What I Allow

22 06 2017

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”  –Robyn Davidson

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  • In 1975, Robyn Davidson moved to Alice Springs, in Australia, to work with camels in order to prepare for a trek across the desert.
  • In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean agreed to be the spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate named Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
  • On December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 180-foot-tall, 1500-year-old California redwood tree in order to prevent it from being cut down.

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Recently, I came across something called the five second rule. No, this is not about dropped food. This rule is used to help get you unstuck and moving forward. The basic concept is this: you have an idea about something you could/should/wish to/want to do (ask a question in a public forum, clean your bathroom, take dinner to a friend convalescing from surgery). Such ideas come to us all the time, but often we don’t act on them. The longer we take to act, the less likely it is that we will take the action at all. The five second rule suggests counting backwards from five, challenging yourself to act on your thought or idea within that five seconds – thereby short-circuiting the tendency to (through procrastination or fear of failure, etc.) forego action.

Since reading of this concept, I keep noticing how many times I think of something to do yet do nothing. It is not only astounding – it is deeply disturbing. It is disturbing because part of the noticing process has been paying attention to the self-talk that keeps me from action. How humbling is it to really hear myself rationalize laziness, excuse sloth, forgive weakness, and cave in to fear.

At the same time as this heightened self-awareness, I have been reading Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her trek across the Australian desert accompanied by four camels and a dog. In the final paragraph of her memoir, Davidson shares the thought I quoted, above, about what she learned. Two important takeaways in that one short sentence:

  1. You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.
  2. The most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step.

Davidson goes on to say that, like all important life lessons, these two need to be re-learned, over and over throughout our lives.

After finishing the book, I set it down and thought, “I should go for a walk.” Unbidden, my brain began the process of counting backwards from five…four…three…

“Alright!”, I told myself, grabbing my tennies. After changing my shoes, I headed outside, and spent about an hour walking around my neighborhood. Thoughts of Davidson’s trek – the fact that she had an idea but zero skills or experience to back it up, yet did it anyway, blew my mind. And it led me to think of other people I’ve admired who said yes to a thought or idea, not sure where it would lead or how it might turn out.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Julia Butterfly Hill, both social justice heroes of mine, came to mind. Neither of them knew, when they first took action on an idea, that it would become a life-altering choice. The idea came – in the form of an invitation or a creative solution to a problem – and the first step was taken. The path revealed itself over time, just as Davidson’s trek wound its unexpected way through the Outback. For Sr. Helen, next steps took her into the international spotlight as an advocate for those sentenced to death. For Julia, that first choice led to 738 days living in the tree which became known to people everywhere as Luna.

It is easy to think of these women, and others like them, as extraordinary; to think of them as possessing something special with which the rest of us were not gifted. But I’ve had the good fortune to break bread with both Sr. Helen and Julia, and I’ve discovered that this kind of thinking is, mainly, a cop-out. They are lovely, wonderful, fiercely loving individuals – but they are not some special subspecies of homo sapiens. They are not that different from me or you.

If, as Robyn Davidson suggests, we are as strong and powerful as we allow ourselves to be, then these women have opted to allow strength, resilience, individual personal power – love – to flow through them. If Davidson is correct, the biggest difference between them and me is this issue of “allowing” myself to be powerful.

I’m not off on any quests through hostile landscapes, nor will Susan Sarandon be portraying me in a movie any time soon. Still, isn’t it time to seriously consider life’s most important question? Will I continue to sit on my couch making excuses, or will I allow myself to be as strong, as powerful, as I am capable of being?

“The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can one person make a difference?”  Each and every one of us does make a difference.  It is actually impossible to not make a difference.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”  http://www.juliabutterfly.com/

 





Inspirational vs Motivational

15 06 2017

Inspirational tweet:  “Stop wishing and start willing.”                                                             Response to tweet:  “I will college was free.” *

A few days ago, I read these tweets and moved on. But I keep thinking back on them with a chuckle.

I’m pretty much over my “inspirational quotes” phase. These days, I am likely to sigh heavily and skip them. Even when a friend I know is quite earnest reposts or retweets them, I might mutter, “yeah, right”. Often, I find myself wanting to make a clever response (such as the one above) or perhaps launch into a diatribe about why that particular quote is insipid or too Pollyanna-ish.

