Blog | Lindsey Smallwood

Mentors

The Loose & Lively Book Club

Lindsey Smallwood

I've always been a book nerd. It wasn't until recently I realized how many other people were too. I'm at Middle Places today on (re)Connecting with an ode to my first ever book club friends. 

A few years ago I was lonely. 

I found myself in a new marriage, a new house and a new job and I was struggling to find myself in all of my new contexts. I was lucky enough to have a fabulous mentor who I met for coffee a couple times a month. 

One afternoon over decaf lattes, after lamenting to Sharon how out of place I felt, how much I longed for the easy friendships of earlier seasons, she looked me square in the eye and said "What are you going to do about it?"

I was taken aback. It’s not like I hadn’t tried – at church, in my grad school seminars, over Hot Pockets in the teacher’s lounge – I’d made small talk and invitations to get together, but nothing seemed to stick. What else could I do about it?

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing she knew the ways I’d be trying to connect, since this wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation.

“You say you’re lonely, so get some people together. You’re in charge of your life.” Sharon replied, eyebrows raised in a way that let me know she was laying something important out there for me.

“How though, Sharon? Seriously, what people can I get together?” I asked, ready with my list of reasons why forming community in the Bay Area with other 20 and 30 somethings is nearly impossible.

“What’s your absolute favorite thing to do, Linds?” she asked gently, giving me space to think for a moment before I answered.

“Read.” I said dreamily. “I have a stack of library novels next to my bed and I can plow through 2 on a Saturday afternoon. But you can’t make friends reading books.”

Did you catch that last line? Yeah, Sharon did too.

“Oh honey,” she laughed. “Let me tell you about book club.”

It sounds so strange now to think that I’d never considered starting/joining/participating in a book club, what with my love of reading, people and membership in groups. I started turning the idea over, wondering if anyone else would be interested, if this could really be a thing.

I emailed everyone I knew, classmates from graduate school, girls I taught with, friends from church, neighbors, a couple of gals who I’d mentored through campus ministry. I picked a date and a time and a book – The Hunger Games – and bought wine and cheese and crossed my fingers.

A delightfully ecclectic group gathered for our first meeting. A social worker. A special ed teacher or three. A non-profit director. Grad students of various stripes. We were Christian and Buddist and Jewish and Atheist. Most of the women in the room didn’t know each other. But we knew Katniss Everdeen and her bravery and cunning. We knew Peeta and Gale and the 12 districts of Panem and that was enough to get the ball rolling.

The Loose & Lively Book Club was born.

That little community became one of my favorite parts of the month. It didn’t even matter if the book was good – we all hated The Paris Wife but the spread of French-themed food we found to tie into the book was amazing. We tried to be ambitious in our choices, sometimes overly so, like the time we attempted The New Jim Crow but no one actually read the book so we had to nod along when a friend of a friend dropped into the meeting because she was eager to talk about the principles of race relations discussed in the weighty tome.

We liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette? so much that we went to meet the author in San Fransisco. We read Gone Girl because it’s some kind of book club rule that everyone had to read it three years ago. We geeked out over all the local references to our fair Cities by the Bay in The Circle and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour BookstoreThe Great Gatsby was picked solely for the purpose of having a reason to go watch Leonardo DiCaprio look sultry in the new movie together.

The week I lost my first pregnancy to miscarriage I went to book club anyway, crying into the pages of The Geography of Bliss and being thankful that even though bliss felt a long way off, these women and that space were a happy place for me.

Truth? I probably wouldn’t have picked this group of friends. But thanks to a nudge from Sharon and the uniting power of Katniss Everdeen I found a tribe among book lovers like me. And for three years until our recent cross country move, we kept reading together.

Book club, you guys, it’s my jam.

It’s my way of reconnecting with the 10 year old girl inside me that could read four Babysitter’s Club books in one sitting. And doing that while building new friendships and learning new things? Just rad.

So here’s to nudges and novels and unlikely friends. Here’s to trying something new and putting yourself out there. Here’s to community and good cheese and long nights spent in laughter.

