Times of Joy, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


Happily Even After

Times of Joy


August 26, 2010

We have had a “helluva” summer.  What was supposed to be three and a half months of down time at home and at the office – kicked off with a fun vacation at the beach – turned into multiple funerals and cross country trips by car and by plane. And it probably goes without saying that trips of that magnitude didn’t result in a lot of downtime at the office.  We seemed to be endlessly returning from a trip or getting everything in order to leave for a trip. 

I actually remember a moment back in early June, sitting on our front porch on a heavenly Saturday afternoon.  I mean it was completely idyllic.  Kids playing in the yard.  Flowers we planted blooming.  Perfect 70-degree weather, sunshine and not a cloud in sight.  It was just one of those moments when you are completely…complete.  At peace with yourself and your life; fully conscious and aware of what a precious gift you are experiencing and thankful to God for it.  I remember that moment, because it was the last time I remember feeling that way for the last two and a half months.

Until last weekend.

A friend and co-worker offered us her timeshare at a beach condo out of nowhere.  She had it booked and ended up not being able to use it and figured we could use a getaway. She just gave it to us.  Free.  A completely gratuitous gift.  So we packed up the family, sand toys, rubber boots and jackets (this is Oregon, not Florida) and headed to the coast for some family time–something we just haven’t had in a couple months. 

After driving for a few hours, we arrived in the mid-afternoon, and settled in quickly.  Then we headed straight for the beach.  Now, I had never been to this beach.  And, I come from a land (Florida) of magnificent beaches.  But I had simply never seen anything like the beach at Newport, Oregon.  After parking on a bluff, descending several sea stairs, and climbing over an enormous dune, you are faced with a landscape of 3-4 feet high mini-dunes rolling (is that the right verb to describe dunes?) down to the Pacific.  It looked like a half or quarter scale Tatooine desert (Star Wars reference for those who have no 30-50 year-old men or Lego-addicted little boys around).

We plodded through the warm sand over the ridges of one dune after another until we chose our spot in the middle of nowhere.  We were surrounded by nothing but sand and water. (Seriously, there were so few people, it was amazing to feel so alone on a public beach!) The children were as completely fascinated with the landscape as we were.  Oscar started exploring, Simon was discovering how to slide and jump down little dunes, and little Lucy treated them like rock walls she wanted to climb. 

Which left us with very little to do besides Joshua laying his head in my lap as I sat on our blanket.  There we were: watching our children, marveling at the beautiful late afternoon light, the piercingly clear day, the soft warmth of the sand through our toes, the relentless waves of the Pacific, the complete and utterly gratuitous gift of it all. 

It was one of those moments: at peace with yourself and your life; fully conscious and aware of what a precious gift you are experiencing and thankful to God for it.  In the face of such an abundance of grace, could a person want anything more?  Then I realized, in addition to all the blessings of nature, a healthy happy family, a surprise getaway, and remarkable weather in Oregon…I get to share it all with Joshua, the love of my life.

Some people search and search for love, for someone with whom they can share life.  I was given Joshua at a relatively early age and we share so much that it is almost easy to take it for granted. But not in a moment like this. I can sigh in contented wonder at this utter gift of a moment, and he can touch my leg to let me know he knows.  Without a word from him, I am no longer a solitary being in my reverie, but part of an indwelling community of love.  I am known.  And the only response to that is gratitude.

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Restorative Niche Activities

Restorative Niche Activities

Winter is just sitting on top of us like a mean big brother who does not really care how “un-fun” the game has become. He is bigger than us and we just have to deal with it. I am an only child, so this is an entirely made-up scenario – but it seems plausible.

It is hard to wake up each day to another dark, cold morning, get children to school on slick roads or through snow, then off to work, only to pick up children, hope to get home before dark, make supper, do homework, bedtime routine, and then repeat. Granted, this is more or less what 75% of the year looks like, but somehow it is harder in February and March. As parents we can just feel devoid of energy and inspiration—empty.

That emptiness makes it very hard to be at out best for our children and our spouses.

We often tell ministry students, “You can’t minister from an empty cup,” meaning you have to attend to taking care of yourself and then minister from your overflow. Otherwise you are working from a deficit that will never be replaced (Bernard of Clairvaux).

In marriage and family life we do not always get the opportunity to fully attend to ourselves—to fill our cups. We rarely have the time and energy to exercise as much or even when we might want to; to pray as much, when, or even in the manner we might feel called; or to meet up with friends, go on retreat, or travel. We don’t even get to dictate our own sleep patterns!

One of the ways Joshua and I have begun to help one another in this regard is to carve out space for “restorative niche activities.” This is a phrase used by Matt Bloom, a sociologist whose research helps ministers flourish in ministry. It describes activities that meet two criteria: they are activities that we do well enough to pursue a sense of mastery; and they are activities that we do out of intrinsic motivation—simply for the joy we experience in the activity itself.

A variety of activities can be restorative, such as knitting, golf, painting, gardening, or model railroading. Bloom advises that for a restorative niche to really contribute to our flourishing, we need to engage in it regularly. Regularly, for him, means at least once a week.

Now if you are like me, one of the hardest parts of practicing restorative niche activities is just finding out what yours are. Josh’s is easy—baseball. He is part of an informal league that plays during summer, and he likes to make it to the batting cages when he can in the “off-season.”

I was happy to find an activity that suits the winter weather: ice-skating. I love playing on the ice. It is something that I do well enough that it is fun, and something that I would enjoy doing even better. When I am on the ice trying out new things, I totally lose track of time. That is one of the hallmarks of a true restorative niche—losing track of time.

This winter, Joshua has encouraged me to carve out a day or two each week to ice skate during the noon hour. It really is a lovely break from the day. It is refreshing in a way that has nothing to do with exercise and everything to do with clearing my mind and focusing on something for its own sake, not for a specific outcome.

The busy-ness of contemporary family life and its attendant stressors make it almost impossible not to be focused on goals and outcomes. We often need to plan our days out minute-by-minute so that everything fits. Our lives would be a mess without some sense of order and effort at planning and execution.

Restorative niche activities remind us how to play. How to just do something for its own sake and find ourselves in the fun of it. One of the ways Joshua and I support each other in marriage is by encouraging each other’s full flourishing. Just because the demands of parenting can easily become all-consuming does not mean that we should entirely lose our identity as individuals.

When we are whole in ourselves, when our “cups are full,” we are able to give not from a deficit but from our overflow. Such is the abundance of God’s love.


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