Un-guard!

26 09 2013
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I stumbled yet again. In the murky half-light just before dawn, I had only been able to see a few feet in any direction. Now that day was fully upon me, I could make out dry, furrowed and rocky terrain stretching to every horizon. I saw no distinguishing features, just the promise of further punishment on my bare feet and the continued threat that they would see me. I clutched the vessel to my body, attempting to shield it from both the sun (lest its radiance betray my location) and from splintering on the unforgiving landscape. When I glanced behind me, I did not see them, but I could feel their pursuit.
 
My one protection was the long cloak I clutched about me, woven of thread which so closely matched the featureless plain that is served as a form of camouflage. Because my hands were not free to assist me in remaining upright, I often stumbled. And the length of the cloak caused me to step on it with regularity, tripping myself when the stony ground did not…I know not how long I toiled to carry the vessel. Time became meaningless on that journey.
 
Eventually, however, I saw a small something on the horizon, which turned out to be a simple square building, open on two sides. I approached it warily, fearful of what or whom I might encounter, but desperate for rest and water. I entered what could only be described as a temple. The room, open to the land on two sides, contained a simple pedestal in the center, on which nothing resided.
 
“Welcome. We have been waiting for you.” I turned toward the voice, to see a man and a woman, each garbed in simple white robes.
 
“Please,” said the woman. “We have prepared a place for your burden. Don’t you wish to rest? It will be safe here.” She indicated the empty pedestal, and gestured toward the vessel I carried.
 
It seemed like forever since I had been wishing to set the heavy vessel down. But now that it came to it, I was loathe to do so. It was my burden, entrusted to me. Yet, these two looked at me with compassion. They made no move to take the vessel from me, simply waited patiently for me to choose.
 
Carefully, I unwrapped the vase from the folds of my torn and weathered cloak and placed it on the pedestal. At first, it appeared a small and unlovely thing. And then a shaft of sunlight found it, and everything changed. It lit up the room with its brilliance, a myriad of colors in its ingeniously worked glass. I was overcome by its beauty.
 
“But it shines so!” I cried. “They will find it and destroy it!”
 
“I promise you,” replied the man, “its light is meant to be seen. For this it was created.”

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When I woke from the dream recounted above, I couldn’t shake it. The haunting quality of it, the visceral emotional impact of it. Most especially, I couldn’t shake the truth of the dream.

I say truth because I knew immediately upon waking what the dream intended me to learn: that the vessel I had so carefully protected and shielded from the eyes of others was my self. The vulnerable, beautiful, shy, powerful, loving, shining self that I was born to be. That I had worked so hard to protect from hurt. That with my misguided efforts and protective coping mechanisms I had hidden not only from the world, but also from me.

There is a quote, often attributed to George Eliot, which says, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.” I love that quote, but it is about what we do with our lives. What my dream showed me was a slightly different truth:

It is never too late to be who you ARE.

You have journeyed in silence, fear, and discomfort long enough.

Come out of hiding. Let your true self be in the light, instead of shrouded in secrecy and webs of self-preservation.

Will everyone love the true self you reveal? No. Will their rejection, if and when it comes, hurt? Probably. But not as much as the self-rejection implied by staying hidden. By keeping yourself small and unobtrusive. By pretending that you are not who and what you are.

This last bit I didn’t learn from the dream. I learned from practicing the lessons of the dream: by opening myself to vulnerability; by painstakingly making the conscious choice to stand in my own center when outside forces (often people I love) buffet me; by allowing a moment to pass so I can respond from my truth instead of knee-jerk react. I learned by trusting others. And I learned by trusting myself.

Have I learned these lessons perfectly? No way! Each day has its own set of conundrums, of tests and trials. That said, letting my true self live in the light of day has been significantly more fulfilling than keeping myself hidden. Shame and Guilt, who were my frequent companions, have mostly disappeared. They don’t thrive in the light.  They have been replaced by Acceptance and Grace – companions who encourage me to grow into my best self. And my self, who I am, is a gift to the world.

