This week, my brother Jeff and his wife, Marsha, celebrated their 30th anniversary. Today’s flashback celebrates their marriage and the beautiful family and life they’ve created together in those thirty years! Congratulations, guys!
If I had a dime for every time someone has told me, “You’re one of the strongest people I know,” or, “You’re so strong, I could never (fill in the blank) like you” I would have enough dimes to buy something really big. Right this minute, though, I just want to munch on something crunchy and salty, so I would use some of my imaginary dimes to buy a couple of boxes of Cheese Nips and call it a day. In my weaker moments, I have been known to down a whole box by myself.
Weaker moments. We all have them, even the strong ones among us. It is in vogue to wax eloquent about how failure and weakness are our great teachers in life – that without them we wouldn’t even understand, much less achieve, success or strength. And this may, in fact, be true.
But here is how weakness feels: Weak.
Powerless. Fearful. Humiliated. Vulnerable. Stupid. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t like feeling this way. If I can avoid these feelings altogether, I will. Failing that, I will suppress them, push them deep inside to a place they won’t inadvertently be seen or heard. I know they’re there, but when they speak, I am the only one who hears. I can be so heavily invested in the image of myself as strong that the idea anyone else might see my weaknesses and vulnerabilities is untenable.
Problematically, suppression has limits. I can suppress my emotions really well, sometimes for a very long time. Then some event, often insignificant in itself, triggers their escape. That escape is usually unexpected and sometimes directs itself toward another person who is blindsided by my emotional outburst. In thinking of these moments, it turns out, I have been learning some valuable lessons from my weaknesses. But these lessons are not about success or strength in the traditional sense. They are about courage. And they are about love, friendship and forgiveness.
What can these awful, painful moments teach me about courage? They can teach me, first and foremost, that there is a price to be paid for hiding behind silence. Not that everything we feel needs to be blabbed to the world or played on constant repeat. Rather, that our weaknesses – insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities – are part of who we authentically are. We are all generally happy to share our light with others. But when we enter into relationship with another person, the quality and depth of that relationship is determined, to a degree, by how willing we are to share our darkness. No one falls in love with the models in the J.C. Penney catalog – they are good looking but one dimensional. We also don’t develop deep bonds with people who only show us their shiny bits. Just to be clear, this lesson about courage is one I haven’t fully grasped at the emotional level yet, and my practice of it is uneven at best (pitiful at worst).
I am on firmer, and more proven ground, when discussing the lessons my own weaknesses can teach me about love, friendship and forgiveness. After all, these lessons have been demonstrated time and again to be true. Demonstrated when someone on the receiving end of one of my emotional eruptions stays with me in an effort to understand what just happened (as opposed to sensibly, understandably, running away). Demonstrated when evidence of my darkest self results in compassion and the offer of support. Demonstrated in the gift of forgiveness when my inability to hold onto strength results in hurtful actions or words directed at myself or others.
I haven’t learned to celebrate my weaknesses because they are my teachers. I doubt I will ever get to that point. I am just on the upside of accepting that my weaknesses don’t make me an unlovable pariah. They do make me human. They give me the opportunity to practice courage by sharing my authentic self with others – without knowing in advance what the outcome of that will be, but trusting that it is the right path anyway. As I work to change the pattern of suppression followed by emotional outbursts, my weaknesses offer the chance to develop kinder, gentler coping skills (kinder, gentler to self and others). Coping skills that actually help me cope.
And while I can’t manage to actually celebrate my weaker self or weakest moments yet, I can truly celebrate those who offer their love, compassion, and forgiveness to a flawed me. I hope that I am able to return these gifts, with true joy and gratitude, when those I know and love are having their weaker moments. Who knows, I may even be willing to share my Cheese Nips with them!
Please take note of the dates listed in the photo captions, above.
These photos capture the fact that 2011 was the year I developed a love for photography.
On New Year’s Day, Mike and I met in Mason City (roughly halfway between our two cities of Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids). We met to exchange belated Christmas greetings and gifts, and to purchase my first “real” camera. We spent the morning comparison shopping between Best Buy, Target and WalMart. Mike knows cameras – he owns seven (at last count). He helped me narrow down the options and select a camera that really works for me: the Canon Powershot SX130 IS. Mike liked the camera I selected so well that he bought one too! In the photo, above, we were opening our cameras and playing with them for the first time. It was -35 degrees and icy that day, so we went to one of the few warm places we knew would be open – Perkins!
The second photo is a shot of my friend, Emily. While I have a number of friends who inspire me when it comes to photography, Emily and Mike are the only people I’ve had “photo dates” with. Almost exactly a year after purchasing my camera, Emily and I met on a bleak winter’s day to shoot street shots downtown. I love a number of the photos I shot that day – playing with the black and white function on my Canon – but this shot is so descriptive of Emily. If you knew her, you’d recognize her from this picture!
