beach day in Australia

Happy New Year, friends.  I hope 2019 started well for you wherever you are. I can hear the whirring of our ceiling fan as I write this. We are in the middle of what promises to be a warm Melbourne summer. It feels good.

I love thinking about the past year before I start thinking about the new one. For me there is a necessary amount of reflection needed to move forward. It’s like I can’t begin until I’ve looked back. The Internet has a gazillion tools related to thinking about the past year and planning for the next one. But for me I love answering this question: What did I learn? Here are eight important lessons from 2018.

Small changes are everything

Ruth Chou Simmons of Gracelaced sums it up for me in an Instagram post, “We make progress when we make minor adjustments, repeatedly. Not seeing impressive fruit or immediate change isn’t failure; it’s formation.” I am clinging to this walking into 2019. Small shifts in the right direction. Fun fact: Since October I’ve been going live on Instagram Monday to Friday midday to chat about this topic, and you can follow along here.

There is a long chain of people and events that help guide our direction

The short story is that 2018 was the year I started thinking about teaching writing workshops. I explored possibilities (teaching women in prison how to write their story), and no one called me back. I tried other avenues and had a meeting or two that seemed promising, but then again, no one called me back. Then in a most unexpected way, a door opened in a place I did not seek out to teach a writing workshop. The first one is February 7. This is after 10 months of thinking (well, maybe a lifetime of thinking), some exploration, a few closed doors and a random email. But it began when I read the newsletter of a poet who wrote about teaching poetry in a women’s prison. It grew during another friend’s month-long stay with us and our many conversations about injustice. Dear friends and my husband validated the idea and encouraged me to keep going. Like all good things in my life, there was a chain of people who encouraged and loved and worked to bring this thing (slowly) to life.

Follow your instincts

One of the enduring lessons of adulthood is learning which instincts to follow and which ones to ignore, but learning to listen to the instincts that I know, that I know, that I know I need to follow have led to immeasurable joy. In the middle of the year, I had this feeling that I had to learn how to garden, and I had to ride a bike. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know that I could (I still don’t know if I can grow anything), but I knew I needed to try. I have. Both activities have been two of the best parts of the end of 2018. I look forward to much more of both in 2019.

I need my friends

Friendship in my 30s has been one of the sweetest gifts of my life. Yes, it unfolds at a different pace now, we all have less time for each other, but the slow work of building trust yields rewards. We all need those women who are going to stand with us, speak truth into our lives, ask us good questions, yank out weeds from our garden and laugh and laugh and laugh (and maybe watch the Royal Wedding together as well).

Go back to the doctor

I’ve always been a person who went to the doctor because of a problem and never went back. The first appointment is a general inquiry, there were usually tests done, but now I know it’s in the follow up appointments where two things happen: the doctor has to work harder to understand you, and you have to keep telling the truth about how you really are, about the treatment and whether or not it is working. This goes for mystery physical things and for emotional and psychological matters. Before this year I never went back. I thought I was too complicated. I thought things would get better on its own. In 2018 I saw my GP six times, and it led to a new kind of health and freedom in my life. I sprained my ankle and had to see a physiotherapist at least five times. It meant sitting with a medical professional who often took my health more seriously than I took it, and something about that forced me to take myself more seriously as well.

There’s no experience like losing someone you love

Two women I loved dearly died in 2018. Their lives are irreplaceable, and there is a grief in losing them that will never go away. It was a reminder that we are made by love, the love of God, the love of others. I feel so grateful to have known them and been loved by them.

Write it down

It doesn’t matter if it is an idea that came to me while I was driving or a longing I could voice to no one. If I wrote it down, I felt better. If I wrote it down, I was less resentful of people or circumstances. Somehow letting the ideas out, letting the words out helped me to live and helped me to realize I have more to do. If you want to know more about my journal and writing tools, I did a series of videos about that here.

Endings are hard, some endings are necessary

We are conditioned as a people to think that endings are all bad, which is why we delay our endings. We stay longer than we need to in organizations and relationships that cause death to our souls. This year we decided to end our commitment to something. It was a hard decision, one we put off for a long, long time, but I have a feeling it will lead to a beautiful beginning.

