How $8 Changed Me

25 08 2016

When I moved to Minneapolis in 2013, I went with a good deal of confidence in my professional skills and abilities. I have a masters degree in counseling and student affairs, and I had worked in increasingly responsible positions in higher education administration, crisis response, judicial affairs; I had excellent supervisory experience. I was fairly certain that, even though I was making that move without having already secured my next position, I would find a job that utilized my skills and offered me the opportunity to engage with my community.

There were tons of job for which I was qualified. I applied, I made phone calls, I received assistance and introductions from friends. Nothing materialized. When it became clear that I needed an income even if it wasn’t from an ideal position, I looked for an hourly job that would ease my financial worries while still allowing me the time and energy to continue my job search.

I found a part-time job (which quickly became full-time) at an upscale grocery store, as a barista in their Starbucks kiosk. When I was offered the job, I was told by my new supervisors that they understood where I was in the job search process – both of these managers were also women with excellent backgrounds who had found it difficult to get professional positions. They hired me, primarily, because they had empathy for me – and I was grateful for the opportunity.

My starting hourly wage was $8.00 an hour.

I had been poor before, but it had been nearly thirty years since I had truly been poor and not just “cash strapped” periodically. Being poor takes skills, and you lose or forget those skills if you are not called upon to regularly use them. You don’t exactly forget being poor – rather, you forget just how truly wearing it is on your psyche. If you live for very long in the relative luxury of middle class, your experiences become anecdotes of your scrappy past, rather than painful stories of survival. At least, that’s how it was for me.

My fellow baristas were a font of information for me on how to get by, how to recover my skills for living small. First, they found out that I was paying $800 a month for my COBRA insurance, and it was eating up my savings in giant gulps. My coworkers informed me that I likely qualified for county healthcare assistance (this was just as Obamacare was coming into being, and I ventured onto Minnesota’s health care marketplace and discovered that my colleagues were right). I entered the rolls of public assistance for the first time in my life.

Coworkers told me about the best food pantries – where they would go to get actual meat once every two weeks, or fresh produce that was still really edible. I didn’t use these resources, because I could supplement my earnings with some money from savings, and I was suddenly viscerally aware of the very real people working side-by-side with me who were trying to raise families on their $8.00/hour. I didn’t want to take food that a family might need.

I liked my job. But it meant eight hour shifts on my feet and I could never afford shoes that met dress code AND were comfortable on my feet. It meant closing one night and opening the next morning, on way less than eight hours of sleep. It meant working weekends and evenings; never two days in a row off, never a set schedule. I had a hard time adjusting, difficulties juggling my own life needs around the schedule. I missed out on a lot – and, again, I just had me. Many of those I worked with were juggling their families’ needs as well. Working in food service, we were supposed to call in sick if we had any illness that might be communicable. But we had no sick leave, no PTO. If we missed a shift, we didn’t get paid. I began to understand how e-coli spreads in fast food restaurants – diarrhea is not always a good enough reason to miss a fifth of your weekly pay.

The other store employees were unionized, we were not. They received scheduled pay increases, benefits. We did not. It was a very strange dichotomy within one store – everyone assumed that we had the same deal they did. To compound this, customers and coworkers alike kept complimenting us on Starbucks’ “generous” benefits – which we didn’t get because we were store employees, not Starbucks workers. Also, like baristas everywhere, we listened patiently to our customers complaining about their days – wealthy people complaining to struggling ones about the cost of the private schools their children attended, or that insurance didn’t pay for their cosmetic surgery. Many days, I left work feeling the strangest kind of dissonance – grateful to get back to my neighborhood and grab a coffee at The Boiler Room, where the general shabbiness felt welcoming and unpretentious.