So here’s to photography, photo dates, and incredible people who share your passions in life!
August 21, 2012. Twenty one days down, ten to go. On-lookers may reason we’re on the downhill side, but August is a lopsided mountain in student affairs – the climb, the long-haul, just keeps going until it suddenly stops somewhere in the vicinity of Labor Day (if we are lucky and our students stay sane, safe, and sober).
I was at my desk. I had reached the limit of my ability to reason clearly and push forward with the paperwork that has piled up while I’ve been training the Resident Assistants. I looked at the clock. It was only 5:20 on a beautiful afternoon. No evening session planned. I wasn’t on call.
So I bolted.
I was possessed by a sudden, single-minded energy. I had not planned it, nor had I thought of doing it until that moment. It just popped into my brain as a whole thought, and I practically tripped over my own feet in my attempt to move quickly (the fear of getting stopped by someone’s need as I try to leave campus is a very real one in August). I was home, changed, and on my way within minutes.
I saw others setting foot on the path as I pulled into parking at the Indian Creek Nature Center. But once I set out on the trail, camera in hand, I did not see another human being for a full hour. As I walked, I felt my entire body relax. My breathing deepened, and I felt my soul open up, not like a flower to the sun but like a jack-in-the-box, swiftly and all at once. I have never been a “granola” girl, but as my physical fitness has improved I’ve discovered that getting out in nature, on foot or by bicycle, has the automatic effect of releasing any tension I carry. I relax completely.
I’ve also discovered that taking my camera has an interesting impact on my experience of nature. I feel myself expand as the tension leaves my body. And the camera exerts an opposite pull: that of focusing my attention. It would seem that expansion and focus are opposites. But in the context of nature photography, they not only coexist, they paradoxically enhance one another. As my being reaches out to the natural world surrounding me, my camera lens selects something on which to focus and I see the place and the moment in striking detail. I see light, color, texture and find I am also more grounded, able to use my other senses more extensively.
I spent one hour on my own – just me, my camera, and a few critters (both seen and unseen). By the time I returned to the parking lot, my shoulders were no longer hunched up to my ears, I was breathing normally, and (best of all) no sense of panic or worry remained in my head or thumping heart.
And now that I’ve used my words to describe the experience, I thought you might like to see some of what I saw on my short journey of expansion and focus (I took 100+ photos, so this is truly a sampling):
I used to be reasonably happy being a curmudgeonly sourpuss. Well, happy is probably too positive a word. I used to be…comfortable…that way. Then, I turned over a new leaf. Changed my life, my habits, my daily routine and started living more fully and with more zest. I discovered that choosing to be less of a hater resulted in a more joyful me. As a result, I started professing many more inspirational and upbeat beliefs, observations and thoughts about myself and the world around me.
That’s the good news.
The bad news: I revert to dramatic negativity when I am exhausted and overwhelmed. I immediately change from “mentor” and “positive influence” to “that scary biach in the next room”.
You know that ability we humans have to monitor what we are about to say, then censor that thought in favor of saying something more socially acceptable? I like to personify that faculty, calling it my “Gatekeeper”. When I feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, and overtired my little lederhosen-clad (don’t ask why lederhosen, just accept) Gatekeeper takes a hike. Nowhere to be found. AND, he leaves the gate wide open, completely unguarded. I say things I wouldn’t usually say, in a more negative manner than I might actually feel. There is a certain relish that comes with exaggerating my snarky-ness at these times.
As a public service, I feel duty bound to present a list of things you should never bring up or ask me about at such moments*, unless of course you wish to hear the harsh reply nearly guaranteed to drop from my lips:
(*and right now is such a moment)
If you’re lucky, my head will just explode. If not, my lips will flap with a list of complaints so tedious and long that you’ll find yourself wishing you had never done more than nod at me in passing.
2. My nonexistent love life
If I bring it up, and (unfortunately) I probably will these days, just let me vent and express my sadness. Otherwise, you may prefer to avoid this one altogether! The other night the wide open gate resulted in a tirade something like this (sorry, Molly): “You can’t have it both ways. You cannot, with one breath, tell me I’m not trying hard enough and, with your next, tell me ‘it will happen when you relax and stop looking for it’. These things are opposites and I cannot be/do both at once. Also, they both happen to be total bullshit. Yes, I said it. Do not tell me that we’re all alone, when you really think about it. Or that I’m not alone because I have friends. Most of you have been with your spouses since you were both toddlers, so what do you know about being 51 and single?” Yeah, it was brutal.
3. 50 Shades of Gray, the Twilight saga, or anything by Ernest Hemingway
Hated it! (And I will give you more than 50 reasons why, if you get me wound up.)