Usually, I am able to refrain from raining on someone else’s positivity parade. The reason for this is that I’m not actually against inspiration – I can be happy when others find it in a snappy, clever sentence. In fact, I seek inspiration in life as much as the next person. Lord knows (and so do you if you read this blog) I’m not against finding inspiration in pithy or meaningful quotes. However, more and more I find, that inspiration comes to me in less easily digestible platitudes. And forget the haranguing pep-talkers who string them together into long paragraphs that seem to shout at me “BE INSPIRED, DAMMIT!”

I follow a former student of mine on FB and Instagram. I read everything she posts, even (maybe especially) the really long stories. I always come away feeling inspired. She writes from the depth of her heart about raising her six adopted kids, her experiences as a foster mom, her fierce love and joy amidst the chaos and exhaustion of everyday life. Her very real experiences and thoughts are so much more heartening and energizing to me than an impersonal adage.

I am inspired when people I respect share themselves authentically. I am inspired when people who have accomplished something I admire them for or wish I could emulate, show that they are imperfect and vulnerable too. I’m less inspired when someone goes all Vince Lombardi on me in order to light a fire under my feet.

In much the same way that I have had my inspirational meme phase and passed through to the other side, I admit I am moving past my political meme fascination as well. For a time, since the last election, I was delighted to come upon a list of witty protest sign slogans or humorous (even shocking) tweets that encapsulated someone’s political bent – especially if it happened to match how I am bent.

I am finding it much harder, as time goes on, to find relief in these mini-position statements. Yesterday, I woke to the news of that horrible high-rise apartment fire in London, then to the shooting of congressmen on a Virginia baseball diamond. The news all day was horrific or glum or demoralizing. One item after another in a ghastly line. On such a day, what feeling person could truly take joy in snippy one-liners?

Just before bed, I happened to be online trying to track down some information for a project I am doing at work, and I came across the following quote from Lynne Twist, activist and author.

“Many social justice or social activist movements have been rooted in a position. A position is usually against something. Any position will call up its opposition. If I say up, it generates down. If I say right, it really creates left. If I say good, it creates bad. So a position creates its opposition. A stand is something quite distinct from that.

There are synonyms for “stand” such as “declaration” or “commitment,” but let me talk for just a few moments about the power of a stand. A stand comes from the heart, from the soul. A stand is always life affirming. A stand is always trustworthy. A stand is natural to who you are. When we use the phrase “take a stand” I’m really inviting you to un-cover, or “unconceal,” or recognize, or affirm, or claim the stand that you already are. “

What struck me about this quotation, is that it differentiates between two concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably but which, as she points out, are actually quite different. I found myself looking at my own political biases, and hoping I can be someone who takes a stand, and not someone who continues to set up the push-pull dichotomy of taking positions. I know what I stand for, but do I articulate that so others know? Or do I just contribute to the right/left/right/wrong/up/down/red/blue tug of war?

As I thought about this concept of “position” versus “stand” , I realized that the same kind of differentiation can be made between “inspirational” versus “motivational”. Suddenly, it became clear that I’ve been conflating the two.

“Motivational” wills me to do something, pushes me toward achievement. “Inspirational” fills me with spirit. The first is about doing, the second about being. At this point in my life, I am less taken with words (and the people who utter them) about motivating or pushing me. In my mid-50s, I hope my greatest motivators are intrinsic. If I’m seeking motivation externally (on Twitter, for example) I’m probably truly struggling.

On the other hand, I hope I am never too old to be en-spirited – whether by the spirit of love, or grace, or mercy or kindness. Authentic words (and the people who utter them) about sharing real struggles and victories will continue to touch me deeply – will continue to inspire me.

 

 

*Sorry, I didn’t take note of whose tweets they were, and I couldn’t find them when I went back to Twitter.

 





Give Light

8 06 2017

“The cure for all the ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word love. It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.” –Lydia M. Child, abolitionist

In a small city like Cedar Rapids, people are connected to one another in ways that are not obvious – or even known – until there is a loss. Then, it is as if the threads of a tapestry light up and you can follow them as they criss-cross town. Folks who had appeared unconnected are suddenly linked, woven together by their shared sorrow. When the loss is sudden or unexpected, this effect is intensified; more so if the individual was a light-giver to others.

