Lenten

I have this habit of using the adjectival form of the season of Lent: “Lenten.” In Rebecca’s private language (my Inuit friends might call it uliipikatitut), “Lenten” means this: anything difficult or a with a sense of privation, with the result of causing reflection.

During Lent, suddenly anything even slightly less than awesome is “Lenten.” It’s not just lame, or underwhelming, or disappointing, or painful. It’s “Lenten.” Having oatmeal for breakfast every day is “Lenten.” Giving up chocolate is “Lenten.” There’s really no deprivation too small or petty for me to apply this adjective to it, nor any reflection too momentary. And believe me, Lent makes me pretty petty and slight.

There’s a converse adjective, too: “not very Lenten.” In uliipikatitut, “not very Lenten” means that it brings enjoyment or satisfaction, with the niggling sense that you shouldn’t be having this good of a time. You saw that in last week’s post: I attempted to do something “Lenten” by switching to vegetarian dinners, but then the dinners were awesome, so they were “not very Lenten.”

This all stems from a childhood steeped in Roman Catholic culture, where we all did our best to give up something small for Lent, then reflected on how our small deprivations were really nothing in comparison to Christ’s sacrifice. I do not mean to criticize this practice; obviously I still practice it. But I think we all had that sense of embarrassment, that we were giving up chocolate to try to be more like Jesus, who died and gruesome and horrible death for our sakes. If the priest played his homily right, it made us squirm just a little bit in the consumeristic religiosity of our materialistic lifestyles.

The point, I think, of my subconscious shift to the use of this adjective, is to try to reframe my complaints. The very ridiculousness of the adjective is self-referential: it points to how petty my wants are, to how small my sacrifices are, to how incredibly focused I get on my own comfort. It’s a way to laugh at myself.

But, tongue-in-cheek though it is, this silly little adjective can come full circle.

My Lenten KAL project is a case in point. I thought it would be “not very Lenten.” After all, it’s a project I’ve been looking forward to for years, with a beautiful pattern from a favorite designer, in a perfectly delicious yarn. (Araucania Huasco, if you want to know – 100% superfine merino, in a plump 3-ply fingering weight. Just perfect for all the texture in this shawl. The pattern is “Galadriel’s Mirror” by Susan Pandorf, and it’s part of her Lord of the Rings “Fellowship of the Rings” series that I am knitting through at a pace that makes a snail look like Speed Racer.)

On the one hand, no, it’s not a very “Lenten” project, objectively. But it’s become Lenten, because I really don’t want to work on it. I actually dread picking it up.

However, once I do pick it up, it’s really enjoyable. I’m into a nice rhythm, the chart is clear, and it’s got lots of nice benchmarks to feel like I’m progressing. The yarn is simply perfect for the pattern, and I’m working it at a good gauge for the needles. I really have no reason to complain.

I just don’t want to pick it up. There’s nothing compelling about it. It takes all my attention, and robs me of time I’d rather be spinning, or at least knitting something more insta-gratifying.

Halfway through Lent and I think I’m halfway through … the first ball of yarn. I’ve already accepted that this is going to be my vacation knitting.


That actually sounds a lot like my relationship with God.

Do you spend time with God every day? I try to. There’s even a Christian-ese (christusimiutitut?) word for this daily practice: growing up, we called it “quiet time.”

I have been reading the Bible all my life, but I still find a strong inner resistance to quiet time. Not when I’m doing it – when I actually connect with God through Bible reading, prayer, meditation, and reflection, it is life and peace and restoration. It is absolutely the fuel that powers me for the rest of my life. But when I’m not doing it, I don’t want to do it. And if I skip a day or two, the resistance becomes harder and harder to overcome. I resist it because there are other things, me-centered things, that I’d rather be doing. I resist it because it demands all of myself; it demands I come out of myself; it demands I be totally real and vulnerable with God. That’s hard. Sometimes I’d rather not face those deep parts of myself, even if it’s to take them to God for help.

So my Lenten KAL shawl is the embodiment of this inner struggle, a physical reminder of how something objectively good and beautiful can be repulsive to me just because it is demanding.

That is what something “Lenten” really is: it makes us face ourselves. It isn’t something that makes us feel good because we have successfully accomplished some feat of asceticism, of self-denial. It’s something that brings us face to face with our own failures, so we have no choice but to accept grace. We can set ourselves up for such encounters by denying ourselves of some comforts, because that tends to bring our failures to the surface. But it isn’t the denial that makes it Lenten: it’s the way God gracefully uses our slightest sufferings to point us to his greatest suffering on our behalf, which provided, once for all, all the grace we’ll ever need.