If you recognize yourself in my dream, or know in your heart that you have been guarding your true self from the light, I encourage you to take the steps necessary to let the you that is unique and beautiful and essential come out. Take tiny steps forward, if you must. But don’t deprive the world any longer of the gift that is you. It is never too late to be who you are – who you are shines, and is worthy of love.

From my journal, after waking from the dream.

From my journal, after waking from the dream.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

26 09 2013

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Night Joyriding

19 09 2013
Today’s post was written jointly by Mike Beck and me. Since my arrival in Minneapolis in early July, one of our favorite activities together is cycling at night throughout the city. While we both enjoy nighttime riding, we came to it from different places, and our experiences are our own – hence the format of the post. In the end, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get out on your bikes – especially after dark!  
          –Jenion
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

M: I love riding my bike – I always have.  When I was a boy on the farm in Iowa, my siblings and I escaped into made-up worlds on our bikes.  As a father of young boys, meandering on suburban trails with the tots was always pleasurable.  Now, biking is more than just fun; it’s a way to get outside, be active, and a key component in my quest for a healthier lifestyle.   But, with a full-time job, and other activities that often book weekend days, the ONLY time I have to ride is in the evenings.  And it’s still fun, especially when I have someone to ride with.

J: Biking has been such a significant part of my life these past several years that I considered a bike-friendly culture one of the “must haves” for any city I finally chose to settle in when I left Cedar Rapids. By all accounts, Minneapolis fit the bill. When I arrived here, I couldn’t wait to explore the bike trails and greenways I had read and heard so much about. And I looked forward to doing so with Mike – we had talked about cycling for years, but living in different states made it impractical for us to ever actually ride together.

M: Introducing Jeni to her new city has been one of the things I enjoyed most this summer.  I have lived in Minneapolis since 1993, and I know the town quite well.

J: That’s an understatement, by the way!

M: But, as I was saying before I was interrupted, biking in Minneapolis is relatively new to me.  I started riding my bike last fall, after a long hiatus, and I usually stayed close to home.  But now that Jeni lives here, we want to ride as often as possible.  As I mentioned, the only time in my busy schedule is late evenings.  This posed a difficulty though:  Jeni was adamant that if we were going to ride in the evening, we were going to stay put on designated bike lanes and trails.

J: I had my reasons for insisting. If any of you have ever lived in a city that is unfriendly to bicyclists, you’ll understand my reluctance. I had been shouted at, honked at, and had motorists purposely swerve toward me only to pull away, laughing, at the last moment – all as I crowded as far into the gutter or alongside parked cars as I could. Other times, motorists were just so unused to cyclists that near-misses occurred. In that environment, why would one EVER get on the street – especially at night when visibility is even further reduced?! It was a sign of trust that I allowed Mike to talk me into it.

M: We live on Franklin Avenue, a busy street morning, noon and night.  For us to get to a designated bike lane, we have to maneuver off our own street first.  Fine.  We can do that!  Just a few blocks west we can catch a dedicated bike lane on Blaisdell Avenue.  That will take us to the Midtown Greenway, a bike “freeway” that connects to just about every trail in South Minneapolis.  From there, we can connect to the Chain of Lakes where the trail is not only exclusively for bikes, but also one way.  Thus began our foray into night bike rides!  We could get a short ride in just by circling Lake Calhoun, or if we had enough time, we could also ride around Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles.  This was quickly our routine, and safe and easy for my reluctant partner to navigate.  Plus, it gave us a few opportunities to “practice” street riding.  We had to obey traffic rules on Blaisdell, lest we get taken out by a right-turning vehicle.  We had to leave the comfort of our dedicated lane so as to make a proper left-hand turn onto 29th Street to get on the Greenway.  As beautiful as the lakes route was to ride, though, it quickly became as boring as it was routine.  But I was patient, and that patience paid off!   Imagine my excitement the night Jeni said “Let’s head downtown instead of to the Greenway.”

