The Unearned Gift

A true story!

July 2016, Minnesota

The texts flew as six of my old high school girlfriends decided to convene at the “old Sunsets” for dinner on a Tuesday night. No matter that it wasn’t called Sunsets anymore – the inside décor might have changed, but the setting near the lake, railroad tracks, and ice cream shop was the same.

Once we sat down we slid easily into laughter and conversation: which of us looked the most hip despite being 40; which of us re-met the other’s old boyfriend at the last reunion. We drank wine and cocktails and ordered fancy pizzas and arugula salads with goat cheese that we could have never afforded at 18.

And then the unexpected happened. A man sitting three tables down and dining alone sent the waitress over to buy us a round of drinks. He said, via the waitress, that I looked beautiful and we were all enjoying ourselves and he wanted to do something nice.

We laughed a bit uncomfortably. Said no thanks, we were driving home soon, but so sweet, and thank you, and gave a wave. “I don’t have cancer,” I told the waitress. “I have alopecia, that’s what has made me lose all my hair.”

Actually this happens to me all the time. I get to the front of the Chipotle line and the cashier says my lunch is on them. I get handed t-shirts and free gifts and drinks and dessert. People think I have cancer and when asked, I tell them the truth, and then ask if they are a survivor (they usually are, or they’ve lost someone who is).

I’ve had to get comfortable receiving gifts. It’s really hard most of the time. Especially because I feel like I don’t deserve them.


Back at the restaurant we resumed our laughter about trying to rein in our competitive nature at our kid’s sporting events, and then the waitress dropped some news on the table.


The man, not to be dissuaded, had proceeded to buy our entire dinner. $280 dollars worth.


My good friend wrung her hands and protested. “It’s not right, it’s too much.”


And it was true.


And yet this is the lesson I’ve had to learn, kicking and screaming the past few years. God’s grace – bigger and more encompassing than we can ever imagine, a forgiveness of our wrongdoing, a love all-encircling, a promise that we will be held through it all – is never earned. It is only received.

I’ve had to practice receiving gifts these past few years. It hasn’t always been easy to accept what is offered. To know that I am undeserving, and yet. To see others suffering, and be given abundance again, and again.


I am practicing.


May you open your heart this holiday season to the unearned gift. May you unclasp your hands to receive it. And may you gift someone else with light and hope.





Slippery Slopes

When we came back from vacation we saw little dusty remains from an animal’s meal on our back deck. I knew something had been busy out there chewing acorns, and I watched and waited.

Squirrels! The next week, my boys were busy collecting acorns for the squirrels and heaping them in a pile. Then that heap seemed more civilized on a plate. Every morning at breakfast we watched the squirrels munching away (cute little creatures!) and hoped that we weren’t creating hawk bait.

When the biggest sunflower in our little front deck was ready, we dried the seeds. We thought the squirrels would like them too. The feast was tremendous! We loved watching those two squirrels gobble away.

Next day: the squirrels found their way onto our little front deck, climbed the remaining three sunflowers, bent them to the ground, and pooped all over. The following day: havoc in our neighbors sunflower patch and corn stalks. For four months they didn’t even know the front deck or the sunflowers even existed, now this.

“We’ve created a monster.” I admitted to my husband.

The trickiest part about slippery slopes is they sneak up on me. I don’t realize how bad things are until well, they’re bad. And how the little choices I’ve made consciously or unconsciously feed into a life of their own.

This summer the company I work for got busier and busier, and I took on more responsibility troubleshooting with clients, and for the management of the business. And then, after a particularly hard day, I felt profoundly resentful. My compensation was misaligned to the troubleshooting I was doing, and somehow, the harder my job was –  the more nuance I had to bring to it each day – the less I was getting paid. It wasn’t ill-will on anyone’s part – it was just a series of small things that added up to … a slippery slope. A series of choices I’d taken – and in most of the cases – just stepped up to handle without being reflective on what was happening – that ended in pure resentment. Slippery slopes.

