I spent the better part of the first six months of our international move neglecting to care for myself in any consistent way. My attempts were sporadic and felt selfish. I knew I needed time on my mat each day as my muscles ached with the need to stretch after hours of sedentary language study. But in March I was still working through the 30-days of yoga series I started in January. I was tired all the time dealing with culture shock and a new...well, everything. But there was homework to finish and children's homework to finish and so many more things to do than I had hours in the day.
I knew I was heading towards burnout fast and some of the ways to avoid it, but I let it happen anyway. Anxiety and depression hit hard. And then I had nothing good left to give anyone. I spent the better part of the next few months just trying to function and heal. Self-care didn't seem selfish anymore. At the encouragement of a coach/counselor, my husband, and my boss to name a few—I realized I couldn't do it all without taking some time to care for my self. And that didn't mean sporadically working out or praying when the work was done. In the state I found myself, I couldn't hear God and I couldn't be what anyone around me needed.
“We're not actually responsible for everything in the world or even in our own lives, so we don't need to act as if we are.” - April Yamasaki
I know my tendencies to want to take the reigns instead of letting God be in control, my desire for perfection and thinking I can work my way to it. But when a counselor told me that my desire even to want to protect everyone and meet everyone's else's needs was also pride and control, I was stunned. Here I thought I was serving people and taking care of my family but I was trying to be God for them. I needed to step out of the way and make space for Him to work in my life and in the lives of others.
It was about that time that I was able to read April Yamasaki's new book Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. Her words echoed the warnings against pride and the need to take care of my self to better care for others. Hers were the words I needed to hear.
“In our day a high interest in self-care seems to move in the opposite direction toward disengagement, withdrawal, and focusing on one's self to the exlusion of larger social concerns...What concerns do you have for social and structural change in our world and in your own life? In what ways does self-care empower you to engage these?” - April Yamasaki
If you're anything like me "self-care" can feel selfish because popular culture has turned self-care into ideas of pampering and taking time out for yourself, solitude or vacations, and things that don't seem to fit into everyday life. I see people on social media talking about self-care and think, "yeah, that would be nice if we all had time off or disposable income." I like a good day to myself as much as the next mom and do make time for it every now and then. But this kind of self-care wasn't what I was looking for and it wasn't going to be what healed me. I needed to find ways to care for my whole self on a daily basis. I also wanted to find ways to be whole so that I could engage with the needs around me.
That is why April Yamasaki's words were so refreshing. She writes in a practical and relatable way about holistic care for your mind, your body, spirit, and soul, and how to do so in a way that sets healthy rhythms for your daily life so you can care for others with a full and equipped heart.
Yamasaki talks about ways to care for your heart (like boundaries and community), your soul (Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline), your mind (focus, your digital world, mental health, renewing your mind), and your strength (sleep, food, health). I have never thought about some of these areas as self-care before and certainly never considered the ramifications on my ability to connect with God and others as a result of my own well-being.
“If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together." - April Yamasaki
I talk a lot about listening to God, about wanting to hear His voice. I know there are things in my life I need to keep attuned to be able to listen. But Four Gifts also reminded me that to listen to and love our neighbor well we need this attunement as well. So whether you need a little tune-up or a complete overhaul of your self-care, I hope Four Gifts can bring you closer to listening and loving well.
Listening with you,
The roar of a mob of students fills my ears as I try to read. I walk over to my window to watch the protestors filing down the street carrying signs and chanting slogans about corrupt governments and unsafe roads. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. In our sprawling city, protests often shut down the roads for days and remind us of the conflict raging all around us. Some days it can feel overwhelming. Where is my voice in the din? I don’t belong on the streets with the local students. Do I have a say at all? Can there ever be peace?
Living in a majority Muslim country, some might think I live in a place that sees more conflict than most. I am not sure anymore. I see just as much conflict these days on my computer screen, from the voices in my home country, in the news coming out of Western culture. As I sat down to read Mending the Divides: Creating Love in a Conflicted World my heart ached with the truth of Lynne Hybel’s words in the introduction describing my own home country as one “increasingly polarized into divisive factions, even at war with itself.”
I wanted to read Mending the Divides because of the increasing conflict I see in the world and my adjacent feelings of powerlessness. What can I possibly do to help? I knew the authors, Jon Huckins and Jer Swigart, to be the founders of the Global Immersion Project. Through peacemaking workshops, webinars, and immersion trips their organization seeks to train individuals and organizations how to be everyday peacemakers in the world.
But peace—really? How can we have any part in such a lofty concept?...
I noticed the Krishnachura trees in early Spring. It was hard not to notice the fiery blossoms that colored the streets. Green is not hard to come by in this country. The reason the background of the flag is green is that this land of many rivers has an abundance of the color in its countless river deltas and rice fields. But the vibrant blooms of these trees is quite unique. They reminded me of the Bradford Pears of my beloved Georgia home. Like the Bradford Pear trees, I noticed this tree was full of blossoms for a short time and then the petals became a shower of red bursting forth in the wind and trickling down to the street below. I asked around and discovered the name of this tropic tree and enjoyed its blooms for a short while.
For months my heart has been downcast and so have my eyes. As my spirit fell low, my gaze followed. My walking can only be called trudging for the past few months. It wasn't my surroundings that brought the pain. I am no stranger to these feelings of anxiety. But in the midst of a downward spiral, I stopped seeing any beauty around me. The heat bearing down on me, the crowds pressing in, the broken sidewalks occupying my vision—I watched my feet going places I didn't want to be.
Last week I walked under the Krishnachura tree that looms overhead every time I walk to the market. I walk under it often but haven't really seen it in months. I felt a rare gentle breeze and I stopped to notice it again. Its red blooms have long since fallen off but it is still one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen. It shades the entire street under tiny leaves that weave together to make a tapestry of color above me. In that breeze and in those leaves I felt the tingling tendrils of something else wrapping around my heart—joy. It was as if God was saying, "Hang on. It's coming like the cooler weather" (that is still three months off here). It was in those moments of the walk, when I looked up again, that I decided to do what I could to find my way back to joy step by step.
It is easy for me to only see concrete in this city. We are a good thirty-minute drive by public transportation to a decent stretch of land on which to play. I miss walks and playgrounds and riding bikes. And on hard days all I can see is overcrowded and unsafe roads that my kids can't play on. But on a good day, on a day in which I decide to look for it, I see green everywhere. In this city of 12 million people scrambling for any patch of land they can get and buildings going up on almost every square inch of it, there is still green everywhere. It is creeping through the sidewalks and up the side of buildings, hanging over verandas, and shading the streets. All this green is telling me that life finds a way no matter the surroundings, the difficult circumstances. Joy can find a way too. So today I'm looking up.
When we first moved I intended the "Life in South Asia" section of this website to be more of a fun section where I would write about culture or what I was learning, how I was listening for God in this new place. But life happened. Transition happened. I didn't write as much at first because—well, uprooting a whole family to the other side of the world takes a lot of time. Then I felt I needed to lay down my writing for a while. Then intense depression happened and my writing became much more serious. I felt the freedom to pick my writing back up and a responsibility to share what I was going through. I have had some incredible connections with people that have said, "Thank you! I know I'm not alone because of what you have written."
When I first experienced anxiety 12 years ago, (well, I am coming to see I have always had tendencies towards anxiety but didn't have a name for it until I was 25 years old) I thought it was just circumstantial. Life changed and my anxiety or depression dissipated for me. But then it reared it's head again during our move to the Middle East, again two years ago, and most intensely in the last year. I now know that like Lauren Winer says in Still:
"As far back as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having long ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don't imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good."
I feel like I'm past the worst of it this time around. I want to say I'm "all better," that I see fruit and new life everywhere. Not yet. Grace P. Cho put the perfect words to the season I am currently in today:
"He is never annoyed with the slowness of transformation but always delights in the intricate care of redeeming burned things. And He is not done with us in the midst of fallow seasons...He burns away the old with fire and cultivates the land for the new things He is doing in our lives, allowing light and water to reach down deep, awakening and breaking open the seeds that have laid dormant before to thrive in the soil He has made good. What will come is a mystery, and we gain nothing when we rush into seasons we’re not ready for. So sit with Him, rest with Him, watch Him do His good and holy work while the land still lies fallow."
I am learning to be okay with this fallow season, trusting I've gone through the fire and that new life will come but that I am still in process. I'm asking for help. I am spending more time reading and seeking silence, working my muscles until they ache and feeling stronger on my mat every day. Playing. Praying. Working. Waiting. I am looking at my kids. Stopping and really seeing them. I see such beauty in my children, see God at work so much in them and in me as I mother them. They are helping me find my way back to joy.
For a while, I said I lost prayer during this season of fire and wilderness. I am realizing I didn't after all. It just didn't look like a daily examen or a war room or a prayer list, however you've come to expect prayer to look. As I read over my journals over the past few months, I see them as prayer. As I walk down the street to the market and notice the unfurling of the Krishnachura leaves and take a deep breath and thank God, I know it is prayer too (more about that one later this week). I am seeing God in things I haven't in a long time. I am noticing. As I walked slowly to the market today I stopped to take several photos. I heard Him speaking. I listened. I prayed "God, give me eyes to see what you want me to see and show me what you want me to share with others." I felt a long still stirring in my soul to write it all down...
So, I am finally getting around to writing here in a way that is less structured (as opposed to my essays for places like SheLoves Magazine and The Mudroom). I'll post pictures of things that speak to me and moments of finding God in the noise of this crazy city. In everyday beauty. I may notice five things a week and write about them. I may not see anything that inspires me for a while. I'll just take it as it comes. I am asking God to open my eyes to see Him in this season. There are ways I can see Him in South Asia that I couldn't anywhere else on earth. And I don't want to miss them.
So, from the land that is the contradiction and meeting place of 700 river deltas and also the most crowded city on earth - I am listening with you. This is where God is showing up for me in South Asia.
Utterly alone, you don’t believe anyone could understand the way you feel. Lost, you don’t know how you’ll ever find your way back. And then…a friend calls at just the right time. A song says the words you needed to hear. You read a line in a book that might have been taken out of your very journal. Suddenly, you know there is hope. You aren’t alone. If someone else has felt this way and found their way forward, so can you.
Liz Ditty’s book God’s Many Voices: Learning to Listen, Expectant to Hear was my friend calling to console me, the song to my heart, the “me too” moment that spoke hope into my weary soul. Though I’ve had the joy of meeting Liz, fellow Redbud Writer’s Guild member, in real life it was through the words of her book that I realized just how valuable her voice is to anyone longing to see God more clearly.
I was thrilled to support a fellow author in her book launch and get an early peek at her new book. But I mostly wanted to read it hoping it would meet me in the way I so desperately needed. I knew Liz to be dynamic speaker and spiritual director and I so longed to hear from someone like her that would walk with me to the Father I felt like I had lost touch with.
“It’s possible to seek God’s voice but not seek God. We won’t find Him if we are moving toward our own goals and desires and trying to see Him there. God is who He is, and if we want to hear Him, we have to come to Him in our own broken desire to love Him. Listening should be an act of love, not a grasp for certainty. We have to move only toward Him and His love, not toward His wisdom or blessing or direction.” - Liz Ditty
My early life of faith was lived out in an evangelical tradition that places a heavy emphasis on hearing God through Scripture. I am so grateful for a tradition that instilled a hunger for God’s Word in me. But over the years I’ve been exposed to many other traditions—from the Episcopal church of my college years to the Coptic Church of my time in Egypt, the traditional church of South Asia to the Benedectine Monastery where I discovered the daily office, and the contemplative prayer of fellow authors and friends. I’ve learned that we have many ways of attempting to hear God and I feel like I’ve dipped my toes in the water of many disciplines but never gotten very far in actually listening through any.
In the wilderness I have found myself in after our international move, I knew God hadn’t stopped speaking and I was trying to listen. I just wasn’t hearing anything. I kept going back to the ways of my youth – read more, study more, try harder. Nothing. For nine months now a still voice has been whispering, “Listen. Just be still.”
As I read God’s Many Voices all those How is Liz in my head? moments showed me this: In all my movement and all my attempts to know the answers of why I was drowning in depression, how to get out, and what should come next—I was looking for answers, for a fix. But not for God.
The book gives you opportunities to sit with what you’ve learned and practice it in various sections, reminding you that God’s voice doesn’t just speak through Scripture. Liz focuses on God’s voice as He speaks through Scripture – yes. But also through Prayer, Community, Our Daily Lives, Coincidences and Interruptions, in Beauty All Around Us, and in Desire, Waiting, and Silence.
“If you are wandering in the meantime of waiting, God is with you. He has something tender to say to you here and a profound purpose for what may seem like wasted time. The promised land will be sweet, but God is not withholding good things from you now. He has good things for you, and He is doing good things in you, right there in the wilderness of waiting.” - Liz Ditty
Maybe you are in a season where God is speaking to you more through nature or through a community. Maybe you are growing and hearing from God or perhaps you too feel a bit lost. And reading Liz’s book has reminded me that all of those places are okay. We all have seasons of listening well, of not really hearing, of silence, and of hearing God’s voice differently. It’s the ebb and flow of life and growth and, I believe, also the creativity and diversity of our God. Right now I am in am a wilderness wanderer, telling myself daily that God is with me in it and holding onto words of people like Liz who tell me He is working even when I don’t see it.
Wherever you find yourself, I know you could use a helping hand to guide you. I encourage you to pick up God’s Many Voices and keep listening. Because I believe if you do, you can expect to hear. I look forward to hearing what God has to say to you.
Listening with you,
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