In these moments, so many things we are used to thinking of as important fall away, replaced by the certainty that love is paramount. Love given, love received, love multiplied exponentially by the very act of expressing it outwardly in ways big and small.

Suddenly, we understand that the people we see as “leaders” may have their roles, but the people who who give love freely, understanding that relationship is everything: these people are the actual beating heart of our communities.

When the communities we are a part of are reeling with the loss of such individuals, the paucity of loving leadership in the larger context of our state, region, or nation is revealed by stark contrast. You cannot lead from love and be a liar. You cannot lead from love and promulgate a scarcity mentality, in which your  group or country will not have enough if others do (leading to policies and acts that are needlessly cruel and selfish). You cannot lead from love and encourage hate.

It follows, then, that true visionaries are those who lead with and from love, who inspire love in others. Leading from love generates love – abundance, shared growth, community.

Maybe we don’t think of love as a quality of leadership. If that’s the case, maybe its time we start.

“Give light, and people will find the way.” — Ella Baker, civil and human rights activist

 

 





In other words: Forget about the dots

1 06 2017

“Wanting an intimate relationship doesn’t mean I get one. But to paraphrase Stephen Stills, if I can’t be with the one I love, my best insurance policy against a sad, lonely old age is to love the one I’m with. The one who will never leave me, no matter what, for real. That one, of course, would be me.”         — Meredith Maran The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention

 

You take a step. Make a choice. Decide.

You never know exactly what to expect, how it will “turn out”, where it will lead. But you think you’ve looked at it from every angle you can, and it seems like the next right thing to do, so you think you know approximately, at least, what will happen.

In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, he said ““You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” You know this is true, but even hearing Jobs’ wisdom in your head at each decision-point doesn’t stop you from trying. Doesn’t keep you from thinking that, maybe, this time you’ve managed to connect the dots forward. This time you’ve mapped the trajectory of your own future correctly and all will proceed accordingly.

But it doesn’t.

You fail. Someone you rely on fails. Markets fail. You get sick. Someone you love gets sick. You calculated based on certain assumptions, now proven incorrect. (Donald Trump gets elected President proving all bets are off.) People refuse to act according to your predictions. Life refuses to act according to your predictions.

You feel disappointed, disillusioned, depressed. Alone.

Now what?

Self-recrimination (what did I miscalculate? how could I be so wrong? I must be missing a crucial gene!)? Shut down and spend days, weeks, just getting through until I can sit in my easy chair at night and fall asleep? Blame everyone else for not meeting my expectations (which, of course, are perfectly reasonable)?

I don’t have any prescriptions for fixing a life that goes off the rails, for solving the endless riddle of “how did this happen?” or “How did I end up here?”  But here’s what I’m learning*, or at least what I think I’m picking up on right now:

Whatever happens, wherever I go – I am the common denominator. Blame, anger, self-loathing…not helpful. Helpful? Compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness. If I have to live with myself, I prefer peaceful, loving cohabitation.

Whether I am proactive and take-charge or reactive and passive, I will experience the results. In which case, doing is preferable to wallowing; action preferable to waiting; woke-ness preferable to somnolence.

Endlessly ruminating on what happened yesterday or last week or four years ago, trying to pinpoint a moment “where it all went wrong”, is a waste of my energy. If I had known when I was 29 what my life would look like at 49, I might have chosen differently. But I didn’t know. And I chose what I chose. Move on.

Endlessly ruminating on the future, on my fears of being old and alone, or getting sick, or…just not ending up where I wish I would end up…only paralyzes me and wastes my days in longing. “Stop gazing at your reflection in the Mirror of Erised,” I practice saying to myself; step away, then step onward.

 

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”       —Ranier Maria Rilke

* Like most important lessons in life, these “learnings” are not new to me. I am simply spiraling through them on another curve. Right now, it is helping to read a bunch of books about women my age reinventing themselves, changing their lives (whether forced to change or choosing to change).

 

 





Green is the Color of Grace

25 05 2017

Act as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that your actions make any difference.                                                                                                –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Back in December, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Follow the simple instructions, then…Voila!…in mid-winter you’ll have a beautiful flowering plant to lift up your spirits!

As you might have guessed, I didn’t follow the instructions.