I developed some of the skills necessary to survive earning so near the minimum wage: I learned what stores and shops had specials when; I never walked past change lying on the ground; I became a connoisseur of the best cheap toilet paper (and I shopped for it regularly at the BP gas station next door to my apartment). I rode my bike everywhere I could – and I enjoyed it – to save money on gas and vehicle maintenance. I managed when my apartment had no running water or no heat (and when it did have mice) – the rent was affordable and it wasn’t a horrible place to live, in spite of these occasional hardships. I learned to cut my own hair, or to go to Cost Cutter on the days of their $6 specials. I said goodbye to pedicures, to having facial hair waxed, to television, to shopping. I waved a fond farewell to artisanal cheeses, charcuterie boards, movies, theater tickets. I had internet, but only because I lived close to downtown Minneapolis and could use the city’s subsidized service.

What I couldn’t ever get the hang of was trying to live this way and still maintain a sense of self-worth. I know I made choices, and those choices resulted in where I was. But it felt as if other people controlled my outcomes (the people who had no issue, for example, telling me they wanted to hire younger professionals despite the fact that age discrimination in hiring is illegal). And there were systems in place that felt actively hostile to my efforts to make a better life. For example, when I needed assistance to get signed up for health care, it took two days worth of navigating telephone call trees to finally talk to a human being – who informed me that I had the wrong agency. He gave me a number and I started all over on another phone tree. (Folks, I have a masters degree and worked for decades in higher education – if I couldn’t follow the convoluted directions successfully, I submit that it would be difficult for many others to do so!) Another example: the two years I made the least money of my entire adult life were the ONLY two years I owed federal AND state income taxes, to the tune of several hundred dollars. Thinking about the panic and anxiety that induced can still make my pulse race.

Why am I writing about this now? We are in a political season, and things have been ugly. In the process of all the mud-slinging and the intentional lie-telling on both sides of the political fence, I am afraid that many of the real issues that we should be paying attention to, even fighting over or for, are getting lost in the rhetoric.

I was so much better off than people who are truly living in poverty and struggling to make it. I had family and friends who could (and did) offer support in both financial and emotional ways. I had retirement savings that I could, if needed, dip into. I had some excellent, quality goods that I already owned prior to my downturn in fortunes that prevented me needing to find ways to purchase them (a car, a bike, good quality clothes, etc.)

And it still ground me down. The more I learned about how my coworkers struggled, the more I became convinced that change is needed. These people worked full-time jobs – some of them had other part-time gigs as well. Sometimes their children had special needs, and often these needs went unmet or only partially attended to. One minor setback – like a car battery that dies in Minnesota’s polar winter – could sink them into a hole it would take them years to scramble out of. Working their butts off the whole time. God forbid they should break a leg or get cancer and be unable to work.

Now, as I am vetting candidates at the local, state and federal level, I am listening closely to what they say. And I am reading their platforms. And I am asking them questions when I can. I want to know what they think about the minimum wage. I want to know what priority they place on making sure that every working American can feed his or her family. I want to know how they will ensure that people on a fixed income will be able to afford both food and health care. I met a local candidate the other day who said his goal is to eradicate poverty in our county within the next 50 years. That’s a goal I can get behind – but I want to know how he plans to start that ball rolling – I want to know it isn’t just a hook being used to get him elected.

I’ve heard so many arguments that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because nothing changes. Being poor for a couple of years in mid-life has taught me the lie of that response. Who holds office, who sits at the table when decisions are made, has a very real impact – especially for those who are at the bottom of our social class structures, those who are living in poverty, those who have been disenfranchised in some way. Safely ensconced in my professional, white, middle-class world, I am not as susceptible to the immediate pendulum swings. But the people at the edges feel every slice.

I have kept this piece intentionally personal, and I haven’t argued for one side or the other of the political heads/tails of our two-party system. What I am arguing for is the fact that our votes do make a difference. Being an educated voter, therefore, is crucial. I have always voted, though often I have been a lazy citizen, accepting what candidates have said without looking closely at what they actually mean – what programs and planks and platforms have their votes and ongoing support. Having experienced and compared different cities, counties, and states has taught me that real differences exist on the basis of how these communities have voted. Communities are made up of individuals like you and me.

Please, don’t fall prey to voter apathy and disenchantment; don’t believe the lie that your vote makes no difference. My vote is one drop in a vast ocean, I know. But an ocean’s waves are powerful, and they shape the shoreline. How you vote, how I vote, makes all the difference to people living at the water’s edge.

