shall not) suggests that the Balrog may be capable, but Gandalf will not permit it.

There are times in our lives when we need to call on the language of shall not: to take a stand and say what we will and won’t accept. Other times, it may be a comfort to lean on cannot: to know that, even when we feel weak or afraid or distraught, the things that threaten us are limited in their ultimate power to destroy us.

This conversation came to mind over the weekend, in the wake of shootings in El Paso and Dayton. (The one in Gilroy is already a collective distant memory, eh? Sigh.) Like my friends on the right, I believe there are moral and cultural issues that feed into the scourge of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and our nation uniquely—issues that must be addressed. I’m sure I part ways with them when I name them: toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism, white nationalism, and demagoguery on the part of the Current Occupant. And like my friends on the left, I believe we need more stringent gun safety laws. And no discussion of this issue is complete without pointing out that the overwhelming majority of gun deaths are suicides. (How’s a “good guy with a gun” going to help there?)

A healthy majority in this country supports legislation to increase gun safety, believe it or not. And yet here we are, held captive by stonewalling and monied special interests who block attempts to even study the issue. It’s hard to have any hope that things will ever change for the better.

So maybe we need to channel Movie Gandalf here, when addressing the complacency or the inertia in our own hearts, or heck, the forces that want to us to believe there’s nothing we can do: you shall not. You shall not win. We will not allow well-heeled interest groups to run roughshod on our democracy, such that we don’t even try to address this issue. People have power. We refuse to let you have the last word.

But then, maybe taking a stand on shall also leads to can. Maybe standing together and saying what we will and won’t permit helps expose just how weak and inept the other side is. (Did you know the NRA is fighting among itself and hemorrhaging money?)

I often quote Archbishop Tutu, during the deepest, darkest days of apartheid, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally. Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.

That day, St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching, they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.

But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly: You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side! With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.

The Balrog shall not win. We do not permit it. And what’s more, it can’t.

Check, Please!

Do you find yourself learning the same spiritual life lessons over and over?

Or is that just me?

I recently took a class in CPR/First Aid from the American Red Cross, and it got me thinking. Check it out:

I'm thinking about CPR and circus clowns. As you do.

What do you think? What do you need to "check" in your own life? I'd love to hear.

Before I go, a few quick notes. I'm traveling throughout the fall to lead retreats and workshops, and am currently scheduling events for 2020--email me at the link below or contact me through my website.

On the coaching side of things, I'm co-leading two cohort groups for Presbyterian church leaders through NEXT Church. These groups start in September, run for six months, and will include a monthly group session as well as individual coaching sessions. It's a great way to learn in community and blast through the stuff that's keeping you stuck as a leader. Read more and sign up here.

What Am I Working on Next? Well...

So what are you writing next?

I get asked this quite a bit. Who knew such a simple question would be so fraught? On the one hand, Yay that people are interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, baked right into the question is the assumption that I should be working on something new. I, too, would like to have a new project brewing. The problem is, I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know so stop asking me! But wait, no, keep asking! Maybe that will move this process along!

Six long years elapsed between the release of Sabbath in the Suburbs and God, Improv, and the Art of Living. I’m greatly enjoying marinating in the practice of improvisation, traveling around to churches and other organizations to share the principles of improv and connect them to life, leadership, and team dynamics. Heck, I’m still getting invites to talk about sabbath, which is very gratifying, even though I currently give myself a solid C+ in that area of my life. Still and all, I sure hope the time between books two and three is much shorter than six years. That means I need to be on the lookout now for the threads that will weave together into that next book.

But I also don’t want to push things. One of the things I appreciate about improv is the emphasis on trusting the process: taking the next faithful step even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. We’ve all probably had those cringe-worthy moments that come from trying too hard, or from rushing the cake out of the oven even though the toothpick doesn’t come out clean. So I’m making it a goal to trust that the right thing will come when it comes.

But how do you know when the right thing is the right thing? I know writers who can crank out a new book every couple of years. I don’t understand how they do that. Good for them, I guess—my stuff seems to need to ripen much longer. Or maybe they’ve learned something I haven’t yet, about risk and setting big audacious goals and trusting yourself to meet them. I tend to wait and amass ideas and snippets until I pretty much know where the project is going to go.

