Friday, January 31, 2014

The Rime of the Florida Spider

The world is full of many things,
And some of them are grim.
When we first moved to Florida,
Some warnings were prelim:

Beware the ocean's strong riptides.
Beware the fire ants.
Beware bad drivers from up North
Who've moved here as transplants.
Beware the alligator's tooth,
Beware palmetto bug.
Those things will kill you (gospel truth!)
More quickly than a drug.

But such a list is incomplete,
Without this one last rider:
To live here is to grapple with
The great South Florida spider.

Spiders, spiders everywhere
And all my soul did shrink.
Spiders, spiders everywhere--
Don't breathe. Don't move. Don't blink.

Widow, Huntsman, Wolf and Lynx
Get up to the worst hijinks.
Orbweaver and Ogreface
Spin their webs just anyplace.
Purseweb spiders sound pretend,
But they're real, and a friend 
To Trapdoor spiders (those who snap
Up whatever they trap in traps.)
Banana spiders are gigantic
But not bad, so don't get frantic.
That's the time for heart attacks.

Spiders, spiders everywhere
And all my soul did shrink.
Spiders, spiders everywhere--
Don't breathe. Don't move. Don't blink.

If you want to live down here,
You'll have to learn to handle
Spiders all over the place: 
In cars, on beds, in sandals,
In your closet and your desk,
In sickness or in health,
You'll see them perching there, grotesque.

And then you'll wet yourself. 

You'll slap at them with books and shoes,
Or trap them under mugs.
You'll wonder why you moved down here.
You must have been on drugs!

The Florida sun is nice and hot
(As long as it is shining),
And sure, there's no state income tax,
So that's a silver lining. 
But there are problems with this state--
Take this from an insider.
The very biggest of them all's
The Great South Florida Spider.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Five Reasons to Love Deserts

I love deserts.

I absolutely love them.

If you think it odd that someone could love deserts, then you have probably never been in a desert. Because if you had, then you would understand. Deserts are amazing, and I can't think of a better time than now, while most of North America is buried under snow and ice, to tell you why.

Five Reasons to Love Deserts:

1. If you love the heat but hate to sweat. I have been living in the sub-tropics for more than twenty years. I understand heat. Not only do I understand it, but I love it. I would much rather feel my skin blistering off than deal with goosebumps. For Floridians, however, heat is more than just heat. Here warm temperatures are paired with a humidity so thick that most days we feel as if we could drink the air. 

Not so in deserts. 

Any desert movie you have seen in which the characters are drenched in sweat has probably given you a false impression. In deserts, sweat can wick directly from your pores straight into the air. Because sweat droplets are not beading up and rolling down your back, you may not realize how much moisture you have lost. 

Which is why dehydration is the silent killer.

While in the desert, you must constantly hydrate, because once you're actively thirsty, it's too late. You're already dehydrated. So you must keep plenty of water with you and drink from it at all times.

2. If you’ve always wanted to go to outer space. For someone who has spent most of her life in the neat squares of suburbia, confronting the eerie desert landscape feels like exploring another world. 

3. If you are a huge nerd. One of the best literary experiences of my life involves taking turns reading Louis L’Amour’s sweeping desert saga The Lonesome Gods with my friend Alissa as we drove through the precise section of the Mohave Desert providing the book's backdrop. Whenever we stopped alongside the road, I looked for protagonist Johannes Verne to stride out of the desert saying, "I am Johannes Verne, and I am not afraid."

For the career nerd, it doesn't get much better than that. 

4. If you love variety. Contrary to what some people assume, deserts are not all vast stretches of indistinguishable sand dunes. Even outside of the oases, deserts contain a stunning variety of colors, shapes, topographies, and life. 



5. If you need to be reminded of what it means to thirst for God. Read Psalm 63 with an understanding that David penned these words while in the Negev—the Judean Desert:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Until I stood in that same desert, I did not understand the force of David's words. I had always known that David's thirst for God felt real. Immediate. Visceral. But I suddenly grasped that this was the thirst of a man in a desert. A man who knows he will die without water. A man who knows the importance of constant refreshment. Who knows that he feels thirst because he's already dehydrated. 

