Angel Cards

I have a deck of “angel cards” in my office.  Each little card contains one word and a drawing of angels doing something or holding something associated with that word.  The cards sit in a beautiful abalone shell, a gift from my friend Wendy.

Here’s how they are used:  you draw a card and think about what that word is saying to you at the time you select it.  Sometimes, it feels like you’ve drawn a random word that might mean anything.  At other times, it is uncanny how you draw just the necessary word for your current mental or emotional state.  For example, one day I needed to run errands across town with a very limited amount of time between meetings at the office.  I was stopped both going and returning by midday trains, among other time-sucking annoyances.  On the way back, once the lengthy train had finally crossed the road, I was stuck in traffic behind a school bus.  I was feeling harried, impatient.  Road rage was overtaking me just as I spied an alternate route via a side street where I could get out of traffic and go the speed limit.  Unfortunately, the school bus, at the last second, entered the turn lane in front of me.  And it continued on my alternate route, running a leisurely 15 mph.  I couldn’t pass it, and I followed it right into the parking lot at work.

Frustrated, blood pressure elevated to risky levels, I stormed into my office and ranted a high-drama version of my cross-town trip to a coworker, ending with the school bus.  My colleague suggested, kindly, that I take a few deep breaths and draw an angel card.  I took her advice. The word I drew took the wind completely out of my sails — RELEASE.  But the truly unbelievable piece was that the little drawing on the card was of an angel waving goodbye to, you guessed it, a school bus! Direct message sent and received!

I tell this story to illustrate why I pay particular attention to these angel cards.  It isn’t that there is magic in them.  But, as with many things that allow us to touch our less conscious mind (journal writing is another example) we sometimes surprise ourselves by going to the thing we most need to hear or think about at that moment.  And if Providence is also moving to assist – via our guardian angels – then that is a gift worthy of attention.

Over the past several weeks, I have drawn two words out of the abalone shell repeatedly: BIRTH, EXPECTANCY. First, I can assure you these words are not to be taken literally. Even so, they are powerful words.  I’ve learned to listen when powerful words come my way with such insistence.

What is trying to come into being in my life? I don’t know, but I am excited and just a little trepidatious.  Change, that wonderful, terrible “C” word, fills me with anticipation and fear.  I think I am learning to not only accept change, but to embrace it.  The fear is born of the knowledge that change always requires something from us — if only the internal readiness to go where we will end up anyway.  Friday, after several weeks of pondering BIRTH, I drew a card and discovered that two were stuck together — TRANSFORMATION and TRUST.  Alrighty then. I will try to trust myself, my guardian angels, and Providence.  Something big is on the horizon, though I can’t quite make it out yet.

Ch-ch-changes!

Welcome to the newly up-dated Jenion!

With the coming of autumn, I realized that the look and feel of Jenion was based on the self I was when I created the site last November:  a little wintry, a little dark…OK, a LOT dark!  Readers who have been with me since its inception have followed me as I’ve blogged my way through some significant life changes.  And while the Hunger Challenge and weight loss goals I began with have moved out of the foreground a bit, they still inform the experiences I am writing about — namely, how someone in the middle of life’s journey can “change her mind and change the world” (even if it is primarily her interior world that has shifted!)

So the look of the blog has altered, to reflect a brighter, more upbeat sensibility.  I hope it reflects my inner peace and happiness, too.  There is a subscription button for those of you who have lamented that I stopped sending email reminders when the hunger challenge ended.  I have also tagged entries, picking out themes and/or key words.  Click on one of these (in the lower right sidebar) and it will take you to blog posts which discuss that theme.  The recipes tab is more prominent, and I have added a couple of new recipes which I hope you like (including one for a spicy sausage and veggie soup I created myself)!

As I worked on updating the site, and going back to tag previous entries (which, by the way, is time-consuming and not finished!), it occurred to me that I ought to give some kind of status report on my journey.  Originally, I thought this would take the form of updating you all on happenings in several categories.  But as I gave it more thought, I realized I wanted to share two things in particular:  one a personal insight, the other a goal – both derived from the experiences of this past ten months.

