I commented the other day that we’re in the middle years; though we’re nearing the end of our thirties, and by all standards still fit into the “young” category, it feels like we’re right in the middle. And though “middle aged” has a bunch of connotations about grey hair and going all in for a red sports car, there is something both mundane and beautiful about being in the middle.
We’re past the baby-rearing stage, and we glimpse the teenage years barreling towards us. Our parents will have health flare-ups but we’re not yet sandwiched between launching children and caring for parents. But the years of going to weddings and baby showers have slowed. We don’t spend our weekends traveling for parties or attending themed galas.
We’ve been married long enough to know that there will be cycles of intimacy, distance, and clinging to one another for grace. That, as our marriage grows and deepens it does so in the normal day-to-day activities of making each other coffee, sacrificing our whims for the good of the other, for planning date nights and sex and learning to be silly when the weight of the world feels like it’s on your shoulders. These are the small ways love looks in the middle.
I’ve fought the middle for a long time. The way it feels so predictable and boring. Raised on Disney stories and my own idealistic and unrealistic expectations about love, marriage, parenting, and friendship, I thought the thrill would never leave. What I’m finding is we have a choice in the middle years: will I yearn for the early years when everything was fresh and full of promise, or will I patiently practice love in all the intervening small spaces of self-sacrifice? Will I try to make someone (a friend, a child, a mate) into someone they’re not or will I love them as they are?
The middle can be boring. It’s often unsexy. It lacks the thrill of the beginning when all was new. But it hasn’t yet arrived at the warm full-bodied sense of glory that’s waiting at the end.
I want other people’s stories of life in the middle. I want stories that will seep into my bones about the goodness of the gospel in the ordinary, daily moments. I want stories about people, places, and things — nouns that show us that living a life of faith is possible right in the ordinary.
Today, I’m living in the middle. Of course it’s lost its sheen, but that is not the point. We are headed somewhere together and all good journeys take a deep breath and dig in for the middle. It’s in the middle where you really catch your stride. It’s in the middle where a stalwart confidence and deeply grounded sense of self grow.
So I make coffee for my husband as he leaves early to set up for church. I’ll pour cereal for my children and teach Sunday School. I’ll reach out to new faces at church and stay to welcome them, and I’ll know my children can play unattended for a bit in these middle years. We’ll come home and rest our bodies and I’ll cuddle up with my big boys for movies. This is the bodily language of the middle and it, too, is a gift.
Kate James’s novel, Can You See Anything Now?, is one of those novel BFF’s. You will not want to miss it.
For forever, I have lamented the sad state of Christian novels — or most novels that have any Christian storyline. Many don’t reckon with real feelings, real people, and real doubts.
Kate James’ book totally delivers — it’s a book that takes faith seriously with full-bodied, broken and beautiful characters. You won’t want to miss it!
Katherine James has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University where she received the Felipe P. De fellowship and taught undergraduate fiction, and while her concentration was in fiction, she enjoys writing poetry and essays just as much. Some of her poetry and narrative non-fiction is published in various anthologies and journals.
Can You See Anything Now? follows a year in the small town of Trinity where the tragedy and humility of a few reveal the reality of people’s motivations and desires. This is a story without veneer, and for readers who prefer reality to sanitized fiction–this book is unsentimental, and yet grace-filled. The characters here are complex and intriguing — the suicidal painter, Margie, who has been teaching her evangelical neighbor, Etta, how to paint nudes; her husband, the town therapist, who suspects his work helps no one; and their college-aged daughter Noel — whose roommate, Pixie, joins them at home for a winter holiday, only to fall prey to tragedy.
My take — (I ate it up in a few days):
Dear reader, if you want a calm, cool, collected veneer of a story this is not it. There’s real stuff in her novel: cutting, attempted suicide, curse words. But you know what else there is? There is an honest look at real life as well as a hopeful, redemptive narrative of the lives of men and women (and a town). Go buy this book.
Want in on the process of writing a novel? Kate James was kind enough to answer some questions about the book.
So you wrote a novel. Why?
