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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

Getting Off Track

This week our morning bike ride/walk has hit a snag. As our four and half-year-old has become more adventuresome riding over bumps and stumps, he popped the chain off its track. After repairing this twice on our long Saturday path, we had to call in reinforcements. The ride in the back of Dad’s truck after he came to rescue us was worth it!

This morning while he was trying to go down and around an obstacle in the road, he ran full force into the wheel of the stroller and popped the chain again. Because we were on a path that had a bit more traffic, we couldn’t stop and repair the chain. And so he had to push the bike back home. As we were walking, we were talking about what happens when things don’t go as we planned.

“We get frustrated!” he responded.

“Yes, it is frustrating, but is it a big deal or a little deal?”

He paused for a moment thinking. “It’s a little deal.”

“That’s right. We are safe and we are together and we’ll be home a little bit later than we thought, but not so much later.”

This language of big deal and little deal is language we have used with all of our children. It’s language that asks them to think about what’s really important and what really matters.

It’s language that I’ve started to internalize too, especially during this time of homeschooling and balancing more roles and responsibilities. It’s centered me and sobered me as I reflect on the number of people who are fighting a virus that there is no known cure for and who are grieving losing someone they love who has died from this virus.

Even as it started raining on our heads, we talked about the fact that we had dry clothes and towels at home that we could change when we made it there,.

But first, we had to keep walking and keep pushing the bike.

Opening Up to a New Day

This morning as we started out for our walk, we came across this in the bed beside our house.  I had seen the hopeful signs that we might get just one more bloom before the summer ended and overnight, out it bloomed!

By the time we returned from our walk, the bloom looked just a little bit different. Can you see it? The opening of the center?

Isn’t it interesting how a little morning light can open us to the new possibilities and to receiving warmth and energy for the day? Isn’t it interesting how stopping and looking and practicing that each morning can remind us that each day is a new day?

These are disciples and practices that center and ground us reminding us that we are not alone and that we are connected to the daylilies and to the world around us. Thanks be to God for little whispers of the Divine all around us.

Toxic Positivity and “Going High”

On Tuesday night during the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech. Most striking to me was her reference to her famous line: “When they go low, we go high.” She made an important distinction about what that truly means. She said: “Going high doesn’t mean putting on a smile and ignoring the negativity and viciousness.”

This is an important clarification and one that reminds me of the research I have been doing on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is defined as:

toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

Researchers have identified multiple layers of problem with this overgeneralization. By always looking on the bright side, those who practice toxic positivity are actually not allowing themselves to feel emotions that are really important. It’s not that they don’t feel those emotions, but rather that someone who has been taught to practice toxic positivity doesn’t have a place to express those deep emotions that aren’t deemed “positive.”

The results are devastating. Denying uncomfortable emotions buries those emotions deep within and can impact sleep and stress levels. When someone who practices toxic positivity denies uncomfortable emotions in their own lives, conversations with others who are going through difficult or traumatic experiences are burdened with hurtful and harmful comments like: “It will all work out. Everything is going to be ok.” Because the person practicing toxic positivity is unable to provide room for those more difficult emotions, they are unable to form real and meaningful connections with others.

I’ve heard toxic positivity invade our discussions of the pandemic in ways that attempt to suppress grief and fear and doubt. While I do believe “we are going to get through this”, I also believe there are families, communities, and professions that will never be the same because of this pandemic. We need to provide space for grief, anger, and fear. We need to not try to cover up or gloss over what we are feeling and what we are experiencing. We need to practice walking in each other’s shoes understanding that we are more connected than we are divided.

 

New Days and New Starts

I love seeing all the first day of school pictures. This is a tradition I remember from my childhood. I can remember looking through the photo album that had each of us lined up in age order and trying to remember what it felt like to start each new year.

This year looks different because we are starting the school year with both kids at home. Sam and I have enjoyed using our teachers’ brains again and working on a daily schedule, units of study, and weekly activities that would be engaging and fun. (The two pups are going to work on not stealing snacks during snack time 🙂 This might take all fall!)

I have to admit the whole concept of homeschooling was overwhelming. This Spring during virtual school, I found myself stretched thin as we tried to keep our four-year-old connected to teachers and classmates as well as figure out the online learning system.

Today, I was just excited. We took our first day of school pictures like we have the past two school years. We took a morning walk, which serves as “our commute” to school, and then we started our school day. At this age, kids really need to learn to play and explore and discover but having things like calendar, circle time, and specials is grounding. It’s grounding for me as a parent because it distinguishes school day and school times from other times of the day and from other days of the week.

It also creates space to ask questions, to read new books, and to learn new things. For me as a parent/teacher, this is what I am most excited about. I am most excited to ignite my creativity, research crafts, and find books about each area of study. I am excited to learn alongside my kids and to play the role of facilitator and interst sparker rather than a disciplinarian.

It really amazing what we have learned about each other over this time at home. I am so thankful for a partner I get to teach alongside again and for the flexibility to try new things.

On Living Life

I just started listening to Michelle Obama’s new podcast and it is wonderful. Her voice is honest and challenging. I knew that I wanted to tune in after reading her book Becoming last summer.

In the second episode (the one that has gotten so much press because she says that she has been experiencing low grade depression), she speaks with Michele Norris and says:

I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope we go to better.