Well friends, that’s it for me today. I have a feeling I could write a blog post about each of these eight lessons. Would you like me to do that? Could you let me know in a comment or email? As always, please join the conversation over on Instagram. I’m on there almost daily.

Now tell me: What did you learn in 2018? 

gift giving Christmas thinking about others

My calendar tells me Christmas is a few weeks away, and it still surprises me even though I’ve known all year that it is coming. I had to go to our local shopping centre last weekend to buy (another) bag of cranberries, and I noticed how full it was at 11am. Throngs of people were out shopping the sales, wandering in and out of cheery stores, and posters were screaming at me: Buy this! Buy this!

I have only one philosophy for Christmas shopping. Get it done fast. Get it done early. Nothing can turn me into a grinch faster than navigating a parking lot on December 22. And it is so not the point. There is nothing about the western trappings of the Christmas holiday that can nurture the spirit of what Christmas is about.

Here’s how I see it. God becomes a baby to be with us. He is born to an impoverished, unwed teenage couple in a stable with animals. I’ve had two babies in a Swiss teaching hospital, complete with three course meals (best chocolate tarte I’ve had in my life) and nurses on call 24-hours a day. The thought of having a baby – God or my own – in a filthy shed with animals is unthinkable to me. But this is Christmas. It is the brightness of the star in the sky, it is the softness of swaddling clothes. It is the cries of a new born baby.

This is why we give gifts. This is the only thing that can get me excited about giving anyone a present, and here is a practical way that we apply it: A Gift Weekend.

Pick a weekend 

Set this weekend aside for gift giving. If you’re single, get friends together and do this with them. If you’re married, make it a fun thing you do with your spouse (and friends if you want). If you’ve got kids, involve them in this. There are no rules – do this in a way that suits your personality and your community. A Christmas PJ and cookie online shopping party? I would go. A tour of your local Christmas market with a view to getting all presents there? As long as there’s mulled wine, I would be there. Or the easiest option for us right now – an early (in the day because parking lots) trip to the local mall.

Set an amount 

Decide whom you’re buying for and how much you’re going to spend. When I have less money, my ideas are better and more creative. We give our kids $5-10 each to spend on each member of their family.

Give to others

Find something that you and your community can get behind and throw the weight of your love, energy and resources into it.

You can do it locally – find a soup kitchen where you can volunteer, find people who work in a local prison and give gifts to prisoners or their kids, partner with people in your community who are providing Christmas meals for people who cannot afford it. Or use your money to fund businesses or organizations that have gift catalogues and fundraising drives.

If you live in Australia, TEAR has the best gift catalogue – Useful Gifts. My kids will pore over it and seriously think about what they would love to get someone else in a different country. The physical catalogue is easy to read and understand – I highly, highly recommend it. We find it one of the most meaningful ways of nurturing an attitude of giving in our own hearts and in our kids’ hearts. (This is not sponsored, just our own experience.)

Wherever you live, there will be people who are reaching out to others at Christmas. Find them and partner with them.

Now it’s your turn: What do you love to do at Christmas to keep your mind focussed on what matters? Do you have any tips on how to get involved in the needs of your community? Please share them for all of us. 

I was chopping vegetables with my five-year-old a while ago when he told me a story. He began by referencing something we both heard that morning, but it was his interpretation of what he heard that caught my attention. It caught my attention so much that I could feel my physical anger reaction almost immediately.

My heart beat faster. My breaths shortened. My hands started to shake. I was angry. Within seconds I was forming a response. I wrote down what he said, I formulated the story for my husband, and I started composing a mental email.

I expect my child to be exposed to misogynistic thinking in advertising and television, I don’t expect him to face it here, I wrote in my head to people involved.

I listened to my son, and I let myself get angrier and angrier thinking about it. I was so angry that at some point I realized I was enjoying being angry and enjoying having a reason to be angry about a specific group of people. The evening went on, and when we had some privacy, I told my husband about the conversation. He suggested that perhaps I didn’t understand the context. He told me the story because he and my son had been there for the whole thing. He expanded out the boundaries I put around it.