Whether it’s reading or running or cooking creme brulee, here’s to finding your tribe.

 

PS: Lest you worry about me, I’ve joined two (!) book clubs since arriving in Colorado. Because obviously.

Sharing the Couch

Lindsey Smallwood

Today at Middle Places I'm writing about one of the best pieces of marriage advice I ever received...

Marriage is hard. 

This is not news. If you're engaged or even thinking about getting married, everyone from your pastor to your neighbor to strangers you sit next to on airplanes are ready to chime in with their own stories of relationship struggles. And they're all right.

Chris and I have been married five years this week. Our life-partnership is one of God's greatest gifts to me. Besides the obvious advantages like sharing a Netflix queue, going halfsies on rent and chores, and making cute babies, marriage has meant having someone to speak faith to my doubt, to shine light on my dark places, and to hold hands as we walk down rough roads. 

But marriage has also been hard. In order to make such an important relationship work, it takes time and effort and an intentional honing of skills...

We first started honing our relationship skills in an intentional way when we were matched with marriage mentors during our engagement. For eight weeks leading up to our wedding, we met weekly with a couple in our church who had been married for forty years. They helped us talk through things like making a budget, dealing with life changes and planning for a family.

At the time, it felt like so much advice and so many ideas, I didn’t know how we’d ever use it all. But over the last five years, over and over again I’ve found myself (and Chris) pulling out nuggets of wisdom we gleaned in those sessions to help us stay on track as we work through disagreements. As I’ve thought about all of that wisdom, there’s one piece of advice that I think has mattered in our marriage more than any other:

Sit together on the couch.

It’s literally good advice, healthy relationships require that we spend quality time in each other’s presence. But it was presented to us as a metaphor, one we’ve come back to again and again.

When you’re having a disagreement, especially about something mundane like the dishes, it’s easy to let it escalate and become about more than that.

“You left your bowl in the sink” can turn into “It’s no wonder you’re a slob, your parents are too!” if we’re not careful. So instead of arguing about who’s turn it is to do the dishes and pointing out who did them last and why I’m clearly in the right this time, we stop. We take a deep breath. We sit side by side, sometimes literally, sometimes with our words.

“Let’s sit together on this one.”

In the change of position we’re reminded that we’re a team. Sitting next to each other, the problem isn’t him and it isn’t me, it’s the dishes. The dishes must be done. It’s a problem to solve together instead a wedge driving us apart. When we take a minute to reconnect and realize that we’re in this thing together, often we find ourselves more willing to take on the tasks that we were so eager to pass off moments before.

Marriage is hard, you guys, but it’s so good too. The hard places are opportunities to become better together. Here’s to making the most of yours, one dirty dish at a time.

Stir It Up

Lindsey Smallwood

During my first few years out of college, I worked as a campus pastor for university students. I started my career in ministry the way most people start most careers these days - as an intern.

The first person I met on the first day of my internship was Jessica.

Jess, already a full-time pastor, was fast-talking and friendly, showing me the ins and outs of the house we would share - along with 13 other women! - and helping me navigate the intern manual. That first week, she was formally assigned to be my mentor, a role that involved meeting together weekly for support, accountability and advice. 

The (at first) weird and (ultimately) wonderful thing about having Jess as a mentor is that we were also friends. I'd had mentors before, my campus pastors during undergrad, a lady in my church back home, a dear family friend, but these had all been people either

a) older than me,

b) in a position of power, or

c) both.

Due to age or power differences, my previous experience with mentoring relationships meant that the roles were very clearly defined. When I met with a mentor, I was coming to receive something, to ask for something, to benefit from their wisdom and experience.

But with Jess, the lines were blurred.

Jess was my friend-tor, a peer who was also interested in helping me grow, both personally and professionally.

Me and Jess sporting some serious safety gear on a rafting trip down the Kenai River. I was mentoring her on the appropriate response to a bear sighting, which, incidentally, is  not  to point and yell "Bear!" Which we did. About 5 minutes after this picture was taken.

