More Than A Flimsy Web

I know what they're going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!
I know what they’re going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!

Many people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality typology. (If you are not, here’s an easy introduction to the concept.) My personality type, which has remained fairly consistent over 20+ years of periodic assessments is INFP – which stands for introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. INFPs often feel a bit odd, resulting in part from the fact that only roughly 1-4% of the adult population assesses as this type. My type has been described as “passionately concerned with personal growth and development”; we may present a “calm and serene face to the world, and can seem shy, even distant around others. But inside they’re anything but serene…”. And this: “The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.” (read one full description of the INFP here.)

Do I really need to ask those of you who know me whether any of this is ringing a bell? I have heard many variations on the comment “Is there ever a time when you aren’t thinking?”, most recently when my friend Molly said, “I just don’t think deeply about these things like you do. I’m more practical, and go right to how to fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing Molly, apologies if I didn’t get the tone right – she was complimenting me!)

INFPs are idealists, and among the four types of idealists, they are categorized as “healers”. The problem with being in relentless pursuit of personal growth and development is that the INFP’s gaze – I mean MY gaze – is so often turned inward that we forget it is our mission to help others heal. I forget that I am my best self when I am turning an empathetic and loving gaze outward, rather than the more frequent self-critical (and inward-directed) navel-gaze.

This discussion of my “type” is all prologue to the heart of what I want to share today.

Two weeks ago I made what was intended to be a low-key trip back to Iowa to visit friends. I didn’t call everyone I know and make a bunch of advance plans for get-togethers. Instead, once in town I contacted people one at a time, setting up coffee or breakfast dates. These past months of major transition in my life have included so many great group activities, contrasted with long periods of aloneness, that I was craving deep conversation and one-on-one reconnections with dear friends.

As often as I have, in recent years, received exactly the thing I most needed, one would think I’d have learned to trust this life process. But I haven’t. It invariably surprises me each time. Throughout the weekend, my friends offered me the gift I most needed – the gift of their own questions, pain, struggles. The gift of saying (figuratively, not literally), “But enough about you, I’m ready to talk about me.” When friends trust us to take in their difficult emotions and return a commensurate depth of regard, to take their trust and return love in its place, it is an immeasurable grace. Denise Levertov expresses this so beautifully in her poem, “Gift”:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

–Denise Levertov

If there is a gift and a lesson in the beauty of my friends choosing to trust me with their questions, part of the lesson is this: that my deep questions and broken places are also a gift to share. Not my angst-y whining about “what am I going to do?”, but the truth that lies beneath that – the hurts and cracks that I rarely choose to share (it’s so much more convenient to pretend that the surface concerns are the real issues, isn’t it?).

Saturday, I did my best to offer that gift to another friend. I found it so incredibly hard – I put my sunglasses on in a dark coffee shop so I didn’t have to make eye-contact, for crying out loud.   I did a horrible job of expressing what I was feeling, but my friend did a good job of listening. And he directly stated the action I need to practice: “You have to open up and make yourself vulnerable if you expect me to know what you’re feeling.” True words for all of us at those times when we feel lost or misunderstood.

I want to thank the people in my life who offer me the gift of their neediness, their hurts and their questions. I understand how difficult it is to see that as a gift you give rather than as a burden you drop on an “unsuspecting friend.” But I know it is a gift because of how much it means to receive it. This alone should be enough to remind us to pass the same gift on to others, though it often isn’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not just a way of opening to our own growth and insight. It is also a way of helping those we love stretch their capacity for empathy and compassion, to take on the role of healer and give up (for a time) the incessant self-absorption endemic to our days.

Handle with compassion

A Mouse, and the Conundrum of Forgiveness

I don’t hate the mouse that is running around my apartment. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, and it appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. It’s fall, and little critters (like the rest of us) are just looking for a way to survive the bitter winter. This particular bold rodent happened upon a way into my cozy space and decided to take up residence. Who could blame it – I have a nifty and warm place. I’ve forgiven the little thing for moving in, but let’s face it, a mouse is simply not wanted. Does forgiveness require that I live with the mouse? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’m going to set a trap for it, without rancor (but with some squeamishness).


Which gives me pause to think about forgiveness in other circumstances. If someone has harmed me or hurt me, and the harm or hurt is real (not simply a matter of pettiness), how far do I have to take this forgiveness thing? Can I forgive without forgetting? Is it forgiveness if I can’t return to former feelings of liking or respect for the individual? Have I forgiven someone if I remain unwilling to allow them close enough to hurt me again? Have I forgiven them if the experience continues to color my judgement of their words or behaviors? Can I forgive a person but still not welcome them back into my life?

These are important questions. The kind of questions for which easy answers are rarely forthcoming. But I had to give it a shot, right? I googled “quotes about forgiveness” and found the sort of wisdom you might expect:

“Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” –Mark Twain
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

These statements aren’t much good for those of us seeking some practical insight or advice about forgiving and moving on. Then I came upon this:

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” ― Anne Lamott

Perfect! A measurement I can really use. I don’t need to hit back. Does that mean I’m finished? Unfortunately, I’ve never been the type of person who hits back. I’m more the “stand-with-mouth-haning-open-and-mind-suddenly-blank” type. So lacking the urge to hit back may not be the best measure of whether I’ve forgiven someone. But it’s a good start.

“Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.” ― Rick Warren

Forgiveness does not require that I immediately trust the individual again. Trust requires a track record, and IF I continue to be in direct relationship with this individual that record needs to be established. In fairness, this idea of a track record also means that if the hurtful/harmful behavior is an anomaly in a relationship of demonstrated trust, then trust might be called for sooner rather than later. Clearly, one sign that we’ve actually forgiven someone is that we’re able to regard them with fairness.

