Making Marica Grate Again!

As the cruel parents we are, tonight we decided to make Marica grate – again:

make-marica-grate-again

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

But after I thought of the pun, I think there’s a serious point here, along the lines of that P. J. O’Rourke quip: “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

Talking politics is all the rage today: pro-Trump, anti-Trump, this that and the other Facebook post. But life goes on, kids need putting to bed, and dishes need doing. Doing the small things right … that’s how to save the world.

Rambling thoughts

The year starts off differently here in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern hemisphere. In some ways it doesn’t really feel like a new year — school and work just keeps going after a short break for Christmas; whereas in NZ just about nothing happens the first few weeks of January because 90% of the country is off somewhere on holiday. Neither is better or worse, just different.

We took the week between Christmas and New Year’s off school, but were right back into it at the start of January. The girls are doing really well, and learning and growing. We still have attitude struggles, but those seem to be getting better too (I’m still working on mine most of the time!).

We have had a couple of snowfalls of maybe half a foot or so, which the kids always enjoy. On the whole, though, this has been a really mild winter. There have been a few days that our temperatures have been the same as those in Christchurch! I don’t know if that says something about our winters or about NZ summers…

At the start of January, we had cousin Eva stay with us as her last stop before heading back to Vienna. It was a delightful visit! Lots of quiet and relaxed conversation. She even cooked us a gourmet meal one night, which was really delicious.

In January, Trump was sworn in, as most of the world knows. I don’t know what to think about the man. I don’t know if he’s really clever and shrewd or if he’s just a complete narcissistic idiot. He backs certain things that I’m very happy about (he has pro-life policies, for one), and then he does and says other things that are just beyond comprehension. I don’t know what the next 4 years will hold, but I do know that whatever happens it won’t be a boring ride. Seeing that I don’t like exciting roller coaster rides, my response has been to laugh, or for the most part the ostrich in the sand-type of response. The less I know, the less my blood pressure rises. This is probably not the best response, but I know whom I have believed, and He’s ultimately in control. I’m not trying to be fatalistic, I just really don’t want to know every crappy detail of what stupid thing Trump tweeted now. Too much freak show makes one freaky. End diatribe.

Yesterday I finished the Whole30. It’s basically a program where you eat only whole foods (fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts and seeds) for 30 days to give your body a break and to find out when you re-introduce foods how they make you feel. I’ve been wondering for a long time if dairy makes me feel groggy. We’ll see. :-) The first two weeks were hard, but then I got into a groove and it stopped bothering me. I didn’t even feel like I wanted the stuff I used to, and I can now even stomach a cup of coffee black. I think it would be too restrictive to eat like this 100% of the time, but I’d like to eat like this most of the time for the main reason that I got rid of my stupid mind fog. I could get a full night’s sleep and wake up tired — no more of that (except when I don’t actually get enough sleep!). That feeling of walking into a room with a purpose only to get there and wonder what on earth I’m doing there is gone. Some people report big weight loss and lots of energy… I can’t really say that was the case for me, but for the sake of some clarity of mind, I’d be willing to forego a few things.

Laurelin has been growing up. She’s so cute, so clever, and so… challenging. She’s a champion tantrum thrower and a very feisty fighter. I’m sure fighter in her will stand her in good stead one day, but for now they just make her mother bone weary. She’s a lot of fun when she’s not decided that she wants something to go her way. Which is a lot. Unfortunately for her, she has pretty stubborn parents too, so she seldom wins a fight. Maybe she’ll learn it’s not worth the energy soon and give it up, ha. It’s so funny — usually after a major tantrum, when she finally calms down, she’s so tired she needs a nap!

I’ve been thinking. Startling thought, I know. :-)  I’ve been thinking that our modern lives are just too busy, too full of distraction. I took an 18 month break from Facebook a while back, but have been back on it again for a few months, and I’m struck by how easy it is to procrastinate. How short my attention span can be, how I’ve trained myself to skim articles instead of actually reading them and then when it comes to reading real books I catch myself skimming. Bad habits are easy to form and hard to break. It’s not like Facebook is this big stumbling block for me, it just seems like such an apt metaphor for the rest of life. Everyone’s busy with trivial stuff, we’re all busy chasing… what, exactly? I do believe that God created us to work, and to work hard for His glory. I just wish things were simpler and more clean cut, and less busy. Busyness seems to kill joy. I guess it takes a lifetime to figure out how to find a healthy balance in it all.

I’ve been reading Door to Freedom by Jana Kelley, the same author who wrote Side by Side that I reviewed a while back. It was a very enjoyable read, and I’m hoping to post a review of it soon.