While it's true that I love deserts for the delicious heat, the variety, and the strange beauty, I also love them because they remind me of a greater truth: that this world is a spiritual desert, and that while it does have its own warmth and beauty, it is nevertheless a potentially-deadly wasteland of howling spiritual poverty, one that requires constant spiritual hydration for survival. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Say What You Mean

Although I do plan these blog posts in advance, they rarely wind up saying the things that I thought they would say when I first planned them.

This is due in part to my being an extrovert. 

One of the interesting aspects of being an extrovert is that we must articulate our thoughts in order to process them rather than the other way around. As I've previously noted, this half-baked verbal processing often makes extroverts sound like idiots, especially to those of you who are actually capable of processing your thoughts before speaking, a procedure which sounds quite logical and handy. I yearn to acquire this skill, but although I've worked on tactics to help myself process before speaking, I still remain an externally-processing human, meaning that I'm never fully sure what I'm going to say until it's out.

Hence my blog posts occasionally seeming to spool out of my direct control. (Such as this one, which keeps trying to loop into a weird, Dr.-Walter-Bishop-type digression in which there are lots of decision trees and in which I explore the possibility of parallel universes into which each unfinished conversational thread floats when it is abandoned in favor of another branch. But I will spare you because it would do very little for the point at hand, and also because it didn't entirely make sense and it also made me sound a little crazy.) 

In discussing my problem with a friend today--the problem of staying on track while writing blog posts, I mean, not the problem of occasionally sounding like Walter Bishop--I started to think about the limitations of communication and about how difficult it is for us to say what we really mean. 

I'm sure you, like me, have occasionally found yourself walking away from a conversation wondering why you had so much difficulty saying what you wanted to say and echoing that woman from TS Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the woman who said, "That's not what I meant at all; / That is not it at all."

If you can identify with that sentiment, read on. 

There's hope.

How to Say What You Mean:

First, stop talking so much. If you want to be sure that you say what you mean every time you speak, perhaps you should consider talking less. Statistically, this should significantly lessen the number of times you accidentally say stupid things, misspeak, or just generally make a buffoon of yourself. Shutting your mouth for a while also gives your brain time to catch up with the conversation, meaning that when you finally do speak, you'll be more likely to say what you actually mean.

Second, employ a mental checklist. When I taught middle school, I told my students that they weren't permitted to say anything that didn't pass the following series of questions:

Is it right?
Is it kind?
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it helpful?
Does it need to be said by me?
Does it need to be said right now?

This list wouldn't be a bad idea for the rest of us to adopt, although depending on your own particular foibles, you might need to add additional questions, such as Will it make sense to anybody other than me? or Will this add anything of substance to the conversation, or am I just speaking to fill a silence? 

For those of you who say, "But Ruth! If I try to think about all of those things before I open my mouth, I'll never get a chance to say anything. By the time I've figured out if something matches the checklist, the conversation will have passed me by!" 

If that's worrying you, go back and re-read the first point.

Third, always maintain a balance of kindness and honesty. I've never been a huge fan of indirect communication, although I learned to appreciate the art when I lived in Asia. While I acknowledge that indirect speech does have a place, I still believe that saying what you mean as directly as possible seems to work best most of the time. Rather than getting lost in a morass of hints or a confused forest of circumlocutions, ask for grace to speak plainly and to the purpose, always balancing your truth with kindness. 

Fourth, be sure you're talking to the right person. Many of us, if we're having a problem with Person A, will talk to everyone but him about it. Even if we do plan to talk to Person A directly, we will first talk to Persons B, C, and D, no doubt seeking to be assured that we are in the right and that Person A is in the wrong. 

This is ridiculous. 

