Archive for Lifestyle

The Melancholy Necessity of Autumn

Today I’m feeling a bit off. It’s November, which seems odd, and my body thinks it’s one hour later than my phone says it is due to the ridiculousness that is Daylight Saving. That means this week I’ll be hungry when I shouldn’t be and tired when I ought not be. Well, okay, to be fair I’m pretty much always tired (that’s the lot of an insomniac) so I can’t blame DST. Perhaps it’s more  a general sense of ennui after the busy pace of Halloween week. Too much work on the computer. Not enough reading. Or maybe it’s my cynical self doubting my district will flip, which will dishearten me yet again.

There is something a bit melancholy about this time of year that speaks to my soul. Perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favorite season, why Halloween speaks to me, why I feel most myself this time of year. Spring is beautiful, full of life and promise and hope in a way that is bound to disappoint. Then summer bleaches everything, and I melt in the too-bright sun. Winter where I live is all cold and no snow, little rain, just more cold, windy, sunny days. But Autumn – Autumn is crisp and cinnamon tea-scented, the time to dig fire logs out of the garage and boots out of the closet. It is a reminder that things can become the most beautiful in their last days, that the value of things can increase when we know they are short-lived.

Working with GriefShare this past year, and remembering the many losses of my life, has death on my mind these days. Not in a bad way, but in a “it’s going to happen to us all, to everyone we know and love” way. I am from a culture that does not handle death well. We don’t handle it at all, mostly, which does not work. For us, death is always a surprise, like we expect a different conclusion. We take care of our elderly until we can’t, then place them in homes where someone else handles death as it approaches. We have funerals as soon as possible, then expect the grieving to suck it up and move on quickly and quietly. We have little to no context for lament. We do not know the meaning of the word “keen” and we feel forever awkward with wailing.

Some cultures have assigned periods of time where the family wears all black, ceases work, where mourners weep over the open casket. Others have long parades alternating from joyous celebration of the lost one’s life to loud, communal sobbing. Some allow families to remember the lost ones once a year, every year, with photos, favorite mementos, food, and music. In some places, the entire town will show up at the local pub for the wake, telling stories for hours and hours, crying and laughing and drinking together.

But my culture is very orderly and clinical. People, if it can be helped at all, die in hospitals and care facilities. We have memorial services in churches with no casket present. We go back to work as soon as we are able because we can’t bear the free time, can’t be with our thoughts. There are no arm bands to mark the family so everyone knows. Black clothes are no longer required.

I think this is why I’ve always loved Halloween and have been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos since Ray Bradbury introduced it to me as a child. The thought that death is so close to life was somehow freeing, the idea that there can be days when we look death and darkness in the eyes and come out the other side alive and smiling.

I had a professor at university who taught about the human fascination with monsters that transcends cultures, and the psychology behind it. We must face death and darkness, evil and uncertainty, in stories so we can process these very real, very scary things behind the fictional ones from the safety of a book’s pages, which we can close, or a screen, which we can shut off.

G.K. Chesterton said “fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman puts it this way, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For me, Autumn provides a kind of sacred space for this processing. Halloween pushes us up closer to death and darkness than the rest of the year. The beautiful, yet ephemeral, turning of the leaves from green to yellow and red before they fall, leaving branches bare and skeletal inevitably leads the mind to think on the passing of time and the temporary nature of all living things.

Autumn is a thoughtful season, well-suited for pondering over large cups of tea and quiet conversations by the fire. It is subtle, and if purposefully ignored, easy to pass through untouched. But, if we stop and take it all in, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the melancholy just for a short while, we will come out all the better for it.

Jane Austen highlighted the sensibilities that only this season of Autumn can bring, as she writes about Anne Elliot, our heroine of “Persuasion.” Anne, the single old maid (thought not at all old), has no beau to walk with. Austen tells us, “her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, some lines of feeling.”

So these are my lines of feeling, meant to draw attention to that influence Autumn has “on the mind of taste and tenderness.” These are my lines to encourage you to lean into the melancholy, just a little bit, just enough to be reminded that true beauty is worthy of appreciation, death will come to all, and that Christ is our St. George – he has slain the dragon for us, so we no longer need to fear death.