4. That you feel bad telling me about your happy marriage, new relationship, great sex life
If we are friends, we’ve probably already had the conversation at #2, above. Which may lead you into this error at #4. But if we ARE friends, of course I want to know what’s going on in your life. I don’t want to be told that you hold back from sharing because you don’t want to make me feel bad, as if my jealousy (very real, it’s true) is both valid and important. Because it isn’t either, and I know it. Don’t make my Gatekeeper-less self take up this rant in your direction!
5. Your love for _______ (if it is one of the things I dislike)
There is a long and ecclectic list of such items: hostas, sour candy, cockatiels, “Caddyshack”, cheeseburger pizza, lol cats, Two and A Half Men, Nicki Minaj (and those little British girls singing Nicki Minaj)…for starters. Some friends find it funny when I rail against these things, and slip them into conversation on purpose.
When I am without a Gatekeeper, I don’t even care if you’re making fun of me. That’s how much perverse satisfaction I get from letting my mouth run away from my good sense.
Don’t worry, though. My Gatekeeper will return (as will my more positive and happy demeanor) as soon as I can catch up on my sleep and/or grab a little down time. Until then, this crotchety old sourpuss can hardly hold it against you if you hide around a corner until I pass by!
For me, two weeks of every August, since 1996, have been spent in Resident Assistant (RA) Training. The 2012-13 RA staff moves in and begins training on Sunday. As usual, I am not really ready for this marathon of teaching and togetherness. However, also as usual, I know that I will end the training period grateful for the opportunity to be part of the lives of such amazing young people. The photo above is of my very first RA staff in 1996, snapped just after their mandatory fire extinguisher training, with members of the CRFD. I remember each of these students – their trials and tribulations, the late night rounds we stumbled through, the laughter we shared. Just remembering humbles me with the awareness of how privileged I have been.
When I dare to be powerful…
Mostly, I forget that I have power. I forget or stop believing that I have volition, choice. What I remember is what we were all taught to remember: to follow the rules, to play nice, to do what I’m supposed to do or have been told to do. I don’t take issue with having been taught these things – they are one part of the equation of being a person with character and integrity. But there is another piece we should all have been taught – that part of being an adult of character is knowing when and how to break rules that are inappropriate, to play hard when it is called for, to say “It is MY responsibility to decide what I’m supposed to do”. The rare occasions when I dare to be powerful truly require every ounce of emotional strength I can muster, to go against the programming of my youth. However, I’m beginning to learn something important – like all muscles, it gets stronger when used. The more I exercise my power, my choice, my voice, the more powerful I become.
To use my strength in the service of my vision…
My vision? To use anything in service to my vision, I need to have a vision. Friends, for so many years I confused “vision” with “fuzzy daydream about the future”. They are, unsurprisingly, NOT the same! What differentiates a vision, for your life and/or the world you hope to live in, from a daydream? One, steadfastness. You have it and are able to hold it in front of you. Two, actions. You are able to identify – and TAKE – steps necessary to achieve the vision you steadfastly hold before you. Three, a convicted heart. Each step you take convinces your inner being that you are moving in the right direction, no matter how hard or how much it requires you to exercise your power.
Then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
Because I AM afraid. Afraid I’ve made the wrong choice, chosen a vision that wasn’t my highest calling. When I exercise my power in service to my vision, I stand alone to bear responsibility for the consequences of my choosing. I’d rather blame someone or something else if it doesn’t turn out well. (But she told me to do it! I was only following orders. That’s what we were instructed to do in training. Its in the policy manual.) I like having someone or something else to blame, it feels more secure, less exposed. Really? Accepting responsibility for my own life is what makes me afraid? (Until I wrote that, I didn’t know I felt that way. Now I have a mental picture of myself, the “cheese” standing alone, quaking in my boots.)
However, as Cheryl Strayed says in Wild, fear is a story we tell ourselves. We can tell ourselves a different story – one in which fear is less significant because we are using our power in service to something important. We can tell ourselves an empowering story. We can tell ourselves, “I’m not THAT afraid.” (True story: I once talked myself out of a panic attack while driving cross-country alone by telling myself this story over and over – ‘The sun is shining. I am well. I didn’t run over the turtle. I will be safe.’ The only parts I knew for sure were true were the shining sun and the lucky, still alive, turtle.)
What is so important that we should practice using our power in service to it? What is important enough to teach ourselves the contours of courage (which, contrary to some inspirational quotes, doesn’t come naturally to most of us). Simply this: to be who we were meant to be. To live the life we were born to live. That is the ultimate personal responsibility we bear – to be fully the unique and sacred persons we were created to be. When we dare to be powerful, to use our strength in service to our vision, fear becomes irrelevant – still painful, still hard – but irrelevant. Because what is relevant is the vision we are bringing to life in our lives and in our world.