Jewels and Smiths

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Give it away now

I’m wildly lucky in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the fact that my little family manages to make more money than we spend. It’s something I try hard not to take for granted, particularly given that we are living through a recession, and I know so many people who are unemployed or underemployed or underpaid for the work that they do.  Because of our relative fiscal solvency, we are lucky enough to be able to donate money to charity, and so I have found myself thinking about tithing. And I find myself wondering – when you tithe, does the recipient of your giving have to be a church?

Almost all of the bible bits about tithing say that the first fruits/10% of all that you have belongs to God; they don’t specify the church (except in Malachi, where it references bringing the tithes to the storeroom of the house of God, and Deuteronomy, sort of, which says that tithes should be brought, “to a place of [God's] choosing”). So my question is, roughly, is it okay for me to think of money donated to charitable organizations as tithing if said organizations are clearly doing God’s work?

I’m reminded of the part of the new testament where the apostles find someone who isn’t one of them casting out devils in Jesus’ name. They ask the guy to back off, but when they tell Jesus, he says, roughly, “guys, if he was capable of performing miracles in my name, he’s one of us.”  Don’t get me wrong, I dig the church I attend, but they clearly aren’t hurting for money. I can’t help but wonder whether a donation to a smaller, less well-known charity might do more good?

The Big Guy vs. Unconditional Love

I know a lot of people ignore the old testament, or use its internal inconsistencies and moral relativism to undercut Christianity as a faith. I can understand the motivation in both cases, but I have to admit, I’m fascinated by the old testament. I mean, sure, it’s easier to get along with the forgiving, mellow God of the new testament, and certainly having a real, live human being demonstrate what we are supposed to be doing makes things far simpler. But, I dunno. Old testament God, for all the anger and vengeance and city destroying and baby slaughtering…well, at least that God is passionate.
Let me try to unpack that, because I am pretty sure it’s a bit crazy.

Old testament God makes more sense to me, because old testament God loves his people the same way I do. Vigorously. Furiously. Passionately. Nowhere is this more obvious than when we read about God’s reaction to those who betray Him. He gets enraged, he lashes out violently, he promises to do terrible things, he goes practically incoherent coming up with creative punishment after punishment…and then always, always leaves the door open. No matter how exasperated he gets, no matter the intensity of the betrayal. Ezekiel is great because it practically alternates verses between saying, “I am so unbelievably angry with you, and you are going to regret it like nobody’s business,” “it’ll be okay, I just need time to simmer down,” and, “I’m going to show all the people who hurt you, you just wait.”

To me it reads like someone who is so in love that he barely knows what to do with himself.

You know, people talk about unconditional love like it is inconsistent with anger or upset, but that doesn’t ring true for me. I think that, if anything, you’re more likely to get upset with people you truly love – because you’ve made yourself vulnerable. The trick is that with unconditional love, you always try again, you always open yourself up to being hurt one more time. And I see just that in old testament God, far more than in the calm, unflappable new testament God.

Elders vs. progress

The old testament is chock full of references to the fact that we ought to listen to people who are older/more experienced than us. This concept even shows up in the ten commandments as, of course, honor thy mother and father. It’s also full of examples (particularly in Kings/Chronicles) of cases where following the example of one’s forebears puts individuals on a decidedly problematic path. I find this troubling.

Growing up in a…complicated family environment meant that I always took issue with honoring my mother and father, at least from a conceptual standpoint. I mean, sure, you try not to be a jerk, and following their rules at lest superficially reduces conflict, but you don’t necessarily feel a compelling need to hold them in high esteem. But now, as an adult, I find myself not infrequently in a position where an elder whom I otherwise trust and respect is giving me advice that is, quite simply, bad. This is much more common since having a child of my own. Well-meaning relatives give sagely advice that medical science suggests is downright dangerous. Certainly, I can think about the message behind the advice, and take that to heart. I can politely say, “thank you for your advice,” and choose not to act on things that seem troubling. But…

What do you do when someone you respect simply won’t take no for an answer?

I wish I knew. I find it very difficult when faced with someone who insists that I follow their advice even when, deep in my gut, it feels wrong. This feeling is made even worse when that person is a trusted elder member of the family. Do I follow bad advice? Should I ignore the advice, even if this means losing a potentially valuable relationship? Try to explain why I think the guidance may be off-base? I still haven’t been able to figure out whether any of these is ever a good idea. Does that big book have anything about trusting one’s instincts that I am missing?

To be perfectly frank…

I really, truly stink at praying. Honestly, I always feel a bit like a crazy person when I am doing it, and I never know quite what to say or do, and I almost always get distracted midway through (often mid-sentence) by some mundane worry or itch or weird random thought about my to-do list. And since I’m so lousy and distracted when praying, I will restart, or give up and try again later, and spend days at a time trying to get one coherent thought out.

Honestly, though, the hardest thing is that I just don’t know how to be forthright and forthcoming in prayer. I want to put the best face on, or pretend that everything is okay, or claim thankfulness that I don’t feel – like the mental equivalent of putting on my nicest clothes for church. I have no idea why I do this. For.one thing, presumably, an omniscient and omnipotent being can tell when I am padding my resume. For another, there are endless examples of people being very frank with God in the bible – psalm after psalm fretting about life’s miseries. Moses calling out God for mistreatment of His chosen people. The entire book of Job, pretty much.

