For over twenty years Bill and I have owned 1100 square feet of beach cottage on a bluff overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Built in the early 70s by an elderly Dutch couple who liked all things short and simple, the cottage is small and square. But the windows that stretch from foundation to peak are filled with a massive view of water and sky. And the winds that whip up from the western plains, huff and puff through Chicago, cross the lake beneath a studded sky, and swirl fiercely up our sandy bluff prove no threat to our sturdy little cottage. She stands secure and steady through it all.
Unfortunately, the scraggly trees that surround the cottage are not so sturdy. Yesterday, as often in the past, my husband and I followed a meandering trail around the cottage, snapping fallen branches into lengths we could haul with our wheelbarrow and toss over the edge of the bluff.
Technically, it was a spring day, but the wind was fierce and damp. Even the birds stayed away. A few sprouted bulbs were the only hints of warmer days to come.
Less than three hours from our home in Illinois, this cottage has been a refuge for our family. It’s where Bill spends most Mondays, recuperating from preaching weekend sermons. It’s where I’ve written a few books I’ve never published and a few articles I have. It’s where family and friends gathered before then-28-year-old son Todd took off sailing around the world for two years. It’s where Shauna wept two years ago when her doctor called with news that her unborn baby might have serious health issues. (Oh, the joy of Mac’s healthy birth!)
It’s where we’ve all walked for hours on the beach, sometimes playfully, sometimes prayerfully. Cold as it was yesterday I couldn’t resist the siren call of the sandy coast.
I walked the beach yesterday more prayerfully than playfully. My father continues in chemotherapy. Progress is steady, but slow. Life is always uncertain, but the next few months seem particularly so.
How best do I lean into the various commitments of my life?
This week my daughter posted a profound blog—"IRL"—about the tension between the “internet” demands of an author’s work and the “In Real Life” demands of family and friends. In her blog, Shauna warns her “internet world” that even though her new book (Bread and Wine) will soon be launching and her marketing team suggests she lean full tilt into her computer community she is choosing—ahead of time—to lean into the “in real life” circle of people she actually does daily life with. “The best of me,” she wrote, “is not my writing, not in my books, and not on my blog. The best of me is what I give to my husband, our boys, our families, our dear friends. And in a season that sometimes feels stretched to breaking, I won’t allow them to suffer. My first priority is and will always be IRL.”
I thought about Shauna’s wisdom as I walked the beach. Though I don’t have a new book launching, I do have travel and speaking and writing commitments, as well as conferences on peacemaking I'm scheduled to attend. Good stuff, all of it. But in real life I also have two devoted parents experiencing a new and extremely difficult era of life. And throughout April my brother, who is usually the local, consistent presence in my parents’ life, will be out-of-state.
What does living IRL mean for me now?
After walking and pondering on the beach, I decided to cancel my April commitments—responsibly, I hope, though certainly not without inconveniencing and disappointing some people. Immediately after Easter I’ll move to the little cottage on the bluff. Staying there will put me less than three hours from my grandsons, an hour from my parents, and thirty seconds from the beach. Bill will head to the cottage whenever he can, and I’ll have my laptop and files and books—plenty of work to do. I’ll probably spend a part of each day with my parents, more or less depending on the treatment decisions made in the coming days.
I am richly blessed to have such a lovely little place to be my home away from home. I know it is a luxury and I do not take it lightly. I will stay there gratefully, doing my best to prayerfully discern what IRL should look like for me as the weeks and months pass, as life moves along.
Last summer then-five-year-old Henry and I collected heart-shaped stones from the beach. We’d scuffle through the sand, trudge slowly up the stairs, pockets filled with hearts. Later we’d sort and arrange and photograph them. Yesterday when I walked I was determined not to find hearts, but I didn’t succeed. My hands were so cold I couldn’t pick them up, but I saw them. There’s never a shortage of hearts on the beach—or IRL.