I signed Marica and Esther up for homeschooling ice skating classes for the winter, and they’re loving it! There’s also the perk that I get to join in on the other side of the rink. I’m way worse at it than the kids, and have had a couple of pretty hard falls, which makes me afraid of falling again, which in turn doesn’t make one skate very well. I’m gaining confidence, though! It’s a pretty fun way of working a bit of physical activity into the schedule.

You might have noticed I haven’t been posting on a weekly basis recently. Or maybe nobody’s noticed (or they’re relieved!). I don’t have time to blog because I’m sitting on the couch drinking tea and reading People magazine. :-) No, it’s not for lack of wanting to — it’s a matter of getting around it with the few spare hours in the day when the kids are in bed.

One of the things taking up evening time recently is my new role as Gifty Weddings‘ new marketing director. <cough/> We’re trying to push Ben’s little side business a bit more, but I know next to nothing about marketing, so I’m learning on the job. Hopefully I don’t lose us too much money in the process! Hey, if any of you know someone getting married soon who would like the idea of using a gift registry that is not tied to a specific store, please point them to Gifty!

Thus ends my (very) rambling thoughts.

Well done, good and faithful servant

To you, commuter on the 6.15am bus
who study on spinning wheels for an hour before a long day of work:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, mother of small children
who have wiped more noses and bottoms and floors than you could count:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, wrinkled prayer warrior
who sits in the recliner in the musty retirement home and talks to God:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, faithful writer of letters
to people far and wide who seldom reply:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, pastor with the broad shoulders
who carries the cares of stubborn sheep:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, teacher of difficult children
who are learning only because you care:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, janitor of high school bathrooms
who provides for your family with this second job:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, cubicle worker on the 56th floor
who does the mundane with quiet joy:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, carer of the old or sick or frail
who wonders how much longer you could possibly go on:
Well done, good and faithful servant.

To you, with the sleeves rolled up
working hard
where God has placed you
at this point in time and space:
Take courage, you work for Him.

He places importance in how you work.
Be encouraged that your work makes a positive difference
and that even if no-one else notices, He does.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Hacker Christianity

Introduction

This is a written version of a pre-Christmas talk I gave at work recently, about the intersection between Christianity and hacker culture. There’s also a video available here — the sound quality’s not brilliant, but feel free to watch it there!

So who am I, and why do I think I can speak on this topic?

Well, I’m a Christian first. The label “Christian” means different things to different people, but I mean something pretty objective by it — I mean someone who believes the Bible, and specifically believes in Jesus Christ as a historical figure who was born, died, and rose from the dead, to save the world, and to save you and me from our brokenness.

But I’m also a hacker. As most of you know, the term “hacker” has two different meanings: the one you see in the news, which is someone who’s done something illegal using a computer — cracked a military code, or broken into an online bank. But that’s really a “cracker”.

The true meaning of the word “hacker” is someone who loves computer programming, who cares about details, and who likes writing code or solving problems in clever and playful ways. This meaning originates back to the 1960’s at MIT, one of the great engineering schools over in the Eastern United States. It started out as a kind of cross between computer programming and practical joking.

For example, one of the great “hacks” some folks did was assembling a full-size model of a fire truck on top of MIT’s Great Dome. The dome usually looks like this:

800px-MIT_Building_10_and_the_Great_Dome,_Cambridge_MA But on the morning of September 11, 2006 (kind of as a nod to the firefighters who helped out in the September 11 attacks) the top of the dome looked like this:

mitfire2 They’d carefully built the parts for the fire truck beforehand, and then snuck them up during the night and assembled it on top of the dome. As you can see, they paid attention to detail — there are pressure gauges and a fire hose, and even two “fire dogs” standing on the side of the truck. So you can see the playful and creative side of hacker culture.

But this also comes out in code — in playful or creative solutions to programming problems. If someone writes a spelling checker in 10,000 lines of code, that’s just run-of-the-mill programming. But when someone like Peter Norvig writes a spelling corrector in a handful of lines of quite readable code, makes it freely available, and writes a short article describing how it works, that’s what I call a great hack:

import re, collections

def words(text): return re.findall('[a-z]+', text.lower())

def train(features):
    model = collections.defaultdict(lambda: 1)
    for f in features:
        model[f] += 1
    return model

