FOCUS 2021

After taking stock on how grit impacted my past year, focus became my word for 2021. Now that the new year is four weeks old, it is time for my first monthly focus check.

              Though focus is a commonly used word, I like to have its meaning clear in my mind. According to Dictionary.com focus, when used as a noun, denotes a central point of attention. The verb focus directs one’s attention to an activity, or to concentrate.

              Before I can make changes, I need to determine where I currently focus. I know where it should be. But where is it most often? Sadly, my answer is all over the place! I pride myself on and appreciate when others recognize my mad skills of multitasking. I even do it while slumbering. When Jerry’s attendants work with him and ask a question, I often answer it from a dead sleep, and then immediately drop back to dreamland. But when awake, I realize multitasking creates frenzy in my spirit.

              It became apparent when I tried to brush my teeth while also preparing a sinus medication for my husband. Seriously? I use an electric toothbrush. Do you know how hard it is to just hold a vibrating electric toothbrush in one’s mouth with no hands? And still hope it cleans my teeth? The absurdity of it all! No more! I can take the 15 extra seconds to prepare his rinse after I finish my teeth. This is one small thing that showed me how out of control my multitasking is.

              Other factors causing my focus to drift off course include spending too much time on social media, taking in news stories, or comparing myself to others. I may need to accomplish scores of things, and be aware of what is going on around me, but I don’t want to live in frenzy. I want to live in the present and engage with who or what is before me.

              My focus drastically needs change. Leadership gurus often tell the story of the Apollo rockets, which are off course 90 to 97 percent of their time en route to the moon. But because of regular course corrections, they make it to their destination. If that can happen among rocket scientists, I am in good company.

              Admitting my problem with focus is only part of the solution. Seeking course corrections came next.

              Because I have submitted my life to Jesus Christ and seek to live according to the instructions he set forth, he is whom I want as my primary focus. Matthew 6:33 reminds me of this, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [answers to the cares and worries of life] will be given to you as well.”  

              When I get my primary focus right, the secondary ones follow. But it is much easier to say or write than it is to practice moment by moment. To refresh my ability to seek the King and his Kingdom, I went back to the Bible. 

              Hebrew 12: 1-3 reminds me before I can properly focus, I need to strip off the weight, or sin, that so easily trips me up. How does it trip me up? It causes me to pull my sightoff of Jesus and to myself. Yes, I need to confess and turn from any and every sin. But it is my favorite sin, mindlessly running first to food for my comfort or celebration, instead of to my Lord, that most often diverts my focus.

              Next, I need to run with endurance. I tried to be a runner, well, more like a jogger in my teen years. I remember huffing and puffing up and down Diverty Road. I don’t know how many days I ran, but I can tell you I did NOT endure!

              That is why it surprised me when I signed up for a 5K advertised at our local airport. The idea of running or even walking did not entice me. It was the environment. The race began in the pre-dawn hours. We ran and walked on the runways. The Blue Angels’ planes lined the start, sending us off. As the morning dawned, hot air balloons fired up, inflated, and launched into the sky. Dozens of colorful and creatively shaped balloons motivated me to get up at an ungodly hour and endure a 5K walk. And trust me, it was endurance, and the encouragement of those who cheered me and the ten others who were last on the course to finish.

              I understand the determination and stick-to-it-tiveness the Hebrews writer encourages me to practice. The balloons and cheers were my motivation to finish the 5K. The writer of Hebrews 12 tells me when I keep my eyes on Jesus it will motivate me to throw off encumbrances or false foci and grow in my endurance.  

              The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 3:12-14, also talks about three aspects of focus. First, do not focus on the past. There is no benefit from hanging out there or nosing around the memories. Forget it and move forward.

              Paul’s second directive is to look to what is ahead. Forward vision helps me focus by asking questions. Where am I headed? How will I get there? What should I prepare for?

              Interestingly, both the writer of Hebrews and Paul in Philippians emphasize the idea of endurance, or as Paul says in his third point, press on to complete the race. God must have put these words in my path twice because it is not my favorite character quality to work on.

              Thirty-one days in, I am working to apply these insights in Focus 2021:

1. Ask God to heighten my awareness to sin, especially my favorite ones. Then shorten the time I take to repent. Or better yet, turn away before there is a need to repent. This is one way to throw off what bogs me down.