This is such a challenging statement, especially as I hear more and more people talk about “getting back to their lives” or asking whether they are just “not supposed to live their lives” because of the virus. All of this speaks to the way we are trying to process that really we have no experience to process. We don’t know what is right. We don’t know whether what we are deciding is mitigating a normal amount of risk or putting us into more risk. The uncertainty and the politicization of this virus have us all second and triple guessing what we are deciding to do and how we are moving around in this new world.

I hope that we will have the strength to sit in the not knowing. I hope that we will have the courage to say no to things even when others are saying yes to things so that we can reflect on the way we used to live life.

I hope that we have the compassion to understand that even as we are making choices, many, many families are having choices made for them. They can’t see their family member who is in the hospital. They can’t schedule a funeral that their loved ones had planned. They can’t feed both themselves and their children. They can’t go to work and care for their children.

May we look deeply and honestly at the way we used to live life and vow not to get back to normal, but rather get back to better. Better care for our neighbors in need. Better, more courageous choices to counter a culture that benefits some and oppresses most. And a better understanding of how our choices impact others.

 

A Helping Hand

One of the aspects I’ve heard many parents reflect is good and so hopeful to witness during this time at home is the relationship that has developed between siblings. This is true for us too. The way that we are watching our four and half-year-old learn to be a big brother to a toddler is so sweet and encouraging. After our morning walks and bike rides, while I fold up the stroller, I see him reach out his hand and our eighteen-month-old and help her walk up the stairs.

He waits patiently and says, “You can do it. There you go. Just one more step.”

I never taught him this. I never taught him to slow down to her pace and to look down at her feet as she was walking up the stairs to make sure her foot was planted before he moved on to the next step. I never taught him to encourage her along the way.

Maybe helping each other comes naturally to us. Maybe when we see someone learning something new it is actually our natural instinct to reach out a hand and say, “You’re doing great. Keep going.”

Maybe it’s our consumerist, capitalist culture that subverts this natural helping and teaches us that in order to survive and thrive we have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps not worrying who we are stepping on. Maybe this isn’t natural at all and when we are still and quiet we feel disconnected and unhappy not because we don’t have enough but because we are stepping on other people rather than giving them a helping hand.

There’s something about this time at home and this stillness that is teaching me to watch and learn from our children what is good and right and important rather than believe the messaging that supports greed and inequity.

Thanks be to God for little hands reaching out and waiting while step by step we return to who we are.

“Did I do it right?”

As we were on our morning bike ride and walk, our four-year-old stopped just up ahead and of me. He waited until I caught him to him and then looked at him with a glint in his eye, “Did I do it right?” he asked me. I waited unsure of what he was talking about until he explained that he kept his eyes on the road, he stayed to the side and when he glanced back and saw that he was getting too far ahead he stopped and waited. I smiled and affirmed, “Yes, yes you did. Good job, buddy!”

These are all the things we have been talking about over the last six weeks as we have transitioned from walking together to walking and bike riding together. These are all things that have caused redirections when he didn’t do one of these things as well.

I can’t help but wonder if his question today, is really a question that most of us parents are asking ourselves: “Did I do it right?” Should I have enrolled my child in school? Should I have homeschooled instead? Should I have provided more space or more boundaries?

The back and forth and constant mitigation of risks is exhausting. The collective grief of hearing story after story of people dying because of the global pandemic is overwhelming. We are all functioning on too little sleep and too much stress.

“Did I do it right?” will be a question that we can continue to ask ourselves as we continue to understand more about this virus and about how living with this virus is changing the way that we parent, work, and educate our children.

As you are trying to balance it all, I wonder if the words that I offer our four-year-old when he doesn’t do it right might provide some peace, “Tomorrow is a new day and we will try again.”

 

Molding Communion Bread

Last week, I went to the church for my weekly check of the building. On my list was organizing the non-perishable food donations that were collected through porch drops in order to pack bags for our neighbors in need. Also on my list was checking messages, checking the mail, and something I had been avoiding for weeks, cleaning out the refrigerator.

Mainly I didn’t want to be reminded of that refrigerator filled with food for after worship, fifth Sunday fellowships I didn’t want to be reminded of the Sunday baked goods that would serve as our Wednesday Bible study snacks. I didn’t want to see that moldy communion bread I was sure was in there.

But it was time.

When I opened the refrigerator, I found what I expected: moldy communion bread, moldy potato salad from our last fellowship meal, and stale baked goods. I couldn’t hold back the tears that came. The way we get together, the way that we are church together, and the way that we help our neighbors in need has all changed so drastically in such a short period of time. While I was sad, I also was overwhelmed with gratitude for a congregation who is committed to keeping each other safe and committed to continue to worship virtually until it is safe for ALL of us to come together in person.

I tossed the communion bread in the trash. Sometimes communion bread is blueberry poptarts, sandwich bread, or whatever else we can find in our own homes. As I walked out, I saw the food items piled up ready to be distributed to those who are hungry and thought, “Oh wait…that’s our communion. We are offering food in the form of peanut butter, granola bars, and soup to those who are most in need right now. We are offering the miracle of Jesus’ body and blood by recognizing the great need that surrounds us in these uncertain times.”

This do in remembrance of me.

Today, it’s the leaves…

Today, it’s the leaves

waving to me,

 

soaking up warmth,

giving in to the rain

storing the droplets for refreshment.

creating food and nutrients

releasing oxygen into the air

inviting us all to breathe.

 

Soon the leaves

will remind us

that the seasons change

and the way we must fall

in order to let other things grow.