 

 

 





The Real-Life Magic of Friendship

18 08 2016

“But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,’ said Frodo.
Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin–to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours–closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”  — JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

On one hand,  it seems my friend Carol and I had the most random meeting ever: in a mall parking lot, in October of the year we were both in fifth grade. On the other hand, the fact that I moved into a house down the street from her a few days later makes our friendship begin to look like destiny rather than random circumstance.

When I moved to another state later that same year, I lost track of Carol. And began a pattern that held true for much of my life: arrive in a new location, make friends; move on, leave friends behind.

But Carol has pretty much refused to be left behind. Eventually, I moved back to our hometown (during our senior year of high school). I saw Carol in homeroom on day one but I was too shy to approach her. She didn’t hear my name called, and it was mid-year before she realized I was there. Boy, did she let me have it for not approaching her or somehow flagging her attention.

Over the years, Carol has been the most loyal of friends – always reaching out, always thoughtful, always remembering. Last week, I received a lovely package of goodies from Malaysia, where Carol has been living this past year with her husband Zul and beautiful daughter Rumela. I wrote a thank you card, then realized I have no idea where to send it, as Carol is currently traveling. She has always had the skills to find me, while my tracking abilities leave much to be desired.

Truth be told, the issue is bigger than tracking skills. Truth be told, friends are something of a mystery to me.

Making a new friend feels like alchemy, a mixture of chemistry and fairy dust I don’t begin to comprehend – even when I make intentional overtures (like the day I met Kate and Victoria and pretty much overwhelmed them-ok, frightened them- with my offer of friendship). I never feel very certain how it actually happens, though I’m so glad when it does.

But if the beginnings of friendship are difficult for me to parse, the part I really don’t get is the part where friends become lifelong, true to the core, loyal and beloved. That feels like full-blown magic to me.

I say magic, because: a) I don’t understand how it happens; b) I certainly don’t deserve it-which makes it truly a gift, and one that seems to materialize before my very eyes at that; c) I know that I am rarely as good a friend to others as my friends are to me.

Magic, because it is more than a collection of moments spent together. I have friends who amaze me and add warmth to my days even if we rarely see each other.

Magic, because it is more than a set of similarities between us. If friendship only exists between people who are alike, I could name a handful of people with whom I would never have become friends (but I won’t, because that would be rude, and I love those people!).

Magic, because sometimes things appear unexpectedly and make me clap my hands in delight: cards from South Dakota, macaroons from Ames, Facebook messages from Hawaii, or texts from across town.

Magic, because my friends understand what I need even if I sometimes don’t. And they give it freely, even without being asked.

Who ARE all of you magical people, and how did you appear in – and become part of – my life?

I may not understand how friendship happens, or how it works exactly. But I do know that it has and continues to enrich my life in many ways I can’t begin to articulate. And while I remember how I first met Carol, the same isn’t true for all of my friends. I don’t remember the many ways our lives have crisscrossed, or all of the times we have offered support or encouragement to one another. I can’t list the tangible – much less the intangible – gifts I’ve received from (and hopefully given to) my friends. But I do recognize real life magic when I experience it. And I am beyond grateful for it – even if I sometimes forget to say thank you – or don’t know where to send the card!

 

“We were together. I forget the rest.”

–Walt Whitman

 

 

 





…And…

11 08 2016

The genesis of this blog was a challenge to myself to make and keep in my mind and heart a connection between my own struggles with weight and the growing numbers of people in the US who were living with food insecurity, if not outright hunger. It began with a profound moment of humility – what right did I have to live a gluttonous life while others starved?

Over the first couple of years, Jenion became a repository of self-revelation: what I was learning about myself in the process of awakening to and changing my life. As I lost weight, I also shed many self-deceptions, delusions, limiting beliefs. In each post I tried to share as honestly and completely as I could what I was learning, discovering, or feeling. Sometimes, it was painful to share. Sometimes, it was joyful. Always, it was as honest as I could make it – what I was experiencing without glamor: shame, vulnerability, binges, loneliness, gassy bloating. (I also shared good and positive insights and experiences!) A number of people, you perhaps, resonated with those posts. I heard from people who felt I’d put their own experiences or feelings into words. Sometimes, people called me brave for sharing so openly and for uploading photos of myself on a scale each week, in order to hold myself accountable to the truth of my choices.