If we have a problem with Person A, our first course of action (after praying for grace) should be to talk to Person A directly. Although there may come a time to get Persons B-D involved, that time is certainly not before you've had a chance to talk (honestly and kindly) with Person A.

Let me close by saying that life, while being generally awesome, can also feel long and hard and full of difficulty. Don't be the one adding to the drama. Keep your mouth shut, employ a mental checklist, balance honesty with kindness, and ensure that you're addressing your problems to the right person. 

And while I'm on my soapbox, let me add this one last thought: as you're blazing through life spouting your thoughts and opinions to anyone who will hold still long enough to listen, remember that there are certain phrases that should not be left unspoken, should not be taken for granted, and cannot be said too often:

  • I love you.
  • I miss you.
  • I appreciate you. 
  • You matter to me.
  • I value your friendship.
  • You're amazing because [x].

Remember that part of saying what you mean involves actually saying it. So if any of these phrases make you think of someone in particular, don't waste time. 

Make a call, type a text, write a letter, send up a smoke signal, tap it out in Morse code, hire a carrier pigeon, set it to music, take out an ad in the newspaper, write it in the sky, or run to your friend's house and shout it directly into his face.

As previously mentioned, life can sometimes feel long and hard and full of difficulty, and it helps to hear something nice.

So if you mean it, go ahead and say it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mistakes: The Ties that Bind Us

In the winter of 2010, I was about to turn in for bed one night only to receive a surprise text message from a young male friend whom I don't hear from often. He wished me a good night.... which was normal, I guess...... and then told me that he was "so completely in love" with me. 

Which was not.

Not long after that, a client with whom I was collaborating on an new writing project texted me to tell me that he, too, loved me..... and would I please pick up some milk on the way home?

It turns out we were victims of the 2010 Android texting glitch, a technological debacle in which the Droid messaging subsystem went bananas for a while and randomly sent texts to the wrong people completely. The results ranged from the hilarious to the horrifying. 

Put yourself in the shoes of these gentlemen and envision their consternation upon learning that their affectionate texts, instead of going their respective ladies of choice, came instead to me. To add insult to injury, one of these poor guys is a former student, who later had the horror of knowing that his lovey-dovey text went to his former English teacher instead of to his girlfriend. (I still can't think of this situation without chortling.)

Fortunately for both of these guys, something similar had already happened to me when I had tried to text my sister about my developing passion for a fictional character. The text went to my father instead, who had the dubious pleasure of opening his phone to learn not only that I had fallen in love at last, but that I had decided to announce this to him via text.

Needless to say, he had questions.

The point here is not the horrible serendipity of the Android text messaging fiasco of 2010. 

The point is that when somebody around you does something stupid and inexplicable, it's helpful to remember that a) he might not have done it on purpose and that b) you've done plenty of similarly stupid things.

The haywire texts were inadvertent, yes, but I'm sure you feel the force of my argument nevertheless. 

The people around you haven't cornered the market on foolishness any more than you have cornered the market on saintly perfection.  So the next time someone pulls a bogglingly idiotic move that confounds or alarms you, just remember that into every life a few mistakes must fall, and next time it's probably going to be you, so you might as well suck it up and be gracious.

Because let's face it, we're all morons sometimes.

I've made the point before, but it bears repeating: sometimes we're all That Person. The person who knocks over the store display, who blocks traffic, who holds up the line. The person who seems incapable of understanding plain instructions no matter how clearly they're articulated. 

Flip through your mental filing cabinet until you find the folder marked INEPTITUDE. Put your hands around it and lift it out. Feel the heft of it. Sift through that bulging packet with a flush of embarrassment, remembering the time you fell asleep and snored during prayer group, the time you poured a waterfall of coffee down the front of your shirt during a meeting, the time you fell down an entire flight of stairs in front of your crush.

Instead of becoming complacent in our judgement of the people whom we deem to be the morons of the world, perhaps we could seek to discover a shared sense of awkwardness. Perhaps we could allow our mutual mistakes to be some of the ties that bind us together rather than wedges that drive us apart. 