First, after a lifetime of living most of my days in either the past or the future, I have learned to live in the present moment.  It is both energizing and freeing to live right here, right now.  You begin to feel your life vibrate at a higher frequency, and each moment takes on a special and important quality.  Living in the future, thinking things will be better at some distant point (someday when I’ve lost weight, or won the lottery, or done xyz) feels like squandering a precious gift.  I no longer see time as an endless resource — I value it, and want to make it count because my time here on earth is finite.  I cannot wait for someday.  Someday has to be today.

Second, my goal is simply to continue this journey.  No rest for the weary!  More important than the specific tasks and small goals I pledge myself to, is the quest to continue growing and developing into the person I am meant to be.  Certainly, I am not there yet.  There are external pieces of my life I have clung to out of fear or lacking self-confidence to let go and move on.  There are also those parts of my internal self that I have refused to set free out of fear — fear of failure or fear of success. It hardly matters which fear prevents your gifts from seeing the light of day.

Thank you for joining me at Jenion for all or part of the past ten months.  I look forward to sharing the next phases of my journey with you — and hope that you will use the comments section to share both your own path and insights.  For those who don’t feel comfortable making public comments, please see the “about” tab to learn how to contact me via email.

Thursday, September 23, 2010



2010-09-23_06-42-03_139.jpg, originally uploaded by jhnsn728.

Thursday last week, I weighed in at 227, and was hopeful to have left the 230s behind. On Sunday morning I stepped on the scale and nearly had a heart attack upon seeing 237 on the display – 3 days, 10 pounds?! How was that even possible? This week has been one of rededication to healthy practices. I thought about not posting this weight, or putting up an old photo of a “better” weight to avoid feeling humiliated. However, what is the point of this process if not to share, truthfully, the trials and tribulations as well as the happinesses and successes? So, there it is.

The Question

Have you ever had one of those minor interactions with someone that was truly not intended to be more than a brief conversation or comment but which, unbeknownst to that individual, sent shock waves through you or made you reevaluate yourself?  I had one such moment a few days ago.  I was one of the committee members hosting a reception at work.  Many of those present had noted, and commented on, the fact that our male colleagues had congregated at one table while our female colleagues gathered at another.  As the event was winding down, I happened to be seated at the table with women, and a faculty friend said, “I suppose I should wander over to the other side.”  I responded that, as usual, I began the event at the table with the men.  My friend asked me what I meant, so I said that, in social situations, I typically begin by joining the predominantly male group.  And then she asked me the question which has been tickling the back of my mind ever since, “Why? Don’t you like women?”

I was nonplussed by the question, but I took it as I believe it was intended: a quick, curiosity-provoked question from one friend (who happens to have a research interest in female friendships) to another (who happens to occasionally make sweeping and broad generalizations).  And my quick answer was, “Of course! I love women!”

In the intervening days, I have caught my mind wandering back to the question, as well as to my initial comment that I find it easier to join groups of men in social settings.  Why is that?  And what does it say about me?  Do I have an underlying issue with women?  Have I bought into the cultural bias that women are just grown up mean girls?  When did I start talking about “mean girls” as if I actually accept this concept?

Here’s what I’ve decided about those questions.  First, I gravitate toward groups of men because their conversations are generally easy to enter into, especially if I don’t know the individuals in the group.  They are talking about things, about stuff they do, about events that have recently taken place.  They are not talking about their feelings, or wondering what someone meant when they said, “Don’t you like women?”  I am not saying that men don’t do these things.  They just don’t usually do them aloud at work receptions.  It is easy to sit on the outskirts of these discussions, occasionally ask a question, or find a moment to tell about the time you tried whatever activity is the subject.

In similar situations, groups of women speak differently — especially in groups where the women are already acquainted with one another.  At this particular event, both groups were speaking about their research interests.  The men discussed topics, instruments, research methods.  The women did, as well, but their conversation was also shot through with comments about how and why this particular research was meaningful to them.  They discussed the circumstances which made finding time for research difficult, or what resonated with them about someone else’s topic.  Very different conversations — each interesting, each meaningful, equally valid.  I just need a little time to warm up to the more self-revelatory discussions.

