Sunday thoughts: On being prodigal and otherwise

Spiritual development has been on my mind lately, partly because it's a natural topic when you're a mother of teens and young adults, partly because I love to think about anything development related, and partly--mainly--because I've been thinking about my own in this midstage of life. Let's see if I can wrangle these thoughts into words.

In my church (as with life, actually), there are a parade of milestones that happen in the first 20-30 years of your life--covenants and rites of passage that serve as religious training wheels and give a sense of spiritual momentum. After that flurry, I have found the next phase to be a different kind of challenging in the quest to sustain progression in what seems like a developmentally stagnant time.  

No matter the religion, there is understandably a lot of ministering effort centered around helping people navigate the dangers and perils of the rapids of the first stage; the second has been somehow portrayed as kind of paddling around in a serene lake, trailing fingers in the water while we endure to the end.  In my experience that lake can boast some pretty strong undercurrents--they are different challenges, to be sure, and we rarely address them but they're there. 

Christian writer Ronald Ronheiser, in his new book Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturitymakes the point that spirituality and discipleship have stages and seasons and, accordingly, different challenges and tasks. (The developmentalist in me stood up and cheered! Seriously, I could not stop underlining this book. It fits so well with Erikson's stages of development.)  He explains:

The first phase, essential discipleship, is the struggle to get our lives together.* 
The second phase, mature discipleship, is the struggle to give our lives away.

This means in the first phase we struggle largely with external things, physical appetites, and our place in the world--who to be. In the second phase the struggle is more internal as we figure out how to be (and specifically how to focus away from ourselves and be generous--a la Erickson's stage of generativity). To illustrate his point he uses the parable of the prodigal son in a really interesting way: 

"Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery) and the second half of our lives struggling with the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill). That may be a simplification but it is a fertile image. Indeed the famous parable of the prodigal son and his older brother can serve as a paradigm for this: the prodigal son, illustrating the first half of life, is very much caught up in the fiery energies of youth and is, metaphorically, struggling with the devil; the older brother, illustrating the second half of life, struggling instead with resentment, anger, and jealousy, is metaphorically and in reality, wrestling with God" (page 6).

I've been mulling this over a lot lately. I'd always thought the parable simply described two different kinds of people. But it's a parable so it thankfully begs many different interpretations.  I love thinking of it this new way, illustrating a developmental progression for each of us. And I'm always going to applaud an interpretation of a passage that forces us to apply the whole thing to our own selves rather than thinking in terms of us and them.

By the way, I had also somehow assumed "prodigal" meant wayward and rebellious but its definition is more about being lavishly abundant and extravagant. As in (aha! lightbulb moment!) prodigious. So the prodigal son went overboard, wrapped up in the abundance and sensory overload of life, producing and consuming and spending (time, energy, money) until he was depleted. (I can relate, ahem.)  

In contrast the older son struggles with his internal landscape of jealousy and comparisons and ideas of fairness. His developmental crisis is all about learning to be generous and to throw away the scorecard. While the younger son's challenge is to put himself in the right place, the older son's challenge and task is to put his heart in the right place. This spiritual stage, represented by the older son in the parable, asks us to refine ourselves and better embody what we believe. Rolheiser gives the following suggestions on some of the invitations of mature discipleship (they're not for wimps!):

  • be willing to carry more and more of life's complexities with empathy
  • transform jealousy, anger, etc., rather than give them back in kind
  • let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul
  • forgive
  • live in gratitude
  • be wide in your embrace
  • bless more and curse less (as in give love/support not spite/complaint)
  • stand where you are supposed to be standing and let God provide the rest

I've been carrying around these thoughts for a few weeks, trying them on and wearing them like new shoes, and they seem to fit where I am right now. And--bonus--they seem to fit several other arenas in my life beyond the spiritual (like all of them: parenting, education, career, relationships, creativity, life aspirations) as I continue to try to figure out what it means to truly be a grown-up--in the gospel and otherwise--while admittedly still reverting to some prodigal ways now and then, too.