2. Repentance involves more than confession. It leads me to turn away from dwelling on my failure, whether in the past minutes, hours, or years. Instead, it turns my gaze or refocuses me on what is ahead.

3. Press On. This process of properly setting my focus takes work. It doesn’t come naturally. To quote the Apostle Paul again, “That which I would not, that do I do” (Romans 7:19). I have to fight my sinful desires. I must exercise courage and grit to do what I know is right, even when I’d rather not. That is endurance.

4. Keep my eyes on Jesus. Focusing on Jesus will embolden me to live out the three previous steps. And the more I keep my eyes consistently on Jesus, the clearer I will focus on what He has ahead for me.

              Lots of lessons in this first month. I can hardly wait to see what I learn in the future about focus. What has God been teaching you? I love reading your comments, emails, and stories.

Capacity, Stress, and a Paper Shredder

Have you ever followed a paper trail? I did when I saw confetti sized paper all around the front office and a fountain of paper stuck in the shredder. At the end of the trail, I found the machine stuffed beyond capacity.

This was not the first time. Thus the neon sticker advising users the shredder was designed to run for eight continuous minutes, after which it needed an hour cool-down period. Who knew shredders had a limit? I didn’t—until we burned out the first one.

Hoping to avoid buying a third shredder, I put on my technician’s hat. Off came the lid. Not only was the catch bin overstuffed, but so were the blades. Tiny scraps of paper were tightly fused between each blade, immobilizing them. For the second time this year I gathered my screw driver, razor knife and tweezers for the delicate operation of freeing the sharp fins.  

Two hours later, the blades freely rotated. And I learned a life lesson.

The previous weekend, my left jaw screamed for attention. It did not open and close smoothly. Several times it got caught in the open position, requiring me to manually manipulate it back in place. Monday I saw my dentist who identified my injury as a jaw sprain.

Shall I pause here for a minute to allow you a chance to laugh, guffaw and make jokes about a jaw sprain?

The dentist assured me it had nothing to do with talking too much, but was a function of my deteriorating TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint). She asked me all the typical questions about TMJ care: had I been wearing my mouth guard at night? Was I eating hard foods or chewing gum? I honestly answered each question. Then came the clincher, “Are you under a lot of stress?”

My Dentist knows me well. Instead of waiting for my answer, she took my hand and said, “I know you have a lot going on right now.”

I thought I had a good handle on my stress. Apparently, my body did not agree.

While fixing the shredder, I had a lightbulb moment. It failed because the warning sign of nearing capacity was ignored. I imagine the person shredding thought just one more piece.

My life is like that paper shredder. . .I can say yes, it won’t take too much time. . .Oh, you need me to run that errand for you? Of course, I’d be glad to. . . Sure I have time to take on that project.

I keep adding just one more commitment or task to my life bin, thinking I can do it. I keep pushing “just a little” past capacity.

For a time that works. Until suddenly, the last piece enters the shredder path and brings it to a grinding halt. Or in my case, my jaw says “ENOUGH!” 

I needed that visual of the jammed shredder blades to refocus attention to my capacity. I thought about the residue left behind when I push too hard for too long. My body reacts. My relationships suffer. My inner spirit feels disheveled. If only I had a neon sticker warning me, and those around, of my energy, bandwidth, and time nearing over-commitment.

Here’s to paper shredders that get their cool-down periods, jaws that move as God created them to, and life bins that don’t overflow from ignoring capacity.

What signals do you experience showing you may be near or past capacity? What neon sticker do you put in your routine or relationships to help you see it before it is too late?

It’s All in the Cards and Rosters and Yearbooks and. . .

Never let your husband give up on his dreams.

               This is one of the best pieces of marriage advice I received. For my husband, baseball has always been a big part of his passion and dreams. Sure, before I met him he grew out of the dream to become a Major League Baseball player, but his love for baseball has never waned.

               The lower quarter of Jerry’s closet, since our move two plus years ago, housed boxes and boxes of baseball cards, programs, magazines, figures, and more. He decorated his office in more baseball pictures, figures, and autographed balls and bats. He always wanted to catalogue everything he had. Whenever he talked about it, I felt like my eyes rolled back in my head. I could think of very few things I’d enjoy less. I told him he’d need to find a friend or volunteer to help him.

