Collected Works

Potlucks.  I cannot say how many times in my life I’ve inwardly groaned at the thought of attending one.  And not only because I’m too lazy to make a covered dish to bring, though I am.  The thought of eating a mish-mash of food I generally wouldn’t serve at home, and making small talk with a bunch of people crammed in a room somewhere…well, you can tell from my description that I haven’t been much of a fan of the whole potluck experience.

That may be changing.

Today, my little house was filled to overflowing with people who arrived in a swarm (like a plague of benevolent locusts?!), set out food and condiments, made themselves at home and generally settled in for a good, old-fashioned eatfest.  Except that the food included delicious salads, fruit, low-fat key-lime pie, and fresh corn dip (alongside the traditional brownies, better than sex cake, pulled pork sandwiches, and chips).

Ok, so I was actually hosting a potluck (to celebrate my own birthday, nonetheless).  But as I looked around, at friends and colleagues talking and laughing, all jammed in the living room to be together rather than spread out in the small seating areas I had arranged throughout the main floor rooms, I had a moment of clarity.  Potlucks celebrate community, and the community seated in my living room is one we have been creating for a long time.

We have shared road trips, disasters (both natural and of human creation), births, traumas, bike rides, weddings and karaoke nights.  We have shared the range of human emotions, we have offered words of comfort and support.  We have made each other laugh when feelings of anger, sadness, or hopelessness threatened to overwhelm.  Not each person in the room has been part of every one of these events, but that’s how communities work: they share the load — whether that is the work of preparing food or the effort of finding a smile on a tough day.

Not to worry, I didn’t spend all my time lost in introspection — mostly I enjoyed the event and the moment I was in.  But later in the evening, in Iowa City, Wendy and I wandered into a shop which sells a line of greeting cards that really appealed to me.  One spoke to me in a particular way about the day’s events.  It says, “Some people call them decades — I prefer to call them my ‘collected works’.” (Curly Girl Design/Leigh Standly)  And it struck me that being a part of my community of friends, being one of the weavers of this large web of relationships, is a part of my “collected works” I’m both proud of and immensely humbled by.  And I will take every opportunity to celebrate this — even if it means becoming a fan of the traditional potluck.


My sister, Chris, was born 13 months before me.  My brother, Jeff, 13 months after me.  Throughout our childhoods and teen years, we did the same things, met the same people, experienced the same milestones of life at virtually the same times – or each on the heels of the others.  That all changed in July 1980.  On a very hot day, July 19 to be exact, Chris married Dave Finnegan and began what has, this week, been 30 years of life together.  Not too many years later, in 1982, Jeff married Marsha.

On Monday, Chris and Dave’s 30th anniversary, I was in Cedar Falls visiting Jeff and Marsha and marvelling at the passage of time, the beautiful family and life they have created together, and realizing that my life stopped including the same milestones as theirs way back in the 80s.  Back then, I didn’t think much of it.  I assumed that, like them, I’d meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family.

As time passed and that didn’t happen, I rolled with it.  Throughout my 20s, I didn’t worry much about getting married.  Sometime in my mid-30s, I started to realize that it might not happen.  It was easy, for the next decade or so to imagine that the problem of a husband or lover would resolve itself if I just lost weight.  As long as I told myself the reason no one wanted me was a physical issue, I could allow myself to believe that other people’s shallow feelings were to blame.

But deep down inside, I wondered.  I was a lot like Jennifer Anniston’s character in the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You”.  At her sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, a cousin gives a toast, intended to include good-natured ribbing about the character’s single status, that goes too far.  Anniston walks away from the table, and her father comes up and says, “Cousin Joe’s a jackass.  Always has been.”  Anniston’s character says, “I know.  And yet, even HE is married.”  As in, “If that ass can be married, what is so terribly wrong with me?  Because I must be really unlovable or things would be different.”

Next week will include my 49th birthday.  Not really a milestone year (watch out next year, though!).  I’m still single.  As I’ve lost weight, I’ve had to confront a host of toxic beliefs I’ve been carrying around in my heart.  One milestone I’ve recently celebrated is actually believing I am someone to love, not just someone who can love.   Another is that, after years of wishing for a passionate lover to sweep me off my feet and change me or my life for good, I’m actually happy with my life and am not looking for a hero or savior.