As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I have written about the wonderful gifts that my male friends and family members bring to my life, the incredible lessons I have learned by observing and interacting with them.  However, today, I am thinking about the amazing women in my life who perform death-defying or life-affirming acts with incredible grace:

  • My mother, who gave birth to 6 kids in 9 years and gave us her undivided attention for two decades.
  • My sister Chris, who nursed her husband, Dave, through stage IV cancer in the 90s, and has fought her own breast cancer in the 2000s.
  • My friend Wendy, emergency room nurse extraordinaire, whose husband says he loves that she sees things she wants to change in herself – and then she changes them (unlike most of us who just talk about changing).
  • My friend Sue who calls her knee replacement surgery and the enforced time off work this summer the “best vacation of her life”.
  • Tricia, who channels her grief from the loss of her son, Nate, into loving work with the SIDS Foundation and as a peer partner for families experiencing the sudden death of a child.
  • Carol, who met and fell in love with Zul, a Malaysian man, in Dubuque, Iowa in the 80s.  Dubuque didn’t get it, but Carol married him anyway.  And a couple of years ago, they adopted the lovely and vivacious Rumela, whom Carol met in an orphanage in India.

These are just a few of the women who inspire me — I could write whole articles about each.  Others, too, or about my sisters Anne and Gwen who make me want to choose courageous paths in my own life.  As I reflect on the question that sparked this reverie, I believe it is good for me to be shocked out of my comfortable perceptions sometimes, and I thank my friend and colleague for giving me reason to pause and reflect.  Perhaps what I’ve written reveals a sexist bias on my part, perhaps it shows that I believe there are culturally ingrained and/or deeply embedded gender differences.  I feel fairly certain, though, that it also reveals that I do, in fact, like women.  More than that, I celebrate their presence in my life.

Colette and Jen’s Excellent Adventure

(Note: This entry was written last week, but I posted the resilience piece instead. To clarify, the adventure took place Labor Day Weekend)

Throughout the summer, my friend Sarah Botkin and I have been riding our bikes together, with the goal of riding from Dubuque to Dyersville on the Heritage Trail sometime this fall.  Since that trip will be approximately 52 miles, we have gradually added mileage as the summer has progressed.  Unfortunately, August and the start of the academic year derailed us a bit, and we missed three key weeks of riding.  Back on the trail, as I wrote in last week’s entry, we recommitted ourselves to getting ready for the longer day trip.  As part of that plan, we decided to use the Sunday of Labor Day weekend to ride to Center Point and back.  We invited our intrepid friend (and new bike owner) Colette to join us.

And then the mishaps began.  The biggest and most serious was that a member of Sarah’s family experienced a medical emergency that took her out-of-state for the long weekend.  At first, I didn’t feel right about taking the ride without Sarah, though in the email she sent notifying us of her changed plans, Sarah strongly encouraged us to go anyway.  After much thought and discussion, Colette and I decided to continue with the plan.

Sunday morning dawned a little cloudy, which I know because I went to bed so early Saturday night, I couldn’t sleep past 5:30 a.m.  Eventually, I rolled out of bed (around 7:30 — amazing how long I could lay there anticipating the day while not sleeping!) and dressed.  I hopped in my car and, after a pit stop at the Boyson Road Starbuck’s, headed north on I-380 toward the sleeping town of Center Point.  I was on a reconnaissance mission, since we planned to eat lunch in Center Point before heading back to Cedar Rapids.  I wanted to see where the trail access was in relation to the eateries in town.  While driving, the clouds disappeared, and a truly beautiful day commenced.  I was excited to begin!

Once home, I gathered the items I would need:  in my sport bag I placed cash, an ID, my sunscreen lip-balm, and a short-sleeved shirt (the morning was cool enough for long sleeves, but with the sun shining I expected it to warm up); a bottle of water; my tennis shoes with the bright orange accents were lined up on the kitchen floor next to my bike helmet.

I have a bike rack that hooks onto the trunk of my car and which makes me incredibly nervous…perhaps as a result of the accident I had last summer when my bike fell off the rack as I exited the interstate.  But that’s another story!  Colette and I were scheduled to meet at 10:00 at the Hiawatha trail access parking lot.  At 8:50, I took the bike rack from the trunk of my car and began hooking it up.  My bike was in place, rack and cycle as secure as possible with three additional bungee cords preventing slippage, at 9:58.  Suddenly, my leisurely morning had turned frantic.  As I backed slowly out of my driveway, I called Colette to warn her I would be late.  I drove a full five miles under the speed limit, constantly checking my rearview to ascertain that the contraption and cargo remained secure.