How about you? Have you had some nice failures with your Lenten disciplines yet? Share your stories in the comments!

Penitence and the Green Dragon

The first two weeks after Ash Wednesday didn’t really feel like Lent.

I tried to be penitential, but my efforts to induce reflective suffering were repeatedly thwarted. The things we gave up – too much phone, TV for the kids – were a relief to be rid of. Putting them down didn’t feel much like a burden, and that space was filled with joy. I even tried to be more penitential with our food, switching breakfast and lunch to something more boring, and sticking to simple, vegetarian, bean-based meals for dinner. But that intentionality accidentally reactivated my cooking mojo, so we were just eating tasty, fun, filling simple dinners.

All that changed a couple of weeks ago, in the buildup to the Big Work Thing’s Biggest Thing. That’s a sort of retreat called the Alpha weekend, part of the Alpha course.

Bobbins filled last weekend.

A big part of being a priest, functionally, is event planning. If I had known that, I probably would have eschewed ministry life entirely, because me and event planning don’t go together well. I felt inspired and called to lead this Alpha, and that’s been widely encouraged, confirmed, affirmed, and supported, but I knew it would be hard for me. I have a ton of prayer support, and awesome leaders and teams to work with, but sometimes it is hard. Especially in the last week and a half. It came out in my Lenten disciplines – rather, at my total failure to keep them.

Two skeins, 6.3 oz. total, and a baby .6 oz. skein of leftover Polwarth.

One of the hardest things about it, although it was also the best, was that God kept sticking his hand into it. Every single week of Alpha, something major has looked like it was not going to work out. But, at the last minute, it kept working out. Either someone would step in and surprise me, or someone I thought would surely say no would say yes, or someone would decide to be more generous than I had any right to expect. I sent a lot of long emails to my prayer team (and am still sending them, because we have a few weeks left).

God keeps coming through, and in ways that make it clear he is invested in this project. What this is teaching me is that I need to honor him and give him the glory for it. That’s what I asked him to do, after all: make it happen if he wants to use it to glorify himself. Why am I surprised that that’s what he did? I think that’s the main reason he keeps waiting for the last-minute save – I don’t think it’s coincidence, and I don’t think he’s doing it just to mess with my head. I think he’s doing it because it says, in a way we can’t ignore, yo, I’m here! This is my kingdom you’re working on, and I’m gonna build it!

Color mixing. This is going to make amazing tiny subtle stripes.

A key moment for me actually came in association with this yarn I’m showing you. I’ve been using spinning as a way to get my mind off the pressures, to relax and even pray when my brain won’t shut down. I’ve been passionate enough about the spinning that it’s been an effective escape. This yarn in particular was a joy to sample and test and decide exactly what to shoot for. I really enjoyed spinning the singles, as the sampling had helped me refine not only my target yarn, but how to relax into the process of making it.

1 skein is consistently 11 WPI; the other is consistently 12 WPI. Total yardage is 356 yd. in 6.3 oz. Avg. grist between them is 907 YPP.

I was really looking forward to plying this yarn. I love plying; it’s that moment when everything comes together for the first time. It’s the final yarn being born, really, and it’s not a terribly long labor.

When the time came to ply, though, there were only a few days left before the Alpha Weekend. Things were getting sorted, but it took until the day before it started for me to even have confidence that all the pieces would be in place at all. Then there’s always the question of how it will go, and if anyone will show up. I was determined to be present, not to run away from the anxiety, but that meant that spinning was not an effective escape. I enjoyed the plying, but it didn’t delight me. I was distracted. The creation of yarn, though a gift of beauty from a creator God and a good thing, was not going to rescue me. The power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of my friends carried me through, not my coping mechanisms. This might surprise you, but that actually lets me feel much more free to enjoy my coping mechanisms, because it was finally proven to my subconscious that yarn can’t really compete with the power of real relationships. That’s a bit of obviousness I’ve been struggling to internalize, so I’m glad it happened.

The weekend itself went very well. I won’t go into details, but a great number of prayers were answered, and the guidance myself and others had been receiving from God were confirmed. When the event actually started, I was able to be present and calm.

And best of all, the way God had been making his investment in the project felt – by his annoyingly last-minute semi-miraculous contributions – meant that I was completely confident that he would do exactly what he wanted to do in it. The success of an event like this isn’t in the number of people who show up, but in what the Holy Spirit does inside each person, and that can’t be measured, certainly not by me.

I like dragons. I know they’re usually bad guys, both in the Bible and in Tolkein, but I can’t help it. I used to have a little necklace with a dragon on it, and a necklace with a “dragon tear” glass pendant, and I especially liked to wear it during Lent. They gave me two reminders. First, that the great dragon will, along with all evil in the end, put into submission to the God who is good (see Revelation 12, esp. verse 8). Second, that God is in the business of releasing us from our dragonish-ness, like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and that’s pretty much what Lent is for.