Eventually, my posts shifted again. I had made many changes in myself and my life – and I wanted to keep those changes going. My posts, at least to my mind, shifted toward positive self-talk and inspirational messages. If I look over the past several years of Jenion, key words like perspective, love, openness – pep talks and rainbows – show up quite a lot. There wasn’t less honesty, but there has been less personal sharing – which is a very fine distinction when one is writing a blog that purports to be about truthful self-discovery. I began shying away from the “warts and all” philosophy I originally brought to Jenion. I became less brave.

Why was this the case? In part, I didn’t want to let everyone down. I began to feel like I wasn’t living up to the promise of those early years of awakening. Shouldn’t I be happier? My life, my self, had changed for the better – wouldn’t it bum everyone out if I didn’t continue to express the inspirational joy those changes wrought? I had taken some risks -wouldn’t my friends and family worry more if I wrote directly about how I was struggling? How could I fully share my feelings of failure or depression or anxiety without offering an uplift in the end? That would depress everyone. It would depress me.

Yesterday, I came home after a day at work where every five minutes brought another crap-bomb detonation. I came home after a painful first visit to a physical therapist for shoulder pain. I came home after a disappointing workout at the gym, where I barely managed an elevated heart-rate (in part because I am taking medication which actively prevents an elevated heart-rate).

Who am I kidding? I’m already damn depressed.

I sat at my computer and typed into Google: menopause and…Even before I typed in the word I intended to use to complete that phrase, up came a list:

anxiety

depression

fatigue

hair loss

headaches

You get the idea, even without reading the entire alpha listing of symptoms. Throw in weight gain, fear of death, existential anger, and an incredibly divisive political climate tearing families and friends apart…and you have the picture of my life right now. The difficulty is in parsing out which of these symptoms is physiological in its genesis, which emotional or psychological. This distinction is probably only academic – the real question being: what can I change and what do I just have to find a way to manage?

I never intended Jenion to become a blog about life as a middle-aged woman coming to terms with what that means. As an “elevator speech”, that sentence sucks. Perhaps that’s why I’ve contorted so many posts to end with some kind of hopeful upturn, even when it felt falsely peppy. What I did intend Jenion to be – an unflinchingly honest account of my own quest to be a better person, life a fuller life, make some kind of difference in my world (and if that helped anyone else in their quest in any way, that would be great) – got a little off track. I love Jenion; I love posting once a week – in some ways, it has taken the place of a journal. But I love it most when I speak from my heart, not from my self-delusions. If that doesn’t feel peppy and uplifting enough for anyone else to read, so be it. For those prone to worry about me: I’m ok, just struggling with this ordinary thing called life. Just like everyone does.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

–from “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

 

 





Change the Glass…

4 08 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhnsn728/shares/L7G2cX

I’m in New Mexico visiting my parents, and we’ve had a great week. I hadn’t planned to post today, thinking a vacation from my Thursday posts would be a good thing all around. But I decided I would take a moment to share this quote my mom has hanging on their refrigerator:

If you see your glass as half empty, pour it into a smaller glass and stop bitching.

Perspective. In the literal sense, it is something you gain a new appreciation for in the high desert of northern New Mexico, where you can travel toward a peak on the horizon for hours without seeming to grow any closer. Metaphorically speaking, perspective has everything to do with the measure against which you compare your experiences. Change the measure, and you may find that your attitude adjusts for the better.

Vacation has been a wonderful opportunity to work on my perspective. I hope you have time and opportunity for the same – soon!

 





Double Nickels

28 07 2016
 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

 

 

 





outward thrust of joy

21 07 2016

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.





Love Is

14 07 2016

“Love and say it with your life.” 

–Augustine of Hippo

Saturday afternoon found me driving through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. You’ll know you’ve arrived where I was going when you’re almost to South Dakota and not quite in Minnesota.