There were certainly moments when I asked myself this very thing—especially when I was a few chapters in and my characters were about as exciting and complicated as astro turf. However, when something I’m working on starts to gain traction and the characters, rather than standing in line waiting their turn to make it to the page, begin splitting off in their own directions to do their quirky things—for example, one guy takes a leak in the middle of a street at midnight, another can’t stop applying for a spot on The Cupcake Wars—I honestly start to have a blast. It’s fun. I like writing.
What was the inspiration for Can You See Anything Now?
It began with an image. There’s a lake in the neighborhood I live in now. It’s a small lake and I pass it every afternoon when I take a walk. I usually try to pray while I’m walking but sometimes my mind will wander because there’s so much beauty around me. About half a mile into my walk, there’s a short bridge that crests at a hill and once over it a valley suddenly appears and you see the lake, like an enormous silvery puddle, before you.
There’s also a swimming raft in the middle of it. So there it was, the beginning of Can You See Anything Now?
Good question. I’ve just completed a memoir, Notes on Orion, so as far as writing goes, I’m in a short stall at the moment. Presently, I’ve enjoyed spending more time teaching and leading writer’s workshops. As far as my next writing project, I have a manila envelope full of notes for another novel. I think a lot about what the general plot will be and what the characters will be like. The novel will take place in Trinity, the town I wrote about in Can You See Anything Now? and includes many of the same characters.
Friends, I’m so excited for you to read Catherine McNiel’s book: Long Days of Small Things. I’ve introduced you to some great books by my friends Dorcas Cheng-Tozun (on start-ups and marriage) and Beth Bruno (on raising girls).
Her book, Long Days of Small Things, is a must for every mother who has felt the beauty, the monotony, and the blessing in doing small things on many long days.
I don’t know about you, but I am hungry for words to help me live this mothering life well. You’ll find that in Catherine’s book.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
In each chapter Catherine tells stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. She looks at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and considers how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Guess what friends? I get to give a copy away!!
Here’s what you need to do: simply put in your email here (or comment if you’re already a subscriber) and you’ll be entered to win! Giveaway ends in one week.
Win a copy!!
Want to hear more?
Catherine was so kind to answer a few questions about her book:
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. The day of candy hearts, overpriced roses, and a whole host of feelings emerge on the same day that the church calendar calls us to gather in community, to reckon with our mortality, and to repent.
It’s just the sort of confluence that gets me thinking and writing.
Memory is a strange thing — the way it picks and chooses what to remember, how it distorts and puts the puzzle of real life back together in its own way. On one particular Valentine’s Day in high school, I remember feeling more woman than girl, with a fancy red top. I met my boyfriend (now husband) at the bottom of the stairs, his flowers and photo collage in hand. His jaw dropped. We’d been a couple for six months, which of course is a lifetime in high school romances.
That was what romantic love was then — demonstrative acts of adoration, feeling sexy, clinging to another person to save you. It was fancy dinners and longing.
Love was not yet what it could and would be. It was but a shadow of what Love is.
Love looks different now. This year, twenty Valentine’s Days past that one, I’m going to be spending it in the parking lot of our local elementary school because this year, Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday. Since our church plant meets at the local elementary school and we can’t get space to meet mid-week, we’re meeting in the parking lot.
As the wife of the pastor, I first asked (not very nicely), “What? For real? We’re meeting in the parking lot?”
Yet, I suppose it makes sense — and in a way that is about more than just scheduling. What other space is as mundane, as common, as the asphalt at a local elementary school?
So, I will line up behind a bedraggled group of suburbanites in the local elementary school parking lot, trying to wrangle our kids so we can bring all of who we are to be marked by the reminder we too often forget: we are but dust and to dust we shall return.
If you’re longing for your Lenten season to have purpose, or if you’re curious about practicing Lent in positive life-giving ways, I’ve created “40 Ways to Love Your Suburb” and it’s FREE just this week. To get it, enter your email and it’ll come to you on Ash Wednesday — whether or not you’re gathering in a parking lot.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun’s book, Start, Love, Repeat, is a practical, empathetic, smart look at the life of entrepreneurs and their families.
How do we combine what we love to do and those whom we love without sacrificing either?
Start, Love, Repeat is specifically for couples in which one or both partners are entrepreneurs, but don’t worry if you’re not an entrepreneur — the research and advice are applicable for any couple who struggles to balance the work they love with the people they love.