I didn’t write any protest emails. I didn’t talk to anyone. I misunderstood the context my son was talking about because I wasn’t there for all of it.

The situation with my son didn’t need an angry email from me, but after my emotions settled, I could see something else.

My anger was pointing at something.

It was like an arrow directing my attention toward a situation, a bigger situation,  that needed to be addressed. The specifics here are not important, but I needed to be able to separate what I was getting angry about in the moment from what I actually needed to pay attention to. Because what it pointed at is something that required action.

The bigger picture involved an important decision we have to make. We needed to reflect on our reasons. This would mean many complex, sometimes difficult, discussions between us as a couple. It meant we needed to communicate that decision with others, people who may not understand or may be hurt by our actions. And there were many, many things in there that I needed to let go.

You don’t have to do much to find anger. Just turn on the news. Spin the dial on your radio. Listen closely to your friends. Pay attention to your emotions. We are an angry people. We know more, we feel more and that can keep us from seeing what we need to do. I wonder about your life and its specifics. What events or people push your buttons easily? What else could it be pointing to? Perhaps there is more action for you to take.

Being angry is easy, looking at what our anger is trying to get us to see can be so much harder, taking action can be harder still.

It requires our courage, vision and action. It means we need to slow down, let our emotions diffuse, let the anger go, but let the arrow remain. However difficult it may be for you to look at the thing anger wants you to see, dealing with it is what will bring freedom and peace.

Now it’s your turn: What is anger pointing at in your life? What steps do you need to take to deal with it? Is there someone with whom you could share this who could help you discern what to do next? 

sunrise melbourne australia setting goals

February is almost finished, and I’m still thinking about goals.  Here are a few things I’ve learned after eight weeks of 2018.

The domino effect: intentionality in one area leads to change in other areas.

Some of the small steps I take in other goals have led to other changes in my life, changes I wasn’t even thinking about. Here was my one, real parenting goal for the year: Smile at my kids. It’s simple and actionable, and only I am responsible for it. But making myself smile more at my kids helped me spend more real, playing time with them. It meant we got outside more. I felt more naturally inclined toward encouraging them. I helped my attitude. I think I feel happier and more content. One tiny goal is doing so much more in my life and relationships than I could have imagined.

The easiest goals to accomplish are the ones most clearly broken down.

My big project in January was finishing the kids’ playroom. I wrote down a detailed task list, and systematically assigned those tasks to weeks and days and powered through them. It was concrete. It was clear. It was relatively easy to accomplish. Some goals (see the next point) are less concrete, which makes it harder to work through in the same way. I still think the key is turning those bigger goals into tiny, bite-sized pieces, actionable in a day.

Resistance is real.

It’s what comes after you’ve chipped away at parts of your goal, but you still aren’t “there” yet. I’ve felt resistance most acutely with some of the bigger picture goals for 2018. I broke them down into smaller chunks, I attacked the chunks, and then I heard the questions. Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is going to work? Why should anyone listen to you about this? Dealing with these resistance voices has been the hardest part of working toward my goals this year. For any of your goals that require months or years of work, learn to expect resistance. And develop your plan for how to deal with it. I’m still struggling with this one, but my simplest plan is this: Keep doing the work.

The 80-20 principle.

I’m not trying to “not do this” or “do this” every day, for the whole year. I’m aiming for 80% of the time, and the grace to not do anything all the time has made it easier for me to push for the things I want.

I can only do one thing at a time.

January was my playroom month. As much as I tried to work toward writing goals, most of my capacity went to the playroom. I still did a few writing things on the side, but I can see now that I am just a one-thing person. Not everyone is like this, but for me to get through my days in a good way, I need to remember this and not make myself focus on more than one thing. You get to decide what works for you in what way it works for you.

Now it’s your turn: How are your goals working in 2018? Are you finding it easy to follow through? What’s working for you? 