Closeup on the polwarth leftovers. Gorgeous, warm, and much more even than the combo ply, but I’m happy with my choices.

I called the samples “dragon eggs” just for their color, and for how cute the mini-skeins looked curled up into fat little twists. I’m calling the final yarn “Green Dragon,” for that color, for all the Lenten dragon-y reasons above, and for the location of the same name in the Shire, a place of much ordinary enjoyment and frivolity.

It can’t be very comfortable being wool that’s in the process of being made into yarn. It’s shorn off its sheepy home, then scalded, brushed, pulled through small holes, and finally stretched out and twisted under tight tension – usually more than once. But then, a warm soapy bath, and ah! The release! And something new and beautiful is born. That is Lent, and this yarn, and this week.

Thank you for reading. And thank you God.

I Be Instagrammin’ 

You guys, I am so sick. It’s that kind of cold that would be no big deal if I could take a day off and get a few full nights of sleep, but that’s just not what life deals you sometimes. Right now I’m waiting for Jared to get back from running an emergency errand (a church without paper towels is greatly hampered in its heavenly mission) so I can huddle in the office and write my sermon. Tag-team ministry has a lot of advantages and works for us, but it has moments of frustration too!

For now, I have these pictures loaded from my phone, so I will try this mobile blogging thing.

I have recently acquired a thing for Instagram. I never got into it before, but it suits me perfectly just now. Facebook is awash with anxiety and frustration about the real world, and while I don’t wish to withdraw from the real world generally, I rather need to in my free time. So I bless and support my friends keeping awareness going on the leather swivel chair that is Facebook, while I retreat to my new online seat, which is more of a giant pink bean bag chair.

The cool thing about Instagram is, the hashtags actually work. On FB, hashtags are just ways to write weird sentences. A pound sign is just shorthand for “file this under the category of” without any expectation that anyone else will file anything else under #thingmytoddlerateoffthefloorthismorning. I’m fine with people expressing themselves that way, I’d personally rather just write a sentence. With, you know, spaces.

On Instagram though, you can actually use hashtags to finds things. Like #handspun. I get inspiration from that every day. And via the hashtags, you find people making beautiful things. In this way I can curate a whole feed of just things that are beautiful and inspiring. I can go there for a little rest. And I’m actually connecting with some of these fiber artists who are out there kicking butt.

Of course, connecting online is at best a substitute for connecting with my real friends who are here, at my latitude, who have a pulse and real problems. I’ve just been so busy that I can only afford these little snatches of digital time. What I don’t want is for this new indulgence to numb me to the fact that I do miss my friends, to keep me from scheduling that girls’ night on my one night off, or that early dinner with friends even if we all have to jet at 6:30.

So I’m being brutally honest about that – not because I want you to worry about me, but to keep myself accountable, in this digital space, for my analog life.

And also as a freakishly long way of saying, if you follow me on Instagram (rebbiejaye) you’ll already be tracking my progress on my mystery punis.

Husband is back from his mission. Punis tomorrow!

 

Connecting and Reconnecting

I’m taking a Blendlings break today, to reflect a little more about the crazy learning experience that has been the last two weeks.

Spinning has been an on-again, off-again thing with me, and generally a solitary thing. I’ve always enjoyed it, but tended to get caught up larger projects that quickly became awful slogs. During my earliest beginnings, I took a spindling class, and had an informal how-to-use-a-wheel session with a Cloverhill coworker who is an excellent spinning teacher, but aside from the few minutes she gave me, I’ve been almost entirely self-taught. Also, since I moved to Ambridge in 2010, my time spent spinning with others has been virtually zero. (The most local guild was an hour away and met at a time that I was obligated to go to chapel for seminary.)

Without that social aspect, I was not motivated to carve out the time for spinning. Knitting made a lot more sense in my life. So I spun, sometimes, but haphazardly, not really knowing what I was doing, and only semi-satisfied with the results. (I even taught spinning a couple of times. Lord save us!)

This particular spinning jag didn’t start with the social side. It started with Deb Menz’ Color in Spinning, though the idea clung on maybe tighter than it would have normally because of the social aspect of my plan of doing daily blogs about it. But as I googled around, with the intention of genuinely improving my skills, I found I was suddenly ready, not just to share my silly experiences, but for the Spinning Social Scene.

See, even when I had a Spinning Social Scene (i.e. in Maryland, pre-Ambridge), I wasn’t ready for how intense it can be. They talked about things like twists per inch and treadling speeds and how many wheels they owned and twenty kinds of draft, and that’s just the stuff I understood. Spinners are Technical Nerds. I just wanted to spin to relax.

Spinning to relax is awesome! There is nothing wrong with spinning with a relaxed attitude toward results. I mean, I always loved the yarn I made, like you love your own child that you pour yourself into, even when you have the kind of morning that has you cleaning out poop from under your fingernails. (Ask me about my Sunday.) No question, I loved my yarn. I just had a limited amount of input into what kind of yarn I was making, which left me with a sense of insecurity and unease about the whole thing. I wasn’t willing or able to invest in improving yet.

I’m ready to be a Spinning Technical Nerd now. Spinning will always be ultimately about relaxing for me, but as I wrote about before, I’m ready to start integrating intention and creativity, right brain and left brain, paying attention and letting go.

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Blendlings 1-5, from left to right. You can see how much the yarn changes as I veer around experimenting towards what I want!

My access back into this social scene, and the Technical Nerdery, started in earnest with the Wool N’ Spinning blog by Rachel Smith, which I found while googling around for tips on spinning sweater quantities.

Since I never had a formal class in spinning (at least on a wheel), there’s so much I don’t know. A class would be awesome, but really, just spinning in the same room as a knowledgeable person would tell me so much. Watching a good teaching vlog is like that. For example, just watching Rachel’s awesome video on making samples, in addition to grounding me in that valuable subject, taught me things like:

  • Wind on all the way then pull back to get an accurate sample. (Didn’t even know a wheel could do this.)
  • Expect your yarn to have lots of twist when you take it off the niddy noddy. (Years of self-doubt for nothing!)
  • Change the size of your yarn by changing tension, not by manhandling the fibers. (Oops.)
  • Don’t expect to change your treadling speed; change your yarn by changing your tension and ratio and maybe your draft. (MIND BLOWN)
  • Twist is about the nature of the fiber itself; ply is about what you want to do with the yarn. (I think?! Must acquire a giant reference work of sheep fibers! or this one!)

Some of these are tidbits; some of these are inklings of huge concepts that will take me years of practice and experiment to understand in a nuanced way, at my own speed. I can see a journey of thoughtful learning that I’ve danced around, not really ready to take plunge, but now it stretches before willing feet, ready to treadle. It’s like the other day when I found a fleece for pennies at the thrift store that fit me perfectly and was almost brand-new: I know I am going to love that thing until it’s shreds, but it’s not shreds yet, and I could see immediately that we have the whole of a wonderful relationship before us.

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Check out my wee sample book. I started this before I even encountered Wool N’ Spinning, but the input has been refined. Next time I’ll use index cards, but for this project it’ll be neat to have a record of this whole crazy sampling experiment all in one place.

I connected with Rachel’s style right away, for several reasons. a) She’s super into the technical stuff and the learning process. b) Her taste runs in similar directions as mine, as in, she’s already made lots of yarns and garments that are like the things I want to make or have made. c) She has similar life-limitations that I do – 2 little kids and a demanding part-time job – and is very explicitly intentional about enjoying and prioritizing her family despite her obviously involved relationship with wool and spinning. d) She has a sense of intentionality that resonates with the strategic and purposeful thinking I’ve been leaning into for the last year.

More than that, I think I relate to her wider interactive process. On top of the blog, she started a Ravelry group, and is creating interactive content like color studies and breed studies.* The ability to interact about the things I am learning, with her and with others, is extremely motivating. I relate to that because, in a sense, that’s what my job entails: teaching and connecting with people publicly, in a way that’s open and real but discrete and professional, and in the process inviting them to a wider community and deeper relationship (with God, not spinning, but I think the analogy holds).

*(With the help of her Patreon supporters. I’ve joined at the lowest level, only because I want to make sure this spinning thing is going to stick before I commit to spending a lot, but I had to show a little appreciation for how much I’m learning!)

I’m becoming more and more convinced that pastoring is an art. I don’t mean that it’s intuitive; I mean that the process of doing ministry has a lot in common with the creative process in art and craft as I have experienced it. It takes a lot of trial and error. There are skills to pick up, but you learn by doing, and beautiful things come out of the failures as well as the successes. It’s more about vision than materials, though it’s easy to get caught up in materials since they’re important. The vision is not ultimately about what you made, but about what you are trying to evoke and bring to life in the people who interact with what you made, together and individually.

I know that one reason I’m digging into spinning so intensely right now is that I’m going through this same process at work. As it happens, I have a huge project that’s been building up for six months, and starts today. The difference is, it’s being made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Among other things, that is the only reason I’m not a train wreck of a human being. Talk about intention, creativity, and letting go, in the context of community: I do my part, I have lined up all my ducks, but what actually happens is entirely out of my control.