Scattered Thoughts for September

I’ve been feeling a bit scattered, which is normal for the first couple weeks of the school year. That’s my excuse for missing last week’s blog. And for this week’s disjointed list. I’ve been doing a bit too much.

I have been experiencing more joy and less cynicism these past two years since actively adjusting my priorities to this new phase of my life. Philippians 4:8-9 is endlessly helpful in this endeavor. In it, Paul tells the church, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In keeping with this, today’s blog post will be dedicated to a few of the moments of joy experienced by The Awkward Spinster this month, as I pretend autumn is here:

(I actually prefer chai lattes.)

Spending an afternoon at The Original Farmers Market in LA with mum, as we have done my whole life. Eating BBQ pork sandwiches from Bryan’s Pit Barbecue, checking out the toys at Kip’s Toyland, and stocking up on fall things from World Market.

Meeting with 5 other women of God to pray for our broken world, our broken country, over tea and cake. Sick of summer, we turned up the AC slightly, got out scarves for everyone, lit autumnal candles, and switched from iced tea to our favorite hot tea.

Participating in many theological and political discussions with intelligent, godly, and compassionate family and friends as we try to sort through what the heck is going on in modern evangelicalism. Finding comfort in the fact that there are others who are not happy with the latest attack against social justice creating a false dichotomy with the gospel.

Completing a complete inventory of both the elementary and middle school libraries and realizing our migration to the new computer system went more smoothly than we’d hoped.

Swinging by the comic book store on new comic Wednesday to pick up the newest journey into Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe with “The Dreaming.”

Night swimming in a friend of a friend’s pool, all by myself, as I was house-sitting.

Wiping away the tears of a little boy who could not find a book he wanted to read that was at his level, when his friends were mostly in higher ranges. Seeing his face light up with glee as I handed him just the right book for both his range and tastes.

Eating adorable and delicious peach gummy candy shaped like hedgehog paw pads that my sis-in-law brought back from her trip to the Japanese market.

Starting up a new session of GriefShare as co-leader, with some old and new participants who are courageous enough to be vulnerable in the midst of their grief. Seeing God’s word pour out comfort and hope even after just a couple of weeks. Having these dear souls allow me to sit with them in the toughest of times.

Feasting on a delicious dinner with old friends and acquaintances becoming friends in West LA at Farmshop, where one of my besties is the brilliant pastry chef. Going from 103 temperatures to 68 degrees and foggy for the night made it finally feel like fall.

(Oops, wrong Foggy.)

Hearing the joyous cry of “Auntie Fawn!” as my little 5-year-old nephew came to visit me in my library. Helping his mom pick out two incredible children’s books to relish: Frederick by Leo Lionni and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Hankes.

Finally getting a Skype date with one of my Colorado cousins to talk about transitioning back to life stateside one year after her return from L’Abri, and two years after mine.

Twirling, my fall-colored kimono puffed out from the flurry of movement, as my 4-year-old niece danced circles around me in her slightly-too-small pink ballet slippers. My sister, her mother, watching us from the couch, laughing.

Helping my friend in Malawi apply for grad school in the States by toggling back and forth between Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and the school’s website on our respective smartphones across the world from each other. Getting to praise the Lord with him before he headed out to church and I drifted off to sleep.

Receiving photos of my Russian friend’s new baby daughter, also via WhatsApp.

Sleeping in on the weekend to recover from my insomniac self’s lack of sleep now that school has started up again. Looking down to the foot of my bed to see my little westie curled up there, keeping me company.

Teaching myself how to program Google Docs to automatically insert an em dash when I want it to—thank you, Interwebs!

(Respect, from one Dash to another.)

And that’s just September so far.

What moments have brought you joy so far this month?

Not Everything is Terrible

Looking back over my blog, I realize that I often highlight the negative. If you only know me through this blog, you definitely see my struggles and my cynicism, but I’m not sure if you can see my joy. Perhaps joy is actually more difficult for someone like me to express in blog form because there can be something so ineffable about it, something hard to put my finger on.

After struggling through my last bad bout of depression two years ago I made some radical changes in my life (which I explain in my first ever Awkward Spinster blog “Life, Episode VI”). One of the things which has really helped change my outlook is learning to consciously realize not everything is terrible, and to actually put in work to change my focus from all the bad things to the good as well. For this pessimistic soul, this takes continual effort and does not come naturally.

