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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Stay-At-Home Blues

More and more of us these days are finding ways to stay at home. And once upon a time, the opportunity of staying at home to WORK and earn a living was a new concept that I can call nothing less than a God-send for me.

I made the transition to work from home in 1999. At that time, my career was going full-throttle. I had a secure full-time job that I was pretty good at. I knew my business ins and outs very well. And our company, while not free to be boundless in creativity due to a surplus of capital, was at least adventurous and young enough and seeking out the techie options to be among the first to move key employees off-site to home, rather than risk losing them because of transitions in life.

So when my daughter Emma was born, I was a delighted new Mom, and the way was paved for me to keep my responsibilities at work, keep my paycheck, keep my position, keep my mental engagement, AND be home with my new baby all the time. By phone and email and the amazing ability to run reports and print them out an arm's reach from my more-than-capable assistant who stayed in the office, I had the best of both worlds: stay at home mom and career manager of a business I loved.

Now, 13 and a half years and three more kids later, I still work from home. But the job has changed and the circumstances have changed. The older kids are busy and in school now (after a VERY difficult season of trying to homeschool three at one time, with different learning styles and different attitudes, and my own sense of purpose and optimism eroding day by day, until eventually, it became clear to me I was not equipped to both teach adequately and enjoy life with my children in that context. Now I consider a college-prep, academically sound, well-integrated K-12 Christian school to be the God-send). I am no longer in a management position because the division of the company I started with has been sold, and subsequently, shut down. I now do pure editorial work, and that means very little interaction with the others on my team. A conference call twice a week and a few well-focused emails are the limit of our interaction.

The gilded memory of the first work-from-home situation has certainly tarnished for me. And the days that pass in this very same context, this same house with these same drapes and these same dull views, the vacant houses (because all their tenants are at work or school), the empty streets, the quiet hum of hot water heater and gas logs...the days are heavy. And the days are lonely. The gilded option of the early stay-at-home pioneer, the woman who could do it all, is replaced with the weight of the lost community. With forced isolation.

I am lonely.

It's more than a state of mind, I think. Though I do not deny that I am at once hereditarily programmed, personally hard-wired, and environmentally conditioned to need human interaction more than some of you do, I say that and simultaneously adhere fully to the Both/And principle here: I need interaction. It's a condition that can be mitigated somewhat by training the mind to accept circumstances, but I do not believe it can be completely affected. There's a human need for community and common purpose. And that community and commonness of purpose is absent for me. The fuel I need to work well by myself is inadequate to keep me feeling engaged and content in isolation.

I have temporarily suspended the use of social media for this first month of the New Year (if it takes that long), because I need to accomplish some pretty big deadlines: a magazine to get to the printer and a major essay to write. I also hope to establish some good sleep patterns for myself, so that I am better able to make use of my time as well as cope with the ups and downs of life. But the distracting buzz of the Facebook News Feed in the background was the closest thing available, I think, to offer a counterpart to the footsteps from the office next door to the break room, or the sound of the other young person tromping down the hall and leaping to smack the EXIT sign before bounding down the stairs from my hall dorm to the student lounge below. Activity buzz from the past, pleasantly distracting and letting me know that I was still part of the world, even if moderately sequestered at the time.

So today, it sunk in. This creeping feeling of being closed off from the world around me, here in this one spot for most of the day, pressing keys clackety-clack on the laptop that applies less than two pounds of pressure to my thighs. My senses are underused. Seven billion people in the world, and how many will I see or talk to today? Tomorrow?

I sent out a call for help: the silent dispatching of a single email with three recipients generated one very alive phone call from my emergency first-responder. God, thank you for that. The apocalypse has not happened. There's still life out there, at least in Alabama. I'm no Legend and neither, really, is my friend in Alabama (though I suppose that depends on who you ask), but the relief of a friendly human voice who either really likes me or does a great job of pretending he does so stoked me back up to stable status and the ability to rise, stretch, pace a little, and find a reason to put on some lipstick and run a comb through the Merida-like locks that hadn't had such treatment yet today.

So, I realized it. I truly have it: the stay-at-home blues. I don't know that this will work for me forever. It filled a need for a season, but it became such a phenomenom that now, most workplaces actively seek for ways to keep their employees off site. Cut the rent. Cut the overheads. Shrink the parking lots. Reduce the coffee and bottled-water bills. And for some, it's a perfect arrangement. The work attire budget shrinks as does the gas-tank budget. The flexibility to manage hours around kids' schedules and to run errands during the work day can be a plus, as is moving a load of dirty laundry from the washer to the dryer at lunchtime, or taking a run mid-day without having to worry about offending with the odor or image of old sweat afterward. But I don't think I can do it. I need the vibrant interaction and the changing scenery of being out and among others.