NWORDS = train(words(file('big.txt').read()))

alphabet = 'abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz'

def edits1(word):
   splits     = [(word[:i], word[i:]) for i in range(len(word) + 1)]
   deletes    = [a + b[1:] for a, b in splits if b]
   transposes = [a + b[1] + b[0] + b[2:] for a, b in splits if len(b)>1]
   replaces   = [a + c + b[1:] for a, b in splits for c in alphabet if b]
   inserts    = [a + c + b     for a, b in splits for c in alphabet]
   return set(deletes + transposes + replaces + inserts)

def known_edits2(word):
    return set(e2 for e1 in edits1(word) for e2 in edits1(e1) if e2 in NWORDS)

def known(words): return set(w for w in words if w in NWORDS)

def correct(word):
    candidates = known([word]) or known(edits1(word)) or known_edits2(word) or [word]
    return max(candidates, key=NWORDS.get)

Another aspect of hacker culture is bending the rules. True hackers aren’t into doing things that are illegal or immoral, but we really hate red tape, and sometimes that comes at the cost of stretching the rules almost to their breaking point, but no more. For example, a hacker might hate wearing bicycle helmets. But it’s the law (at least in New Zealand), and you don’t want to get pulled over by a cop. So what do you do? Hack the system — ride a unicycle! Or design a self-balancing unicycle that goes as fast as a bike. There’s nothing in New Zealand law that says you have to wear a helmet on a unicycle … problem solved.

Okay, so what about my own hacker credentials? Well, I’m a computer programmer by day, so really I get paid for hacking. I’ve also written or contributed to several small open source libraries:

  • scandir, a better directory iterator and faster os.walk() for Python that I hope to get included in the Python 3.5 standard library.
  • Symplate, a very simple and fast Python templating language.
  • inih, a tiny INI file parser written in C.
  • fabricate, a simple build tool that automatically finds dependencies.
  • Third, a small Forth compiler I wrote in 8086 assembler when I was 16.

Anyway, enough intro, and enough about hacking. I think you’ve got the idea. So what about the intersection between Christianity and hacker culture?

Cross-pollination

One of my aims is to give new meaning to the phrase “tech evangelist”. Usually a tech evangelist is someone who wants to promote their technology. My twist on the phrase is that I’m into both tech and evangelism, and exploring how they can cross-pollinate each other. Even the phrase cross-pollinate has a deeper meaning.

At first glance, hacker culture seems predominately agnostic and atheist, but an interesting fact is how many well-known hackers and computer scientists believe in God. Four of the more well-known ones are:

  • Donald Knuth is basically the world’s most-respected computer scientist. He wrote the multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming and the TeX typesetting system. He’s also written some stuff that directly combines computer science and Christianity, such as the book 3:16. He’s 75 now, and kind of my personal hero — I even told my wife all about how cool he was on our honeymoon.
  • Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language, which is said to be the duct tape that holds the Internet together. He says he kind of considers himself “an apostle to the hackers”.
  • Fred Brooks, who wrote the classic book about software engineering, The Mythical Man-Month.
  • Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, is a devout Christian and also a “futurist” (not a combination you see every day). Keanu Reeves was required to read one of Kelly’s books before playing Neo in The Matrix movie.

Each of those people is incredibly interesting in his own right, whether you’re more into the hacker side of things or the Christianity side of things — go check them out.

In terms of how the two cultures can influence each other, first up, I think Christians can learn a few things from the hacker community about contributing to “open culture”. In the programming world you’ve got open source software, where people share the source code for their programs freely. Linux, Firefox, Android, the Apache web server … these really have made the computing world a better place. Budding hackers can learn from code written by top programmers, because they’ve made it freely available to use and modify.

In the Christian world, there are some free things, such as sermons, articles, and the King James Bible — that’s in the public domain, but only because it’s so old. Newer Bible translations are all proprietary pay-ware, like Microsoft Word. Various hackers have come up with free software licenses like the GPL, and free culture licenses like the Creative Commons licenses. And they’re starting to influence Christians. A notable free Bible is the Open English Bible, which is developed on GitHub. There’s also the NET Bible and the English Standard Version, which are at least free as in beer.

Then there’s the “commercial Christian music scene”, which is a can of worms I’m not even going to open tonight. But I will quote Larry Wall’s quip on how researchers and artists can have the best of both worlds — get paid for their work as well as give their creations away for free. When he worked at O’Reilly, Larry Wall said, “Essentially, my position is what you call a patronage. It’s a very old-fashioned idea which goes back to the time when there was an aristocracy and they would support artists and musicians. They would have a patron, Tim O’Reilly is my patron. He pays me to create things, to kind of be in charge of the Perl culture.”

A little aside about Creative Commons. This is really great. You write something, you copyright it as Creative Commons, and there are some different options you can choose, but basically you’re giving people the right to use it totally free of charge, and mostly free of restrictions. Creative Commons is actually straight from the Bible — it’s just phrased a bit differently: “Freely you have received; freely give.”