First, I forgot to bring the bulb home from the office. In late January, I finally carried it into my apartment and deposited the box, unopened, on my dining table. It sat there until I was home sick one afternoon in late February. I was ill, depressed and tired of the unremitting grayness that is Iowa in winter. I thought that planting the amaryllis might help me feel more hopeful. And it did, at first. I not only planted and watered the bulb, I spoke to it daily about growing and hope and life.

The papery top of the bulb developed a green tinge, which seemed promising, although I couldn’t discern any actual growth. Over time, though, even that greenish color went away. It seemed unlikely that anything would ever grow. February ended, March passed, April flew by. The lifeless brown bulb just sat on my table, unresponsive for so long that I stopped talking to it, even stopped noticing it as more than just another item on a perpetually cluttered surface.

Except for the days I felt especially discouraged – on those days, I saw it as an emblem of my inability to do anything right.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of things there are to get done in any given day. Mired in these tasks, I am unable to focus on the bigger picture – the one where what I’m doing makes a difference in the world, is about more than just running on an endless hamster wheel. Every time it seems like things are getting on track, that there might be an opportunity to look ahead – maybe even get ahead – things fall apart and I’m buried again.

The sense of failing at my own life overrides other perspectives.

In the middle of such a seemingly hopeless cycle this week, I was frantically searching for one piece of paper among the piles on my kitchen table when I happened to glance at the forgotten amaryllis pot. One tender green shoot has emerged from the bulb’s dry papery skin. Of course, it happened when least expected, when hope of it happening had been surrendered.

“Of course,” I exclaimed aloud, likely startling my neighbor whom I could hear leaving her apartment just then.

Of course – because we won’t always immediately (if ever) see the fruit of our labors.

Of course – because nurturing hope, tending growth, changing hearts, holding space for healing is important work, but accomplished below the surface.

Of course – because our most meaningful work often resides in attending to the drudgery of details.

Of course – because when we take/hold everything too seriously, too personally, too joylessly, too fearfully we forget about grace.

When you’ve forgotten that grace exists, each time it manifests in your life it is a surprise. A miraculous, living, green tendril that reminds you: everything matters.

 

 





Thoughts on moving forward

19 05 2017

“You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.” –Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button screenplay

Each of us is on a journey. Some days it feels like an adventure. Other times it feels like a forced march through difficult and trying terrain. How we think of the journey, what emotional baggage we carry with us, directly impacts our perspective.

Weight and body issues have been a major story line in my personal narrative, as they are for so many of us. In this blog, I have chronicled my own process through losing half of my body weight (from just over 350 pounds to a low of 176) and, recently, of regaining a significant portion of that amount. Over these years, I’ve learned so much – one important lesson being not to judge anyone else’s journey.

Early in my weight loss process, I undertook a hunger challenge – raising money for hunger relief as I lost weight myself. When I asked friends to sponsor me for this challenge, one sent me an email saying, “I’ll sponsor you as long as you aren’t having weight-loss surgery.” I assured him that I wasn’t, and his response was to say, “I don’t agree with people having surgery to fix a problem because they don’t have the willpower to fix it themselves.”

At the time, his comment didn’t really bother me – probably because I agreed with him. I had not yet undertaken either the physical work nor the emotionally difficult excavation of my underlying issues that significant weight loss required. When I did do that work, I discovered that coming into a “right relationship” with myself, and my body, is about so much more than the actual weight. When I realized that I had been trying to keep my head above water in a sea of self-loathing and shame, I understood the loving compassion I had often extended toward others needed to be extended toward myself. Once I began doing that, I could see that my judgement about other people’s bodies or weight loss methods, my attitude about other peoples’ life journeys, had simply been a projection of my own nasty insecurities and fears.

Three weeks ago, my sister Gwen had gastric sleeve surgery. I am so PROUD of her! First, I am aware of how much energy it requires to undertake such a major step. There was the better part of a year spent in medical and psychological screenings and preparation. Then there was the surgery itself, not a minor consideration. Finally, there is the life-long behavior change required to make the rest of it worthwhile.

Gwen had to face her inner demons – I don’t know them because they are hers, but I have no doubt they are as powerful as my own! Many people never manage to face theirs, much less stare them down. Many people keep finding reasons for inaction when action feels daunting.

It requires courage to do these hard things.