For me, life opened up when I went to college. Lonely and always feeling a little like I didn't belong in the social circles of my preteen and teen years, I took on a challenging major in college that thrust a select number of us into tight quarters for most of our days and nights. I was desperately busy and confined primarily to one of two major spaces: my own drawing board in the studio, overlooking the drawing boards of dozens of others with whom I shared triangles and fine-quality pencil pointers and erasers often singing out loud together to the music the first arrival set to play when the hands on the clock reached 5:30 and our profs headed home to leave us to burn the midnight oil. Or I was in my own dorm room. There I worked on the floor facing the open door that led to the hall where traffic regularly tromped by, popping in for a hello or an invitation from time to time.

After college, I transferred much of that same type of environment to the workplace. Again, a desk or an office in the middle of the flow of other purposeful traffic. Life was whirling by, and my work was accomplished independent of but fully integrated with other people. Even if we didn't exchange much in the way of conversation at times, there was the implied community of individuals working toward a common goal, and needing the work of each other to get there. It was alive and vibrant. And life here at home is not.

At least today I came to understand why I have such difficulty staying here with only myself for company most of the time. At least the reason for my lack of contentment is identified. But don't be surprised if it's not too long before you see me, desperately crying out at the door of some office somewhere, like a farm cat climbing a screen, demanding, "Let me in! Let me in! I will work for fellowship!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holy Ghost Story #3

It's that time again. One more Holy Ghost story told at our all-family Advent gathering tonight.

If you are close enough to see me, you can tell what this is on my wrist. Who knows what this is? Yes, it's a bracelet. What kind of bracelet? A pearl bracelet, right. And see these: matching pearl earrings. Those are going to be important in this story. This is a Holy Ghost story, and it's also a prayer story.

This one began some years ago when I was in a Bible study led by Mrs. Drake. We were studying the book of Matthew. You know that the book of Matthew tells about Jesus' life. Remember that Jesus told stories? They were called parables. Well, in the book of Matthew there are two short parables recorded that kind of go along with one another. They're so short they are barely more than a sentence each. The first one says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure buried in a field, and when a man found the treasure he gave up everything he had to buy the field and own the treasure. That's what God is like: so important we should give up everything to know him. The second parable is like the first, but it turns things around. This one says the kingdom of God is like a merchant who finds a pearl of great value. The merchant wants the pearl so badly that he gives up everything to own it.

What we realized in that study is the the treasure refers to God, but the precious pearl refers to us. Jesus was like the merchant, who gave up everything when he died for us, in order to have us. Well that parable really impacted me. I mean, I knew that God was something wonderful and desirable, and that I should want him more than anything else. But I had really never realized that in God's eyes, I was also something wonderful and desirable, so that when he gave up everything to have me, it was because he really, really wanted to! That's how God sees us, as something really beautiful and desirable, so much that he would die for us. We are his precious pearls.

When I realized that, I got so excited by it that I talked about it and talked about it and talked about it for weeks. I told everyone I came across about this new understanding. So when Christmas that year came around, Mr. Cochrane (my husband) gave me these pearls as a gift, because the symbol of the pearl meant so much to me. And I loved the reminder that they are. So, remember that: precious pearls.

Now, on to the story. One time when we had a newborn baby (that would be Miriam), there was a party here at church. It was a luau. Do you know what a luau is? It's a Hawaiian party. It's lots of fun. It was outside on the lawn and I hadn't been out of the house in too long, so I really wanted to come. I got dressed up and I put on my pearls and we drove over here, and parked in the parking lot and walked through the building and out on the grass and talked to people. The Freelands were here then, and they were the ones giving the party. If you remember the Freelands, then you know they really liked to have fun, and at their parties, you don't sit around. You DO things. We talked and played games and did the limbo and had a buffet--which is a long table with food that you go to and then back to your seats. So we were all over this place for that party.

While we were there, Mrs. Perry told me a Holy Ghost story of her own. She said that she had been doing laundry recently--maybe even that day--and looked down to notice that the diamond was missing out of her ring. That's a very precious stone, like the precious pearl. She was just sure she had lost it forever, but she stopped right then and prayed, asking God to help her find her diamond. Then she went back to the laundry and found it--caught in the fabric of a piece of laundry. She was so thankful, and I was thankful for her!