               A few weeks ago I realized the volunteers who assist him with work do not have time to take on his hobby too. Baseball is important to my husband, and I was the logjam in his enjoyment of his collection. I told Jerry I changed my mind and would like to help him with this when he is ready.

               This weekend I pulled the four plastic tubs, five cardboard boxes, and several unpacked books and pictures from his closet and placed them on our bed, allowing him space to view it all at eye level from his wheelchair.

               We set up a card table in the middle of the living room. I brought one box at a time to him. I found joy seeing him unpack and explore the contents.

               As a true baseball fan, his collection represented Minor League to Major League teams from across the country. The yearbook of the Sonoma County Crushers unleashed a flood of memories as we thought about that stadium only five minutes from our home when we were first married. Tickets were only five dollars a piece and their handicapped seating was in the box seats, just three or four rows off the field. The chants of the stadium for “Moose”(player David Mowry) drifted through my mind.

               The Detroit Tigers hold the most space in his memorabilia, followed in a distant second by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Tigers have been his team since he was a young boy. He stuck by them in their winning years, and throughout their long drought. Periodically as I sorted cards, I would throw out a name I thought was obscure, and he told me the position they played in the 60s or 70s.

               I learned, after sorting half a stack of cards the wrong way, that there is a specific way to sort cards. First by the manufacturer, e.g. Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score, etc. Then by year. Now I understand why baseball cards are a draw for kids. Younger eyes can read that small print easier. The last sort is by number. Not the obvious number on the front of the card by the player’s name, but the one on the back of the card.

               Working together, we plowed through all but two of the bins. There is still a great deal of tedious work ahead, cataloging all those cards. And those last two tubs to sort. But now I’m looking forward to the task. It’s an easier tradeoff seeing Jerry stroll down memory lane and enjoy reconnecting with his love of baseball.

               I am thankful God prompted with this change of heart. When is the last time you engaged in something your spouse enjoys, but isn’t your favorite? I encourage you to try it. You may learn some things you did not know, and the time spent together will only benefit your marriage. I’d love to hear about it!

Gimme A Break!

           Arranging a long weekend away for me every few months is one of the many ways Jerry expresses his care for me. A group of guys from church volunteer to help with his evening and morning routines. I am free to travel, hole up and sleep, write, or any other combination of things that bring me pleasure and a change of pace.

            But we’re living in a pandemic. Is it possible to still find rest or refreshment when the world is in crisis? Not only can I, but I must. We’re still sorting out how to make these respites work in our new normal, but here is one idea we’ve tried.

       My weekend getaway was fast approaching. Once I got Jerry up on Thursday morning, I would not need to be home again until Monday night. I made plans to hibernate in the home of friends who were out of town. Their house sits on a lake and has a huge screened-in porch. I envisioned my every waking moment on the lovely porch and considered sleeping there in the recliner rather than the guest room.

            Then came Monday.

            The Monday before the Thursday I would go away, Jerry woke up with an infection. It wasn’t horrible, but it required a deeper level of care than his friends from church knew how to manage. Infections in people with disability can escalate quickly. This knowledge, combined with the uncertainty of growing COVID numbers, especially here in Florida, left me with an uneasy feeling about going away.

            I suggested to Jerry we might want to consider changing our plans. After chatting, we could not come to an agreement. We decided to sleep on it. The next morning Jerry awoke telling me we needed to cancel my travel plans and his volunteer attendants. There were just too many risk factors we could not mitigate. I assured him that unlike some periods in life; I was not at a point of being stressed with his care, or in need of a break. Changing plans for this weekend would not have adverse effects.

            He knows me well. Expecting this response, Jerry said he wanted me to maintain as much of my original plan as I could. He made a strategy for mealtimes, and his waking hours. He even dubbed the five days, The Weekend of Joan. Conveniently, it fell on the opening weekend of Major League Baseball. He offered to stay in his office or our bedroom to watch games, giving me the full run of the living areas in the house.

            Most mornings, since Jerry was still working, he began responding to messages and reading work projects while still in bed, allowing me to sleep in. We had not discussed this, and it was a pleasant surprise when I woke up later than usual the first morning.