My friend Zohary Ross is leading a series in a couple of weeks on the Daring Way – a curriculum developed by Brene Brown and facilitated by select leaders (like my friend) that have gone through a rigorous screening and training process. In a video we watched highlighting some of the material covered in the curriculum Brene told about a ring she was wearing. She said something like this (paraphrased):

“I bought this ring for myself to remind me – choose Discomfort over Resentment.”

What a great reminder that resentment is always a slippery slope of my own making. Sometimes it’s easy to see where I should say no – when the teacher asks me to be the room parent (still super hard, but I did it, I declined). But harder for me is seeing a need, and just stepping in to meet it. And then another. And another. And soon enough resentment stings me on the head – at work or at home.

Choose Discomfort over Resentment.

If you’re local and interested in joining me on the 8-week journey into Brene’s work on the Daring Way, check out this link!

Big Trees

I grew up in Minnesota, and Labor Day firmly marks the end of summer. So, despite my kids having finished their second week back at school, it still feels like this weekend marks the end.

I’ve been reflecting on all the good moments this summer – beaches, mountains, corn fields, family, friends – and as I flew back from my latest trip of delicious nuzzles with my baby nephew I read an article in Sunset magazine on the “Lost Coast” of Northern California.

The author Daniel Duane stood under the immense redwood trees and felt the “cathartic understanding of the immensity of creation and also of one’s blessed insignificance.”

That’s how I feel about God.

That when I am most connected, I am awe-struck with pure amazement at the creation surrounding me, and at the same time, reminded that I am but a small blip in time on this earth and this world that is beyond understanding. And then there’s the word blessed. That too. That though I am a grain of sand in this universe, I am pre-approved.

Big Trees.

We visited the park by that name this summer too, and I stood beneath those giants, awestruck.

What a gift to be reminded of the vast beauty of this world, to get perspective.

Summer for me is about relaxing, and also getting perspective. Nature helps. So do mountaintops, grains of sand, and staring at the amazing city that I love from the window of an airplane.

The Power of Story

Today I had the pleasure of watching the SF Mime Troupe perform in Glen Park. Our family’s real reason for attending was an entrepreneurial venture inspired by our six-year-old (selling fresh-picked blackberries!) but I sat and enjoyed the drama.

The story was complex – capturing three different people living in San Francisco in a time of conflict between housing, jobs, and a renewed tech boom – and the place of individual choice in the midst of such big forces. And it was fun! The story, the characters, all of it.

Afterwards (before the berry-selling bonanza) I was passed a flyer that made me feel a bit nostalgic. It was a flyer detailing the travesties against a worker/organizer in Mexico. It made me remember myself in a younger time, marching from Leon to Managua, Nicaragua in a now-forgotten protest. And now, despite the detail of the person on the flyer, and the detail of the U.S. government’s military involvement in Mexico, I wasn’t moved to action.

But I kept thinking about the SF Mime Troupe’s performance – a timely commentary on the complexity of life in today’s city of dreams.

Today on the radio I heard that Sea World was making some changes to its policies and treatment of its large mammals – due to declining attendance, and to the increased media and public attention brought by the documentary Blackfish.

Jeff and I watched the movie. It was terrible. And though we couldn’t speak much about it afterward, the one sentence we did utter was this: We are never taking our family to Seaworld.

The power of story.

There are story-tellers in our midst. You are likely one of them. And the fact that I’ve realized today is that there are many truths that only story-tellers can convey. I will read a flyer on a Mexican worker-organizer and I will forget it tomorrow. But this story about my City, this story about this whales, I will never forget.

Jesus was a story-teller. Not a flyer-passer-outer. But someone who told lots and lots of stories. There is meaning is this. Because in stories, there is truth to be found in the nuances.

I went on a prayer retreat and we examined the story Jesus told of the prodigal son.  What was so amazing about the retreat was the way that the story filled us – as we looked at the same story from different angles – from the son who went away and wasted the fortune (and was then embraced wholeheartedly), the son who stayed, and finally the father. Stories are so powerful because they are alive – and it’s hard for me to imagine that a story that it thousands of years old still has power and meaning for me. Yet it does.