And who has got this thing called “balance” figured out?
Dorcas wrote Start, Love, Repeatbecause there weren’t any books out there that dealt with what it looks like to nurture both a demanding career that can eclipse life outside of work as well as family life.
Start, Love, Repeat is organized by the phases of start-up life and it’s a smart book that combines research, personal stories, and helpful information for entrepreneurial couples.
We tend to stereotype entrepreneurs as uniformly young and single, but the truth is that nearly 70 percent of business founders have spouses, life partners, or children—all of whom, whether they like it or not, are living the start-up life.1 Those who choose to be with entrepreneurs invite things into their lives they may never have wanted: financial instability, uncertainty, stress, and the nagging sense that they are always playing second fiddle to the greater lure of their partner’s business.
You need a guide to making it and Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is just that.
Let me tell you one little secret…
Start, Love, Repeat isn’t just a book for entrepreneurs. It’s a book for adults. For anyone who lives a real life and is trying to figure out what and how to prioritize personal lives with work lives.
It’s a fabulous resource for ministry families. I’ve felt the dearth of good books to help a pastor and their spouse weather the challenges of always being available for ministry.
Starting a church is a whole lot like starting a business. We need good resources to help give us language to know what’s going on, that we’re not alone, and some tips to keep moving forward.
This should definitely be on your to-read list for 2018.
Dorcas was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book, Start, Love, Repeat:
Why is the start-up journey so difficult for couples and families?
There is nothing quite like starting a business from nothing. It requires entrepreneurs to lay almost all of what they have and who they are on the line: financially, professionally, but also emotionally. They’re signing up for a heavy load of uncertainty, stress, and responsibility.
Significant others, whether or not they are entrepreneurial themselves, are inevitably pulled into these risks. Being with an entrepreneur forces you to confront your own issues around security, money, quality of life, self-confidence, control, and more—all at the same time. Unsurprisingly, such couples almost always have challenges around conflict, communication, and decision-making, even while neither partner is operating at their best because they’re so stressed.
In addition, spouses often feel like they’ve been demoted or replaced because running a company is such an all-consuming vocation. Imagine: the person you considered your life partner has entirely dedicated him- or herself to another entity. More than one therapist I interviewed said it was comparable to your spouse having an affair. That feeling of betrayal can lead to deep, longstanding wounds if not proactively addressed.
How did writing this book change your perspective on your own marriage?
As a perpetual pessimist, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the hardships of my marriage. I find myself counting the sacrifices, the inconveniences, and the ways in which I have been hurt.
But as I reflected on our last twelve years together, I saw how—even though there were plenty of ugly episodes along the way—our relationship has matured and been positively transformed because of all that we’ve been through. Ned and I were forced to confront personal weaknesses, mismatched expectations, and conflict early on in our relationship. Thankfully, we were both willing to make adjustments along the way, and we have been able to move closer toward a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.
I also saw how profoundly Ned cared for me each step of the way, even when I felt isolated and neglected. I realized how he had done so many things, big and small, to try to make things easier for me or to respect my wishes. He has made plenty of sacrifices as well, like booking crazy flight itineraries so he could get home twelve hours earlier, or saying no to amazing business opportunities so he would have more time to spend with our kids and me.
Being married to Ned has also pushed me to live with more boldness and courage, and to take more risks. I don’t think I would have been able to write this book without Ned encouraging me and cheering me on along the way.
What are some of the most important things that an entrepreneur can do for his or her significant other?
Many entrepreneurs’ spouses live with an underlying worry that their partner loves the business more than him or her. Anything an entrepreneur can do to counter that belief, to communicate, “I love you and I appreciate you” is important. This could come in the form of choosing to leave work and turn off your phone at a decent hour so you can spend the evening with your family. Or perhaps you intentionally seek advice from your significant other on aspects of the business to show that you respect his or her opinion. It could be intentionally helping around the house or demonstrating your affection through words and actions.
One therapist I interviewed used the word loyalty, which I love. Loyalty, to me, means that you are committed to this relationship now, as opposed to some distant future when you think you’ll have more time. Loyalty means that you, my spouse, are essential in my life, and I am willing to take the necessary steps to make sure you know that.