In fact, it requires courage to move forward in our journeys – whether in bold steps or incremental. Our fears, our shames, our regrets, our guilts are voiced repetitively in our heads. Every day they tell us to avert our eyes, to distract ourselves, to comfort ourselves with things that may feel good but are not nourishing to our souls (food, habits, consumption, competition – whatever). Their real message is “Don’t.” Don’t try. Don’t change. Don’t think you’re special or worthy. Don’t take that next step – stay here where you may not be happy but at least you feel safe.

This is true for everyone – not just those of us with weight concerns. Once you see this clearly for even a brief span, you can’t really go back to judging other peoples’ journeys as if it is your business or as if you actually know their innermost secrets. Once you see this clearly for even a brief span, it is much more difficult to brutally judge yourself.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”                                                                                                  –Brene Brown

 

 

 

 





Ubuntu

11 05 2017

 

Last week, my niece posted a photograph of her new tattoo: hands, holding the Earth, with the word “Ubuntu” inscribed below it.

The next day, I met singer/songwriter Sara Thomsen, and saw her project booklet (from an event combining music, art, poetry), titled Ubuntu.

On the third day, I walked into my brother’s home in Chicago and immediately saw a sign, “I am because we are”. In other words, ubuntu.

Some, perhaps many, people would have me believe this is a great example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (also known as frequency illusion). But that would remove all of the magic and wonder from the experience of such synchronicities – and I believe that magic and wonder are absolutely necessary these days. I refuse to give them up in the name of psychology.

I first heard the word and concept of ubuntu in a televised interview with Desmond Tutu 20 years ago. He roughly translated it as “A person is a person through other people” – I remember it because I immediately wrote it in my journal so I wouldn’t forget. It spoke to me very deeply of what I knew in my heart but always had difficulty articulating: namely, that we are all intimately connected with one another. The concept has a long history, and has been translated in various ways, though maintaining throughout it’s essential character. Ubuntu is about relationships. (See more history here)

Though I haven’t had a chance to ask her yet, my niece Hallie most likely became aware of the concept because of her love for and travels to Africa. Hallie is our social justice warrior, our peacemaker, our world citizen. Ubuntu is a concept she has understood since she was quite young, regardless of when she learned the word that names it. Hallie has a heart for the world and will fight for equality and opportunity and fairness for all. When I saw the beautiful photo of her tattoo I couldn’t help but feel emotional. ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours,” she declares. It is written on her body.

I met Sara Thomsen when she was one of the facilitators for our annual spirituality conference. I had heard several of her songs, and have been especially drawn to this one, “Water is Life”. After the first evening session of the conference, a few of us went out for dinner. That’s where I heard about Sara’s commitment to art as a unifying force in the world. In particular, I learned about her work with the Echoes of Peace community choir, and their “Art of Ubuntu” project. And while our dinner was a serendipitous celebration of Cinco de Mayo with new-found friends, our laughter was underscored by a mutual understanding so beautifully stated in this quote from the “Art of Ubuntu” project materials:

It is like the Beloved Community, the “network of mutuality” of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke…   “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be.”

Immediately after closing our conference on Saturday, I drove to Chicago. The main reason for the trip was to see my niece Zoe in the role of Veruca Salt, in her school production of “Willy Wonka”. (She was awesome!) After the play, I found myself in an Irish pub, surrounded by women I love and admire. Our discussion ranged all over, but eventually found it’s way back to politics every time. It was an incredible experience to, once again, be surrounded by fierce women who are taking action in whatever ways they can to create a world where ubuntu is the dominant paradigm. “I am because we are”, as the sign in my brother’s living room declares.

Ubuntu: I so needed this repetition of the concept. I refuse to chalk it up to a mere mental trick or illusion. When you are parched and thirsty, water is always a miracle, not only a chemical compound of hydrogen and oxygen. More than anything, I needed the reminder that there are many others who hold ubuntu in their hearts. It is inspiring and affirming and it offers me energy for whatever this day or the next may bring.

The fire in my heart, my soul flame burning
Is the fire in your heart, your soul flame burning
We are Spirit burning bright, by the light of day, in the dark of night
We are shining like the sun, and like the moon, like the Holy One

By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit, we are all one

— Sara Thomsen, from “By Breath”