Robin Williams died this week. He’s a bit of a local son in San Francisco, and we are talking about him and mourning him. He was a strory-teller too. Don’t be afraid to tell your story, and the stories that move you. In the end, they are the only thing that will!

The Stories we Tell

My heart is bursting today with the birth of my best friend’s daughter. And earlier today, I spent time with great-grandpa – who at 94, has had a longer twilight years than most.

Spending time with great-grandpa has got me thinking a lot about the stories we tell. Grandpa’s memory is failing, and so in any period of time visiting with him, I may hear the same story many times. About his darkroom. About the squirrel outside his window. About his love and learning of the Chinese language. I love them all.

Then there are those stories whose truth (however far from reality) are told by the teller –  the “blacks” that moved into his old neighborhood and changed it, the health that changed with the fall from a ladder.

It’s easy to judge a man at the end of his life, but the truth is, I’m a story-teller too.

I write, name things, put labels on the world around me. Often, I get praised for it. For telling a story that others are feeling. For naming something. But there is also a dark side of story-telling.

This past week one of my sons has been particularly cantankerous. We’ve asked him when he turned into a moody pre-teen. I’ve called him grumpy – many times! And though this is definitely my truth as I see it, I’ve realized that this label may not be the vision I want to create.

For in calling him, labeling him, grumpy – he may define himself that way. And then, my truth become his truth. And ain’t it hard to find the joy when you keep remembering the moments when you are grumpy?

Because the stories we tell about the past and the present – they definitely impact the future.

Now I want to take a minute to give a disclaimer here. I’m not talking about the hard truths that need to be told – the ugly stuff that must be brought into the light. Or the friends or family that need to be confronted with love.

I’m talking about how we characterize our life – and the labels we put on it and those around us.

Like a woman with failing memory, I tell the same stories again and again – only mine reside deep within my head and subconscious.

I’m an angry mom.

Health is something I need to work towards.

I need the approval of other people.

And the more they replay in my brain, the more truth they hold over me.

Each summer I work through the book “Your Heart’s Desire” by Sonia Choquette, and use the workbook to try and discern my goals and focus for the coming year, in all realms of my life. Sonia talks a lot about identifying those stories and myths that we tell ourselves – and reframing them. She states that change follows intention.

I believe that too.

Mantras, beliefs, memory verses. Language has power. Stories define us. And I get to change the story.

My son feels deeply.

I’m a calm mom.

I’m enough.

God is greater.

At the end of your days, how do you want to define your story?


Fear of Going Back (on Joy, Preserved)

A number of years ago, when my youngest was just two years old, our family took a trip out to pick blueberries.

It was an epic day. The sun was shining upon us, and our delighted boys tottered through the rows, filling their tiny pails overflowing with blue fruit, and staining their fingers with the pure goodness of it. We stumbled upon a public park on the way back from the farm – the kind in those (hot!) places that sprays water from the ground for kids to frolic. Those frozen delicious blueberries lasted us half the year, and we chronicled the moment in our Christmas cards. It was good.

Blueberry picking was on our “summer” bucket list, so I looked at our calender and made it happen last weekend. We made the long drive out to the farm with so many great memories, and got our buckets ready. Only there was nothing to pick. The main bushes had been picked clean, and what was left on the scraggly ones were either dried out, or sour and under-ripe. The saving grace was a strawberry patch adjacent, and we did fill buckets of strawberries, and ate ourselves full – only to find husband making jam at midnight since those berries were going off fast.

I gave sincere thanks to God that I kept from nodding off as I drove home, and we returned from the 4-hour round trip journey feeling a bit defeated, and a lot tired.

I almost wished I had retained that day in my memory, instead of trying to recreate the joy.

We are going on vacation in a couple of days, and if I’m being honest, I’m feeling a bit anxious.

You see, we’re going back to the place my husband and I got married – a special little out-of-the-way island on the East Coast. Nine years ago, the experience was magical. We spent a week on the island, celebrating and relaxing and entertaining close family and friends – and making our vows to each in other, in a ceremony that I was surprised (given how long we had already known each other) at how different it made me feel.

