Flashback Friday

Michael Rex Beck, circa 1980

This is my favorite photo of Mike from college, though to be honest I don’t have very many! We lost touch for decades, then, one year ago (on April 28, 2010 to be exact) we reconnected thanks to Facebook.

Michael Rex Beck, Minneapolis, April 2011

I’m pretty sure he’s already regretting helping me pick out and buy a digital camera!

Internal Landscapes, Part 2: Maps of Meaning

I am sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Dubuque one frigid January Saturday. Outside, the wind howls and the temps have dipped to -30. Inside, I look around at this shop I have never entered, but which is in a room familiar to me all the same. It used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room, when we were in grade school at St. Raphael’s. The entire neighborhood in which my friends and classmates lived has been turned into boutiques and shops of one kind or another. As I sit there, thinking about how surreal it is, the front door keeps opening of its own accord.

The barrista comes from behind the counter to slam it shut each time. The third time he says, “You probably think its the weather, but trust me, we have ghosts. This happens no matter what kind of weather we’re having.” As he returns to his post, I find myself wondering, “Are these ghosts anyone that I know?”

I start thinking about this small midwestern city, my hometown, and about how so many things about it are familiar to me despite the long years in which I have only visited. Much of the city is imprinted on my soul. Thinking about it, though, I realize that what I carry within me isn’t so much the actual city, as it is my version of it.

I remember learning about “memory castles” used by great thinkers back in the days before the printing press or Moleskine notebooks were invented. In their minds, these intellectuals (mostly members of religious orders) would build a castle with many rooms and specific features. Each thing they wished to remember, they would carefully place in a specific location or superimpose on one of the castle’s features. This allowed them, once proficient at the technique, to remember and retrieve huge storehouses of information.

I think, “Like a memory castle, there is a map of Dubuque that I carry within me that bears only minimal relationship to the actual city’s map.” This map contains my memories and my memories of emotions. Attached to each site on the map are sensations, values, concepts experienced or learned throughout my formative years. My spiritual self is intrinsically tied to this map, as is my understanding of self in relation to the larger world.

The map in my psyche looks something like this:

Each location on the map is both a real place (the Fenelon Place elevator, the bank weather tower, the Carnegie-Stout Public Library) and an icon for the meanings I have associated with it (examples listed on the map above).

I carry this map with me, wherever I go. But when I return to Dubuque, my personal map and the actual map, while related, don’t actually match. My brain wants them to align, and I find myself playing a mental game much like alternately closing my right eye, then left, while looking at a stationary object. The object always appears to move slightly, although I know it doesn’t really. This quick perceptual shifting never works – the alignment will not happen. I have to choose each time to be in the exterior city or in the interior city – I can’t fully inhabit both at the same time.

For this reason, I treasure the small pieces of time I am alone in Dubuque. These turn out to be moments when I can sit in an actual physical location and touch the wealth of internal information I’ve stored in its metaphorical twin. Its a bit of a deep moment — like sitting in the coffee shop that used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room. Whatever keeps blowing the door open may be the wind or a ghost — but I can’t help thinking it might also be my other self (the self who has continued to inhabit my internal Dubuque long after the external self moved away) coming to join me for an Americano, extra-hot.

(Note: this post, and the map drawing it contains, are adapted from a journal entry I wrote several years ago)

Internal Landscapes, Part 1: Personal “Shrines”

Wandering the Reading Terminal Market, in Philadelphia, can (at any time) be an exercise in sensory overload. However, during the annual spring flower show, when Philly experiences record crowds in the area surrounding the convention center, the market can be completely overwhelming. Or so I discovered in March when I went there in search of lunch.

After rejecting several vendors simply because of long lines, I finally found the perfect bite: fresh, homemade sausage, tomato and basil pizza. I took my slice (more like a 6×6 inch square of cheesy goodness) and began the search for a place to sit. I came upon a narrow alley between vendor stalls which appeared to be public, yet lacked the crush of people I was fighting my way through in the other aisles. I hooked a left and a few feet later came upon this:

Once I cleared the table and sat down, I could practically reach out and touch the next vendor stall. There were other tables only a couple of feet away. But this little space was peaceful and out of the mainstream enough to feel almost private. Of course the odd little talismans taped to the wall above the table added to the feeling that I was, perhaps, encroaching on someone else’s space. Who had created this iconographic wall display, and why? Was someone having fun at the expense of others (“Let’s see how people react if we tape weird stuff to the wall”)? Or trying to have a place where they could experience a little tranquility in the midst of chaos?

Of course, the answer that appeals to me is the second: that an unknown person, perhaps someone who spends every day in the crush and colorful mayhem of the market, was attempting to create a personally meaningful space. With a little tape, crafting a place where the trinkets displayed give immediate access to the interior landscape of meaning. A landscape familiar only to the person who created the “shrine”. One of the things I love about both solitary travel and walking in new places is the opportunity they offer to notice such spaces. I have no idea how many people, on any given day at Reading Terminal, notice the little wall shrine I ate my lunch beneath. I’m guessing that most leave the market without having seen it, even if they walked down that particular alley.

