Reading in a time of stress

four books

I’ve been thinking about stress, and how we all respond to it so differently. This time of pandemic is highlighting some of those differences.

I have friends, for example, who need to shut down, taking to their beds to block out the noise and pressure. I have other friends who channel their nervous energies into creating art projects or music or tasty treats. (The latter generously populate their social media feeds with images proving their productivity and setting the rest of us to salivating.) You know who you are. Be warned: when this is all over, I’m coming over for coffee and something delicious! 

Me? I get busy, pouring myself into work, making meals, taking walks, reaching out to friends and family. But besides that? I read.

At first my reading was all coronavirus, all the time.

But you can only do that for so long before you start to realize that maybe one reason you’re not sleeping is because your diet of TOO MUCH NEWS is just proving to be too much. For me, my all news diet lasted about a week. Then I turned to listening to online lectures (first a series about the Black Death, and then a series about Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, (which he wrote following the sack of Rome).

And then – when I’d exhausted those uplifting subjects – I turned to reading books.

The first book I picked up had been at the bottom of the pile on my nightstand for a couple of months. Given to me by my mom, Tuesdays with Morrie (by Mitch Albom) was just what I needed. It’s a gentle story that proved to be the perfect antidote to anxiety. And for a few days, the minutes that I spent each bedtime with Mitch, and his mentor Morrie, offered me the welcome chance to reflect deeply on what it means to be human, to live well and to die well, all in ways that brought comfort and courage.

I’m also reading Fortitude (by Hugh Walpole) aloud with my husband. This is a novel we read to each other in the first year of our marriage, and then again after about 20 years. We’ve now been married almost 35 years, and while I remembered nothing about the book, it was the title that appealed and caused us to pick it up again. Who doesn’t need a little fortitude now? It begins with this thought, “Tisn’t life that matters! ‘Tis the courage you bring to it.”

My 87-year-old mother and I are reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (by C.S. Lewis) together, via FaceTime. Unable to visit in person, our daily FaceTime calls quickly devolved into:

“What’s new?”

“Not much, what’s new with you?” All while I stared at her forehead. She hasn’t quite gotten the hang of holding her iPad so that I can see her entire face. (My mom is not of the selfie generation – she looks at her screen to see my face, and clearly forgets to look at her own.)

But now we are keeping the company of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Narnia – a first for my mom. I was introduced to the book in high school, and then years later, read it again to my children. My mom is loving it. I am too. And I’m relishing the chance to exercise my best witch’s voice.

The other book I’m enjoying is The Diary of a Russian Priest by Alexander Elchaninov, a book I picked up last fall while on a visit to St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York as part of a writers’ workshop. “God created life. The devil defeated it through death. God repulsed the victory of death by Resurrection,” writes Elchaninov.

It’s an eclectic mix, these books, but as I consider the collection now, I see a common thread: each one touches on themes of living and dying, of courage, and of times of upheaval. So maybe I should not be surprised that they are nourishing my spirit.

How about you? What are you reading these days, and why?

 

 

5 work-at-home strategies to ensure work gets done

bookshelves

For more than two decades, my work has involved working from home. For many years, that meant a 30-second stroll to my home office five days each week. But more recently, my weeks have been a mix of both “at home” days and longer commutes into an office in the city.

Today, my home office is a space I love—with bookshelves crammed full of my favourite books (that’s them above), artwork that inspires, a much-loved antique desk, a bright window to let in the sunlight, and a door to keep out the noise. But for years I worked in corners of our basement, corners of the family room, or on corners of the kitchen table. I’ve shared desks with my kids’ homework and craft projects, and occasional piles of laundry. I’ve worked in chaos and in solitude.

Throughout this time, I’ve learned some things about maximizing productivity and minimizing distractions. Given that so many people right now are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to work from home, I thought I’d share some of my favourite strategies for ensuring the work actually gets accomplished. Please note: my husband is now retired and we are empty nesters. So I share these strategies in the spirit of imparting what took me years to learn and hone. People living with little ones, or with teens or elders will, of course, need to build in more flexibility.

  1. Structure and routine are my best friends. As soon as I realized late last week that as a result of the pandemic I would be working from home, full time again, and for the foreseeable future, I put myself on a schedule. Here, roughly, is what that schedule has looked like this week:
  • 5:00 am – 7:00 am – I know, it’s crazy early. But I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person. So as soon as I’m awake, I’m up. Make coffee, Bible-and-devotional reading, journaling, and prayer. Then I do an email check, read the day’s news feeds, and spend a few minutes on household budgeting, bill paying, and online banking. With the added stress of the last week or so, I’ve been waking earlier than normal – sometimes as early as 4:00 am. I’m sure this will settle down, but in the meantime, I’m just enjoying some additional quiet time at the beginning of my day.
  • 7:00 – 8:00 am – Cajole my (now retired) husband (who is NOT an early-to-bed, early-to-riser) out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out for a walk together. Then home for breakfast and a quick game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 8:00 am – 12 noon – Work on computer.
  • 12 noon – 1:00 pm – Lunch. Another game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm – Work on computer.
  • 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm – Another walk. Dinner prep. Dinner. More Monopoly Deal. (We’ve started a “Social Isolation Tournament” during these days of social distancing, in which we are tallying our games. I’m ahead.)
  • 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm – Check in with loved ones. Read. Watch TV. Listen to an audio book or podcast.
  • 9:00 pm – 9:30 pm – Bed.