Here’s what I find myself wishing for now:  an intimate friend like my siblings have found.  Someone to share my daily life and mundane tasks with — someone to split a sandwich with, if I’m not hungry enough to eat a whole one.  These are the things I envy when I see my siblings’ and parents’ marriages.  Well, that and the way they run interference for each other, softening the blows life deals out, soothing hurts, or telling each other the truth when they need to hear it.

Don’t read this post and think I’m sad or lonely.  I’m not (well, only a little and only some of the time — and I understand this is the case for married people, too!).  I accept that I don’t control what the future holds and I’ll be okay whatever does or doesn’t happen.  More importantly, recent insights make me, finally, feel that diverging from the path Chris and Jeff took, and hitting a whole different set of milestones, has been a worthwhile journey, after all.

Hear Us Roar!

Saturday night in July, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  My friends Molly and Sarah and I sitting in section F, halfway up.  The ice arena floor, bare cement with huge florescent pink ovals taped to it.  Women in skimpy clothes, bearing names like Krash, Toxic Angel, and (my personal favorite) Amelia No-Heart, roller skating in circles occasionally elbowing or pushing another skater to the floor.  Yep, the Cedar Rapids Pink Ladies Roller Derby was in town.

At first, we had no idea what was happening on the floor.  But we eventually caught on, and enjoyed learning the strategy and seeing the display of sheer chutzpa.  Molly hoped for harder hits, while Sarah thought about what her Roller Derby moniker might be:  Sarah Lee POUNDcake or Sarah Lee CupCRUSHER?  I was in awe — these women were displaying part athleticism, part showmanship.  And all of them were just putting themselves completely out there.  All body types, no holding back.  (OK, maybe a little holding back — it was an exhibition and they were competing against their own teammates).

In the spirit of the roller girls, I want to talk about power and strength.  Mental and emotional toughness.  Whether and how any of those concepts apply to me!

A Roller Derby Newbie’s Guide to Girl Power

  • Don’t be afraid to let them see you sweat. Its true, powerful women sweat, sometimes profusely.  After riding my bike just over 24 miles the other night, I had a crust of dried salt crystals on my forehead.  Every thread of my clothes was soaked.  My hair was a frightening combination of styles:  Moe from the 3 Stooges (on top where my helmet plastered it to my head) and Medusa (out of control curls with a life of their own where the breeze could reach it).  From now on, I will wear the Moe-dusa proudly.
  • Your body is what it is. Revel in it anyway.  When I mentioned that the roller girls were every body type, I meant it — and every type was dressed in tight, skimpy clothing.  They were an inspiration to me as I struggle with the vicissitudes of significant weight loss.  I don’t know how heavy I was at my heaviest, but the highest reading I saw on a scale was 352 pounds.  The effects on my body of that excess are visible, and I can obsess about them…or not.  Every day I need to choose; and I intend to choose a roller girl attitude!
  • If you want it, fight for it. Ok, this is one that the roller derby expresses in a very physical manner.  They push and elbow and trip and generally knock each other around.  In my life, this is more likely to be expressed in fighting for the discipline, the planning, the effort to achieve the goals I want to reach.  Creating a life that is happy and satisfying can be a joyful endeavor at the soul-level, but it is also hard work.
  • When you get knocked down, pick yourself back up. Notice, I didn’t say “if you get knocked down”.  Because you will, we all do.  People let us down, we let ourselves down, the economy tanks, forces beyond our control refuse to do what we prefer.  I can lay on the ground like a bug flipped on its back, flailing my arms and crying “woe is me”  (and Lord knows I have).  But I don’t want to waste any more time on that.
  • If it hurts, skate it off. I watched several women hit the floor in ways that looked incredibly painful.  There were a few pileups as well.  Each time, they stood up, skated around testing out their limbs, then went back to the game.  I’ve been practicing this physically with my knees — I’ve decided that living an active life means that sometimes my body hurts.  Emotionally, I’ve been practicing this too.  After holding on to hurts or insecurities for years, I’m working on letting them go.  Sometimes, this takes the form of forgiveness and reconciliation, others it is more simply choosing not to invest energy there anymore.  I choose healing over festering.

I’m sure there are other items I could add to the guide above.  I must say, I am looking forward to seeing an actual competitive match.  One other thing about attending the roller derby:  it reminded me how much I’ve always loved to skate.  Anyone care to join me at the local rink for the free skate?


…Though I try

to hide it I burn with joy like a bonfire

on a mountain, and tomorrow

and the next day make me shudder

equally with hope and fear.