After the party, we weren't quite ready to go home--well, I mean *I* wasn't ready to go home. So I rounded up about a half dozen more people and we went out downtown. We drove into downtown and parked, and we walked around town, and then we went to a tea house and had some tea together, and walked some more and then walked back to our cars and eventually went home.

When I went inside to take off my jewelry, though, I reached up to my pearl earring and found that one was missing! It had fallen off somewhere over the course of the night. I was so upset! My pearl was special and I thought of everywhere I'd been that night: East Asheville, North Asheville, in the building, in the parking lot, outside on the lawn, downtown--all over downtown, the tea house, the cars... How could I even know where to begin to look for that one tiny pearl earring in this whole city? I felt helpless. But I remembered Mrs. Perry's story and so I stopped right then, standing in front of my mirror, and prayed, "Father God, you know that this pearl means something to me. It reminds me of me and you. Please, God, I know you know where that pearl is. Would you please let me find it, like Jill found her diamond?"

And then I decided that all I could do was look around at home, because I couldn't go all over Asheville. I wasn't really expecting to find it, not really, even though I had prayed. But I went back out of the house, down the walkway to the driveway, and I opened the car door. And there, right on the front seat, in the very center of the front seat, as if it was just waiting for me, was my pearl earring. Right in plain sight.

And that's a Holy Ghost story.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holy Ghost Story #2

In keeping with our Advent tradition, we had another Holy Ghost story at our church gathering tonight. Here's the one I told the kids tonight:

This story is not only a Holy Ghost story. I also like to call it a friendship story. Sometimes the way God shows us his own love is to use good friends to share in it.

This story actually starts out as our Pastor Drake's story. Almost exactly two years ago, on a Wednesday night after Advent, he got some hard news. He found out that his dad had died. You know that was really sad for him. It is very hard when someone we love goes ahead of us.

Well, just a few months after that, my mother died. So Pastor Drake and I had a kind of similar thing going on at the same time. We were both experiencing sadness and learning how to do life again in a new way, while missing a person who had always been there--each missing one of our own parents.

When my mother died, I went to my dad's home and stayed there with him and my brothers for over a week. We were going through the papers my mother had left for us. She didn't want a funeral. All she wanted was for her family to get together and remember her with music. There was a piece of paper she had left and on it she had written a Bible verse from John, and then the name of a song. The song was called Whispering Hope.

At first, my brothers and dad and I just kind of looked at each other. The song name sounded kind of familiar, like something we ought to know. But we didn't recognize it right then. You see, that is a very, very old song. Do you know how old it is? It's older than radios. That song was written way back in 1868. That means the song is 144 years old! We had to look it up on the Internet, and we did find it. It starts out like this, "Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard..." It's a song about finding comfort in God while you wait through being very sad. It's a song about having hope. We copied off an mp3 and I think one of my brothers put it on a cd for my dad. For the next several days, we played the song a few times, so by the time I left to come back home to Asheville, I knew it pretty well.

So some time passed and I was trying to get back to normal life here at home. One day, I came up to the church during the day. I was talking to someone out in the hall, and Pastor Drake heard my voice. He came out of his office and said, "Hey, I heard you out here. Come here, I want to show you something." So I went back into his office with him, and he told me that his brother Jerry had been cleaning out some of his parents' things. Jerry had found a recording of their mom from long, long ago. She had sung a song and it had been recorded--and all this time the boys had never heard it. Pastor Drake said, "Listen to this! This is my mother singing!" and he turned on the music. And I heard his mother sing these words: "Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard..."

My eyes grew wide and I stopped to really listen. Was it the same song? It was! I started saying the next words along with her, and Pastor Drake was surprised. He said, "What is this? You KNOW this song?" Then I told him about my mom's paper and this song being on it. Now this is why I call this a friendship story as well as a Holy Ghost story: You know how sometimes when you are sad, it helps to have a friend to share with? Well, that's how this was. Pastor Drake is my friend. And he and I were sharing the same sort of sadness. So we sat there together, and we listened to his mother sing to both of us the very words my mother wanted us to know and remember when we thought about her leaving ahead of us. His mother sang to us about comfort and hope.

And I call that a Holy Ghost story!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holy Ghost Story #1

To read Miriam's miraculous birth story in its entirety, please follow this link.

Each year during Advent, our church has a series of all-family Wednesday night gatherings. One of the pastors has all the children (from toddlers to whatever age is too "cool" to go forward as a "kid" for story-telling and game-playing) gather around him down front. Advent candles are lit, and then, before an activity of some sort designed to light-heartedly explain the evening's theme, someone tells a "Holy Ghost" story in the dark.

