Have a Habit You Want to Break?

Yesterday, I posted about New Year’s Resolutions. People who know me, and know of my propensity to run late for things, will think that I’m once again behind…posting about New Year’s resolutions on Feb. 1.

In reality, Chinese New Year begins on Feb. 10 this year, so this is actually a timely post for you to begin thinking about a new resolution you’d like to keep in your life. 

I have all sorts of ideas about habits I want to form and habits I want to break. Some of my habits are healthy. Others run the gamut from mildly bothersome to I-really-should-seek-out-a-12-step-program for this! But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about someone else. My daughter, for instance. 

Megan is quite simply a classic oldest child. She’s responsible. Self-motivated. A great student who’s also involved in everything under the sun from student government to knowledge bowl to the service organization Interact, and blah, blah, blah. I have very few complaints about the relatively easy job of parenting this kid except when she doesn’t eat. When Megan’s blood sugar dips, all of a sudden I have beast-girl for a daughter. 

She snarls. She snaps. And it takes me a few minutes to realize she has somehow missed a meal somewhere and is about to pounce and eat alive one of my other offspring/her siblings.  

It reminds me of the acronym HALT that my friend Bonnie, who’s a counselor, once taught me. Ask yourself: Are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If you are, it’s probably not the moment to make a major life decision, have a sensitive conversation, or even the right time to take an accurate assessment of things.  

Last summer, I read a fascinating book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg examines how we form and break habits in our lives. I recently came across a flowchart he created that looks at HALT a bit differently. 

Duhigg’s flowchart instructs you to figure out the cue when you feel the urge for a negative habit. What time is it? Where are you? Who else is around? What did you just do? What emotion are you feeling?  

Once you understand the cue, the next step is to figure out what “reward” the habit is satisfying. What are you really craving? Once you figure out what’s at the base of your habit, you can offer yourself a substitute reward or replace it with something new that satisfies the urge. 

Here’s a link to Duhigg’s flowchart teaching you how to create a new cue and reward loop to change a habit in your life. It’s interesting stuff. I’d write more, but I’m working on changing the cues and rewards for staying up too late at night…

Weighing That New Year’s Resolution

I’ve probably written about six posts since Thanksgiving. You didn’t see them? It’s because I wrote them in my head while driving or grocery shopping or exercising. I’ve mentally composed a few thoughts in the shower because warm water and soap inspire me.

It’s like that with most things. You have ideas. Intentions. Things you hope will happen. But ideas and intentions fall apart in the actual doing of something.

January begins, and by the end of the month (today), researchers say three-quarters of the people who created New Year’s resolutions have abandoned them. One month, and we’re paving the highway to hell, to mix my metaphors.

I was rather prosaic with my New Year’s resolution for 2013. It was as if I was on the set of Family Feud, and Richard Dawson was standing in front of me saying, “Name the top New Year’s resolutions Americans make each year.” I’m clapping my hands and shouting, “Lose weight” because I know it’s the #1 answer.

I’m challenging myself to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31, although I’m more interested in reaching that goal in a very doable 25 weeks.

It’s not a bad goal. It’s admirable to commit to better health, improve your diet, and increase your exercise. But it strikes me as a little boring. Sometimes I weigh things (yeah, pun intended) in terms of how my kids might look back and remember their growing up years. Will they remember when Mom lost 20 pounds. Maybe. Will it matter? Possibly, if it modeled for them the importance of good health.

It’s also possible that it’s a bit more about vanity and fitting into my size 2 clothes again…and that’s not a great message for my kids.

This evening, I read a story about Sarah, a woman who decided to host 500 people around her table in 2012. Meal by meal, she gathered friends and neighbors and people she didn’t know to join together at her table. Over the year, she hosted 27 parties, so that by Thanksgiving, she reached her goal of serving a meal to her 500th guest. No vague talk about “building community,” Sarah chose a concrete way to actually go out there and do it!

It’s such an incredible and amazing story. How much more fun to remember the year we invited 500 old and new friends into our home than to recall the year Mom dropped 20 pounds!

And so I’m counting up my plates along with my calories…planning some lean cuisine for the masses. Happy New Year!

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I’m supposed to be working on a final paper for one of my master’s classes today; an overall analysis of what’s worked and hasn’t worked on this blog. I have a cool table of the stories I’ve posted on here overlaid with traffic patterns and metrics of likes and shares.

Instead, my mind is on an email I received from my friend John’s wife today:

This morning at 6:32 a.m., John died in my arms. A few days ago, our hospice nurse (affectionately known as “Rachel the nurse”) told us that he would not last much longer. So his last days were spent with our whole family, lots of loving visitors, gorgeous notes, tearful Facebook messages, and precious time laying on our bed together. Last night, we sang hymns and prayed for John and ALL OF US in our bedroom, surrounded by dimly lit candles, tons of Kleenex, close friends, hope-filled hearts, and the peaceful presence of God.

It happened just today but it seems like so long ago. As for me, I am doing alright. In fact, John said last night that I have been “a trooper.” As I woke Jake up this morning with the news about his dad, he said “I’m sorry, Mom. You know we are gonna be OK, right?” Rachel knew why I was waking her up a bit early, but she smiled and said, “He is not suffering anymore, so I am very happy.”

I hate that this has happened to our family. I want God to bring good out of this, and I have asked Him for that. By some of your notes to me, I think He is doing that. Please know how sad we are, but how hopeful we are that we will meet again, and that God is working this out for all of our good. I’m not exactly sure how or what, but I am trusting in His Word that this horrible chapter in our story has not escaped His notice. He’s not going to leave us hanging. Never has.

John is having his Thanksgiving Feast a day early….and it will last for all eternity. He probably ate a hamburger first! Having not really eaten ANYTHING for about 6 weeks, that man—that gorgeous, funny, admirable and courageous man—is enjoying so much….feasting on the beauty of heaven, the beauty of our Savior, the non-caloric food, and the fellowship of those who have gone before us. Let’s be thankful today for John’s journey home. Thankful that he is no longer suffering. We know we are going to be OK—it is just going to hurt for a really long time. I already miss him so much. And I forgot how he taught me to transfer funds from one account to the other…John????! How do I …..? There will be a LOT of those “missing John moments” in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving, faithful friends. Enjoy your family and feast. Remember John and pray for our broken hearts.

Feeling God’s comfort,

Kristin, for John, Rachel and Jake

I’m sitting at my computer with three screens open: Final paper, blog metrics, and Kristin’s note. I read Kristin’s note and had to stop writing to find a box of kleenex to blot all the tears streaming down my face.

I’m not sure why this blog is so filled with references to death, with notes about attending funerals and tributes to friends who’ve passed away. I set out to write about my children and life and so much of the laughter that punctuates our days.

Maybe it’s because the specter of death makes the moments of this life all the more precious. I believe there’s another world, one without sorrow and tears. A world of health and healing and reunions of more perfect souls than we’ve known here.

But the partings from this life just make me want to chuck the paper and go and see a movie with my kids. I want to hike a mountain. Listen to some beautiful music. Swim in the ocean at sunset. Get lost in a novel while I bask in some sunshine. Eat a really great meal with people I love. I sort of want to crawl between cool, clean sheets with a hot guy, but that’s not my life right now. It’s a reaction to death that makes me want to seize life.

The paper just needs to be written. Then I need to buy cat food, join the throngs of folks at the grocery store, and pack clothes for the kids for our trip to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. I’ll pray throughout the day for Kristin and Rachel and Jake. And I’ll remember John who worked with my magazine team for years.

John jotted down all special occasions and took the time to note each one. I’d call his office in Charlottesville, VA to ask about a production issue and John would say, “Isn’t today Megan’s birthday?”

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner together at a conference in Nashville. I excused myself to renew a parking meter for my rental car, and John and his colleague Greg insisted on leaving their dinners to walk me to my car. A gentleman, always.

I know a little too well what lies ahead for Kristin, feeling her way through the next weeks and months of some aching loneliness. Seven years later, and I’ve never learned how to sleep in the center of my bed. I still have a side.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. And I’ll celebrate the day with gratitude for the small normalcy of our days. You have no idea how good it is to buy cat food and make small talk with Larry, the nicest, friendliest cashier at QFC, until normal is gone.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with both the lovely mundane as well as the moments that take your breath away. May you be grateful for both in your life.

John Baltes
March 26, 1976 – November 21, 2012

The Stranger in My Bed: Who You Married Isn’t Who You’re Married To

Note from Shelly: From time-to-time, I’m sharing some of the best thoughts from writers/friends that I’ve come across on the web. This guest post is from my friend Amber Johnson, who writes Weddedness, a marriage blog with her husband, Cliff. I regularly follow Amber’s blog because she and her husband have some wise perspectives on marriage after the “I do” part…and well, they’re just funny writers to boot. Read this, and then visit her blog as well.

Who are you again?

Ten  years ago, when Cliff and I got married, he had hair and I had thighs that would have fit into skinny jeans, had they been stylish then. I was shy in groups and reticent to ever express a strong opinion; Cliff was more brash. He was headed for a career in social work. I wanted to be a writer.

Cliff was thinking about converting to Catholicism. I thought women shouldn’t be pastors. We weren’t positive we wanted kids. Everything we cared about could fit in the trunk of our car.

Now, Cliff has moved past Catholicism: our pastor’s name is Laura. I’ve learned to share my opinion, and occasionally cross the line to brash; Cliff has softened his voice. He’s left social work behind and is now in non-profit management. I’m on the same career path. We own a house full of stuff, though the things we care about mostly still fit in the back of our car: safely buckled in two car seats. And the hair and thighs, well, time changes things.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: who I married on September 8, 2001, isn’t quite the same person in my bed tonight. The change has been gradual, but the differences are stark. In fact, our son recently looked at a picture from our wedding day, and asked, “Where are you guys?” Good question.

We’ve been lucky: we’ve changed roughly in step with each other. Many of the changes have been for the better (I’ve learned to be more direct; Cliff has learned to listen more). And we’ve developed the thick skin it takes to tolerate the changes that are a bit tougher to stomach.

Not everyone is so lucky: some changes take more adapting. Think of the career woman who decides to be a stay-at-home mom. Or the stay-at-home mom who finds herself yearning for a career. Either occupation is respectable, but a sudden and passionate swing from one to the other can unsettle a relationship, especially for a husband who thought he was married to one and finds himself working out weekly schedules and budgets with the other.

I know of other families where one partner has suddenly become a serious runner, requiring hours of Saturday morning training runs and changed diets for the whole family.

And what if your husband becomes more brash? Your wife more bossy? What if illness or parenthood or unemployment changes something fundamental about your partner’s personality? Even if only temporary, the result can be feeling like you’re in bed with a stranger.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says of his marriage, after 25 years, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of them has been me.”

What do we do about this? The answer isn’t to avoid change. The answer is to somehow respect the changes in each other, change in step when you can, and give your spouse space to be who he or she needs to be when you can’t. I think the answer also lies, somehow, in the promises we make to each other.

Smedes writes that “when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Essentially, you have to rise above who you are and who you see yourself with to be open to who your partner is becoming. Let the promises you made be the through-thread of your relationship, when other things seem less certain. Find unlimited potential in who you could become together. Find excitement in being in bed with someone new.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, quotes Smedes (above) and then offers this wisdom: ”Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.”

Amber Johnson works at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, Cliff, are the proud parents of Sam and Maggie. 

Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Our Town Revisited

On March 22, 2009, a private plane crashed into a cemetery in Butte, Mont. Three couples, along with their 7 children, died in that crash, including my high school friend Vanessa and her sister Amy.

Vanessa and her husband, Mike, were absolutely wonderful at gathering friends for adventures: marathons, weekend get togethers, excursions on their family’s boat. Since the crash, friends of the Jacobson’s and Pullen’s are continuing the adventures in their honor. Every time we travel to unique places, run in half or full marathons, or whenever we’re doing something they would eagerly participate in, we’re wearing Jacobson/Pullen shirts in their memory.

In January, Megan and I will be doing the Tinkerbell half marathon in California in Vanessa’s honor. Whenever it’s rainy and cold, (and let’s face it, it’s cold and rainy a lot here in Seattle) and I don’t feel like getting out there to walk/run, I think about Vanessa’s ability to just dive in and do things. And I miss my friend.

[April 2009]

I must have been around 12 when I saw Our Town for the first time and fell in love with the minimalist sets, Thornton Wilder’s gentle, ironic humor and his astute observations of “the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

There’s a specific delight in introducing your kids to some of your favorite things and watching them discover it anew. Last summer, Megan and I drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore. to see Our Town. I loved watching her watch the play…getting teary-eyed through some of the same scenes that struck me when I was her age.

My clearest memory of the play is the third act, where rows of chairs line the stage as graves. Emily, escorted to death through childbirth, is struggling to rest in peace. When she discovers that the dead can revisit scenes from life, she decides to go back to her twelfth birthday, despite stern warnings from her fellow deceased souls.

And the dead souls are right. You can’t go back. You can’t bear to watch people walking blithely through their days never noticing that the ordinary is what makes life extraordinary. Emily observes her birthday and realizes that everyone in her family was moving through their daily routine never pausing to really look and see and savor what was contained in those moments.

“Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” Emily asks the stage manager who narrates the play. Hardly anyone save the “saints and poets, maybe” ever realizes life, the stage manager replies.

Wilder was right that death provides us all with special lenses through which to see our lives for a time. It’s the stark reminder to prioritize well and savor the ordinary moments that grow into some of our best memories.

Even though we were in Northern California for my friend Vanessa’s memorial service today, the friends and the memories were all from “our town” in Southern California. The town of haystacks and veggie burgers. Sunday mail service. Ultimate games in Ford park. Beach vespers in Corona del Mar. And crazy drives through the canyon between Redlands and Loma Linda. Friday evenings making homemade ice cream and hot-tubbing at each other’s homes.

I loved the memories friends shared of Vanessa. They were utterly consistent with the Vanessa that I knew. She was genuine and kind and intelligent. Organized without being rigid. Generous and unflappable. An amazing hostess who was never pretentious or unnatural. It’s no surprise to me that she instigated an annual appreciation brunch for her kids’ teachers and the administration at Lodi Elementary—it’s just the kind of thing Vanessa would think to do…and be able to pull off beautifully.

When I think about Vanessa, it seems to me that one of her finest gifts was her ability to live graciously in each moment. Was she one of Wilder’s saints or poets? I don’t know. But her life certainly reminds me to realize life as we live it. Every, every minute.

Vanessa and Mike with their children, Sydney and Christopher.

High school graduation with Vanessa, center
Vanessa’s sister Amy, with her husband Erin Jacobson, and their children Jude, Taylor and Ava. Erin’s older brother was Eric’s best man at our wedding.

Brent and Kristen Ching with Caleb and Hailey. Before the trip, Kristen had just loaded ultrasound photos onto her laptop; they were expecting their third child, a boy. Brent’s parents are long-time friends of my family.