Happy Friday! It’s the start of a holiday weekend here in the U.S., and also the beginning a mini-vacation for my family and me. (It’s actually more of a stay-cation, and we hope to do lots of hiking, eating, reading, and maybe a little swimming.) So we’ll keep this week’s edition short and sweet.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been going to physical therapy. When at the end of a recent appointment I casually mentioned to my doctor that some chronic neck and shoulder pain I’ve had for years was now keeping me awake, she insisted on the referral. “Just see what they have to say,” she suggested.
At my first session, I downplayed what I’d been experiencing.
“It’s not interfering with my work, and I have complete range of motion,” I bragged. “It’s just gotten a little worse over the past few weeks.”
“Well, let’s just take a look,” the therapist said. Clearly she’d heard that one before.
Over the next several minutes, she had me do a series of activities which revealed that my range of motion actually was significantly diminished, particularly in my neck. The therapist also confirmed that having to work with a heating pad draped over my shoulders actually isn’t normal, and yes, she thought therapy could help. She sent me home with some exercises and a plan for me to be seen twice a week for a few weeks.
Over the past month, I’ve had cranial sacral therapy, traction, scraping, and massage. My neck has been stretched every which way possible, by me and therapist, and after six sessions, I’m beginning to get some relief. I’ll go at least three more times, and even when I’m finished, I don’t expect to be pain free. But I will have a plan for continued improvement.
And so the question, dear reader, that you may be thinking and I’ve been asking myself is this: How did I allow the pain in my neck and shoulders to get so bad that I need such a drastic intervention? The answer is simple: A very bad habit.
See, throughout my adolescence, my mom warned me that this was going to happen. Any time she would walk behind me, she’d poke me in the lower back and say, “Put your shoulders back,” or “Stand up straight,” or simply, “Posture!” I’ve been a chronic huncher for years. And on top of that, I hold all my stress in my shoulders, causing pain and tightness across my collar bone, through my rotator cuffs, and around to my shoulder blades. I don’t know when my shoulders first started protruding forward and upward, to the point that they’re often sitting up close to my ears. But I do know that by now, that muscle memory is strong, and even though it’s painful, that’s what my body does naturally.
When I see the physical therapist, she spends a lot of time pushing my shoulders down and back, stretching and strengthening the muscles and tendons that have shortened and contracted over the years. In addition to the stretches and exercises she gave me for home, she encouraged me to pay attention to my posture, to keep my neck long and my shoulders low and back.
But the new position was painful and frankly hard to remember. I had to become aware I was doing it wrong before I could remind myself to do it right. At one point, I was staring at my reflection as I lowered and pulled back my shoulders, and I couldn’t remember what “normal” was supposed to look like. My body wasn’t comfortable with the old way anymore, but it wasn’t used to the new way either. Everything felt awkward.
“Does this look natural?” I asked Steve, “the way I’m standing?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I mean my shoulders, do they look right?”
“What are they supposed to look like?” he asked.
“That’s the problem,” I admitted. “I’m not even sure.”
But slowly, through rigorous therapy, a professional who constantly reminds me, exercises at home which reinforce it, and a body that’s growing increasingly more comfortable to live in, I’m remembering to hold my shoulders and neck correctly. Through lots and lots of remembering, I’m actually changing the muscle memory.
I was thinking about my obstinate shoulders this week as I read in Deuteronomy about the equally stubborn nation of Israel that kept falling into some very bad habits despite being redeemed and rescued by a God who wanted more from them and for them. Their muscle memory of sin was strong.
“The human habit is to forget God,” writes Jen Pollock Michel in A Habit Called Faith. “… when life is moving placidly along, when the diagnosis is negative and the mortgage is paid, we are easily lulled into habits of self-reliance and self-congratulations.” This is the muscle memory that, like my tight shoulders and stiff neck, eventually cause us a lot of pain. “Without clouds in the sky,” Jen continues, “we are given to forgetting that every ray of sun, every hint of spring is a gift from the Creator and Sustainer God.”
But God wasn’t willing to leave the Israelites to their bad habits. Instead, through continual reminders from Him, and some “exercises” for the nation to practice at home, God was attempting to change the posture of the nation. And the plan was deceivingly simple. First, he gave them the Shema, a simple reminder of who God is and how we are to respond to him, recited twice a day: “Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5).
He also called them to include physical reminders on their clothing, in the form of phylacteries and fringes, and on their homes, like the boxed scroll on the doorpost. At other times, God prodded Israel toward better recall by commanding a weekly Sabbath and seasonal festivals. He also ordained regular sacrifices and rituals, not because any of these actions could earn them favor from God, but so God could remind the Israelites that his favor was already on them.