Parenting is like that too. I’m not a teacher, but I would guess teaching, mentoring, management, leadership, share a lot of that resonance. These probably true any time your ultimate goal is about people, rather than things. Connections are what make us and motivate us.

So I’ve had a connection, and that’s reconnecting me with spinning. I’m almost reminded of the heady days when I first discovered The Yarn Harlot, and she set me off spinning and blogging with a passion. I hope the connection is strong enough to make the spinning stick this time. Send up a prayer for me as I do something similar at work.

What about you? Do you find that’s true? What do you love to do now, for fun or work, because someone inspired you personally? Was it an individual, a community, or both? Do you still have those connections?

P.S. I know most of my readership is family, friends, and fellow knitters, but if you’re a spinner reading this, would you give a wave in the comments? I have been very open about the fact that I am learning; if you see I am using the wrong term or doing something dumb, I do welcome your feedback. I probably wouldn’t if you were commenting on, say, my parenting style. But, living three thousand miles from the nearest spinner’s guild, I’m happy to rely on that more charitable corner of the Interwebs that is the Online Spinning Social Scene!

Color Study, Self Study

This crazy thing happened to me last week. I was sitting down for a little knitting break while Jared was watching the kids on our day off, and I wanted some light reading while I redid that wonky square on the Mitered Magnificence. Maybe it was the nine colors of mohair on my lap, but I found myself reaching for this.

I skipped the chapter on color theory – I’ve read all that before, I thought – and skipped to a chapter I thought would be tactical for my stash: spinning multi colored yarns from hand-painted roving.

In the next 45 minutes, I had my mind completely blown, did a mental stash dive, and hatched a ridiculous plan for experimenting with and expanding my experience with both spinning and color. More on that another day.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, Saturday morning, when we had the girls situated for a bit of painting, and Jared was out on an errand, I found myself pulling out their new Crayolas and messing around.

Primaries and secondaries below; tertiaries on top. It helps that Crayola has a solid sample to work with in their 24-pack.

Primary and secondary split complementaries on top; on the right, tertiary complementaries and tertiary split complementaries. Not sure all that verbage is quite right, but it sounds fancy, doesn’t it?

The truth is, without really reflecting on it, I had dismissed color theory as at once too simple and too overwhelming. Too simple because, whenever I tried to read about it, it seemed like I was just reading about the color wheel. I mean, I know what a color wheel looks like; is that really all there is to know? And I had learned the vocabulary of primary, tertiary, split complementary etc. But then I see these color combinations in other people’s designs that I never would have considered in a million years, and I love them. Like the latest post on ravelry about grey and yellow. (Scroll down a titch; it’s from Jan 17th.) I figured I just lacked whatever kind of intuition produces that kind of idea, and trusted there would always be the ideas of others to draw from.

My Saturday morning Crayola epiphany was this: I understand the math of the color wheel. That is not how you learn color theory.

When N had painted a few interpretations of “Twinkle twinkle little star,” consisting in a floral scene with a star and a diamond in the sky, she asked what I was doing. Her response was, “I want to do a color study!”

So, paints cleaned up, and little sister playing with suspicious quietness in the next room, we did color studies together. She would put together some colors that I’d never have thought of, I’d love them, analyze what she did, then put together every possible combination of that color relationship.

The above are her scribbles; I particularly liked the red, pink, and green-yellow combination. I explored the possibilities of that combination below: complementary tertiaries plus one analogous hue.

Then she drew a shape and started filling it with stripes, calling it a “color practice.” So I tried that, drawing a losenge and trying some combinations I’ve e been thinking about for sweaters.

You see, you don’t learn color theory by reading about it. You learn by playing with the actual colors. And of course, when I went back later and started reading Ms. Menz’s chapter on color theory, that’s the first thing she says. I’ve just never been ready to listen.

 

I have this problem. You can see it in my Crayola experiments.

This is the work of someone who is trying to analyze something.

I get this idea that if I can get the whole big picture in my head, understand the ideas, I can control it. I can figure out what I want, and produce the results I want. Diligence in experimenting is good, but the problem is, when I think like this, I lose the ability to explore. Take risks. Do crazy things and see what happens.

It’s this weird dichotomy in my head between being creative and being intentional. In order to be creative, I relax, but am only willing to put in a limited amount of experimentation and repeated effort. (I almost never re-knit things, for example.) I’m willing to be intentional and work hard, but the only way I know how to do that is by being very controlled and analytical, and then I can’t be creative. I can see that I have to put those things together: apply myself to learning what I don’t understand, as analytically as necessary, and open up to explore and take risks and try unexpected things – at the same time. You know … like you do when you play. At least that explains why my kid is so much better at it than me! That’s being a kid – playing around at things you’re not good at yet.