How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard writes in The Writing Life. I know this because of Google and because of guilt because I, maybe like you, know how to guilt myself at the start of the year. Here it comes, the new year with all its promise and potential, here comes the list of ways I’m going to change. Here comes the list of all the ways I failed in 2017.

These kinds of maxims give insight into the rhythm of life; I believe Annie Dillard. But I also know what it is like to face down February with its slow and steady defeat, the list untouched, your soul, unchanged. I know what it is like to wonder if the sum of my days will be a complete and utter waste in the end.

I write here regularly about small changes, and the power these little steps have in my life for growth. I believe in small changes deeply, the kind you can do any time, anywhere. So here are four small changes for how to think about 2018 and whatever goals and plans you are making right now. Maybe you don’t have them and feel like you should. Maybe you’ve got a huge list and are excited or maybe you’re overwhelmed with your list already. Start here, and see if changing your thinking about these four areas brings freedom.

January 1 is not the start of your life changing. Every day is an opportunity for change, which means you can start on April 14 if you notice something then that needs growth in your life. You aren’t limited by the beginning of a new calendar year, neither are you pressured by it. You are free to change when you want and how you want. For some of us, the pressure of making each year intentional is too much. Maybe you need to dispel the myth that there is something magical about January 1. Maybe you need to go past January, let your days speak to you, give your circumstances time to marinate into you before you decide where and how you want to shift.

Begin with identity. Who are you? If your answer to that has to do with your occupation (accountant, chef or student) or your relational role in someone’s life (husband, wife, mother), may I gently suggest: Go deeper. Our roles are not our identity, neither is our vocation. Identity is given by a Creator when we were made, and I want my goals to connect back to who I am. When it comes to habits I want to break, I want to break them because this isn’t who God created me to be. When it comes to the things I want to pick up or put on, it is because this is who God created me to be. This is better fuel than the shame and guilt that can drive us to “get better” or “be different.”

Differentiate between goals and desires. Goals can only be set for matters over which I have control. It is something actionable by you not by someone else. A goal like “Have obedient children,” while a wonderful desire, will be a frustrating goal because my kids have their own will. I don’t get to determine how their attitudes are shaped or what they will choose. Hopefully one day they will pick “Obey my parents” as a goal for their lives, but until then, my kids’ actions and attitudes remain something I deeply desire. (Of course we communicate and correct hourly with the hope of an obedient end in our sons’ lives. But it is not a goal I name or even work toward at any point in the year.) I do have goals for myself as a mother, this year one of the big ones is to be intentional about using encouraging words with my kids. I can do this because it is entirely within my control, it is not based on the actions of others.

(A digression here about your desires – they are so deeply important. They are not to be ignored. Please write them down, please acknowledge them. If you struggle with even acknowledging you have desires, and that your desires might possibly be wonderful things, perhaps start with your disappointments. Behind every disappointment is an unmet desire. Follow your disappointments and they will lead you to your desires. It’s a powerful thing to name our desires, and I always try to do this in the pages of my journal at any point in the year.)

Make space on your list for fun. This year my fun list includes bake pies, have a spontaneous picnic, and go on a mom road trip with my sons. Most people I know put fun at the end of the list of things to do, and I get it. The older we get, the more those grown up responsibilities seem in reach. Save up and buy a house. Work for a promotion. Find a spouse. Have kids. These are all great things, but there is something soul killing about a list that only requires you to work and work and work. Maybe one gift you can give yourself in 2018 is to let your desires speak to you. Make one goal a fun goal, something that will “accomplish” nothing except to have loads of fun.

Now it’s your turn: Do you make resolutions or intentions for the new year? What’s one small change you can make to make those things possible? What did you think of these four small changes? Relevant to your life or not? I would love to hear what you think. 

You know I like to find my teachers, and when I think about 2018, someone who has taught me a lot in the past week is Elise Blaha Cripe. She’s got two stories in her highlights on Instagram (you’ll only be able to see this on your phone via the app), the five-year-plan video and the 2018 goals one have been hugely helpful for me in thinking through my list for next year.

If you want to read more about small changes, you can start here: