Flashback: Celebration!

Once again, with the busy-ness of the holidays, I forgot to post a Flashback Friday! However, as we look forward to celebrating the New Year, it seems fitting to post a photo (or two) from a previous celebration – 4th of July weekend, 2011. Happy 2012, everyone!

Fireworks photo credit: Mike Beck

Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Good news: had a wonderful Christmas with my family. Bad news: was not able to maintain self-discipline around my sisters’ baking – haystacks and caramels nearly did me in! Good news: managed to stay on course in spite of the deliciousness surrounding me. Bad news: I am unlikely to meet my goal of being under 200 by January 1. Good news: I’m so close, I know I’ll get there…soon!

Christmas Flashback

I missed Friday, as it was my travel day to New Mexico, so I thought a Christmas Day flashback would be appropriate. As you can see, all six of the Hanson kids made an appearance in this photo. The two youngest, Annie and Matt, had recently styled their own bangs with a pair of scissors and some creative ideas about shape!

Happy Holidays?!

Tis the week before Christmas, and all through my house,

not a present’s done wrapping, I feel like a louse!

The time is speeding by, it soon will be gone, 

with not much to show for it, at Christmas’ dawn.

When what to my wondering mind should occur?

With a to-do list to guide me, this week I’ll endure!

JENION’S PRE-CHRISTMAS TO-DO LIST

  • Update flash player on work computer in order to stream Christmas music 24/7
  • See Jen Tally to have my mustache removed  hair done
  • Call family members to wish them a Merry Christmas and assure them “pakages are in the mail”
  • Vacuum dining room multiple times to clean up glitter from holiday crafting “experiment” gone wrong; realize you now have a deep red area rug that permanently sparkles
  • Regale friends and co-workers with humorous – or do I mean scary? – stories of Christmases past (such as the time the house filled with toxic fumes and we began Christmas camped out at Perkins; we actually found the bottom of the “bottomless pot” of coffee)
  • Borrow Xanax Meditate on maintaining inner peace at the airport
  • Compare and contrast at least three film adaptations of the Dickens Christmas classic about Scrooge
  • Regale friends and co-workers with touching – or do I mean scary? – stories of Hanson Family Christmas Rituals (such as my mother’s traditional “Wait, I have to go to the bathroom!” exclamation just as we are about to go downstairs to see if Santa Claus came)
  • Schedule at least two more opportunities to listen to John Denver and The Muppets “A Christmas Together” – don’t forget to say out loud how angry you still are that they left Fozzie Bear’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” off the CD (it was on the original vinyl album circa 1979)
  • Buy another box of 50 Christmas cards because you are certain the first box of 50 won’t be enough cards NOT to send out this year.
  • Try not to shout at other drivers. Santa or his elves may be watching.
  • Remember to say “Thank You!” and “Merry Christmas” to your sales clerks, postal carrier, the housekeeping staff at the office, and God.
Note: My last couple of posts have been very serious, so I wanted to share something a bit more lighthearted as we head into the long Christmas weekend. Despite the list, above, I’m just about ready for the celebration and time with my family. I want to wish each of you a very, very, merry Christmas. May we all remember to cherish the moments of love and laughter that come our way and to take at least some time out of our hectic rush of celebrations to allow gratitude space to flourish in our hearts. Peace to you and yours, and to this wide, beautiful world we call home.

The Quality of Mercy

Friends, I feel so happy and strong. My life is blessed in ways too numerous to count. I say this, not to brag, but to be clear that this is where I stand: in peace and gratitude.

It is true, though, that life can be hard, full of challenges that we aren’t certain we have the strength or inner resources to weather. Illness, poverty, loneliness (among other things) may show up in our lives in big ways or small, and they also show up in the lives of those all around us. Sometimes we know what challenges another faces, sometimes we are unaware until we visit a friend and find her crying, or a note goes up on the bulletin board at the gym about a member’s family in need of our generosity.

Sometimes, I am closed to the suffering of others. Caught up in the details of my own life, focused on my own hurts or struggles. It happens to most of us. Other times, I am open and feel overwhelmed by concern and a desire to help. Often, it feels like there is so little of substance I can do.

A few years ago, I participated in a book discussion group at work, sponsored by our Campus Ministry department. I can’t remember the name of the book, but the theme was mercy. The author(s) used a working definition of mercy that went something like this: “to enter fully into the chaos of another’s life”. I clearly remember saying, in the ensuing discussion, that I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that – entering fully into someone else’s chaos sounds not the least appealing, especially if you have your own chaos.

And yet.

We are all so good at allowing ourselves to intellectually grasp what another person might be going through. We donate canned goods, drop money in the red bucket, participate on boards and go to fundraisers. These are all good things to do, but we can so often do them without actually engaging with someone in pain. Entering into someone else’s chaos demands the engagement of our hearts, not just our minds. That is so much more difficult, and it can really be scary.

A while ago, I participated in a one-day service project to deliver Meals On Wheels. My experience was different from that of the others who participated that day – it just so happened that my route included some particularly grim experiences. I haven’t been able to go back, though I was happy to donate the proceeds of my hunger challenge that year to that program. So maybe that was too much chaos, way too fast.