Me and Jess sporting some serious safety gear on a rafting trip down the Kenai River. I was mentoring her on the appropriate response to a bear sighting, which, incidentally, is not to point and yell "Bear!" Which we did. About 5 minutes after this picture was taken.

We'd made a commitment to know each other well, to learn from each other and we set structured times to do it, sharing about vocational challenges, deep convictions, and struggles with sin and doubt. But because we were friends, we also did things like make dinner and go backpacking together.

This sort of spiritual friendship was new to me - and it was powerful.

My friendship with Jess lead me to three important realizations.

1) Explicit commitments contribute to personal & relational growth.

I have a lot of friends.

Some I catch up with at happy hour or ultimate frisbee games, others live far away and I have to call if I want to connect. Our family has small group friends we only see on Sundays and work friends we see socially on occasion.

In most of our relationships, the level of interaction we have with someone in a given month is determined either by happenstance or in reaction to whatever else we've packed our schedules with that.

But what if we made growing in and through friendship a priority?

Scheduling an hour a week or every other week to meet with a friend for the purpose of sharing joys and challenges, giving and receiving advice, and joining together in prayer could change your life.

Seriously.

Imagine knowing that someone you admire, respect and enjoy is making space to know and love you well - regularly. That thought delights me and gives me hope.

It might feel scary to ask a someone to make this kind of commitment. But brave things are often scary.

And worth it.

2) Friends can mentor you. And you can mentor your friends.

Mentors don't have to be older (or even wiser) than you, although those kinds of mentors are great if you can find one. But everyone around us has a gift to offer the world.

Maybe you are bad at organization and have a friend with a knack for using rubbermaid containers in beautiful ways - ask her to show you the way! Or maybe you really admire the way your buddy is navigating his career. Talking about your own challenges and asking how he makes professional decisions can lead to your own development.

Finding a mentoring relationship means putting yourself in a position to learn from someone else, which can feel strange in a friendship. But by being direct about what you see in someone else's skill set and how you hope to grow together, you can create a space to be friend-tors.

3) Deep friendship requires vulnerability.

Here's the hardest part. If we want relationships that support us in our weaknesses and push us to develop our strengths, we have to be honest.

Honest with ourselves and with our friends.

Honest about our hopes and dreams and goals and plans.

Honest about our failures and struggles and heartache and sin.

All of our beautiful messiness becomes fair game in true friendship. And in the mess, where we experience shame and frustration and fear, God lovingly uses people to speak life and healing and hope, to pull us up and get us unstuck, to point us back to the path we wanted to walk in the first place.

Hebrews gives us this challenge:

Image courtesy of  incourage.me

Image courtesy of incourage.me

Living the kind of life we all want to live, a life filled with doing good things and loving people well doesn't just happen.

We've got to stir it up in each other.

And if we are intentional, vulnerable and committed to growing in friendship, God can use those relationships to shape us more fully into his image.


You guys, I need some friend-tors in this season! I decided to "go first" by asking some local girlfriends to do a six week summer study on friendship together. We start next week and I'm looking forward to sharing more with you about what we learn together.

Do you have a friend-tor? What steps are you taking or considering to grow in and through friendship? I'd love to hear more in the comments below.

Purer, Higher, Greater

Lindsey Smallwood

They assigned us to Doug & Katie. 

We were newly engaged and checking items off the to-do lists I had pulled out of the bridal magazines stashed under my bed. Pre-martial counseling was recommended in Modern Bride but the pastor at our church advised us to take a less formal route and instead sign up for a new program the church had started offering - marriage mentoring. Engaged couples and newlyweds were matched with couples who had long and healthy relationships for a season of support and encouragement.

We agreed to meet them at their home once a week for eight weeks. Our first night there was awkward, lots of long pauses, sideways glances and uncomfortable laughter. This probably should have been expected given the list of topics we were covering - sex, money, family planning, relationship histories. But Doug & Katie weren't afraid to dive in deep with us, listening to our plans, fears and insecurities and offering their own experiences and lived wisdom.