            Thursday, I took a brief road trip. Just me. It was exactly what I needed. A safe change of scenery and time to let the idea percolate that the next few days were for me. It was fun to think of the many things I could do . . .writing, reading, coloring, knitting, baking, swimming, and napping in my hammock. As fun as the planning was, moving from one activity to another without cleaning the house, grocery shopping, or tending laundry was even better!

            Each night Jerry asked how the day went for me and reminded me each morning that there was still time to celebrate The Weekend of Joan. And I did.

            If you think I have an amazing husband, you would be right. Though later, one of his good friends said to him, “Sure, you’re all proud of making a Weekend of Joan when now there are three more Months of Jerry until her next one!”

            It it is hard to be a caregiver. It is hard to be in a pandemic. It is hard to not know what will change tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean life has to stop. It doesn’t mean our plans have to go on hold.

            I write this to give you hope.

            If you are someone on the receiving end of care, what can you do to celebrate, appreciate, and/or give a slight change of pace, or perhaps even a lengthier time off, to the one who assists you?

            If you care for someone who cannot help you plan a break, think in small increments. Are there 15 minutes in the day, or start with five minutes, to sit outside, read a page or two of a magazine or book, or slowly sip your coffee? I serve Jerry better when I take care of myself, in big and small ways. I imagine it is the same for you.

            For those of you who are friends or extended family members of people who need care, I write this for you too. Maybe you’re not ready to take on a big step like a morning or evening care routine, as Jerry’s friends were. Please understand this is not the only way to give a break to a caregiver. Take a walk together and push the wheelchair. Stop by with an already prepared glass of iced tea to share. Drop off an unexpected meal or gift card. Sit in the driveway, socially distanced, with the person needing care and listen to the story they repeatedly share, allowing the caregiver some time alone to take a bath, or rest their eyes for a few minutes.

            Most of us need variety and breaks in our routine. Sometimes it won’t look like a weekend at a hotel, or a retreat at the lake. A weekend away isn’t always in the budget, or the calendar. As our needs change with aging, overnights away are less likely.  

            Getting a break isn’t as much about where I go, or what I don’t have to do. I think it is about engaging fully in the moments, hours, or days I have, whether caring for Jerry, working, cleaning, napping, or reading. Perhaps this is one lesson I am to learn in my 2021 year of “FOCUS.”  

            What is your favorite way to catch a break? I look forward to gleaning new ideas as I read your comments, right after I get back from a walk with my neighbor!

Oh.My.Word!

I never saw myself as a word-of-the-year person. I never considered the idea. . .

            . . .Until three years ago, after moving to a new state. There was nothing mystical or ethereal, I just sensed that courage would be my word for 2019. It was a good one. Besides moving 1000 miles away, my husband and I left one ministry and founded a new one. It took courage to get through the 501(c)3 application, communicate the change effectively with donors, and work through the emotional and relational challenges of changing missions. I called upon courage more than once in the year.

            Courage worked well, so I sought a word for 2020. I vacillated between grit and fortitude, ultimately settling on grit. I liked the pithiness of the word, and the sense it gave me of hard work ahead. When I embraced grit, I thought it meant I was to do whatever it took to get the manuscript of my book, The Third Wheel, completed. I canceled most of my normal activities, so writing received all my time and attention outside of work, ministry, and marriage.

            Little did I know I was a bit ahead of the curve in canceling activities. Most everyone else joined me in clearing calendars, either by choice or by force, when the pandemic hit. On the surface, this seemed like a dream come true for a writer. Canceled activities reduced my guilt about staying home to write. Suddenly, time was all I had. But time, on its own, does not produce grit.

            The uniqueness of the pandemic reminded me of winter storms. Before moving, I lived in an area prone to Nor’easters, massive storms along the east coast that usually include torrential rains or heavy snow. When one was in the forecast, I listened repeatedly to all the prognosticators. I stocked up on supplies and planned to stay put for several days. Then when the first flurries fluttered, I stopped. It was as if I’d never seen snow before. My husband and I parked ourselves in front of our bay window and watched with awe the gazillion little snowflakes piling up on our sidewalks, ramps, and driveways. We turned on lights at night and left the blinds open to see the glittering droplets. We knew what would happen. We’d seen it before, but we just couldn’t turn away from watching. The snow drew us in to its mesmerizing drifts and banks.