The goal for Israel, just like with my physical therapy, is that eventually we’ll remind ourselves of what’s good often enough that we change the muscle memory. It’s the miracle of habits.
But there’s a catch. Even though the entire premise of Jen’s book is that faith is formed as a habit, as a muscle memory of following God, she is quick to remind us that no habit is strong enough on its own … especially a habit to overcome the impulse and insistence of sin.
“To love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might, we will need more of his help to keep at the habit of remembering,” Jen writes.
Summer Reading Club
Let’s discuss Jen Pollock Michel’s A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus.
This week, we read Days 6-10 of the book. If you’re reading along (or even if you aren’t), consider responding to one or more of these questions in the comment section by clicking on the button below:
How do you experience yourself to be like Israel, a forgetful people in need of a reminder?
Is it easier for you to remember some aspects of God’s character or actions over others? Which ones do you often recall? Which ones do you often forget?
What objects do you have in your home, car, or office to remind you to turn your attention toward God and his Kingdom?
In what ways are your habits of faith like muscle memory, things you do without even thinking? While I’ve held up this idea as something to aspire to, in what ways might faith as muscle memory be a negative thing?
It’s not too late to read along. Here’s the Reading Schedule for the rest of the summer:
Week 3 (July 3-9): Days 11-15
Week 4 (July 10-16): Days 16-20
Week 5 (July 17-23): Days 21-25
Week 6 (July 24-30): Days 26-30
Week 7 (July 31-August 6): Days 31-35
Week 8 (August 7-13): Days 36-40
This and That
Stop by here for articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
This week, a collection of three essays that epitomize summer for me: food, reading, and nature. I’ll offer these without much commentary except to say they’re rich and indulgent and would go well with a glass of iced tea on a warm, summer afternoon.
On Rest, Hammocks, and Wasting a Life with James Wright by Melissa Reeser Poulin for Tweetspeak Poetry
The Life Story of a Recipe by Gina Rae La Cerva for Emergence Magazine
A Better Way to Look at Trees: What pioneering new research has revealed about the forest by Rebecca Giggs for The Atlantic
Nature Outside Your Door
“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.” — Rachel Carson
For the next several weeks, I’ll offer a summer series called “Nature Outside Your Door.” In it, we’ll talk about ways to connect with nature and appreciate God’s creation even if you can’t leave your neighborhood.
This week, take a different path, walk instead of drive, and watch how nature changes over time.
When I Write …
Finally, check out this section for a summer series just for writers called When I Write. I’ve invited fellow writers from The Redbud Writers Guild to join me with a brief explainer from their own writing, along with a prompt for you to try — even if you aren’t a writer.
This week, welcome Cheryl Grey Bostrom.
When I write fiction or poetry, I begin by laughing. I’ve long known that my creativity increases when I’m playful. A buoyant mood veers my brain from that flat, straight road of linear production onto trails friendly to unusual correlations and innovation.
Even if my day’s assignment takes me into dark or difficult issues, laughing before I engage my pen helps me be nimbler and more inventive in how I address them. Research bears this out; those who practice improvisational comedy generate more creative ideas. Laughter taps different neural pathways than stress and anxiety do: better pathways, prone to a mental roominess that lets ideas flow.
Your turn. So what’s my humor go-to? Puns. They get me every time. And judging by the huge online community of punsters, I’m not alone. If, however, wordplay isn’t for you, find something to make you laugh before your write—even if no pun in ten did.
For most of her life, Pacific Northwest naturalist, photographer, and award-winning author Cheryl Grey Bostrom, M.A., has lived in the rural and wild lands than infuse her writing. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, two non-fiction books, and now a novel: Sugar Birds, slated for release August 3, 2021.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report! Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,
I'll second that neck problem, Charity! Too many years spent at the keyboard takes its toll. But we're both glad to have been here anyway, aren't we? Completely track with you--it feels unnatural to stand up straight and drag my shoulders down. Loved going for a walk with you! Loved the sweet photo of you with your mother!
Only a week late - just screeching in before the next WR drops! I loved this - can SO relate re: back and neck issues, and that's fascinating how you link muscle memory to the story of Israel. Personally, in terms of reminders, I have increasingly looked to the beauty of icons (Orthodox and others) and have started following a few modern icon artists on Instagram, who work in the traditional style. I am finding often stops me in my scroll and brings me back to God.