Sounds like something that would help in the rest of my life and ministry, too. Not just my crafting.

What about you? Do you ever learn about yourself through your crafting? Or, if you have kids, have you been learning about yourself through them lately?

Fall Colours

I do miss my trees, most of all during fall. The season of turning leaves reminds me, every year, that there is no way to freeze a moment of perfection, no ownership of beauty, and all things are passing away. But up here, the warm seasons are all so short that I still have seasonal access to that heartbreaking sensation of fleeting joy. For example, this week it’s fall.

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Fall (I can’t get it straight whether it’s aujaq or ukiuksaaq – those words might have more to do with the movement of animals than what the landscape looks like, so I’m just going to call it “fall” for now) seems really busy. The weather is cooling, but it’s not cold, the summer rains are still over and the October gloom hasn’t totally set in yet. So there’s lots of “one last” trips, boating or camping.

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Much to the delight of us not-yet-hunters, all the things that grow on the tundra are ready to be harvested now, too. Berry-picking expeditions are the best. The girls and I have been out a couple times, and when we went out last week, I remembered my camera.

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This time we mostly found cranberries (above), and a few blueberries (below). They are smaller than their southern counterparts, maxing out at 3-4 mm in diameter, but just as tasty. I made blueberry muffins last week, and this week the cranberries went into our baked oatmeal, which was perfect. There are also crowberries (seedy and a little weird; last year I used them instead of currents in a quiche), cloudberries (which I have yet to find), and bearberries (which it turns out you don’t eat, though evidently they don’t kill you).

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Reason #1 that I did not bring back many berries this time.

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And the fall colors? (Excuse me: colours.) They’re all there. You just have to zoom in. There are no trees, but walking over the reds and oranges and purples and yellows makes me feel like I’m walking over the forests of a million fairies.

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Life finds a way: every streamlet is full of mosses and algaes. And therefore looks just as if fairies are hiding everywhere.

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I’ve had to tweak these pictures significantly – partly because I have no idea what I’m doing with my SLR (still), so my pictures came out all washed out. But also, when you’re out there, so used to rocks and grey, the colors look so much brighter than an objective camera can record.

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Reason #2 I did not bring back many berries this time: Little Miss Intrepid left us berry-pickers behind and took off for the top of the mountain.

This was also a first outing for my mushroom bag. I finished it, what… two years ago? Searching for that link shows me it was almost three years ago. Wow. It was the first project in my knitted through Lord of the Rings via the patterns of Susan Pandorf, and it turned out rather skewed since I was not smart enough to felt my swatch. Most of my projects in this series have run into major problems: scarves too long or too short, yarn issues, etc. and the ones that have worked out are mostly too fancy to be practical or I’ve given them away. (Not a bad problem, that last.) It’s made me stop and think a lot more about my projects, take my time, think things through, rather than rushing through every experience so I can consume the next one. Life is like a box of chocolates, not a tube of Pringles. This is one of many experiences in the last several years that has massaged me in the direction of the former approach.

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Still, I hung onto that beautiful bag, slightly misshapen though it was, and last week it was just right to carry a camera case and berry containers. I’m so glad that I did. How little did I suspect, when I was blocking this piece, that its first outing would be on arctic tundra? That the little sample bags I knit to go with it would be adopted by the at-the-time baby, who would fill them with dried a’aasaaq flowers and arctic cotton?

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Life’s a funny old thing. I am impatient by nature, so I’m glad, in the end, when I’m forced to stop and pick the berries.

On Sports Metaphors and the It Factor

It’s all over.

The dash to the finish line was a crazy one, and I want to tell you all about it after we have a proper photo shoot. While BrownSands is blocking, though, let’s talk about sports.

Because I have been watching a lot of sports.

I caught medal events in athletics, badminton, basketball, canoe slalom and sprint, BMX biking, mountain biking, road race cycling, track cycling, diving, horsies jumping, football, golf, gymnastics, trampoline, handball, rowing, swimming (ugh so much swimming), synchronized swimming, taekwondo, table tennis, triathlon, volleyball, water polo, and freestyle wrestling. I also caught plenty of beach volleyball, boxing, fencing, field hockey, judo, rugby, tennis, greco-roman wrestling and a few short recaps of archery, race walking, marathon swimming, sailing, shooting, and rhythmic gymnastics. The only sports I missed entirely were the marathon, time trial cycling, dressage, modern pentathlon, and weightlifting.

My sport-spotting table. At least I didn't make my own spreadsheet.