While it is always a little thrilling to get a glimpse into someone else’s, we all have them, these internal landscapes. Made up of images, archetypes, and places to which we have attached a particular meaning or emotion. And many of us, even if we don’t realize it, have given our inner worlds some form of outward expression. Have you, for example, created a bedroom that, the moment you enter it, speaks to you of “haven”? The photo, below, is one such spot in my house.

In this niche, top to bottom: St. Cecilia, St. Raphael (my patron saints), guardian angel icon, large angel with mermaid. charm against the evil eye, small angel with musical instrument, Frida Kahlo print, carved bulto of unknown saint, terra cotta manger scene, glass angel candleholder.

This nook, in my dining room, contains images which speak to me of the possibility of guidance and protection as I make my way through daily life. Each piece is connected to the others in the niche via my own internal web of thought and emotion. Each also has a story which adds to the piece’s meaning. This same collection of objects would never mean the same to someone else.

To me, they are not religious objects, nor would you ever discover me standing or sitting before the niche in prayer. It isn’t that kind of shrine. What I mean by calling such spaces “shrines” is that they embody concepts or themes which, in one’s personal cosmology, are deeply meaningful, sacred. Is this what I discovered on the wall at the Reading Terminal Market? I don’t know, but I hope it is. I like thinking that someone out there is attempting to carve a little space for the sacred in our hectic and overwhelming modern landscape.

(Note: In part 2, I will attempt to share two maps of my hometown: the real Dubuque and my own, internal, Dubuque. In the meantime, as always, I welcome your comments, or sharing about your own personal “shrines”!)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Back to “emotional nudism” (as my sister Chris calls it)! These weeks of feeling like a hamster running on a wheel aren’t actually helped by closing my eyes so I can’t see the unchanging scenery (aka lack of progress)!

Triple Word Tuesday

Dreary Day Depression





The view outside my office window. Some sunny day I’ll post another photo and you’ll see that the view is very different when the weather is lovely. I hardly notice the rooftop expanse on sunny days.

Why My House is A Mess…Now

Funny story: When I was in graduate school, my apartment was usually a total mess. I was so busy, in school full-time, a 20-hour a week graduate assistantship, and a 40-hour a week graveyard shift at an answering service. I also had a social life. No time for sleep (unless I catnapped on the job) and certainly no time for cleaning. From the day I had my first apartment after college, my mother admonished me to keep it clean, claiming that people would judge her harshly by my slovenly ways. I told her she was crazy, no one would think badly of her mothering based on my apartment. So, my grad school friend, Todd, decided to visit my parent’s home with me one weekend. As we were driving back to the university, Todd told me had a “surprisingly good time” at my parent’s. I asked why “surprisingly”. His answer was, “Well, judging by how dirty your apartment is, I wasn’t sure what to expect from your mom’s house. But it was really clean and nice!”

I was wrong, Mom, and you were right.

Flash forward many years, to today. I live in a cute little bungalow. I love this little house, and I especially love it when it is clean and shiny. Which, with the exception of my craft room, it often has been. But for the past month, it has been, well, kind of a crap hole. I mean, literally, there is stuff (crap) everywhere. Nothing is put away in its place – and the thing about small homes is that everything needs to have a place and be in it for one to feel comfortable and uncluttered.

Now that I’ve described the sichy-a-shun, I want to explain why it is this way. Put succinctly: my life and my head are exploding!

The Explosion I Call My life

I’m an introvert, which means that I need a certain amount of alone time to recharge my energy. For much of my life, I thought this also meant that I needed to keep people at arm’s length, to control the degree to which they accessed my inner (as opposed to public) self. Now, I realize that even introverts may want/need depth of relationship with others. And I have been blessed with an abundance of wonderful, interesting, soul-nurturing relationships. Which, in turn, require a certain amount of time and presence. I don’t regret this, because I am learning that the more people I invite into my life the more interesting and uplifting that life becomes. However, I’m not very good at managing it yet – at being open, being present, managing my down time such that I accomplish mundane tasks.

Added to the increase in the number and depth of relationships in my life, is the sheer amount of traveling I have done in the months of March and now April. Not world travel, mind you. But I have spent weekends in Omaha, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and (soon) Chicago. Now, for some people, this would not seem particularly difficult, but my life isn’t arranged for frequent travel. And while each trip was definitely worth the expenditure of time, they took up all my weekends…and I still needed to be at work during the weeks.

The explosion I call my head:

Simply stated, the people and travel in my life have generated some serious brain traffic. Three of the weekends in these two months included deeply thought-provoking content: what is the meaning and expression of mercy? how can we create a sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling environment? how can those in my profession educate for lives of purpose? One outcome of my trip to a conference in Philly is that I’ve gotten back on twitter, where I am plugged in to many sources of information, professional and personally relevant, I would otherwise not be exposed to. I cannot keep up with all the ideas, all the creative pursuits, all the information. I am not focused. When I am able to have some down/alone time, I cannot seem to leave my computer. For the first time ever, I’m taking advantage of free wifi all over town!