— “Arriving” by Marge Piercy

When I was in high school, I joined an ecumenical youth group which had a tremendous impact on my life, my beliefs, and my worldview.  At one point, we adopted a practice of signing notes, cards, etc. with the acronym J.O.Y. — which, in youth group parlance stood for the phrase “Jesus, Others, You”.  If we committed ourselves to J.O.Y. (in that order) we would experience joy in our lives.

In describing my own path, I have no desire to offend anyone else’s beliefs.  Putting God and others ahead of self may be both appropriate and right.  However, when I regularly attempted this I rarely experienced joy.  In fact, until recently joy had pretty much fallen off my radar as something I hoped to experience — it was just too far off the grid of normal, daily life.

So here is what I believe now.  Human beings are meant to experience joy.  My mother was wrong (sorry, Mom!) when she told us “life isn’t about being happy”.  I don’t mean we should expect to feel giddy every moment of every day.  There will be trials, tribulations, burnt toast and stubbed toes.  Cancer and poverty aren’t going away any time soon.  But we were created to feel that deep down satisfaction that comes from being truly happy.  In order to get there, you may sometimes have to put your priorities in a different order:  oyj or yoj or jyo — or even include completely different letters in your personal joy acronym.

One day, not too long ago, I was having a really cruddy time of it.  Nothing was going right, I had experienced a big disappointment, it was raining.  For most of my life, a day like that would occasion a feeling of “why do I always have it so bad?”.   But this time it was different:  I was having a cruddy day.  But I was happy.  How could that be?

In looking at that experience, what I discovered is that one thing had changed — I had shifted my priorities in order to develop a “right relationship” with myself.  I can remember talking with a friend about how all the self-focus felt incredibly self-ish to me.  She told me that, by working on my own issues and healing past wounds, I was bringing something good to the world, not just to myself.  I wasn’t sure at the time, but now I can see she was right.

Which brings me to the poem excerpt at the beginning of this entry.  Sometimes, we try to hide the joy we feel because it can be uncomfortable to stand out so starkly from our surroundings.  Sometimes, we are afraid that it makes us a target for others who wish to stamp out our fire, and there are certainly people out there who might try.  But it is also true that  it adds to the measure of our days to interact with people who exude joy. We are energized and inspired by them.  And maybe, when it is you (or me) burning like a bonfire of joy, we will be lighting the way for someone else.  This is the hope part of the equation.

What We Desire Travels With Us

I have been thinking about this line from a Denise Levertov poem all week:  what we desire travels with us.  This is true, I think, across distances, across time, across differing levels of maturity or growth.

When I was a teenager, I spent one evening hanging out at the home of my best friend’s mother’s best friend.  Four women, two teens and two in their 50s, bonding over canned peppers (we tasted mild, hot, and fiery) and the ways we experienced our gender.  I’ve never forgotten that night, and I still desire time with my women friends, times of support and solidarity and sisterhood.

Last weekend, my cousin visited and when we got up on Sunday morning, we talked and laughed over a pot of coffee.  Some of my favorite moments have been these unremarkable early morning coffee-klatches with family or friends.  I love a solitary and reflective cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, but I still desire the unguarded and open moments of sharing before beginning the day’s tasks.

My friend Sue is a talented basket weaver and jewelry maker.  “I just want someone to do this with me,” she regularly laments, explaining why she hasn’t created anything lately.  I totally understand her dilemma, because my whole life I have desired the same — companions nearby who share my interests and schedule, who will just be physically present with me while we do our things.

There are transient desires in my life as well…sometimes I think I need this thing or that gadget.  Good Will has benefitted greatly from the purchases made while experiencing these impulses (a brown down coat that made me resemble a human-sized turd; the “Twilight” book series; a host of neon-colored plastic baubles).  But the lasting desires remain steady, even if the surface details change.  An endless summer day that winds down to a magical moonlit night is timeless, though the activities it contains may vary over the years.  The love of dear people who know us intimately is deeply desired, though each relationship takes on its own unique character.

Like the nautilus, that lovely “living fossil”, we carry our homes with us — though theirs is literal and ours is a figurative home.  As the nautilus shell curves inward, into ever smaller chambers, so do our desires:  as we strip away the outer details, we find ever smaller kernels of desire for which our hearts truly long.  And these desires are the companions of our lifes journeys, whether we acknowledge them or not.  What I am learning, on my journey, is that it is acknowledging what we desire, without judging ourselves or our worthiness, that brings us closest to satisfying our heart’s deepest wishes.