2.  Get dressed for work. I’ve never been one of those people who could accomplish much in my jammies. There’s something about putting on actual clothes that seems to help send a signal to my brain that I’m ready to get down to business. The other day my husband asked me why I was bothering with earrings when I was just working from home. I told him they helped me feel ready to work. (And besides, I had a few zoom meetings scheduled.)

3.  Taking regular breaks is important. Very important. I try to force myself to push away from the computer for 10 minutes out of every hour. I think of it as my “water cooler” time. I’ll use that time to read an article, throw in (or fold) a load of laundry, chop vegetables for the next meal or to pen a note to a friend. Getting up from my computer is not only good for my body but good for my mind.

4.  Self-imposed boundaries can make the difference between a good day and a bad one. I’m a news junkie, and global pandemics are a great excuse for justifying “just a quick check of the news headlines.” And the 24-7 news cycle offers an enormous temptation, because there’s ALWAYS something new to read. But one too many such checks throughout the day and it’s easy to get to the end of the day, look at my “to do” list, and realize that very little got done. Limiting myself to such headline checks at the beginning, middle, and end of the day makes for greater productivity.

5.  At the end of the work day, push away. I admit this one can be challenging – particularly in the midst of a major global news event. To be completely candid, this week I’ve been struggling with it a bit. (I suspect that’s in part why I’m waking up at 4 am.) I know from experience that I’ll have both a better sleep at night, and a better day the next day if I call it quits at a reasonable hour, allowing my brain some downtime.

How about you? If you’re new to working at home, how are you coping? If you’re an old hand at social isolation because you’ve long worked from a home office, what works best for you?

 

Now’s the time to build a better world

Patricia Paddey with husband Doug and their grandson Davy

“A child is born into the womb of the time, which indeed enclosed and fed him before he was born.”

– George MacDonald

I’ve been thinking a lot about these words and their wisdom, which someone shared with me a couple of months ago. I became a grandmother six weeks ago. And so, even as I’ve been reflecting on the time into which my grandson has been born, (that’s him with my husband and me in the photo) I’ve found myself thinking about the future and what it will look like for him.

“Unprecedented.” That’s another word that’s been rumbling around in my brain, because, of course, there’s been nothing quite like this global pandemic to confront this generation – and by that I mean any generation now living – before.

It’s going to change our world. Heaven knows it already is. For those of us who find change unsettling – and isn’t that most of us, if we’re being honest? – it can feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

As a person of faith, I find comfort in believing that this pandemic did not take God by surprise. He is not the author of sickness, death, and sadness, and He has promised to be with those who cling to Him in the midst of such things. That does not mean that we will be spared suffering. But it does mean that we may experience it with a kind of strength and courage and peace that’s simply not accessible to those who choose not to avail themselves of God’s good gifts. It heartens me to know that come what may, I am not alone because He is with me.

In a column titled “Pandemics kill compassion too,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently of the impact that pandemics have on the world. “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together,” Brooks said, “but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart.”

Already, we’ve seen evidence of this: with hoarders rushing to stockpile items – not in the hope of having an abundance to share – but to deliberately deprive others of basic necessities in order to profit from the resale of such things.

What kind of world will we be left with when this is all over? What kind of world are we building yes, building, in the midst of this terrible event – to leave to our grandchildren tomorrow? What behaviours will they see us model for them to follow when the next disaster strikes? We know things will be different. But how they are different – to some extent, that choice is up to us.

When I feel anxiety rise, I find it helpful to take my mind off my own cares and worries for those I love, to think about others. That’s why, on Sunday afternoon, I printed off a stack of letters intending to introduce me and my husband. We put on our coats and stepped out into the sunshine and knocked on doors. Maintaining the recommended safe social distance, we hand delivered the letters to houses up and then down both sides of our street. I included our cropped image from the photo above – such a happy recent moment – and our contact information. I wrote, “if you find yourself in need in some way and think that a friendly neighbour may be able to help, please feel free to reach out to us.”

“No one should feel like they are alone in the midst of a global pandemic,” I concluded the letter. “It goes without saying that human beings need one other. Maybe we need one another now more than ever. If we can be neighbourly by helping out, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.”

Our neighbours have been responding in kind – sharing their names and contact information. It’s a small thing that we – and they – have done. But maybe it will lead to bigger things. And maybe when this is all over, we will point to such things and recognize that they helped to make a difference, for our grandchildren, and for our world.

 

 

 

 

 

A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the book, I mourned her for days.

But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those of us who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.

But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Announcing: Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer

Craft Cost Call book title

I had forgotten the sheer joy that could come with crafting words into meaningful sentences, the exuberant rush as paragraphs and pages poured out from some inner well deep within. But this new book, Craft, Cost & Call represents the most writing fun I’ve had in recent memory.