A "Holy Ghost" story has to be a real event which happened to the individual speaking, or to a very close friend or relative. The best Holy Ghost stories are eye-witness accounts. The story recounts some unusual--some might call "coincidental"--event with a surprise at the end that makes us all go, "Oooooooo!" The idea is to show evidence of God working to orchestrate events in our lives. It's not to be disrespectful or flippant, as if to suggest that "God makes small talk." However, it is to point out possible examples of his involvement.

This year, I've been invited to tell one so far. I'm going to share that one with you here now. Tomorrow night, unless something more amazing and as-of-yet unknown is brought to mind, I will be sharing another. Then there's one more Advent gathering before Christmas. It is possible I'll get to share a third at that meeting too. As I do each, I will enter a new post here with the closest thing to a transcript I can provide.

This is how the story was told to the children around me, and the rest of the congregation in the pews.

Here is "Holy Ghost Story #1":

Miriam and Mrs. Weber

Some will remember how God blessed us by preserving the life of our little Miriam, now 7 years old, at her birth in July 2005. Something went wrong during delivery and she had to be born by an emergency surgery. The doctors and nurses thought they were too late. Miriam didn’t breathe and they had to put her on special equipment to make her lungs work.

The doctors at first said she wouldn’t live, but she did. God made her better and better every day. Soon she was breathing on her own, but the doctors thought she had gone too long without oxygen. They said her brain would never be right. They said she would be very sick and have trouble learning to do things other kids do easily.

When she was a baby, we had to take her to see special doctors every few weeks or months. The doctors would check her over and watch to see what she could do. Did she sit up on time? Could she use her hands correctly to pick up toys? Did she smile? Was her hearing good? They expected things to be wrong with her, so they wanted to watch her very closely.

We wanted what was best for her. If she needed a doctor’s help, we wanted her to have it. But all those doctor’s appointments were very, very expensive. We were running out of money to pay all the bills. But of course we wanted what was best for our little girl. So we took her to the first appointment. And then to the second.

At that second appointment, she was just beginning to sit up by herself. Three doctors sat in the room near her. They watched Miriam for 20 minutes. They watched her sit up by herself and eat Cheerios which were placed in front of her one at a time. And then they sent us home.

A week or two after that, I got a bill in the mail. It was for the appointment with three different doctors in the same room. It was for more than a THOUSAND dollars. Now we had been told that she should be seen every two months for about two years. Who can do good math here? How many times would we have to take her to the doctor? About 24 times. So how much money are we talking about? Right. About 24 Thousand Dollars.

Well, we decided we had to try something different to help our little girl. So I called my cousin in Alabama. She works with children who have special needs. I wanted to know what she thought we should do. She told me that there were services available through the government for Buncombe County. There were people who could watch Miriam and tell us if they saw anything wrong. Then we could find the kind of treatment she needed—if she needed anything at all. That was on a Friday. The office was closed, but my cousin even looked up the phone number for me. I was going to call them for an appointment on Monday.

That Sunday, we went to church. I was still wondering about our baby. "Miriam could sit up. She could reach for toys. She seemed normal to us. But how could we know for sure?" 

That Sunday was an elder group Sunday. That means we would meet in small groups after church to share a meal together. When we went to dinner at someone’s house that day, there was another family there. We had met the husband, Mr. Weber, before. But his wife and son had just moved to Asheville. It was the first time we had met them. I sat down at the table across from Mrs. Weber (or Katie). She was very nice. I introduced myself and asked her, “Katie, what do you do?” (That’s what grown-ups always say to each other when they meet: “What do you do?”) She said, “I work for Buncombe County. I do in-home visits to watch children who are at risk for developmental delays. I help their parents know if their children need a doctor to help them.”

I was shocked! I said, “I have your number in my purse! I was going to call you tomorrow about our baby Miriam!” But God knew better than that. He knew before I even made that phone call that he was going to send Katie Weber to our church, to our own elder group, and that she was going to sit across the table from me and tell me she would watch our Miriam for us. 

We never again had to have those expensive bills for people to tell us Miriam was OK. Every month, Mrs. Weber held Miriam and talked to her and watched her. She told me over and over again, “There’s nothing wrong with your baby. She is healthy.”

And she was right! God knew JUST WHAT WE NEEDED, and he gave it to us at just the right time! And that’s also what we call a “HOLY GHOST STORY!”


To read Miriam's birth story in its entirety, please follow this link.