So I think Christians could learn a thing or two about open culture from the free software movement.

Speaking of free software, Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation, is basically an Old Testament prophet for his movement, right down to his massive Moses-like beard. I think he’s a bit of an extremist, but sometimes it takes extremes to get people to listen. Since the 1980’s, he’s basically been telling people — in software terms — to go sell their possessions and give everything to the poor. His message is software freedom: that people who use software should be allowed to study and modify how it works. And just like an Old Testament prophet, he phrases it in very black and white moral terms. Still, despite his extremism, I think the overall effect is good. Many people have been inspired to release their software and source code freely, making the programming world a better place.

But the Free Software Religion isn’t ready to take over the world quite yet. And a couple of years ago, I discovered why — their music kinda sucks. Just for fun, if you click the play button below you can subject yourself to two minutes of Richard Stallman singing the Foundation’s “free software song”. Apologies in advance for any cerebral damage caused:

Admittedly Christians have had 2000 years longer to develop good music, but that kinda makes me feel sorry for the Free Software Foundation. I grew up on classical music and solid church music, for example:

So yeah, if you’re a musician, join the Free Software Foundation — they seem to need your help.

Another point of cross-pollination that I’ve written about before is the Reformation — back in the 1500’s when Protestants split from the Catholic Church. I think the Reformation was an incredibly interesting time in history. It’s like Eric Raymond’s essay on open source, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The Reformation happened when the cathedral model had reached a breaking point; what the world needed was a bazaar.

The Church had effectively made the Bible proprietary software. It was in Latin and very few people could read it; in fact, you weren’t allowed to unless you were a priest. Then along came Martin Luther and established the Free Scripture Foundation. Shortly afterwards, John Calvin and John Knox made the whole thing open source. Johannes Gutenburg founded GutenHub.com to help distribute all of this good stuff.

So that’s some of what hacker culture can offer Christianity, what about the reverse? Does Christianity have anything to offer hacker culture? I believe it does. Hackers do some really good things, but I think they suffer from lack of moral foundation. Put another way, we hackers are nice people, but we can’t explain why.

That’s really where Jesus comes in. He made the world a better place not just by giving a few hours of his spare time; he gave his life. So there’s this concept of sacrifice at the center of the Christian view of things that shapes everything else.

But isn’t Christianity about rules? Actually, it’s not. It’s about crash recovery for programs that have already broken the rules and crashed the system. Of course, there are commandments, but there are only ten — everything else is allowed. The Ten Commandments represent a very positive moral outlook, but they’re stated negatively because they’re like boolean logic. It’s much shorter to say “thou shalt not” do this one thing than to list all the hundreds of things you should be doing:

# Which "commandment" would you prefer to maintain?

# This:
if action != 'murder':
    perform(action)

# Or this?
if (action == 'helping_save_a_life' or
        action == 'going_to_the_doctor' or
        action == 'random_act_of_kindness' or
        action == 'helping_old_ladies_across_street' or
        action == 'teaching_kids_how_to_code' or
        action.startswith('good') or
        action in other_good_deeds):
    perform(action)

It’s also much less restrictive, because there’s only one thing you can’t do, rather than hundreds you have to constantly remember to do. As one example, it’s simpler to say “thou shalt not commit adultery” than to say “make sure you always respect your wife, be faithful to her in bed and out of it, buy her flowers, learn her love languages, etc etc”. And programmers love brevity — why use 50 words where 5 would do?

So I think programmers could do a lot more good if we had a clearly defined moral foundation. For example, we know it’s wrong to discriminate against women in tech, but when someone does it, all we can say is “bad programmer” (or maybe “bad brogrammer”). Why is it okay to degrade women while playing Grand Theft Auto, but morally wrong at a tech conference? I humbly suggest that hackers would do well to take a page out of The Good Book on some of these issues.

What if we truly believed “do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” In fact, in this specific case of showing respect for women, Jesus actually got the ball rolling — the very first people he appeared to after he rose from the dead were women. This was a subversive cultural act — a “hack”, if you like — because in those days women didn’t get much air time.

The ultimate hack

The Christian story is full of hacks — sometimes elegant and beautiful hacks, at other times downright hackish hacks. It begins in the book of Genesis with a beautiful hack — God simply spoke, and the universe appeared. That’s voice-activated 3D printing on a cosmic scale. Trees and animals and men and women were also created by God speaking.

Then there was the Fall. We (the programs) decided we didn’t like the programmer’s logic. We ate the forbidden fruit. We asked for it — and we got the first core dump; the first blue screen of death.