J:  I won’t lie: that first ride in the dark, guided only by the spot of light offered by my headlamp, was scary. But it was also strangely exhilarating. Like all new experiences, it took a while to develop a comfort level with riding after dark. The night city has a very different look and feel than the day-lit one. On our second circumnavigation of Lake Calhoun, Mike nearly collided with a silver fox, its coat irridescent in the moonlight reflecting off the water, as it streaked past. Where, during the day, you smell suntan lotion and picnic lunches, at night the exotic scents of flowers and rich soil are noticeable. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. And I wanted to experience much more of the city than just the chain of lakes, as wonderful and beautiful as they are. We began to take different routes about the city, revisiting spots we had both seen before, but not at night or by bike. One wild Friday night we headed to the newly opened Dinkytown Greenway and, with road construction and detours, ended up in unexpected neighborhoods. We didn’t have a map, but somehow a bike lane or part of a trail always opened in front of us. In one incident of serendipity, we were in what I would describe as a “sketchy” neighborhood and we hadn’t a clue what to do next. We found a sign for the Greenway, but when we followed it we discovered the trail gated and locked securely. Suddenly, I saw a  woman emerge from a weedy lot about a block ahead of us. I felt certain we would find a path there – what woman walks alone in a random weedy lot at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night in the city? Sure enough, it was a paved trail, and it took us over the interstate and back downtown…

M: … where we navigated traffic departing the Metrodome after the first pre-season Vikings game.  The streets were clogged with drunk suburbanites, most of whom didn’t have a clue what a bike lane was.  (That’s the first time I heard Jeni actually yell at a motorist!)  Our dedicated lane wasn’t remotely passable, so we zigzagged through the traffic jam and found a cross street out of that mess…and straight towards the Guthrie Theater where the evening’s show had just ended.  Now our nemeses were taxi cabs picking up theater-goers dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.  Dodging that mess, we headed into the heart of downtown, where out-of-towners apparently assume people riding bicycles on a Friday evening must know their way around.  We were stopped and asked directions several times.

J: And, of course, Mike always knew how to direct them!

M: Anyway, that evening sealed the deal for Jeni.  She had now grown fond of our night bike rides, and had taken it off the trails and into the streets!

J: Ok, so that makes it sound like I went from a Nervous Nelly to an Adrenaline Junkie in one crazy night! The truth is, I had learned some important things about riding in this city. First, with the exception of the out-of-towners, assorted cab drivers and pizza delivery persons, motorists here both understand the laws of sharing the road and they respectfully adhere to them. Second, you develop “eyes” for night riding – essentially, you develop a comfort-level with using the combination of your headlight and ambient light available from the city. Third, most of our night rides end with a stop at our neighborhood Spyhouse Coffee. I love the arc of these rides – the excitement of choosing a new path, riding and spontaneously adjusting as we go, then – whether we’re refreshed or sweating buckets – a coffee and chat before the last blocks home.

M: For me, night riding is about getting outside after a long day at work.  It’s doing something active, and it’s sharing time with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to bond with our city, from a perspective we don’t see from our cars.  And it’s being part of a unique, vibrant community.  We are never alone on our night rides.  Minneapolis cyclists are loyal and dedicated kinfolk and it’s not uncommon to share a greeting or a brief conversation with fellow riders when our paths cross.

J:  Agreed. But some nights, riding is for the pure experience and adventure of it; a celebration of the spirit of biking. It makes me feel the way I did in junior high when I raced my sunshine-yellow ten-speed all over the small town of Hastings just because it was fun, and I could. In adult life, those reasons are rarely considered sufficient for activity – which makes me wonder: why not? We night joyride – because it’s fun and we can. You should join us sometime!