What if I said, “I’m going to build this bridge,” in faith that the plans and materials would come? Or maybe that’s just not my way, and can that be OK too? Gah!!! Mind in knots! (As Robert De Niro said when giving out the screenwriting awards on a recent Oscars broadcast, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”)

Last week, a colleague posted this quote from author Susan Orlean in a writers’ group on social media: “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.” My friend adored this quote (as do I) and said, “Not sure what's next [for me], but I wonder if we gave ourselves permission to indulge our weird interests a little more instead of trying to catch the wave of the next big thing or impress other people, we’d have more fun writing and [paradoxically] grab more readers?”

Thank you, Internet, for the right thing at the right time. My friend is absolutely right. And it broke open this whole next-book thing for me. I’m currently workshopping some rough material with a small group, wondering if that can turn into a larger project. Who knows if it will, but I'm sure having fun. I’m also back to regular journaling (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), turning over the soil and sowing some seeds.

I recently discovered a new-to-me podcast in which actor Adam Scott and comedian/writer Scott Aukerman geek out about their love for the band U2 (the podcast is called “U Talkin' U2 To Me”?), which later morphed into an REM podcast called “R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?” Their enthusiasm is charming and infectious, and the show seems to have little utility in terms of their careers. They do it because they love it.

The podcast is a little… flabby? (they could use an editor), but they’re so likable I kinda don’t care. They recently had a live show in San Francisco that featured an REM cover band from Buffalo called Dead Letter Office. They managed to keep a secret from the band that REM guitarist Peter Buck would be on the show to play with the band and also do an interview.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Here’s the episode in question. The first part is a prelude to the live show, in which they’re in the studio and are (verbosely but earnestly) describing in great detail the many machinations they devised to keep Peter Buck a secret from the band until the moment he walked out on stage. It’s a moment of pure delight in the spirit of Susan Orlean: indulging one’s enthusiasms, and creating an experience in time. Not because you hope for a big impact, but simply because it’s fun for you, and you hope, your audience.

A few of you dear readers are writers yourselves. For those of you who aren’t, and who’ve stuck with this post this far, I wonder about the connections to your own life. I wonder if you, like me, try to divine the next right move, even though your deeper self knows better: that chasing after “right” can feel forced or inauthentic. What would it look like to lean into your own idiosyncratic joys and share those with the heart of an evangelist? To be, like Mary Oliver, a “bride married to amazement”? Maybe we’d all realize that the outcomes are mere by-product, and that process is everything.

I don’t know what I’m writing next, but I know that’s my task for the moment.

~

Thanks to writer/pastor colleague Heidi Haverkamp for the Susan Orlean quote and rumination… to check out the wonderful enthusiasms of her heart and mind, here are her books.

Ten for Tuesday

Greetings! I’m writing from Lakeside Chautauqua, Ohio, where I’m speaking all week as part of their Faith for Living series. It’s a serene, restful place, where I’ll be reading, writing, and running when I’m not in session.

Here’s some stuff that’s been interesting me lately:

1. Your daily dose of #WorldsOkayest: living a mediocre life.

2. Millenials rooming with Catholic nuns. Love the ways community and family get formed. Nuns and nones!

3. Our brains really, really need silence. (I’m working on it.)

4. If you haven’t read Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason—And Other Lies I’ve Loved, or even if you have, here’s her TED Talk. Kate is a priceless treasure.

5. A reflection on depression, despair, loss, and hope, a year after Anthony Bourdain’s death.

6. What do you do when you don’t know something? The comic ‘strip’ XKCD has a proposal.

7. Your professional decline is coming much sooner than you think. This inspired much discussion in a writers’ group I’m in.

8. How to parent like an improv actor. Yep!

9. I wrote a review for Englewood Review of Books, of a fine book on reading the Old Testament as a Christian, by friend Melissa Florer-Bixler.

10. And finally, this man dresses up as mannequins while his wife shops. Brilliant:

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