Perhaps this shift in thinking doesn’t come naturally for you either, so I invite you to try out the following steps for a bit and see if they help. If you’re an optimist, that’s awesome, keep reading for tips for your not-quite-so-perky friends, or for the inevitable crash that will happen when things don’t turn out quite as brilliantly as you thought they would (Oops, my cynicism is showing a bit too much!).

So, here are the Awkward Spinster’s 4 steps to realizing that not everything is terrible:

Recognize the Excellent Times

Philippians 4:8 tells us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

But how can we think on these things if we don’t even realize they’re happening? In the midst of hard times, it can be difficult to see past our struggles. The first step I have to take to overcome my pessimistic mind is first to even recognize that truth that not everything actually is terrible, no matter how much it might feel like it is. I must pay attention to and acknowledge the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things as they happen.

Last Monday, I got to spend an evening with two of my best friends. As we sat on the patio drinking good wine, eating good food, and talking I realized that for once, all three of us were happy. At the same time! For a few years now, we’ve each gone through some tough times personally, physically, and professionally, but in this moment we were all doing well. Instead of letting that realization pass by, I acknowledged it out loud. Somewhat incredulously, with a huge grin, I asked them “Wait a second, are all three of us actually happy with where we’re at right now?” They responded with big smiles as we toasted this precious moment.

You see, the three of us have picked each other back up from hard times, encouraged one another, and prayed with and for each other time and time again. It was important for us to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment, to not let it slip past.

It’s also helpful for me, when trying to see the good things in life and not just the bad, to celebrate the excellent times in the lives of others as well. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” I’m pretty good at weeping with those who weep, but we also need to rejoice with our friends and family in their good moments!

My little niece is so excited about birthdays and Christmas, pretty much any opportunity for gifts to be opened. But when my nephew had a little graduation party, she struggled to enjoy it in its entirety because she didn’t know how to rejoice with him when he was being celebrated instead of her. She is just beginning to learn the freedom and excitement of being genuinely happy for others’ good fortune instead of giving in to jealousy.

I have found soul-deep joy in the marriages and children of my dear friends, even though God has chosen not to give them to me. Enjoying when lovely things happen to those around us, even if things aren’t particularly great in our lives at the moment, can help us see past ourselves and remember there is good. Instead of feeling sad or bitter when we’re stuck at home while a friend goes on a lovely vacation, our love for them can lead us to feel happiness on their behalf, which spills over into our own lives.

Linger in the Sweet Moments

Once we recognize that we are, indeed, in the midst of a particularly sweet moment, we can do our best to linger in it. This isn’t always possible, as some moments of grace and goodness are fleeting. But I’m actually starting to realize that, even in the midst of my busy days, I have the ability to pause a little longer and change the course of my day ever so slightly by lingering in these moments of joy.

When we recognize that good things aren’t always big things, then even pausing on the walk from the car to the classroom to look up to the sky can help change my focus. After all, Psalm 19:1 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

I blogged a bit about my quest to find more beauty in life, and once I’ve found those moments I’m trying to stay in them a bit longer. I’m an efficient worker, so this takes practice for me. It can feel wasteful or hedonistic at first – but it is necessary and life-giving, bringing glory to God and peace to our souls.

This Sunday afternoon, my mom invited my brother, his wife, and son over after church for lunch. She told them that I needed to blog, so probably wouldn’t be able to stay outside with them for very long, but they were welcome to stay as long as they liked. But the minute we set up the little paddling pool and Benji jumped in with glee, my heart was filled with incredible joy.

Several times I tried to head back in to my desk to work on this post, but I kept ending up back outside with the family, laughing with my sweet boy as he splashed around with sheer joy. Instead of stressing me out because I didn’t get my writing done when I’d planned on it, I came back to my laptop after they’d gone, inspired and refreshed. Prioritizing that beautiful time, choosing to linger outside, helped change my perspective.

Be Grateful for all Good Gifts

Acknowledging and extending beautiful moments should naturally result in feelings of gratitude. Interestingly, even if these feelings don’t come naturally all the time, we can develop them with practice. On joyous occasions, our gratitude should bubble out of us like children at Christmas who can’t stop thanking their parents for getting them exactly what they wanted even though they weren’t sure they’d get it.