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike





Thursday, September 19, 2013

19 09 2013

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Why do I keep doing this? I’m not a masochist nor do I have a strong need for exhibitionism. So, cross those reasons out! I do it for several reasons. The two most important:

First, I do it for me. It is a way to keep my head in the game, so to speak. I want to continue living my life to the fullest – and the surest way to sink back into somnolence is to stop paying attention. I know I am ok no matter what the scale says.  That said, when I am experiencing forward momentum or maintaining I can be sure that I am making good and conscious choices.  But when there is backsliding, I know it is time to put my attention back on my daily choices.

Second, I do it for those who struggle with their own weight or eating issues. There is no need for shame, no need for secrets. Self-acceptance isn’t an easy path for many of us, and it can be a long as well as difficult trek. But it is a path worth taking if we want to fully realize the people we are meant to be. I want that for all of us.





The Case for Uncertainty

12 09 2013

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When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
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Thursday, September 12, 2013

12 09 2013

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Unfolding: Rilke, a paper crane, and me

5 09 2013

Image 2I don’t know the official name of the garden. I had seen it from my bike as I rode past. It looked like a quiet place to sit and think, across the street from its showier cousin, the Rose Garden. It wasn’t until after I had admired the little waterfall that I thought to notice the copper statue of a stylized crane, green patina-ed from the weather, or the boulders surrounding it. Each boulder contains a plaque, also weathered, with instructions for folding an origami crane. The first plaque begins, “Spirit of Peace: Fold Your Desire for Peace into a Paper Crane…”

I had come to the garden to contemplate a poem which came to me through circuitous routes, and which I knew upon my first cursory reading would require quiet and space. Here it is:

“I Want to Unfold” by Ranier Maria Rilke
 
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m to small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones —
or alone.
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 

In the art of origami, a simple square of paper is folded in such a manner as to be transformed into something else, something other than itself. These days, I feel tightly folded, holding myself erect with the artificial strength of reinforcement from bent and pleated layers. I may appear to have wings, like the crane. But that is an illusion: I am earthbound, folded tightly in upon myself as a protection from all my self-doubt and fear.

I want to know my own will, and to move with it. That was, after all, the whole point of the changes which led me here. I felt I had a firm idea of it in April and May, but as the summer passed it slipped more and more from my grasp. August and it seemed to disappear altogether. My days are peaceful on the exterior, but inside they are a turmoil. I have folded my desire for peace, let alone to know my own will, so deep I can’t quite get my fingers on it.

I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. Closed equals hidden, equals secret. Why choose folded, to remain closed? Fear, shame, guilt. Fear of my own inadequacies; shame that after all of the grace and the love I am still much afraid; guilt for the ways (large and small) that I know I am failing the gift of this time.

Unfolding. Unfolding equals exposing, unearthing, truth-telling. Exposing my vulnerabilities (the snivelling coward that lurks in my heart); unearthing through careful toil my hopes and dreams; telling the truth about my uncertainties and shortcomings, but also my talents and courage (which share space with that coward).

I want to unfold. Because, unfolded, I am myself: a plain square of paper, open to the sunlight. Able to breathe because I am no longer tightly crimped. My pride wants me to “be among the wise ones — or alone”, but truthfully, I am content to be alone and small enough for this world. It’s only on my bad days I think, “Any smaller or more alone, and I would disappear.”

As I sat in the Peace Garden, contemplating the Rilke poem through the oddly curved lens of my current life-in-limbo, I wasn’t thinking about the Divine, or Rilke’s obvious desire for deeper connection and relationship with God. I wan’t thinking of peace. I was thinking about the falseness of being closed – of pretending to be less needy or more sure than I am. Of the artiface, not the art, of origami.

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And then I saw it: one tiny white paper crane among the plantings. Fragile and pure, untouched by the dirt it rested upon. One wish, not the famous one-thousand, for peace. One tiny, fledgeling hope for something better. And I laughed, realizing that while a person should take care to remain unfolded, it is fine for paper. The paper crane was made more by folding, while I was less. Yet both of us yearn for peace – the peace that comes with understanding and compassion.

That peace must find a beginning in my own heart.

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