Not that we should glory in stupidity. Not that we celebrate ignorance and folly. Not that we use human frailty as an excuse for bad behavior. Not that we confuse deliberate cruelty with mistakes or mistakes with bad choices.

It's just that by contemplating a sense of our own ridiculousness, we might be able to gain a little bit of perspective. 

Because as many times as we've scratched our heads over the absurd behavior of the people around us or have wanted nothing more than to shake our fists while screaming "Et tu, Brute?!" at the sky, it's good to remember that there are also days that we could direct that sentiment straight into the mirror. 

The fact that we make mistakes is not unique. Everyone makes them. We all screw up and fail and act like children. 

We mess up, and the people around us mess up.  

It's what we do.


It's not the making of mistakes but the handling of them that sets us apart, because how we handle mistakes -- whether our own or the mistakes of others -- says something about who we are and Whom we serve. 

So let's concentrate less on the mistakes themselves and more on whether or not we are responding with grace, compassion, and humor. 

Because demonstrating these three virtues is never a mistake.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Truths I've Learned from Romantic Comedies

As everyone knows, Romantic Comedies are completely realistic and utterly true-to-life. I'm very glad I've taken the time to learn from them, because despite the fact that my entire life has failed to conform to the reality that I've witnessed, these movies have had a huge impact on how I see the world.

Truths I've Learned from Romantic Comedies:

1. If I argue with a guy literally every time I see him, and listening to him talk just makes me want to bash his head in with a tire iron, we're probably destined for each other.
2. The more awkward and fraught with disaster the first meeting is, the more likely that he's my soul mate. (This is very good news for me.)
3. If a guy pushes me away, it is for some noble reason. I should keep loving him despite what my friends say. They are dumb and know nothing about love.
4. I can win an international dance competition against career professionals if I put in three solid weeks of training and fall in love with my dance partner. Being in love counts for more than actual skill, and all judges know this. Ditto figure skating.
5. In order to learn any new skill, it's absolutely necessary for a guy to put his arms around me. I should just expect this. 
6. It's okay to leave a healthy, committed relationship to a steady, hard-working prince of a man as long as the new guy I've met is super cute and instantly understands me better than people who have known me my entire life. (Bonus romance points if I meet him on the weekend of my own wedding.)
7. You can treat a guy however you want. If he loves you, he will put up with it.
8. On a related note, guys don't have to treat me well to win me. As long as they make a grand, romantic gesture at some point, all will be forgotten.
9. If a guy acknowledges that he doesn't deserve me, the joke's on him. That actually means that he does.
10. Sustaining any sort of injury is romantic. Ditto getting sick, ditto being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, ditto dying of cancer (during which time I will maintain my toned arms, carry 5% body fat, keep a full head of hair, and by some miracle the treatments I'm taking won't make my face swell up like a ball of dough. If my hair does fall out, though, that's okay too, because I will look really good bald.)
11. Spending a long time being separated from the one I love due to poor life choices, guilt, and/or misunderstandings is more romantic than maintaining a healthy, mutually-supportive relationship. Heartbreak always trumps contentment, because only after heartbreak comes real appreciation of love. And don't tell me that people who haven't torpedoed their own relationships know more about love than the rest of us. Because that's just ridiculous. 
12. It is possible to fall in love with a stranger during the course of a day.
13. It's okay if the person I love treats everyone else he knows like poo. As long as he's "different" with me, that's what counts. 
14. It's possible to change my significant other. The good news is that if he loves me well enough, change will come easily. 
15. The minute I've given up on true love is when I find my true love. So, really, why is everyone bothering to exert all this energy to find love? All you have to do is give up! That's the magic of love! (You're welcome.)
16. It is okay to lie a lot as long as I have a good reason. It actually makes me really noble. 
17. Likewise, it's okay if the man I love has lied to me about literally everything, including his own name. I still know the "real" him. (I know this is true because I kissed him, and that felt more real than all of his lies, so it's okay.)
18. As long as I have a really good reason for doing it, sneaking into a man's house or office in the middle of the night to steal something from him or spy on him isn't creepy or stalkerish at all. It's totally safe even if he's a virtual stranger, so don't worry about that. Also, he won't realize I'm there no matter how much noise I make accidentally knocking things over. (If he does happen to find me crouching in his closet behind his suits, though, that's okay too, because he will just think that I'm quirky and adorable. If he pretends to be mad at me, this is also a good sign -- see #1).
19. If a man compromises his principles to be with me, I should feel honored rather than humiliated, and this shouldn't make me worry about his integrity. At all. 
20. I will know when it's time for us to kiss, because the music will change.