            The pandemic caused the same effect for me. I checked in with friends, watched the news, and sat stunned. Unlike a Nor’easter, witnessing a world-wide impact was something I’d never seen before.

            The result: I found it difficult to write. One would think it’s the perfect time for grit. And it was. But I couldn’t muster any.

            When it became apparent that this two-week period of self-isolation would not remedy the pandemic, we hunkered down. And grit became necessary, not to write, but to survive sanely. I can do this for one more day. And one more. And then another.

            As I was getting the hang of this isolated way to live, COVID-19 snuck into our home. Though we were many months into the pandemic, it was the farthest diagnosis from our minds when my husband made a trip to an urgent care center.

            He rolled his wheelchair back to the van and told me he was to isolate for ten days and I needed to quarantine for fourteen days. How do we do that? How do I still provide him the care he needs with his disability while staying clear of the virus? That first week was rocky. I wasn’t fearful but discombobulated. I slept in the living room and used only the guest bathroom. I moved half of my closet out of our room. He had our bedroom and master bath. Boxes of gloves, masks, and face shields sat on a table outside the bedroom door. When I took food or drink to him, or assisted him, I suited up.

            Several days in, I was ready to quit. I hated not being able to be near my husband to comfort him. But what would quitting mean? Give in to the virus? Not an option. Send him to a hospital? Absolutely not! Say I wasn’t going to help him anymore? Of course not. What it really meant was it was time to dig deep into grit! Not that it all depended on me. It did not. I knew our every breath depended on God alone. And if He gave me more breaths and heartbeats, I’d respond with gritty fortitude to do it one more time . . .

            My matching diagnosis a week later only deepened the grit of my faith. Jerry still needed care, and I needed rest. At least now we could rest and recover in the same room.

            Just before Jerry’s diagnosis, we celebrated his birthday. We celebrated my birthday during recovery. I continually said, as long as we could be in the same room for our 25th wedding anniversary on November 11, I would be fine. I should have been a little more specific about my desire.

            We were in the same room on that day, but rather than celebrating, I was again nursing Jerry. Not for COVID-19 this time, but for two ankles he injured the day before when he missed a ramp off a sidewalk. Not realizing the extent of the injury, he stayed home for a week before agreeing to go to the Emergency Room. The medical team, after x-raying and finding he fractured both ankles, advocated for inpatient admission. Hospitals can be a dangerous place for people with disabilities, but amid a pandemic the challenges multiplied, giving me the ultimate test of grit.

            Looking back on the year 2020, I see why God impressed upon me grit. I, probably like you, needed grit to make it through last year. Thank you, God, for preparing my heart and mind.

            I wonder what lies ahead in 2021 since He has given me the word focus. May it include my writing? I prayerfully believe it will. For what else will I need focus? I don’t know, but by keeping my focus first on God and following His plan, it’s a good place to start.

Is It Worth the Struggle?

Slogging through Jell-o. That’s what riding my bike felt like earlier this week. I noticed my speed was reduced. I had to use a lower gear. I couldn’t ride as far. It was hard work.

I had missed a few days of riding. Did it really make that much difference?

It was breezy out. Was I having that much trouble riding into the wind?

I didn’t want to bike if this is going to be my new normal.

Today before riding again I thought, let me check my tires pressure. You guessed it; they were very low. I inflated both tires. Mounting my bike, I turned out of the driveway. I felt like I was flying. The gentle breeze brushing my face was a delight.dakota-corbin-fisvoU9bf-k-unsplash

Nearing the end of our street, I had to change gears because pedaling was too easy. I rode farther than I have in weeks, and my speed was faster.

Riding, I reflected on this day—the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. It is a sobering day for me as a Christian, and I know what happens tomorrow! I wonder if the disciples felt a little like I did earlier in the week. The air had gone out of their life.

Their joy was gone. Jesus was gone. Everything was different, harder, and more troubling. Was it really worth going on if the Jesus we followed was dead?

In the first century, this was a dark and hopeless day.

But hold on . . . don’t give up now.

Joy, Hope and Grace await.

 

Cross photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash
Bicycke photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash
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