But when the people that I know and interact with daily are suffering, entering into their chaos means, first, walking beside them so they know I am there. I’m pretty sure I can do that.

What I don’t want to do is stand in this place of peace and gratitude, happiness and strength, and just watch the suffering flow by. Nor do I want to blunder in and try to fix everything. Neither of these approaches serve in the long run. My old friend (and by friend, I mean author I deeply admire), Parker Palmer, espouses a form of community which holds each person sacred. This is how I hope to express the quality of mercy in my life, and I think it’s a fitting end to this reflection. He says:

“The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox – the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.”
 

My Short, Uncomfortable Stint as a Prayer Expert

Last summer, Lori Erickson, the “Holy Rover” at Spiritual Travels, put out a call to her women readers: if you would be willing to be interviewed for a magazine article she was writing on prayer, please contact her via email. Lori’s blog is the first one I ever subscribed to and, though we have never met, I felt inclined to respond in the way one would if a friend asked for your help. We arranged a time to speak via telephone, and she called me one sunny morning during my summer vacation.

What I had neglected to think about was the fact that she would ask me questions about my own prayer practices.

I am not a very good pray-er: I don’t pray regularly; I feel self-conscious when I do so (Dear God, I begin, as if writing a letter to my Higher Power); I run out of things to say as soon as the pleasantries have been exchanged. As a teenager I used to pray the rosary specifically for its soporific effects when I couldn’t fall asleep – it was a particularly bad night if I was still awake after 10 “Hail Mary’s” and a “Glory Be”. In the ensuing conversation with Lori, therefore, I had little to offer. I managed to make the comment that I think some women have a tough time asking for things in prayer because they feel selfish doing so, and they’re keenly aware the Lord has bigger fish to fry.

The interview was pleasant though short. Let’s face it, I wasn’t a rich vein of thought on the topic, worthy of taking up Lori’s deadline-meeting time frame. So I was surprised to hear from her again – asking to clarify some things from the first interview. Lori said the editor wanted her to ask whether I could recount a time I did, in fact, pray for something specific. So, I shared the story I shared here on this blog. (Briefly, in a retreat prayer service, another retreat attendee claimed to receive a message from God for me, answering my anguished questions about the trajectory of my life.). Lori thanked me and moved on. But then she called a third time, saying the editor wanted her to beef up the portion of the article in which she related my story. She asked, “Do you think this experience would have been as powerful if you hadn’t gotten that verbal response?”

The answer was unequivocally, “No.” When prayer is answered in what seems to be an undeniable manner – a direct message, a healing, an indisputable sign – it is easy to believe in its efficacy. And most of us pay attention to that (at first, at least). For me, that verbal message was a beacon of hope. Yes, things WILL change, get ready. It was still up to me to figure out what changes to make in my own life in order to be ready. Which leads me to the other side of the prayer conundrum. When the answer isn’t so easy to distinguish, or when we truly feel like no answer is forthcoming, it is much more difficult to believe in prayer’s effectiveness. Much more difficult to believe someone is listening, that we are doing more than talking to ourselves inside our own heads.

Lori’s article appeared in the December edition of Women’s Day magazine. I received an email from her, regrettfully informing me that the editor had cut the article’s length, choosing to completely remove the part about me. In all honesty, I was relieved. I had started to feel like an imposter – although Lori’s request was for ordinary women to share about their experiences, I felt uncomfortable putting my two-cents in on a topic about which I have been so ambivalent.

I’ve been revisiting the issue of prayer this week, after a conversation with my sister, Chris, on Tuesday. Monday evening, we learned that a biopsy had proven positive – meaning that Chris is facing a second bout with breast cancer. Understandably, this was difficult news for Chris, and all who love her, to hear. She broke the news to her family, asking my mother to contact us siblings – telling your loved ones such news is almost more difficult than hearing the news yourself. So Tuesday was my first chance to talk directly with my sister. She said, “I’m not going to lie, I was pretty devastated last night. But I’m doing better today.” I told her that I had already made certain her name was on several prayer lists. Her response: “That’s the thing, Jen. I know people are praying for me. I can actually feel it. I can feel their prayers.”

Of the many things I’ve read or heard about prayer, that remark of Chris’ may be the most amazing. I’ve heard it said that someone was “lifted up in prayer”, which I took to mean a figurative holding up of their name during prayer. Now I’m wondering if the phrase isn’t more literal than that. When one is brought low by life circumstances, the prayer of others can literally lift one up. As I type this, I am increasingly thinking two things:

1. Thank goodness my comments on prayer were edited out of the magazine article.

2. If there is even a chance that my doing so can lift others, help them be more resilient in the face of life’s difficulties, make them feel loved, I need to get past the discomfort I have felt, and practice praying.

I will likely never speak with an expert’s authority on the subject of prayer. There are many people, including my sister, who can with genuine knowledge and personal experience wax eloquent on the subject and say things truly worth hearing. However, I am coming to believe that while prayer may be a private conversation between my heart and God, the practice of prayer is not only about me. From now on, when I tell someone that my thoughts and prayers are with them, I will make a more sincere effort. In their lowest moments, I want the people I care about to feel me lifting them up.