James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Each moment of beauty, each time of rest, each bit of peace we experience, each laugh and smile – these are all gifts from God.

When I watch my little nephew giggle with such pure glee from splashing in the water, when I see my brother and his wife laughing with him and experiencing so much pleasure watching him have fun, I am overcome by gratitude to God for giving us this moment.

As we recognize awesome times, and try to linger in them a bit longer, our gratitude should extend to others as well as God. By stopping to thank my mom for making us lunch and getting the little pool, it helps me appreciate the thought and effort she put in to making this day happen. By thanking my friends for having me over after a long day of work, making me drinks and cooking for me, I’m noticing even more little things which were gifts that night.

I’m learning that a heart filled with gratitude is a bit less easily darkened by depression.

Remember the Not-Terrible Things

My last tip is to fix all these little joy-filled moments in your mind to remember when things do get terrible again. Because they will. That’s not the cynic in me speaking, it’s the reality of this world. And for those of us prone more to negative thinking or even depression, it’s easy in the hard times to forget the good, it’s easy to feel like things will always be this bad. This is when we must preach the truth to ourselves over and over again – after all, Philippians 4:8 begins by telling us to think on “whatever is true,” it is the first thought on which all else hangs. And the truth is that God is good and he loves us.

If we’ve rehearsed thinking on these things – the times in our lives he has given us good gifts of children’s laughter, majestic skies, good meals with friends, an endless array of beautiful things both big and small – then in our darker moments we can remind ourselves that not everything is terrible, even if it feels like it is.

Psalm 116:5-7 states “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Our souls can return to rest in these memories instead of letting the negative ones swarm over us completely.

These steps aren’t the magic bullet to contentment and happiness, there is no such thing. But they’ve helped me through the past couple of years. They’ve helped me this Sunday, as I struggled once again with trying to fit into a church family, yet ended up feeling like the bastard child yet again. Even now, I can choose to spend my mental energy replaying the difficult time I had this morning, or Benjamin’s laugh.

Not everything was terrible today, after all.

*The fabulous “Not Everything Is Terrible” bandana pictured above was a gift from a dear friend, and was designed and screen printed by artist Janine Kwoh. You can find her fabulous work for sale at her Etsy shop: kwohtations

A Scattered Mind

It’s a rainy day in the desert, an experience made all the more beautiful by its rarity. And I’m having trouble focusing my thoughts to settle on one topic for this blog. These past couple weeks I’ve felt – SCATTERED.

My mind, like a butterfly, flits from thing to thing, alighting on one only for a moment before winding its way to the next. Laundry, school shootings, dream tattoo designs, my data entry job, taxes, blogging, book club, my tutoring job, the windshield wipers on my car, some necessary correspondence I keep putting off, my librarian job, Russian hackers, feeding the dog, the current state of Biblical Counseling, the Agatha Christie book I’m trying to finish, civilian lives in Syria, my new church, plans for spring break in a few weeks, Trump’s ceaseless tweets, doctor’s appointments, prayers for friends, doggy snuggles, conversations with mum, that poem I heard two days ago, gun control in relation to suicide & domestic violence, texts from friends, the gorgeous grey clouds outside my guest room office window . . . an endless stream of thoughts.

How do I UN-SCATTER? Is that even possible in modern American life?

I’ve listened to two different blogs about rest, honoring a Sabbath, and they have been filled with great ideas. Yet my mind has already added their suggestions to my infinite to-do list.

Often, when I feel this way, I just want to hibernate. Not face reality. Curl up in bed in cozy pjs, with a nice cuppa tea and a good book. Instead of doing that, today I am tackling that to-do list one entry at a time using my 2-highlighter system of prioritization. Blogging was in pink, so here I am trying not to half-ass it too badly. I already did my laundry and finished my latest invoice for one of my jobs, texted a couple friends, looked out the window, and snuggled the dog, so stuff’s getting done.

Next up – a cup of tea and taxes.

How do you un-scatter?