Early in the drive, I talked on the phone (using the bluetooth feature in my car, in case you were worried about my safety). But there’s virtually no cell service west of Waterloo, so my preferred recourse for entertainment was Iowa Public Radio. A podcast called Snap Judgment began airing, and I found myself transported to Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011 – the day an EF-5 multiple vortex tornado tore the town apart.

Like me, you may recall news stories about a group of people who survived the storm huddled together in a gas station beer cooler. All told, 24 people survived in that small space, while everything around them was destroyed. People sheltered in beer coolers in other gas stations and didn’t survive. But for some reason, these folks did.

The podcast revisited that day, talking to several individuals who had been present. I listened to a mix of their reminiscences and audio taken at the time of the tornado. One young man spoke of getting to the gas station with his best friend, moments before the tornado hit, and pounding on the locked doors to be let in. He told about lying in the dark cooler as the storm raged outside, fearing for his life. Into that chaos, his buddy whispered “Hey man, I love you.”

That’s when they cut back to the audio recorded that day in the beer cooler. You hear a youthful male voice say, “I love you. I love all you all.” He’s answered by other voices, calling out to the strangers sheltering beside them in the dark, in the storm: “I love you.”

Listening, alone in my car and hurtling down the highway with nothing in my sights but blue sky and green, green cornfields, I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. Tears came easily to my eyes, rolling down my cheeks unchecked. Love. It is the natural state and impulse of the human soul, I thought. We get busy, we get distracted, and we lose sight of this truth amongst all the static modern life throws our way. But love comes back to us in moments of extremity: its the impulse that made so many on a plane over Pennsylvania or in the twin towers on 9/11 call their loved ones; the urge that made people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando text love to their mothers and partners; it is in the reflex that makes brave souls run toward a burning building or a car crash to help – or causes a Dallas police officer to shield a mother and her sons from a sniper’s bullets.

Love is our highest calling and our most natural state.

Love is the only house, as the song says, big enough for all the pain in this world.

Love makes us human. And yet, being human, we constantly lose sight of it.

Thinking this, isolated and alone in the bubble of my car, I wept. I allowed everything within me to mourn a week in which all of America seemed to have forgotten about love; to have forgotten that we are made to love one another. I cried for Philando Castile; for Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Laquan McDonald. My tears fell for Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol; for Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. I cried for their families, friends, communities and for all of us gripped by the overwhelming grief of their deaths. I cried for my own inability to know how to help or change things, and I cried because I am complicit in all these deaths through my own privilege and inaction. I cried because the impulse to love is not enough if it doesn’t lead to some expression: I love you. I love all of you.

In the aftermath of my crying jag (seriously, it was an ugly cry with snot and everything), I remembered a conversation I had once with my Dad. I had been recalling my grandfather telling me about the gun he kept in his glovebox “because of the niggers”. I told my father, who had just been named the local NAACP Chapter’s Man of the Year, that I was proud of him for overcoming the racist attitudes he was raised with. He said, “That’s your mom’s doing. I fell in love with her and she taught me to be a better person.”

There it was again: love. That powerful force that calms fear in chaos and can teach us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, it shelters and it nudges. And it is what will get us through these dark days if we allow our truest selves, our deepest humanity, to be our first and best impulse. After last week, after the recent months of anger and discontent and violence, it must be clear that choosing love is not the easy route; nor am I advocating some fluffy Pollyanna-ish wish-upon-a-star. Love in action is often hard. It calls upon us to stand up and speak up and lead up. It calls us to be our best selves and to look for the best selves not just in others but in “The Others” – whomever that is in our lives. When it gets particularly difficult to do, take this sage advice from C. S. Lewis, ““Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Acting from a place of love will always take us somewhere better than acting from fear, disillusionment, anger, blame or finger-pointing ever will.

Whatever darkness we are in: a beer cooler in a tornado, or caught up in a wicked storm of discontent, violence, divisive politics – love is the light that will illuminate it. Move toward that light; choose love.

I love you.

I love all of you,

Jenion

 








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