That begs the question of why God allows evil? There’s a very simple hacker’s answer to that: He didn’t want us living in a sandboxed environment. In the programming world, you can create safe places for code to run, called “sandboxes”, where the code can’t do anything bad to the system. In a web browser, this is a great thing — imagine if you visited a web page and it deleted all the files off your hard disk. But then imagine if your operating system was in a sandboxed environment. Basically nothing useful would be allowed, and nothing could happen. You could never do factory automation or smart traffic lights.

We don’t have to log in to Life every morning as a user with restricted access. Instead, God gave us freedom to break the rules, and ultimately to crash the system. It’s like writing low-level C code for the Linux kernel. It’s very unsafe, but very fast and powerful. However, the next thing God did was to start implementing His crash recovery program.

Along the way, He continues to use various hacks to achieve His goals. He chooses to start with Israel, a tiny little nothing kind of country, when He could have chosen one of the world super-powers: Egypt, or Persia, or Greece, or Rome. He picks a woman named Rahab, who was a foreign prostitute, to be part of the royal bloodline. He chooses David to be a king of Israel and ancestor of Jesus — David, who was half the size of his handsome brothers and only a simple shepherd. The least shall be the greatest.

Then Jesus, who’s an instance of God himself, enters His own program as an unprivileged process. He’s like the author who writes himself into his own novel. Even the way Jesus enters is a hack of the human reproductive system — a virgin birth. He tweaks the laws of physics plenty of times with hacks that we still can’t figure out: turns water into wine at a wedding reception; walks on water; raises someone from the dead; miraculously makes people well. Because He’s the Programmer, these are not hard for Him to do.

But the culmination of all this is the ultimate hack. The Romans used crucifixion as a very cruel form of torture to send a loud and clear message that being a traitor was not okay. It was a slow, painful death. The Roman leaders knew Jesus was innocent, but they condemned him to death anyway.

But in an incredible twist, God uses this cruel death to bring life. After three days, Jesus comes back to life, and in doing so, opens a portal to eternal life. It really is the ultimate life hack. In one act, death is reversed. Sins are paid for and forgiven. This one act of self-sacrifice set in motion a thousand others, and Christianity spread like wildfire in the ancient world.

But now to make it a bit more personal: God didn’t put you, or me, in a sandboxed environment either. We don’t play by the rules; we don’t follow His protocol. He lets us stuff up, and in the course of a lifetime we cause enough core dumps to fill a hard drive. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is he didn’t stop there. Christians talk about “Jesus dying for our sins”. But what that means is that He cleaned up our mess for anyone who relies on His solution. He fired up the debugger on each one of our core dumps, found the source of the problem, and fixed it. And He didn’t charge us a thing — it was all free, and it’s all open source, right in the gospels.

This really changes your philosophy; but it also changes the way you act. I’m really thankful that God “debugged my code” free of charge, and the least I can do is follow the protocol and give back to the hacker community. Again, in Christian speak they call that “doing good works”, but it’s the same thing.

So in this sense, God is a hacker — He’s the implementer of the ultimate hack. But there’s also a difference between God and ordinary hackers. God is also described as the ultimate Father. And Fatherhood is not something talked about much in hacker circles.

As a Father, God loves the world, and good earthly fathers love their families. But because God made us, and because we’re so much younger and so much smaller than God, he also requires our respect … He even says to “obey” Him. Now there’s a word you never see in hacker culture.

But once again, there’s a good hacker analogy. Programming languages often have a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life) who’s in charge of the language. The dictator part — are they in charge? Yes, they are, they call the shots for that programming language. Are they good guys, are they actually benevolent? Usually they are. It’s the same with God, except that he’s not a dictator, he’s a King. And he’s not just a “good guy”, he’s the source of all Goodness.

I want to challenge Christians not to ignore the powerful concepts and analogies that hacker culture brings to the table. But I also want to challenge hackers: if Jesus was a historical figure, and if he did actually sacrifice himself and conquer death in the ultimate life hack … isn’t that a patch we should find out about and apply?

So there you have it. That’s the Christmas story, the Christian story, in hacker terms.

Further reading

  • God, the Hacker: Technology, Mockery, and the Cross by Martin Olmos — the idea of God being the ultimate hacker isn’t new with me; this is a really interesting article I found while searching for info on the subject.
  • Theological Cultural Analysis of the Free Software Movement by Gervase Markham — some great thoughts on the Free Software Movement from a Christian perspective.
  • What Would Jesus Hack? — probably the only news article I’ve read that brings together the Vatican, Larry Wall, and Wired magazine. (More from the Vatican here.)
  • Geek Theologian — interview with Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly, in which both his futurism and his religious beliefs came out quite clearly.
  • The Reason for God — a great book by Tim Keller that asks and answers some of the hard questions about religion from a thoughtful, Christian perspective.