A Christmas Adam Ramble

Each vacation I have the goal of spending at least one day at home in my pajamas. Being sick in bed, as I was for the beginning of my time off this holiday season, does not count. So, today, Christmas Adam 2017, appears to be that day and I couldn’t be more excited. Let’s hope nothing comes up that will require me to put on clothes that do not involve elastic waistbands and cozy slippers.

I haven’t blogged for a couple weeks due to the aforementioned illness, still having to work both at the library and my tutoring job, and my usual battle with feeling pressure about what to write. But today I feel like blogging just for the fun of it, and I have given myself permission to do so. You see, in the past, I have always written a well-thought-out formal blog post each week and, to be honest, sometimes I just don’t have it in me. So I’ve decided to allow myself some more casual, off-the-cuff blogging from time to time. Feel free to let me know how you feel about this, dear awkward reader.

I do have a couple things on my mind about which to ramble.

First is how much I have been enjoying trying to observe Advent with my mum this year. As a single person, I honestly hadn’t seriously considered doing a nightly or even weekly Advent. Most churches I’ve gone to offer lessons you can do with your children, or other such family-oriented things, so I guess I sort of thought it didn’t really apply to me. But this year, mum and I decided to give it a go just the two of us. To be honest, since I got sick and then she got sick as I was starting to get better, we’ve missed more nights than we’ve done it. Still, when we’ve had the chance, we’ve truly enjoyed following along with “The Advent Project” by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts.  It combines art, poetry, music, scripture, and a devotional for each day of the Advent season, and it’s beautiful. We’re also enjoying lighting the candles in our Advent wreath and opening the windows in our traditional German Advent Calendar we picked up in Solvang earlier this year, like we did when I was little. Any other singles out there trying to observe Advent as well this year? How about families? What’s working for you?

Next, I’d like to talk about one iteration of my ongoing struggle with hope. Each and every day for several months, I’ve been entering the Hamilton Lottery hoping that this will be the day I’ll win the opportunity to buy two $10 tickets to see a show I’ve been obsessed with since it opened on Broadway. Instead, each day I am told “Sorry you did not win this lottery.” Sigh. I must admit, it’s wearing me down a bit. And in my mind this has become a metaphor for my cynical little self. I started out a very optimistic child, and then was worn down over the years into the current version of Fawn who finds the idea of hope a daily battle of the heart and mind. Yet I keep entering the lottery, knowing I won’t win, and, by the grace of God alone, I’ll keep hoping in Him. This year was better on that front than last year, and I actually have hope that next year I’ll continue my slow crawl away from total pessimism.

Should I make that my New Year’s Resolution? To continue working on hope? I think that might be setting myself up for too high a fall. I’m not one to pretend serious, deep, life-changing New Year’s Resolutions like improving myself spiritually, or even dieting or exercising daily are practical as most studies suggest they fail by February. I mean, I’ve had some incredibly successful years, but those years my resolutions were to Watch More Television (after I graduated from college and finally had time to catch up on shows) or Drink More Wine (when I was in my last 20’s and trying to develop a more mature palette instead of just enjoying dark ales) or Learn About Whisky (in my early 30’s when I developed said palette even further) or Read More Books (many a year has happily met this challenge). I feel like Learn How to Hope is a much more elusive goal. Your thoughts? Any New Year’s Resolutions for you?

And the other thing I wanted to mention is that I liked “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I realize this might make some of you no longer want to read my blog, as it is a divisive issue among the geek world. Many a friendship is in the midst of violent feuding over this very explosive issue. However, I am still willing to be friends with those of differing opinions. After all, not everyone can have taste as impeccable as mine. If you’d like to comment back about this, please leave all comments spoiler-free for those poor souls who haven’t yet had a chance to see the latest star war.

Right, how do you feel about my less formal, more stream-of-consciousness, blog? Is this something you’d be ok with now and then in the future of the Awkward Spinster, or should it just be a one-off we can chalk up to my still-slightly-stuffy head?

If you’re interesting in reading more serious blogs about the holiday season, you can check out a couple I wrote for my beloved former church, Cornerstone West LA, when I was on their writing team: “Holidays Help Us Number Our Days” and “Not So Happy Holidays“.

Happy Christmas to all of my dear readers, even the ones who didn’t like TLJ.