I don't know what I would do if I didn't have the Truths of RomComs to fall back on. 

When life doesn't make sense, when I meet perfectly nice men in quirky ways and they don't ask for my number, when I meet creepy men in ordinary ways and they do ask for my number, when I fall and break my ankle and fail to meet a young and handsome medical student, when I realize that I must attempt to read a man's signals without a soundtrack to guide me, I do not despair. I remember that RomComs are real; therefore my experiences must be anomalies. The exceptions that prove the rule. 

I'm kidding, of course. 

My life is comedy, yes, but it's not a romantic comedy.

It's a real, actual life, full of high stakes and real consequences.

We all know that this list is full of terrible advice, and none of us in our right minds would buy into it. 

Would we? 

But let's say - just for the sake of argument - that some of this advice were valid. That some of the twenty items on this list were actual principles of romance.

Even if any of it were remotely true, would we care? 

It's important to remember that we're in the market for love, not just romance, and we're aware that there's a difference between the two. 

Love is the main course. Romance is the side dish. Love is the food. Romance is the spice. You need food before you can add spice.

Here's what RomComs get wrong, but I hope that you get right: 

Romance doesn't lead to love. Love leads to romance.

Romance raises the blood pressure and sends a pleasant swooping sensation through the stomach, but those reactions are temporary. 

Real love abides. 

Real love requires compassion, honesty, risk, effort, time, sacrifice. It is an abasement of self for the benefit of the one who is loved. It requires no sweeping, grand gesture, but instead fills every day with thousands of small reminders of this singular theme: you are loved.

Grand romantic gestures mean little if they are not backed by daily reminders of consistent, supportive love. Remember that God's plan to redeem us didn't just include one grand, sweeping gesture. Christ did come to die for us, yes, but the Grand Romance is based on much more than that one dramatic act. We're sustained day by day, hour by hour, and moment by moment by his abiding love. 

This is the pattern he's given us to follow in all relationships, romantic or otherwise.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not opposed to romance. Romance isn't evil and marriages are certainly no better by virtue of being dry and static, in the same way that food is not inherently more nutritious if it's lacking in flavor. While I don't think pepper is evil, I wouldn't want to sit down and eat a bowl of it. I like my pepper well enough, but I like it sprinkled in proper proportion on my food.

In keeping with last week's scheduling advice of putting the big things in first, let me encourage you to worry first about the main dish. Once it arrives, then you can worry about which spices to add in what quantities.

This is where RomComs get it wrong: They try to convince us that the spices are the meal

They also tell blatant lies about life, families, morals, cultural stereotypes, and the dynamics between men and women. 

But everyone already knows that.


Coming Soon:

*Truths I've Learned from Action Movies
*Truths I've Learned from SciFi
*Truths I've Learned from Korean Dramas

Friday, January 3, 2014

How to Fill Your Life

As a career single, I learned early on the value of keeping a busy schedule. Not only did keeping busy help me to sleep well at night, but it also lent a sense of vitality and zest to what could have otherwise been seen as a humdrum existence. I spent my twenties and early thirties in an endless whirl of work, travel, social functions, volunteerism, and many, many other activities. 

But just because my life was busy didn't mean that it was full. 