Kidnapped!

I wasn’t, but Chuck Geschke was.

Let me back up a bit: for Christmas, Franci gave me a true geek book called Masterminds of Programming, which I reviewed in detail here. One of the interviews was with the creators of PostScript, a computer language used to control printers. PostScript was designed in 1984 and is still in widespread use today, especially because it shares a lot of concepts with the popular PDF file format.

Chuck Geschke and his wife

Chuck Geschke and his wife

I’d known about PostScript for a while, but what I didn’t know was that its creators went on to found and direct Adobe. So I was reading the Wikipedia entry for one of the founders, Charles Geschke, and was intrigued by the heading “1992 Kidnapping”.

Sure enough, when he was 52 he was kidnapped in broad daylight by two guys after “their share” of his wealth. The fascinating kidnapping story is recounted in a four-part tale in the Los Altos Town Crier.

Franci and I both enjoyed it — it’s quite a story! The story gets you into the intensity of the situation, and how his faith and family (particularly his “negotiator” daughter) helped him escape a very sticky situation. Links to the article below:

Love poem to New York

New York…

Your name invoked images, awe, presumptions
of ghetto, gangster, glamour, glitz.
Yet many will be surprised to know
I found in you much goodness and grace
just as ingrained
as the grit and grime.

I arrived in your muggy embrace on a stifling night in May,
and as I gradually acquainted myself with your form,
you grieved me.
Now, two years later,
I am grieved once more.
But the grief is different this time, my unexpected love.

“New York grows on you like a fungus”
says Anna.
I do believe she’s right.
Can a fungus grow in the heart?
Your roots burrow deep in mine.

You have taught me much about life —
I walk past faces hard as flint
inside them live eyes that have long forgotten how forgiveness feels
I walk over petrified gum ground into the pavement
I walk around the smelly legless homeless man
(do I ignore him this time, or do I smile?)
It’s physical and spiritual, this grit and grime,
But it makes grace more glorious.

Beauty lives in you too, City of Contrasts,
Your skyline’s famous fingerprint
Your proud bridges
Your art — you collect and inspire —
Your playground sprinklers tickling children
Your sprawling parks
Your wide harbor with the proud green Lady
Your beaches
Your Christmas lights
Your people.

African, American, Asian,
Hasid, Hipster, Hispanic (too many more to count)
Is there a place, religion or philosophy not represented here?
We all live side by side
on top of each other.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the peace
as I sit in the evening cool
on my Brooklyn stoop steps.

I am Lot’s wife,
One last look at this Sodom
that has been my home.
But you are not completely Sodom
because in you I have found many
who are righteous
who call on Him who washes us clean
like the summer rains your streets.

I know some of them
and I love them fiercely.
They are your roots burrowing in my heart.
They are what made you my home.

The 3-step guide for mothers who want to Do It All

Yes, you too can Do It All! Small children? A big workload? Stack of dishes in the sink? Pile of bills to pay? No problem! Just follow my easy 3-step program and soon you too could be one of those special people who can Do It All!

1. Marry a millionaire.

2. Hire a nanny, cook, housekeeper and gardener.

3. Put yourself, your dreams and ambitions before anything or anyone else.

I was asked recently to give a talk at a women’s Bible study about “something I’ve learned from life as a Christian woman/wife/mother with the other women”. I thought they got the wrong number. Uh, I’m not sure I’m the right person for this… I tried to get out of it, but as I prayerfully considered it, I thought there might be something I’ve learned. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I’m currently learning this lesson: How Not to Do It All.  Since giving the talk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought of all sorts of edits to make and ways to say it better, but I’m in the thick of getting ready to pack my life in the US up into 4 suitcases, so it’ll just have to do as it is. Below is the written version of what I talked about.

So often we think or even ask the question of someone else: “How do you do it all?” It’s a perplexing question, but I think I’ve come up with 3 answers to it:

1. Nobody does.

2. At different times in life, and by working hard.

3. With good planning.

I’ll come back to those things soon, but first I have to deal with the question itself. More often than not when we ask (or think) such questions, it is because we’re looking at Exhibit A’s mothering/cooking/sewing/housekeeping/job/everything skills and feeling like we don’t measure up.  We women are far too good at comparing ourselves to others, and we do it far too frequently. The problem with comparing yourself to someone else is that it seldom turns out well. Most of the time you either:

a) inwardly cower in shame because you think you don’t measure up and you’re left wallowing in a cesspool of misguided guilt, or

b) you feel just a little too pleased with yourself because you’re not struggling like her. At least your kids don’t behave as badly as her kids. Pure unadulterated, stinking pride.