I’m afraid to go back.

I don’t want to compromise the joy of the place, or my memories of it.  I’m worried that it won’t be as good as last time (of course it won’t!). I’m worried that something will happen, an inter-relational blow-out, that will sit on top of (and black out) the good memories I want to keep locked in my heart.

Brene Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection) talks a lot about sabotaging joy – including discounting present joy by worries that something bad will happen. My fears of erasing the past are just another way of sabotaging joy. Wanting to lock away my good memories in a vault is hampering me from fully sinking into the joy of this day. Now.

And yet there’s something to be said for not trying to recreate magic. Because in the end, each day is a different one. And if I’m always looking back as my reference point, I will likely miss the present now.

So I’m going on vacation, even a bit reluctantly. And I pray that God will help me enjoy each unfolding moment. Just. As. It. Is.

Life, in Rhythm

One of the things I’ve come to love about my soccer team is that there aren’t a lot of subs. Occasionally that makes for tense moments to know if we even have enough women to play any given week (7 is the minimum). And of course playing with 8 vs. 11 can make things, well, fatiguing.

Now that I’m in a bit better shape (thanks Gretchen and Kathy, my running buds!) I love to play the whole 90 minute game.

There’s a rhythm that comes into it. Sometimes I get a slow start. Then, beating others to the ball. Getting beat and making adjustments to cover that player (we’re old but we’re slow: team motto). Resting when the ball is at the other end. Discerning the moments to accelerate, and those to jog and recover. Amazingly, in this ebb and flow, 90 minutes can go by quickly.

Our coaches’ coach from last week made another keen observation: international players have an advantage over U.S. players – because they grow up playing the entire full-length soccer game.  They have to play through fatigue, and do the hard work of keeping possession.  They learn to rest when the ball is “away”. Meanwhile in the U.S. our youngest players through collegiate level are taught to go full-out, then get subbed, and then come into the game again.

In other words, go full-out – chase that ball as hard as possible – and then get off the field. Repeat.

Don’t it sound like life?

I was feeling particularly burned out this week at work and was feeling the tempting (if fleeting) desire to quit completely. Make it stop. Step out.

Quitting is always a tempting option for me. I tend to overcommit myself, get burned out, quit all my commitments, go quiet for a while, start to feel bored/antsy and start the race all over again.

I’m beginning to realize that this life is more about rhythm than intensity.

Periods during each hour, each day, and each week of intense focus. Periods each hour, day, and week of play. Periods of rest. Periods of quiet waiting. Periods of acceleration and drive. Periods of renewal.

As a woman I often hear the words to seek “balance”, which can feel more defeating than not when it feels like all the things I’m trying to balance are hopelessly in disarray.

I think rhythm is the better word.

To fall into cadence with my day, with my week, with this season of life – and to seek out and note periods of rest, play and intensity into my daily flow. Not work until I drop, and then escape to Tibet for a month. But feel this flow and rhythm now, of rest and work and play in the middle of this. Now.

I often hear people say, including at church, that this life with God is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s true enough. But I’ll add that this life is like a soccer game, and if we can get into the rhythm of it, we’ll enjoy all 90 minutes of it.

Play with Joy, and Good Things will Happen!

Many moons ago, while I was playing rugby in college, we were called to an inspirational moment before a big game. I think it was our beloved coach Franck who said it first.

Play with Joy, and Good Things will Happen.

Our team took up the mantra like a scarf, wrapping it around our heads and and hearts. We wrote it on the back of t-shirts and we passed it along to the underclasswomen who followed us.

Last night I went to a soccer coaching clinic, and so I was delighted when the coaches’ coach started and ended the session with an ode to joy.

“Remember, it’s about Joy,” he said. “Above all else, the kids should love the game. Teach them the technical skills, yes. But if you show them the joy in playing with the ball, and playing the game, they will want to play on their own and improve.”

Ain’t it so, Joe?