My sport-spotting table. At least I didn’t make my own spreadsheet.

I watched athletes throwing, lifting, jumping, running, working together in teams, working alone as individuals, competing head to head, competing side by side, strategizing, freezing up, faltering, pushing ahead, falling behind.

As I watched, I noticed that one thing all these athletes had in common was not only excelling in physical achievement, but dealing with pressure. It’s one thing to be the best, but it’s another thing to deliver on the Olympic stage – which is very much a stage. Just to make it there, most of them have to have a certain something about them. An “it factor,” if you will. This is especially noticeable among those young things who achieve the unimaginable, because they aren’t old enough to believe the old codgers who tell them what’s not possible. But it’s also true among the old guard who come back to their third or fourth Olympics, even if they never place. And of course, among the greats, who become legends across nations, points of connection as we behold what is possible.

So how do they do it? How do they deal with the pressure? Here is my speculative analysis: This “it factor” consists in two main things: practice and confidence.

The practice part is obvious. You can only rely on being as good as your worst day. And no matter how much raw talent you have, it’s repetition of the basics that creates the soundness you can fall back on. It’s physical development, with a touch of the psychological, because then you can trust your body to know what to do.

The confidence is interesting, though, because that’s purely psychological. In order to hold up under the enormous pressure to perform, you need some kind of sense of your own value which is outside your performance.

A solid sense of self can come from a solid upbringing, but it can also come from a relationship with Jesus. I think that’s why we see a few Christian athletes showing their maturity in how they speak about faith and sport, like swimmer Maya DiRado and wrestler Helen Maroulis. (You should totally go read their stories as they are way more interesting than me. But I’ll wait up if you decide to come back. You back? Great! As I was saying,) If we see strong believers doing well at sport, it’s not because God gives them special prayer-answering bonuses. It’s that being a child of God gives them peace in who they are, that they are loved no matter what, and that their future is secure in his hands. That’s what makes the grace of God so powerful: you don’t earn God’s love by performing; God’s love gives you the freedom to do good, to do all that you were meant to do. The fact that this allows some athletes to compete with confidence is, to them, a sort of side perk.

The reason this is all so fascinating to me is that, as a young athlete (ice skating), I most definitely did not have this “it factor.” I had a serious propensity to crumple under pressure, and I did not handle well the anxiety of competing – I just happened to also enjoy it, which is why I kept doing it. I did not have a strong commitment to practice; I didn’t understand why it was important, so I did the minimum and relied on talent and enjoyment to keep me improving at a modest rate. After all, I was mostly trying to have fun. And I did not have that confidence in myself outside my performance; I had parents who loved me and did not pressure me at all, but I crumpled under the criticism of my coaches. (I’m sure they were frustrated with me at times, which I can understand.)

Therefore, when it came to performing in competitions, I ended up feeling like my success was riding on luck. If I landed the first jump or two, I was elated, which sometimes gave me the confidence to land the rest. But if I missed one, I could rarely gather myself enough to execute the remainder.

So I have these intense memories of what it was like to be the bullet in the gun, for hundreds of hours to come down to 4 minutes on the ice, and for it to all fall apart. Sometimes it was great (and I loved performing outside of competition), but mostly it was really hard, and I didn’t have the maturity, either of understanding or commitment or emotion or faith, to make it into satisfying work.

That’s why it’s so incredible for me to watch these athletes, especially the young teens who just seem to get it. Yeah, the ones who make it happen so young must also have massive amounts of pure talent that is rare in itself, but they also worked their little buns off. But they still couldn’t succeed without the confidence. Canadian swimming phenom Penny Oleksiak seems like she barely takes the competition seriously, and I love that about her. Maybe part of why she’s so amazing is because she has no interest in deeply comprehending the massiveness of her achievement. Young things like her used to drive me crazy, because I was so jealous that they could do what I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why. Now I just admire them, since I’m old enough to be willing to learn from them.

I have a lot more solidarity with the athletes who are still coming back to the games in their 30s. They’re Olympic athletes, of course, while I feel good if I walk for fifteen minutes once a week, so my identification with them is largely metaphorical. But it’s only now, starting my fourth decade, that my confidence is leaving the theoretical and accompanying me into action. I’m not on a world stage, but I do have to stand and speak almost every week, so maybe that’s why this feels significant to me. And even if I weren’t in ministry, everyone has opportunities to put themselves out there, to take risks, to do great things that demand emotional maturity and calm confidence in who we are.

The confidence needs no metaphor; it’s the same across fields. The grace of Christ sets us free.

But the practice is a question. A practice routine when you’re training for a marathon is pretty well established. But what does practice look like for a Christian mom or dad? For a priest? For an engineer? For a poet? For a construction worker? Any ordinary churchgoer wanting to tell his co-workers about Jesus?

As for me, I identify pretty strongly with the multi-eventers: all the different races of housework and administration, the leaps of loving my children and husband and friends and neighbors and congregation, and the throwing of teaching in the pulpit and classroom and living room floor. I’d like to look into how they train, to see if I can learn anything about competence in several areas.

I’ll probably learn a lot from the cursory google I have going on in another window. But if I had to guess, most of their work is just being physically fit. Probably a fair amount of jogging, eating right, and getting enough sleep, then some division of time in running hurdles, throwing javelins, etc.

Paul dug this metaphor pretty hard. If you’re a Bible reader, the relevant passages have probably already leapt to your mind:
Hebrews* 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wealth, but we an imperishable.”
2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

This isn’t a sermon,** but here’s a brief summary of what I’m seeing in these passages:

  • Laying aside weight/Repentance from sin
  • Endurance
  • Self-control
  • Love
  • Eyes on Christ, who did it first

Hm. Some of that looks pretty familiar.

We read Galatians 5 in morning prayer today. I just skimmed it again, and found this lesser known running reference in v. 7: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” If you’re familiar with Galatians, you know it’s the book where Paul is most cheesed off (which is saying something). The Galatians are getting distracted by those “weights” and “sin that so easily entangles” mentioned in Hebrews 12. So Paul straight up lists what he’s talking about in vv. 19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” I.e. will lose the race. Then, in contrast, we get the very familiar list of fruits of the spirit, which also coincides with some of my bullet points above from some of the other race passages: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

I want to note this for a second. The fruits of the spirit passage is very, very familiar to many of us. But if you just look at the list, that list of virtues looks a little… wimpy. Doesn’t it? I once went to a talk by Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in which she noted that most of those Christian virtues have been stereotyped as feminine. You know, soft. If you read the list in isolation, you might think, yay, a Christian’s supposed to be a nice person, but GAWD how boring.

But, um, no. The context of this chapter shows that this is about the most freaking hardcore thing you could chose to do. (And, humorously, this is also the chapter in which Paul gets so frustrated with the folks arguing for circumcision that he says they’d wish they’d castrate themselves! Which would decidedly not be “masculine.”) Look at the list of crazy sins you have to throw off! If you’ve ever tried, you know how hard they cling to you! And the list is followed immediately by, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Crucifying the flesh is a metaphor for holiness right up there with hill repeats, or back-to-back 90km bike rides. “Keeping in step with the Spirit,” which is the subject the chapter concludes on, isn’t just a floaty feeling thing, it’s keeping up with a training coach who is pure love and knows exactly what is good for you, and will push you well past your limits to make you into the person who can win this race.

So we have something in common with Mo Farra when he said he was “putting my body through hell every day to do myself proud in Rio.” Paul pretty much said the same thing when he said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally “I pummel my body and make it a slave,” “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

I don’t know about you, but I was inspired by watching all these athletes push their bodies to the limit. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the greater good if you can throw a 4 kilo ball past 20 meters. But a painting doesn’t make a lot of practical difference either. A body at the peak of health, pushed to do extraordinary things, is a beautiful thing. It might even be called a glimpse of heaven, when our new bodies will be able to fly in the new heaven on earth, with no more sickness or pain.

If you’re like me, participating in that image directly is not in the cards right now. (Health and fitness are well and good, but they are NOT the idol that our culture is completely fixated on right now.) But we are not only able, but called, to participate in the race set before us, and run it in such a way as to win the prize.

So here are the questions I’ve been journaling about. If you want to do the same, be my guest. Everything’s better with running buddies.

What is my race?
-What am I trying to win?
-Big picture and small picture?
-Long term and short term?
-Combined score and events?
What entanglement do I need to throw off?
-Where am I running with my sweatpants still on?
-What sin am I still prone to?
-What is one thing on that list of weights do I need to work on throwing off this year?
What is my practice?
-What is one thing on that list of virtues do I need to work on this year?
-What is one way I can shift my daily practice to walk in step with Christ?
Where is my confidence?
-Do I believe God wants this for me?
-Do I believe God loves me no matter what?
-Have I embraced the gospel deeply enough to run with freedom from fear?

*Yeah ok Paul probably didn’t write Hebrews. But whoever wrote Hebrews definitely read a lot of Paul. And a good metaphor is a good metaphor, shown to be even better for being embraced by multiple Biblical authors.

**Well, it wasn’t meant to be a sermon, but it totally went there. But unlike a sermon, you don’t have to shake my hand afterwards; you can let me know in the comments how you think I’m full of it.