Like dancing to a favourite song when no one is watching, part of that experience came from the fact that there was no client on this project. The only people my co-author and I were striving to please were our book’s eventual readers.

The other part of writing with abandon no doubt came from the fact that my co-author happens to be a dearly loved friend. Karen Stiller is a woman I admire greatly. Anything done with a friend can be more fun than doing it alone, especially when you laugh together as much as Karen and I do. We believe that ours is a friendship that was heaven sent; it began more than a decade ago when my name literally popped into her mind one morning while she was applying mascara. She subsequently reached out to me with a partnership opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, our history will forever include this little soon-to-be-published book, Craft, Cost & Call : How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer. 

It was years in the making, not only because we worked on it together for that long, but also because it represents the sum total of decades worth of all we’ve each learned so far about what it means to earn a living as writers who are also people of faith.

I’m proud of this little book. I’m thoroughly delighted with the outcome. It gives me deep pleasure to think of passing along some of the hard-won lessons learned through decades working as a freelance writer. And I’m thankful for the way that working on this project together with Karen not only took my writing to new places—reminding me of the joy to be had in practicing this craft I believe I’ve been called to—but because it took my friendship with Karen to new places too.

When we thought we were getting close to the end of our writing, we sent the manuscript out to some other writers we admire and asked for their feedback. We were encouraged and overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Read their kind words of endorsement here.

Then we invited my daughter Jenna, an illustrator, into the project. Her drawings add a touch of whimsy to the book’s pages. Our hope is that readers will experience as much delight during the time they spend immersed in this book, as we did in writing it.

Craft, Cost & Call is our thanksgiving offering to the community of writers that has nurtured us over the years, and to the community of writers of faith who are yet to come.

 

 

 

When God speaks in a daffodil

Daffodil against garden shed

I believe God speaks. I believe He speaks constantly. I believe He is a communicating God, who reveals Himself in various ways and means to those who take the time to listen, who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

No, I’ve never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a message written in the heavens or a burning bush. But I’ve sensed that “still small voice,” speaking within my spirit at needed times. I’ve had words jump out at me from Scripture that led or taught or directed or encouraged or comforted me in important ways at crucial moments. I’ve sensed “promptings” or “intuitions” that I’ve acted on, only to be convinced later as a result of outcomes that it was God who was leading me. And I’ve seen things in nature—incredible, memorable things—that felt like messages meant for me.

I received one such message yesterday, and then again, this morning. And it was such a lovely bit of encouragement at just the right time, that I felt it ought to be shared.

A week ago yesterday, my mother-in-law, Dora, passed away at the age of 102. Her death was expected—she’d been receiving palliative care for weeks—and my husband, Doug, and I were at her side when she took her final breath.

Doug was her only child. And while she was feisty and amazingly independent right up into her early 90s, he’d been caring for her in one way or another since his dad died 30 years ago. Thirty years is a long time to bear the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. The last 10 years, after she gave up driving, Doug’s caring meant biweekly (at least) trips to her home in Thorold, Ont. (from our own in Mississauga) to take her shopping, to the bank, or the pharmacy and then to doctor’s appointments. Four years ago, we moved her to a retirement community 10 minutes from our home, and visits and excursions became more frequent. For the past two years, she’s had several lengthy hospital stays, which have meant more frequent visits yet. Sometimes every day for weeks or months on end.

It’s felt at times like a long road, for her and for us. She told us again and again that she was ready to go. And while death is never easy, there can be a sense in which it can come as both a release and a relief. Even as we witnessed the release of her spirit last Friday, we felt relief that her suffering is over, and our long responsibility for her soon will be too.

Thursday her body was laid to rest next to her husband’s, and her long-time pastor spoke words of remembrance, comfort, and truth at her memorial. Our three children eulogized their “Granny,” the ladies of her church congregation prepared a beautiful lunch, and for dessert, everyone feasted on a buffet of pies—in her honour. (She was a wonderful baker in her younger years famous, especially, for her pies.) I couldn’t help thinking how delighted she would have been by it all.

Yesterday morning we awoke early in order to head to her apartment to begin the two-day process of clearing out her things. As I sipped my first coffee of the day, I opened the blinds to look out into our little backyard, and couldn’t help gasping. For there, up against our garden shed, was a single, bright yellow daffodil, almost ready to open.

I planted a row of daffodils against that shed 27 years ago, when we first moved into this house. Their leaves came up faithfully, year after year, but they had never yielded a single bloom, not once in all those years. Every spring I would watch as their green shoots would push through the soil and grow tall, spreading out their leaves. Every year, I would hope. But not ever in all those years did we see a flower.

Until yesterday. It felt like a sign, a message from above. As I looked at that daffodil, I sensed God saying, “It’s all okay. She is at rest. And good things are ahead.”

This morning, on the final day of the move, and what we anticipate will be the last of our significant responsibilities for her, the daffodil was in full bloom.

*

 

Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.