Pretty personal, I know, but I'm posting this in hopes there's a kernel of truth here for you regardless of your religion or perspective. Either way--happy Sunday!


First sleep, second sleep

"Last night" by Konstantin Kalynovych

"Last night" by Konstantin Kalynovych

Around my house the first question we usually ask each other in the morning  is "how did you sleep?" Sure, it's partly just politeness but it's also an indicator of how much we love us some sleep around here. I'm a big believer in the restorative power of a good night's rest.

So it was with a bit of panic that I've noticed that my sleep patterns have slowly morphed into a broken pattern where I'm restless/awake in the middle of the night ("slowly morphed" might just be the best euphemism for aging ever, haha). I became especially aware of this when I got a Fitbit for Christmas last year and was astounded to see how often I awakened or was restless in the night. I thought I was getting a good eight or so hours but the Fitbit on my wrist that was tracking my movements said differently:

sleep pattern.jpeg

186 minutes restless. Yay, me!

Mostly I just wake up for a bit in the middle of the night. Sometimes I get up and go downstairs and read a while, sometimes I sit in bed and think crazy-tinged thoughts, fretting about things that seem absolutely ridiculous in the light of morning.  In particularly Inception-like meta moments, sometimes I'm awake worrying that I'm awake.

A month or two ago I was watching a historical Revolutionary War drama and the characters talked about "first sleep" and "second sleep." This sounded exactly like me! Intrigued, I looked it up.

It turns out that first sleep/second sleep was a thing for centuries: people would go to first sleep a couple of hours after dusk, wake up for an hour or two, and then return to second sleep until morning (often with a quick nap in the afternoon, too).  Historian Roger Ekirch found over 500 references to segmented sleep, dating back to Homer's Odyssey all the way up to the 19th century. It seems to have disappeared in the 1920s. This was, of course, probably related to the fact that in a pre-electricity world there were so many hours of darkness and the body only needed so much sleep. 

A psychology study in the early 1990s  had participants in absolute darkness for 14 hours a night. By the fourth week, the participants' sleep had slowly morphed into a distinct, segmented sleep pattern, sleeping for four hours, waking for an hour or two, and sleeping for four more. 

Fascinating! It made me wonder if I should just stop fighting my mid-night wakings and just embrace them as what my body wants me to do. Or at least stop fretting about them. did you sleep? Do you get enough, too little, too much? Have you noticed a tendency toward fragmented sleep?

Turn (45) for what?

Let's talk about birthdays. They just keep coming and I just keep turning whatever number I'm given. In previous years I've never been too hung up on the actual number I'm turning--and I actually really love this decade that starts with 4. Still, when I turned 45 a couple of weeks ago I was surprised that I did stutter over it a bit! 

The birthday itself was really great. I got to have two days' worth of birthday wishes--my Australian birthday and my American one. G had conducted sneaky reconnaissance on my Pinterest boards and had thoughtfully chosen some things that I had been secretly (but not so secretly, after all) pining for, like:  

  • three lovely thin silver stacking rings ("one for each child!" I happily exclaimed when I unwrapped them. "....Um, yeah!" Greg almost successfully improvised),
  • a luscious fountain pen,
  • a wooden pineapple-shaped chalkboard (because I sometimes text my signature celebratory pineapple emoji to my kids).

That guy is pretty fluent in my love languages by now, one of which is thoughtful (not expensive, not outrageous, just lovingly selected) gift giving. And maybe I have finally internalized that you have to actually articulate your expectations rather than expecting miracles of mind reading and other such sorcery. (Remember last year's birthday lesson?

And yet 45 was unexpectedly hard! I had planted it in my head that it's pretty much smack dab middle age. And it kind of is, you know? (If I'm lucky, that is.)  It feels like a time for re-evaluation and recalibration and reorientation. Lots of re.  It's a time to wash the metaphorical laundry midway through this mortal journey before repacking it all up again and figuring out the path ahead. Dante nailed it:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost 


G and I went to lunch that day and I confessed and warned him that that precise, particular moment--the noontime on my 45th birthday--marked the apex of my life. All downhill from here, buddy. Undaunted, he seems convinced that the next 45 can be pretty terrific and is willing to continue to blaze the trail ahead a couple of years.