So, why do we have this strange idea that there are real superwomen out there? The kind of woman who has done her Bible study and run a few miles before her kids are even up, who cooks everything from scratch and always has an empty laundry basket, who is nicely groomed and is always entertaining visitors, whose children love her and obey her and never embarrass her in public… the list goes on. (In that vein, here’s a funny poem I read recently. It’s written in a Mormon context, so some of the references are a bit foreign, but I definitely think that on the whole this is something many Christian women can identify with.)

To come back to my answer to that strange, strange question: “How do you do it all?”:

First off, no woman “does it all”, and if she’s making it look that way, she’s either faking it or has some serious help.

Maybe we have this idea in our heads that such a thing is possible because we take all the great qualities we know of all the women we know and think we should channel all those qualities. Or perhaps it’s the Perfect Proverbs 31 Woman who makes us look at ourselves and cringe. (I’ll talk more about that Proverbs 31 Woman soon.) Or maybe we are concerned with this because at some root level we are desperate that our lives here on earth be meaningful and not wasted, and for our lives not to be wasted we have to do everything and do it well? Or maybe it has subtly become a great big idol taking over your life.

Here’s a little exercise: think of someone you actually know (not someone you only know through her writing) and of one or two qualities you really admire about her. Let’s say, for example, that you think she’s a really good cook, because the one time you’ve eaten at her house the food was fantastic. Now you have this idea in your head that this is the way she always cooks for her family and that eggs on toast for dinner or a hot dog slapped in a bun with some ketchup and mustard hastily squeezed on would never appear on the menu at her house. Guess what — 5 o’clock melt-downs quite likely happen at her house too. You’re not the only mother in the world who has served a hasty dinner on occasion that had no vegetables in sight. Now, if this happens frequently, you have some work to do, but don’t beat yourself up and compare your hot dog meal with that woman’s 3-course special meal that she planned 3 weeks in advance.

To be realistic, there are some things that you’ll do more naturally and some things need to work at a fair bit. But do just that — work at it, don’t mope because you can’t do it the first time you try.

Some women love to knit and crochet. Yes, this is a great thing, but it’s not for me. I’ve tried. I’ll probably keep trying when I have some more time, but that time is not now. I once tried making a quilt. It looked like an 8-year-old made it, but Marica still loved it. I think quilting is something I’d enjoy when life has mellowed me a bit and I have a bit more patience. :-) I love to cook and I love to spend time with people, so our family puts a lot of emphasis on hospitality. Just because you aren’t a good cook isn’t a good reason not to be hospitable, but don’t feel like you have to put on a feast.

In other words, look at yourself realistically, and know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Look at your situation in life realistically and decide where you should spend your time and energy. Pray about it, and get your husband’s useful input — men can sometimes see these things more clearly.

Secondly,

As you go through life, your workload will have some ebb and flow. You’ll always have work to do in, around and outside your home. Do it cheerfully and well.  The work you do when your kids are little is going to look different from the work you do when they are teenagers, or when your nest is empty (that day looks unimaginably far away to me, but people keep telling me it comes quickly!). Life brings different chapters, and in each chapter of life you’ll have different challenges and different things you are really on top of. Be realistic — know what chapter of life you and your family are in at the moment and think about what your main priorities are. Focus on doing those well, and anything extra is a bonus. If you’re saying yes to being on committees at church or your kids’ school because you think you’re supposed to, but it frazzles you out and it means you snap at your kids and you don’t get your laundry done, then scrap it.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself constantly busy, and working hard. This is a good thing. You should work hard, but your workload should be manageable.

Have you got a house full of little ones? Then know that your time and energies are needed and wanted at home, and that all you’re pouring into them is so, so valuable. You don’t need some sort of ministry or special calling outside the home — your ministry and calling is right there in the high chair and it has squishy cheeks and needs a clean diaper. When you’re out of this busy phase of having little ones, you might look into working part-time, or volunteering somewhere or joining committee X.