So, if God knows my mind, why am I so scared to pray in a way that conveys my real thoughts and feelings? I don’t think it is the result of a sense of shame – not completely, anyway. I just don’t want to disappoint God.

Is that crazy?

Blessings in disguise

One thing that I find really fascinating about the bible is the fact that so many really awful things happen to people. Sometimes the reader is given a clear explanation of why the victim of the awful experience was subjected to that experience (e.g., Job was being given a particularly strong-handed test of faith; the Jews were, variously set upon by fiery serpents, afflicted with plague, and swallowed up by the earth for prolonged grumbling about God; etc.). Sometimes we get a post hoc accounting – the awful thing needed to happen to put the victim in a position to do something important. Sometimes there seems to be no clear explanation at all.

It’s those latter two cases that are really hard for me, both in handling them in my personal life and in allowing myself to understand and identify with the sneaky message hidden in the story. Punishment for bad deeds is something that is really easy for me to understand (and I probably deserve a gold medal in feeling guilty), but bad things as a means to an end? Yikes.

I’ve spent some time thinking about it why this is so hard for me to accept. I realized that, for me, accepting the notion that bad things might happen to good people for a reason required me to do two things that I find really difficult: to have faith, and to forgive. There’s a really great example of this in the story of Joseph (old testament, original gangster Joseph). Joseph’s brothers (his family! whom he should be able to trust!) decide that instead of just straight-up killing him, they will instead sell him into slavery in Egypt. When he is reunited with them, having ended up in much better circumstances, he doesn’t do what I would (probably) do – which is something along the lines of saying, “you guys are JERKS. SERIOUSLY.” Instead, he comes at them with this, from Genesis 45:5 – “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, for selling me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few examples of really lousy things happening in my life that I now recognize as being blessings in disguise – most notably my miscarriage, which was awful, but also means that I am not permanently tied to my now ex-husband. But there are definitely many more instances of events and, especially, people that have caused me pain that I just can’t seem to give up, even though my life is better now than it was at the time.

So how do I do it? How do I forgive people even while the sadness and hurt seems impossible to bear? How do I trust that I have something to learn from even the most exhausting and depressing situations? Should I just bide my time? I’m open to any and all suggestions!

Breastfeeding is the least sexy thing ever

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of breastfeeding. It’s healthier for mom and baby, cheaper than formula, helps keep kiddo from getting sick, yadda yadda yadda. Obviously I think it is great, or I wouldn’t still be nursing my nearly 20-month-old daughter. That said, there are times when I really, truly cannot stand it.

Let’s start by clearing the air; I have what Dr. Sears politely refers to as a “high needs” child. Among other things, these kids are characterized by their intense, difficult-to-please personalities, their need for frequent feedings, and their tendency for wakefulness. It’s those last two that make me wish I could simply lop my boobs off my body without them losing their lactation capabilities.

I love my daughter, but I swear she is something like 35% deer tick (right down to the ridiculously rapid growth feature). She absolutely insists on nursing through her naps. A good night has only 3-5 nursing sessions of 30-45 minutes each. On a bad night, she might wake me up every hour, or have multiple nursing sessions lasting an hour or more. Or both. And there are far more bad nights than good nights. Did I mention that she’s getting on toward two years old now? I did? Good, because I didn’t want it to be lost on you that I haven’t slept more than three consecutive hours in nearly two years, because this is a serious attempt to use humor to feel better about the situation, and I need to make sure you know that if it isn’t funny, it’s because I am tired. And not because I’m not funny, or a bad writer, or any of the other, numerous, more parsimonious explanations. Tired, got it?

Good.

So yes, despite her age, despite eating well at meals, my daughter nurses All. The. Time. It’s this wealth of experience that allows me to make the titular claim (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) regarding the appeal of breastfeeding.

Let’s start by talking about what it does to your body. Switching over from decorative fat pads to factories is metabolically complicated, and it shows. And by “shows,” I mean, “wow, I don’t remember everything being that…veiny.” Supply and demand rule milk production, and, as previously mentioned, demand is high. As a result, my boob has swollen out of all rational proportions. “But Julia,” you say, “there are plenty of folks who think large breasts are rather becoming on a lady!” While that may be true, please note that I do not have large breasts. I have large breast. As in one, very asymmetrical, enormous tata, thanks to my sweet daughter’s lifelong preference for one side. And let’s just forgo detailed discussion of nipples for the sake of dignity. Trust me, it ain’t pretty…and the beige, granny lace, flap cup nursing bras really don’t help.