Sitting on their couch week after week, we came to love Doug's propensity to tell long semi-tangential stories and Katie's gentle prodding back to the topic at hand. We earnestly sought their advice as we grappled with the changes coming in our relationship. We did hard work on that flowery sofa, preparing ourselves for the harder work of marriage. 

On our last night of formal mentoring sessions, Chris and I talked in the car about how much we'd miss seeing the Spanglers regularly, remarking about how close we'd become over the 8 weeks of meeting together. As that evening came to a close, Doug mentioned that they'd like to share a meal with us sometime, if we were interested. We made plans to do it soon after. 

Our double dinner date was hysterical. Gone were the serious topics, the counseling workbooks, the personality checklists. Instead the table was set with craft brew beer and take out pizza. As we came in Doug mentioned he'd rented a movie for us to watch later on. 

"It's hilarious," he told us. "I saw it with my son and I think you guys will love it. It's called The Hangover?"

Chris and I couldn't contain our laughter - here was a 70 year old man, a former pastor, who had spent the last two months mentoring us toward healthy relationships and now he wanted to sit in the dark and watch a debaucherous bachelor party gone wrong? We were in for the fun, even when it took forever to watch because Doug wanted to rewind the part where the tiger is in the bathroom and watch it again. 

"You guys, there's a tiger. A tiger! In the bathtub." He giggled like a middle school boy.

Over the weeks and months that followed, Doug and Katie would become some of our closest friends, despite the fourty year age difference between us. We found ourselves sharing meals whenever we could - asking hard questions and telling good stories around the table. Doug and Chris shared a love for gourmet food which lead to a lot delicious dinners for Katie and I, including a night out at our first Michelin Star restaurant. When the server brought the first course of "vegetable ash crackers on a bed of hot stones" and walked away, leaving us with a square platter of what looked like garden variety rocks, Doug shamelessly called her back across the restaurant and demanded that she explain exactly what was on his plate. 

"I'm old," he told her. "I don't know what this is, but I want to eat it, so talk slowly and tell me everything."

Classic Doug. Never afraid of the awkward encounter. Always game to try something new.

After our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, the Spanglers were gentle, faithful friends who generously told us their own story of pregnancy loss and helped us grieve that little life we had already begun to love. When we found out we were expecting again, Katie was the first to offer to host a baby shower in celebration. After Bobby was born, they babysat for a whole day so we could have much needed couple time together in San Fransisco. Doug gave Chris a copy of a devotional book for new fathers that he wrote and Katie sewed us quilts after the birth of both boys.

With our own parents so far away, Doug and Katie became the family we needed as we started our life together in Berkeley. They shared secrets of staying on a budget and giving each other time to develop as individuals. They shepherded us through rough patches and showed us how to love each other by their example. 

Doug & Katie meeting Tommy for the first time

Doug & Katie meeting Tommy for the first time

A world traveler who at various times served as a pastor, insurance salesman, tv and radio personality, writer and community organizer, Doug led a pretty amazing life. And he knew his time was coming to a close. Before we'd ever met the Spanglers, Doug had been diagnosed with a blood condition and given just a couple years to live. He'd already beat those odds when we first found ourselves on their flowered couch and though there were times when he struggled with weakness and fatigue, he was generally healthy these last few years while he and Katie enjoyed trips to dream destinations and time with their grandkids. 

Yesterday morning Doug finished his time on earth with all of us and is at peace in the arms of Jesus. 

To me, Doug's legacy is the lesson that everything is better when shared. A meal. A story. A joke. A bad movie. His gracious welcome and faithful love adopted me into his family and I am forever better for it, my marriage is better for it, my children will be better because of the time I spent with him. 

Doug, I'd like to think that you're enjoying the best meal you've ever had at that gracious eternal table as you tell your long stories to those gathered near. Your life was incredible, both in what you accomplished and your example of faithfulness to us all. But I know today is purer and higher and greater than ever before - as you finally see Jesus, the One you loved and the One whose love shone so bright through you.

Thank you for using your time here to love us so well.


To God be the glory, great things He has done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

Great things He has taught us, great things He has done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He has done.

from To God Be The Glory
by Fanny Crosby