Colette was running behind as well, due to a dead battery on her van.  We met up, only 15 minutes behind schedule.  And that is when I realized that I had brought my bag, but not my helmet.  Colette, veteran of a nasty spill last year (on bicycle safety day at her kids’ school, no less!) insisted on a return to my house for the helmet — and truth be told, I wouldn’t ride without one.  It was a much faster trip back home to retrieve my helmet because I left the bicycle with Colette.  When I returned to Hiawatha, put on my helmet and prepared to mount my bike, I realized that my tennis shoes were at home, and on my feet were a pair of Adidas slides.  Good friend that she is, Colette offered to wait while I made yet another trip back to the house.  However, after a quick ride around the parking lot, I was convinced that I would be fine nearly barefoot.

That feeling lasted until I saw the snake, at approximately mile 9 on the trail.  I caught sight of it on the path with barely enough time to miss its tail by a quarter-inch.  The snake saw me coming, though, and had reared back and struck just as I swerved to avoid it.  Luckily, it missed — and I don’t believe it was a poisonous variety, though I truthfully didn’t stop to take a closer look. (Colette did, and claims it was a corn snake.  It was certainly colorful enough to be one).  Note to self: never be on the trail without appropriate footwear!

The ride was easily the most beautiful of the summer.  The weather was perfect, the trail sun-dappled but cool.  Colette and I rode apace of each other and talked most of the thirteen miles out to Center Point.  When we arrived in town, we discovered that small towns in Iowa maintain an old tradition: restaurants are closed on Sundays.  This was particularly problematic for me, as it turned out that in addition to forgetting to bring important items, in my obsession over the bike rack, I had also forgotten to eat breakfast.  At 11:58 a.m. Colette and I walked into the only place we found open — the “One of a Grind” coffee shop, which closes at noon on Sundays.

Fortunately, the folks at “One of a Grind” are a really great, friendly family who agreed to let us eat and chatted with us on our break.  If you are ever in Center Point, please give this place a try — the food is delicious (I didn’t actually try the coffee, but the iced tea was perfect).

Back on our bikes, both now sporting short sleeves, Colette and I made good time with less chatter.  That is, until we really started getting slugged by the wind.  The final 3 or 4 miles were difficult — I felt like a salmon swimming upstream, though nothing as grand as spawning was at the end of the road for us.  Mostly sore butts and windburn.  And a sense of accomplishment.  We labored, and it was good.

Resilience

I had planned to write a humorous post this week, but that will have to wait.  What I find myself thinking obsessively about today is resilience.  “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (thank you Webster’s) is quite a profound grace.

When adversity strikes, it is tempting to wallow.  I mean, who hasn’t wanted to spend days – if not weeks – in the slough of despond crying “Woe is me”?  I know it doesn’t sound like something you would do voluntarily, except that when life falls apart around you it is suddenly a pretty appealing option.  Compared with the alternatives, like bearing it with good will and a sense of humor, self-pity seems incredibly seductive.

But as Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.”  If this is true, then using the moments of our biggest hurdles to learn our own capacities can be an opportunity for deep growth.  But how do we develop this kind of resilience?  Are we born with it, or do we discover it within ourselves when we exercise the only real power we have in these moments — the power to choose our own reaction?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl wrote powerfully about this power of choice.  In his case, the crucible for discovering his own capabilities was life in Nazi prison camps.  For most of us, the adverse conditions in which we find ourselves do not compare with Auschwitz.  They are more likely illness or injury, burnout, stress, chronic financial strain, cars breaking down when we can least afford them to.  I don’t mean to minimize the pain of these experiences, only to point out their less than epic nature.  We think we might rise to the occasion in an epic struggle.  But what about simple, daily, hurdles which drain our pocketbooks and/or leach our positive energy?

I’ve come to believe that resilience can be cultivated.  I’ve watched my friend Dave build it in his daughters by telling them daily, “Is this how you want to feel?  If not, then choose something else.”  And those girls are able to redirect their emotional energy – the first step is learning that it is possible to do so.  (In fact, Dave has given me the same lecture time and again, with good, if mixed, results. Like a second language, children learn this more quickly than adults.)  Sometimes, you cultivate your capacity to bounce back by pretending.  During resident assistant training every year, I tell my student staff that they need to project calm in emergency situations — they don’t have to actually feel calm, just act that way.  The secret hidden in this advice is that projecting calm often leads to mastering your feelings of panic.  Projection won’t take you all the way, but it can help to jump-start movement in a positive direction.