Those things we love – they shine out of us. Playing rugby with my teammates, scoring a hard-won try, feeling the fatigue and rush after a long game – it was joyful.

Now I’m too old for rugby. But I played soccer today and I felt it. The joy of it. And then I came home to my family and felt awe and joy at the little moment of watching my youngest unzip his precious bag to place a bear inside. And seeing the curl of my husband’s hair as it started to brush across his forehead.

And what better gift can we give ourselves than pursuing those life-giving things that give us joy? Not numbing, or distraction, or haze – but moments of true joy? And would I? Could I? Perhaps even share that joy with others…

Play with Joy, and Good things will Happen!

Today’s Chore: Caring for Myself

Sometimes I get a bee in my bonnet about something I want our kids to do. Last week it was having more structured responsibilities around the house (aka chores!). We’d been asking them to do certain things regularly, like set the table, but I was ready for some more predictability – and increasing responsibility.

So I scoured various systems online, and found these paper chore charts to get us started.

They come with stickers. Mr. six-year-old is highly motivated by this. Stickers! Fill up my list with stars! Mr. eight-year-old not so much. We’re on week 2. Let’s see if we can stick to this.

This week my youngest asked me if I was going to do one for myself. Why not? I won’t list every responsibility I have around this house (that might be depressing) but it couldn’t hurt. And the good news is, you get a new list every week. So that to-do list doesn’t seem so daunting and endless. Second piece of good news, the list is short on purpose. No endless goal making that exceeds my capacity and makes me feel defeated.

One of the categories on the chart is “Caring for Myself”. For kids, I think this means stuff like brushing their teeth.

But what does “Caring for Myself” mean in my world – this week? Not next week, or later this month, but today, tomorrow, the day after. I realized that caring for myself is different from “treating myself”. I treat myself to an amazing cinnamon roll, but I may not feel so great when the sugar rush crashes.

Chore Chart

Caring for myself gives me more energy or peace, or nurtures a piece of me that’s hurting.

This week, that’s my hips. They have been cramping up on me when I run! I keep saying that I’m going to stretch, but every night comes, and I think I’m too tired to do it before I go to bed.

So this week, caring for myself means listing one simple thing that will address what ails me now. Today.

What does “Caring for myself” mean for you this week? Post it in the comments!

Getting it Right (all over again!)

Frozen is really big around our house these days, especially if you’re six. Reluctantly so if you’re eight. Much loved if you’re thirty-something and of the female persuasion. The movie is definitely worth watching, even without little ones in tow. It’s probably my favorite Disney movie of all time, a sentiment apparently agreed by many as the movie has become the top-grossing animated film of all time.

But a gem arrived in our house last week in the form of a birthday gift: the Frozen Soundtrack. After awesome renditions of “Let it go” and other great ballads, the second disk played and I was shocked and elated at the content. They included ten songs that never made it into the movie, and the songwriters’ discussion of them, and how the storyline changed a bit dramatically during the course of the project.

It was completely fascinating to me that the original storyline and first attempt at songs were so different from the final movie. I looked at the amazing finished film and never guessed at the process needed to get there. Writing ten songs to get the one song that people everyone won’t stop singing. Writing thirty storylines to get a nuanced, exciting romp through a Norwegian? land.

It’s a lesson that has been replaying through my mind again and again these past two weeks. Even the best-grossing movie – especially the best-grossing movie – had to go through multiple iterations to get to a final product.

So often I want the results to come quickly in those things I pursue. And yet I know that those most important things often require a bit of a slog to get the true rewards. Hopefully I can find joy in the slog too. Someday I may write a book. And today, I must make time for writing, even when I feel too tired or distracted or both.

Luis Menjivar, one of the more youthful pastors at our church, gave a great sermon last Sunday on “Now, but not Yet”. He gave the example of how he decided to start riding his bike to work, and he knew that joy would come from it, but really it took weeks before it stopped being painful, and started to become a bit more enjoyable.

Here are my calls to myself this week: Make time for process. Remember that nothing worth doing ever happens on the first try. And of course, “Let it Go!”