It's just a day, this birthday, another in the long string of days I'm blessed to have. Still, it has me a bit more tender than usual. Passages in books have me weepy with love for the beauty of words and the accompanying twinge to string together a few of my own--almost an anticipatory regret if I don't find my voice and just do it. And my dissertation is ripening on the shelf. And I want to walk places, see things, deepen my compassion and cultivate my corner of the garden. I'm reading Wendell Berry's book Hannah Coulter (so good!); midway through Hannah says "I began to know my story then."

45 sounds as good a time as any, yes?

What's your approach to birthdays and turning another year older? Do you celebrate or mourn? And, perhaps more importantly, what's your signature emoji?

p.s. Parts of this post appeared first in a birthday post on my personal blog last week so if it sounded familiar to some of you, that's why. Yup, I stole liberally from myself. 

Memory drive fail

While it has brought me a lot of joy, going back to grad school as an "older student" in my thirties (and, as it drags on, now my forties too) has definitely forced me to face my growing weaknesses. For example. When I was a younger student, I had a pretty darn good memory. In fact, I let my little-engine-that-could memory pull me out of numerous academic fixes, cramming as much information as my poor short-term memory could tolerate, only to eject it clean and empty moments after the exam. I had the audacity to think this meant I was smart. Nope; it turns out it was just the new equipment I was working with.


Now I look at those young students and their fancy next-to-new brains with the same knowing look that I give cute bouncy teenagers on the beach, with their smooth firm figures that they seem to think they earned. My amused, slightly knowing look says "your day will come, too, sweetheart. Enjoy it while you can." 

I have this sense that every time I put something new in my brain, something else falls out. Other things I decide not to park in there at all...thank goodness for calendars and computers and other gizmos that store information for me! I always cross my fingers that what I'm putting in there-in my brain--ranks more important that what it's replacing but who knows? I leave things behind, I forget appointments, I seem flakier. (Greg makes me feel better when he reads one of his thriller-genre books and, halfway through, says "I think I've read this before." And then continues reading because he can't remember how it ends anyway. Like a whole new book! And don't even get me started on the time G and I left our car running in the parking lot for an hour while we were shopping in Costco. Sheesh.) 

The "what's-his-name" work-around descriptions and word gaps (hilariously, one of the words I can never think of is "articulate," ha!) will only increase as I get older, I'm sure. Thankfully Billy Collins has covered that exact topic and, fangirl that I am of his poetry, I couldn't resist passing it along:


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~ Billy Collins

So...had any memory fails lately?

Archaeological Inventory

I must report that a pair of ones have taken up permanent residence between my eyebrows. My Elevens*, I call them, although to be technical there are actually three lines so I really should call them my One Hundred and Elevens. Soon it will be 1111.  It's okay, I've earned them: deep listening, hikes under the sun, worried concern, utter confusion, tunneled concentration, baffled irritation, baby birthing, and animated storytelling have slowly, gradually carved out these hieroglyphics on my forehead. 

I like them, kind of. I have compassion for them.  If nature's going to do a number on my face, I'll take elevens. And the parentheses around my mouth are fine, too, hinting at my lifelong affinity for good company and lots of unabashed laughter.

4-up on 2013-09-18 at 17.24 #5.jpg

It's the surprising, singular hairs setting up overnight pop-up shops in odd locations that puzzle and annoy me. 

And if the corners continue their gravity-droop on my naturally frowny mouth, I will scare small children and certainly be labeled the neighborhood witch in future decades. But at least Halloween will be great fun!

Getting older is weird. But I'll take it. 

. . . 

*Not to be confused with elevenses, of which I am also a big fan.