The other day my friend Melissa was feeling burned out.  She found that focusing on something she could control, rather than focusing on her burnout, made the difference. She told me, “I’m glad to see I’m pretty resilient these days… a 4.5 mile jog and a swim at the beach helped me bounce back.”  Another friend, facing yet another financial setback, worked to get his thinking aligned in order to flow with the current rather than get caught in the riptide of self-pity. His mantra was, “I’m fluid, I’m fluid, I’m fluid”.

Important in both of my friends’ abilities to face these difficult moments was choosing to bounce with resilience rather than splat with despair.  This kind of choosing may look relatively simple from the outside, but superficial or platitudinous thinking won’t actually cut it.  We have to want it, more than we want to win the “I have the worst life” story contest we carry on inside our heads (come on, that’s not just me, is it?!).  And wanting it, we have to also choose it, consciously, in each moment.  So, today, I pledge to cultivate resilience in myself — and to support those I love in finding the inner resources to choose it themselves.  Let’s go for the bounce, people!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

2010-09-09_06-20-04_767.jpg, originally uploaded by jhnsn728.

My wise friend Sara says I need to tell everyone my current weight goal, since publicly sharing goals makes us more accountable for achieving them. As you can see, I am *hopefully* finally getting past the 230 pound plateau. My current goal is to be below 200 by the new year. That is 16 weeks away, and considering how difficult actually losing pounds has been the past couple of months it will be a challenge. However, my ultimate goal will never be reached if I don’t push a bit harder! So, 200 by 1/1/11, here I come!

Falling

On Friday, I was finally able to get back on my bike, after the hectic opening of the school year.  In the three weeks (to the day) since I had been on the trail, the first intimations of autumn had appeared.  Fall has always been my favorite season, by a long shot.  This is due, in part, to the cool, crisp air. The true-blue skies and bright colors of the leaves on trees covering the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa.  But it is also partly a result of, since kindergarten, living within the cycle of the academic year.  Autumn, in education, equals a fresh start. A new year in which to learn and accomplish new and exciting things.

There has been what feels like a paradigm shift in my life this year.  I find that, while I am ready to welcome fall, I am also mourning the passing of summer — which has for a number of years been my least favorite season.  What is going on here?  I think I’m falling in love with all four seasons.

The only part of winter I used to like was the part leading up to and encompassing Christmas.  January 2 through the end of the season (March or May, depending on the year), I would have gladly lived without.  Like generations of children, I too, was horrified by C.S. Lewis’ description of Narnia as a country in which it was always winter, but never Christmas.  As I thought about my newly mixed feelings about fall, I realized that this internal shift began as far back as last winter, when  I discovered that I enjoyed shoveling snow, being outdoors in cold weather and exerting myself.  I remember appreciating the clarity of thought I could achieve on a clear and icy night under the velvet sky and shimmering stars.

The first warm days of spring found me basking in the sunshine.  Finding excuses to take my work outside, to linger at the outdoor tables at the coffee shop.  I remember trekking through mud at Squaw Creek park, uncaring about the mess as long as I could breathe deeply and smell the earth.

Then summer 2010.  “The best summer of my adult life”, I surprised myself by saying when faculty and students returned to campus in August.  Everyone asked why.  The reasons were numerous, when I stopped to think it through.  First, after losing weight and exercising regularly, my body is able to handle variations in temperature.  I sweat now, which is a surprisingly positive change.  Riding my bike with friends, working in my yard, laying in the sun in a bathing suit…lovely activities I rediscovered this year.  Produce fresh from the farm every Thursday. Family and friends to share the long days and short nights.

Back to last Friday’s bike ride, and incipient autumn.  As I rode, the sun warm on my back and arms, leaves crackling under the tires, I had occasional glimpses of ripening cornfields rolling off to the horizon.  And that’s when I made a vow to end my mourning for summer — even for the best summer ever.  I will celebrate the season that I am part of right now and live as fully in it as possible.  And, as it draws to a close, instead of sadness at what is passing, I will anticipate what is to come…anyone up for snow shoeing this year?!