Solutions: Containment or Release?

I’m a big fan of thinking up dichotomous solutions. Either this or that. Try to contain the explosion or just let it happen and go with it. In real life, though, the answers to most troubling conundrums are shaded and multifaceted. I can’t and don’t want to practice containment in my life, relationships, ideas. I also don’t want to find myself in a million pieces flying in different directions, so scratch the release concept as well.

So here’s what I’m doing today. I’m taking time to reflect, albeit on-line in this blog entry. Next, I’m going to renew an acquaintance and make some new ones this afternoon by attending a barrel racing competition at the community college equestrian center (a place and activity I’ve never experienced). After that, we’ll see. How did I choose where to place my energy this morning and for the afternoon? I asked myself what I would regret most: not writing or not cleaning? not meeting up with Jeff and Jennie to see them race or not cleaning? Perhaps this isn’t the best way to decide, in the long run. (I don’t want to end up on an episode of “Hoarders”, after all), But for now…let me just state for the record that my mother keeps a lovely, clean house!

Flashback Friday

Happy Easter!

In this photo, my Mother attempts to corral the “originals”: Chris, Jeff, Gwen (back to camera), and me.  I’m in some world other than the one in which my picture is being taken! In fact, one of the things I love about this photo is that not a single one of us is paying any attention to my father as he attempts to take it. We are all in our Easter finery, Jeff looks especially dapper, but our attention spans are not boding well for Easter Mass, which I am certain is where we were headed!

I Don’t Think We Need to Know…

“I don’t believe we need to know what below zero feels like.

Or why we die: that, too, I don’t think we need to know.

Why life is hard? I think not.

It’s hot inside, it’s cold out:

that’s already a lot to know…”

–from “I Don’t Think We Need to Know” by Jim Moore

This past weekend, I did something that is likely to become a thing of the past. Something that I have taken for granted is a right, but which most of the world would consider a wasteful luxury, and certainly not in the least eco-friendly. I took a four hour road trip by myself. Driving solo through the midwestern landscape, the horizon called me, if not to adventure, at least to less-familiar places, faces I didn’t already recognize.

For most of the drive, I listened to “All Things Considered” on NPR. The stories were interesting, but as we’ve all experienced, the news has a tendency to depress. I realized, speeding along the interstate, that lately I’ve thought a lot about things I’d rather NOT know – the fact that butterflies, honeybees and millions of other species are disappearing and may be gone within my limited lifetime. Or that police officers were arrested for the killings resulting in mass graves in Mexico. Or that sugar may be a toxin implicated in the rise in US cancer rates.

While I’d rather not know these things, I believe they are things I should know.

On Saturday, in Magers and Quinn, a huge independent bookstore in Minneapolis, I picked up a volume of poetry, Lightning at Dinner by Jim Moore, and discovered the poem quoted above. And during my lovely four hour drive home on Sunday, I had leisure to consider: Are there things I don’t think we need to know?

Here’s my list, delivered less poetically than Moore’s:

  • I don’t think we need to know why the sky is blue, though I’m told the answer’s easy. It is enough that it is beautiful and changeable and can handle all the prayers and dreams we confide to it.
  • Do we need to know how many germs, and what kind, are on the elevator button? I don’t think so, “Good Morning America”. Please stop telling us!
  • I doubt we need to know the illusory difference between a “certificate of live birth” and a “birth certificate”, despite some individuals’ need to keep talking about it.
  • We don’t need to know why, some days, our beds feel too comfortable to leave. Just luxuriate in that moment.
  • Do we need to know why the grass we just crossed in our bare feet was suddenly, inexplicably, wet? Let’s agree not to think about it.
  • Some people feel like home the moment we meet them. Do we need to know why, or just be grateful, ever so grateful, that they do?
  • Do we need to know the inner workings of grace? Or to pinpoint the brain’s intricate wiring that leads us to experience what we call faith? And let go of the mystery and wonder? I hope not.
  • I don’t believe we need to know how love happens, only that it does.
These are the very important thoughts I was able to dwell upon during my sinfully luxurious solitary trip home on Sunday. Do we need to know everything we know? Surely not. The things we do need to know can be awfully heavy to bear, therefore, perhaps choosing not to know some things might be a kindness we can do ourselves.
Note to readers: What do you think we don’t need to know? Please share in the comments — that’s one thing I DO want to know!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I am without a plan, here. Obviously, the moratorium on scale updates continues this week. I have been feeling stressed out by the thought of uploading the weekly weigh-ins. Funny to feel this way for the first time more than a year into this project. Stay tuned while I work through whatever is going on in my head. FYI, the scale this morning actually read the exact same as last Thursday.