If you have a look at the Proverbs 31 woman, you’ll notice that she works very, very hard. Yet it would seem impossible for one woman to take care of her household and still do all those things, even with servants. People have suggested that she’s an ‘idealized’ woman, making up good qualities from many different women. Or it could be that she does all those things, but at different times in her life. While it is very valuable to look at what she does and try to do the same, perhaps you’re not the kind of person who’s going to start making stuff out of flax. I think it’s more valuable to look at how she works: she works with eager hands, she does it vigorously. She’s described always doing: she gets up, she considers, she makes, she speaks, she watches. Use your time wisely, and work hard, be a blessing to your husband and children; all to the glory of God.

My kids know that they should obey straight away, all the way, and with a happy heart. Think of yourself in relation to the work you need to get done in the same way. If you don’t have a good work ethic, read good books to help you cultivate it, or talk to someone who can help, encourage and even mentor you on that front.

Thirdly, plan! I just mentioned using your time wisely –you can not expect to be very productive if you spend a few hours every day checking out Pinterest, Facebook, the news, twitter, or even really valuable blogs and articles out there. Spend not only quality time with your children, but quantity time. Your kids are more important than “getting things done”. (Boy am I preaching to myself here!) If you have thought about what your priorities are, then how you spend your time should reflect this. Now, life happens and if you don’t actively plan for your priorities to happen, they might well fall by the wayside because let’s face it, when you’re tired it’s easy to slip in to time-waste mode, and mothers are often tired!

Here are some things I find helpful:

Plan to read the Bible and pray. You might do this while nursing the baby, or if things are desperate, lock yourself in the bathroom for 5 minutes. Take time to look around you and be thankful for where God has chosen to place you. If you’re in the thick of mothering, you might not be at a stage in life where you’re spending an hour on Bible study every day, and that’s fine. But don’t let it slip completely.

Do not neglect your relationship with your husband. Fiercely guard your time together to talk and reconnect. Plan to have date nights regularly, even if you have to make them in-house date nights where you put the kids to bed and then order in some take-out just for the two of you.

Plan to sleep. If getting to bed at a decent hour is not a priority that you fight for, then chances are you won’t get to bed at a decent hour! I find that I function badly without sleep and am a lot more prone to sinning when I’m tired, so I need lots of sleep, sometimes even an afternoon nap.

Plan to carve out time for things that rejuvenate you as well — little pockets of precious time of figuratively (and sometimes literally!) taking a deep, cleansing breath to get you ready to jump back in with a happy heart. Exercise. Sing. Skip down the road with your kids, or splash in the puddles with them. I try to meet up with a couple of good friends at The Chocolate Room (a dessert place where everything’s chocolate) about once a month. We talk our heads off and come out feeling heavy in the stomach and light in the heart.

Use a diary! Anyone who can operate without a wall planner and/or diary is either amazing or highly disorganised. A diary is your friend. Plan things out, even housekeeping chores that should happen on a weekly basis (though it’s a good idea to plan for more thorough cleans every few months too). If you’re really in the thick of life, then writing down things like ‘sweep the floor’ and ‘clean the bathroom’ every week in your diary is a totally acceptable. Recently it took me an entire morning to strip and remake the 3 beds in our house, because I was being interrupted the whole time with little people and little problems, many of which involved bodily fluids. This is normal if you’re in the stage of life where you’re living with little ones, though there are days it can feel discouraging to get to the end of your day and wonder what on earth you did all day — you know you were busy the whole time, but what were some actual things you did? If you can then go to your to-do list and tick off ‘fold laundry’ and ‘read to kids’, there is a sense of satisfaction, as silly as it seems.

Plan your weekly menu, and shop accordingly. Not only will it save you time and money, it’s good for your sanity because you don’t have to get to 5 o’clock and wonder what on earth you’ll feed people tonight.

Read literature that will challenge you, but also encourage you. Read books that will help you and encourage you in your marriage, in mothering, or other areas of life. Read some fun fiction too in between or about other things you’re interested in!  I’m not in a stage of life where hours of sweet quiet reading time is available to me, so I’ve taken to reading short stories, or books with short sections that I can read just a little bit at a time.

I could go on, but you get the idea. To wrap things up, remember that God created you with your own unique set of talents and abilities and situation in life, so don’t try to compare yourself to other women. Work hard at things that are a priority in your life, plan your time and use it wisely, and work cheerfully.

Some helpful articles, if you want to read more on the topic that people much wiser than me have written:

Preschoolers and Peace: Drowning in Home Management Part One and Part Two. (And plenty of other articles on that blog.)

Femina (you should just read the whole thing, and everything in the archives (I’m not kidding), but here are a few recent ones that I found very helpful): The Littleness of Motherhood, Domestic Kindness, You make me feel so guilty!, and False Comfort.

Clover Lane: I don’t know how she does it all.

The Power of Moms: Your children want YOU!