However, even more than the sheer physical monstrosity that can be embodied by the lactating breast, it’s the situational horror that really makes me want to ride out my days in the emotional equivalent of ill-fitting sweatpants. Truly, you cannot understand the depths of maternal love until you find yourself trying to expose as little skin as possible to drizzly, 40-degree weather as possible while precariously balancing yourself and your giant toddler atop the strangely tall benches near the gorilla exhibit atb the zoo. You do the best you can; only unzip the jacket halfway, pull the sweater up and the t-shirt down, thereby compressing the exposed boob chunk into an awkward football (now with more nipple!). You sigh as your recently-tantruming toddler clams down just enough to snort and hiccup as she twines her fingers into your hair and pulls as hard as she can. You try to smile apologetically to passers-by while shielding yourself from the odd kick in the face. If you’re lucky, she’ll decide to pinch the other boob as hard as possible (read: really hard), thereby solidifying the mysterious magic of the moment.

Sure, breast is best, but for the time being I’m just going to do everything I can to forget that my torso exists.

Day 72: Always ask, “will this simplify my life?”

I sort of wish today’s assignment had come sometime during week 1, though I have to admit, it does make a nice final bit of advice.

From the original:

Always ask: Will this simplify my life? If the answer is no, reconsider.

Since this bit of advice is simple enough that it doesn’t require comment, I’m going to take this moment to review the last ten weeks.

So what did I accomplish?

  • I got about halfway through the basement purge of doom.
  • I gave away twenty or so boxes of stuff we didn’t need, plus some furniture.
  • I moved into a smaller, easier to maintain home that is closer to work for hubby.
  • I quit my job so I could focus more on taking care of (and hanging out with) K.
  • I completed a major wardrobe edit.
  • I made changes that, when finished, will cut our expenses to roughly 1/3 what they used to be, while maintaining the same family income.

What do I still need to work on?

  • cleaning out my inbox
  • cutting down on clutter/unnecessary things
  • making time for myself
  • generally being nicer to myself

What did I learn?

  • I’m not a minimalist!
  • I probably have unrealistic expectations regarding what I should be able to accomplish in any given 24 hour period.
  • I’m much happier as a stay-at-home mom than I was as a working mom.
  • Daily blogging isn’t really my cup of tea.
  • My life was actually quite a bit less complicated than I thought.

All in all, not bad for a few months’ work. There is certainly plenty left to do, but I do think this exercise at least got me moving in the right direction. Plus, I think I have a better sense of what I really want to be doing with my time, and what sorts of things make me happy. Heck, I even managed to make enough time to (finally) start learning how to care for and style little K’s hair, which probably sounds weird, but is something I have been fretting about since I got pregnant.*

So, um, yes. Good!

* If you’re curious about why I have strong feelings about this, you might enjoy checking out the documentary Good Hair. It gives a pretty interesting introduction to the Black hair culture and affiliated industry.

Day 71: Live closer to work

I totally have today’s assignment in the bag!

From the original:

Live closer to work. This might mean getting a job closer to your home, or moving to a home closer to your work. Either will do much to simplify your life.

I know, I know, “of course you live closer to work, YOU DON’T HAVE A JOB ANYMORE!!” That’s true, but we also bought a house that is much closer to work for hubby. The old house was about 15 miles from the office, which, depending on the day, could mean a commute lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. That commute also included a bridge, and we lived on a stretch of road that was not infrequently shut down for long stretches to allow the passage of presidential motorcades. The new place is only 10 miles from work, with no bridges and a distinctly reduced chance of political interference.

We actually tried to hold out for something closer, but house prices were quite a bit better here. So, um, yeah. DONE.

Day 70: Leave space around things in your day

Back when I had an office job, I was really awful about today’s assignment, but now that I spend my day managing a toddler who is, at any given moment, Teething, tired, squirmy, hungry, cranky, loud, and/or wild, I’ve gotten much better about maintaining a temporal cushion around my activities.

From the original:

Leave space around things in your day. Whether they’re appointments, or things you need to do, don’t stack them back-to-back. Leave a little space between things you need to do, so you will have room for contingencies, and you’ll go through your day much more relaxed.

I usually try to plan no more than one outside of the house activity for any given period of baby wakefulness. Since she has two naps these days, that means no more than three things a day. Since I also try to have one of those be a fun baby activity, that means just two errands, one in the morning, and one late in the afternoon. It has worked out well for us so far, though, of course, she will switch to one nap, and then none, and I will no longer have these convenient break points in the day.

Day 69: Use a minimalist productivity system

I’m not sure what it is that is setting me off about today’s assignment, but my first reaction upon reading the day’s task and associated article was to think I DON’T WANT TO AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.

From the original:

Use a minimalist productivity system. The minimal Zen To Done is all you need. Everything else is icing.

To be fair, even Leo has since reneged on one of the items in minimalist Zen to done, stating that keeping track of all of your ideas is foolish. Upon further reflection, he concluded that if an idea is really good, you’ll be excited and want to work on it right away. In my experience, that’s true…plus, that means that not only are the other ideas big potential time wasters, but also that your good ideas are likely to be very distracting if you try to work on anything else.

As for focusing and eliminating distractions…well, I’ve already talked about how looking after the microhuman means that I am required to multitask. And I’ll keep my daily to-do list, though, frankly, that list always consists of the chores that need too be done, not the things I actually enjoy doing. I don’t need a reminder to do the fun stuff, I just do that stuff at every opportunity.

So yeah. No productivity system for me, thanks.