Busy doesn't always mean full, and full doesn't always mean good. After all, having a stomach full of cheese puffs and having a stomach full of chicken dinner are two very different matters. Both may fill you up for the moment, but only one will give you strength for the long haul.

Likewise, having a packed schedule can mean that you may feel satisfied in the moment but still wind up empty in the long run.

What I've had to learn is that there's a difference between filling your schedule and filling your life.

How to Fill Your Life:

There really is only one principle regarding how to fill your life, and it is that you must put the big things in first. As someone who has moved houses twice in the last year, I recognize this as a standard box-packing principle: once you've placed the largest items in the box, it then becomes easy to fit many smaller items in around them. 

So when you fill your life, remember to put the big things in first. 

To do this, you must first determine what is important. Notice that I did not say you must determine what is important to you. I said that you must determine what is important. 

Do not let postmodernism seduce you: your opinion is less relevant than reality. There are some aspects of life that are more important than others, no matter how you may happen to feel. 

So... what are the big things, you ask? 

Assuming a committed and growing relationship with God, I would say that the big things boil down to just two: people and truth.

  • People - The people God has surrounded you with are your primary ministry. You must live the Gospel to them every day. If you are too busy to do this--too busy to care for their souls, to pray both for and with them, to counsel them, minister to them, edify them, amuse them, comfort and confront them, actively love them--then you have failed to pack the big things first. Yes, the activities in your life can be avenues by which you expand that sphere of influence, but they can also be the very distractions that draw you from your purpose. Seek discernment to see the difference.
  • Truth - Living the Gospel to the people in your life is impossible if you are not daily rooted and grounded in truth. If you are too busy for real, substantial spiritual growth then it's time to repack your life. 
In planning this post, I had difficulty knowing how to order the above two points, but the limits of language being what they are, I had to mention one of them before the other. Lest you think that serving people is more important than growing in truth, however, let me say this: the two are meant to work symbiotically. 

Serving people drives us to grow in truth, and growing in truth drives us to serve people. If all we do is learn without serving, of what value is our knowledge? If all we do is serve without knowledge, what real assurance do we have that what we are investing our time in is actually in keeping with God's overarching plan? Furthermore, where will we draw the strength and fortitude necessary to continue in the face of opposition if we do not have a bedrock foundation of truth in which to anchor our souls? 

People and truth.

Truth and people.

Focusing on these two elements as you order your days can take you from having a full schedule to having a full life. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why I Don't Make New Year's Resolutions

God makes all things new.
Revelation 21:5
A few years ago, a student interviewed me for a school publication and asked me what my New Year's resolutions were going to be. He quoted me later as having said, "I don't make New Year's Resolutions because when I see something that needs fixed, I try to fix it immediately."

I realize in retrospect that this statement sounds sort of pompous. But it's true.

The world in which I live is all-or-nothing, black-or-white. When I feel convicted that change is necessary, I tend to respond immediately (or writhe in guilt for a few days before responding!) rather than waiting for an arbitrary date to roll around on the calendar.

Because the fact that it's technically a "new" year does not mean that in some mystical way I've suddenly spouted new founts of self-control and determination overnight. 

Let's be honest for a moment: making major change in lifestyle and routine will never be an easy thing, and it's certainly no easier just because the calendar tells us it's time for a "new" year. Major change requires  more than a date on the calendar. It requires conviction, fortitude, emotional stamina, accountability, and grit--the only qualities that will keep you holding the line long after the initial wave of enthusiasm has begun to ebb.

Far be it from me to discourage you from positive change! Instead, let me encourage you to make 2014 the year that you stop making "resolutions" and start making real, determined change as need arises. Instead of relying on yourself to foster change, seek help from above, from the one who made us and who alone is capable of making all things new. 

After all, he created the galaxies. He holds the atoms together. He's preserved the message of the Gospel down through generations. He's kept humanity from destroying one another and published his glory through the universe. 

If he can do those things, he can certainly help you make it to the gym a few times a week.