You may already have guessed that these questions, and my search for answers, are not purely academic in nature. I’ve always believed myself to be good with the forgiveness thing – but in the past, forgiveness hasn’t posed much of a problem because I was dealing with family and dearly loved friends. These individuals forgive me, and I forgive them, easily and often. The experience of forgiveness directed toward someone who was not emotionally as close but whose ability to hurt me was still high is a new one for me. I believe that forgiveness is key for my own growth and ability to move forward in life – which is why I am spending time living with these questions. And even though there is a specific application in this case, it never hurts to revisit our beliefs about such important life questions as the nature of forgiveness.

In the meantime, I have some business to resolve with a little mouse.

How Do I Love Thee, Minneapolis?

Love, when it comes, is often a surprise. It takes us by storm, fills our hearts and our thoughts to overflowing with the object of our affections. Requited or unrequited makes little difference with regard to the degree of our obsession with The Beloved. All we know is that we love.

Despite all that, I didn’t know this could happen to me. I mean, sure, I liked Philadelphia a lot. I was extremely infatuated with Dublin, and wouldn’t mind seeing her again. But I had never realized just how profound and deep a love could develop so quickly for a city until I moved here.

I’ve pondered how this happened. I mean, I was attracted – obviously – or I wouldn’t have moved here. Perhaps it has been the time and space I’ve enjoyed to explore. Perhaps it has been the joy of discovery by bicycle and on foot – remove the automobile from the equation and you can have a direct and visceral experience of the city, an experience that fills all of your senses to overflowing. Perhaps I was longing for something to fill a void and Minneapolis happened to be here. All I know is that I am in the midst of a passionate affair that has the potential to deepen into a lifelong, abiding love.

Let me, with all due respect to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who may object from the grave that I am applying her famous lines, written for her husband, to something as seemingly impersonal as a city), count the ways:

How do I love thee, Minneapolis? Let me count the ways:
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
 Image 6
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
 I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. 
Image 2

Jumping the Tracks

“The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder


No one tells you, when you’re young, that there are choices you make that set you on a road from which there will be no deviation. Or at least from which you will not know or feel you can deviate. A woman who counts the days (in years) until her kids graduate so she can quit the job she hates. A man who has created two lives, his public one and his private one, who always feels divided within himself. Another who randomly got a job in a lucrative field and has never been able to walk away. Me, working my ass off in a job that was fulfilling but also usurping, leaving almost no space for me in my own life.

Sometimes, I resisted change out of love – love for the mission and mercy of the institution I worked at, love for the students whose lives I was privileged to participate in, love for my colleagues whose hearts and souls were so amazing. Sometimes, I resisted change out of fear – of failing, of being too much or not enough of the “right” things. Whether out of fear or love, resistance kept me on the track I was on, moving forward as far as my eyes could see into a future that held more of the same. Resistance, when we give in to it, is  an insidious form of self-betrayal.

Resistance is self-betrayal because it manifests in these ways: it causes us to be silent when we need to speak; it  justifies dishonesty about our true selves; it effectively hoards our gifts and talents when they exist to be shared. Marianne Williamson has, famously, said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So we hide, we make ourselves small. Not to prevent us, in my opinion, from outshining others, but to prevent us from being seen when our true shining selves are revealed. What we love and what we fear cause resistance because they both carry the price of vulnerability.

So, what is it like to jump the tracks? I wondered for a very long time. Years of agonizing soul searching. Years of excuses. Years of making my friends listen to all of that soul searching and excuse-making. (Obviously, I have the most incredibly supportive friends!) And in all that time, I didn’t do any real planning. Any real preparing. I felt incapacitated until the thought of remaining on the tracks, the resistance, became more prominent and painful than either the fear or the love keeping me there – and I just jumped.

Here’s what it is like: it is like being a new soul again.

I cannot contain my curiosity. There is so much to see and read and learn, so much content and innovation, so many ideas. I read and explore on-line until I can’t see anymore.

Then I go outside and explore my city. I knew I didn’t care for the city I lived in and called home for almost two decades. I didn’t realize how stifling I found it. I don’t mean to dis Cedar Rapids – it is objectively a great place. It just wasn’t for me. This city makes me feel expansive: the diversity of people, of neighborhoods, of opportunities.

I am in love with creating. When I unpacked my boxes, I discovered fifteen unopened artist’s sketchbooks – which definitely says something about what my heart knew I should be doing (not necessarily drawing, but creating). I’ve been busy taking photographs, writing, creating recipes from delicious food. Here’s the thing about allowing your creative self the freedom to breathe after years of pushing it down inside – you’re a newbie and you suck (not so much with the recipes, they’re tasty. But with the writing…oy!) Even sucking feels pretty good right now because I am writing.

I have two primary fears: not finding a job, and conversely, taking one out of necessity that recreates the “tracked” lifestyle. Out of fear, and a whole new set of loves, I still betray myself via resistance – I hold back, I worry about acceptance rather than experience, I allow discomfort with the unknown to stop me. I am also discovering that the world in general prefers when we are on the tracks. It makes more sense to people, they know how to define us when we’re on a specific track in life. There is a subtle pressure to get back on, to resume that endless trip toward a gray horizon.

I probably could have jumped the tracks sooner. I could have chosen a different means or method of doing so. I could even, probably, be doing this trackless exploration differently right now. Perhaps in the future I’ll look back and think, “Wow, that was a dumb way to do it!” The only thing I know for sure right now is that I can breathe more deeply than I have in years. That each day seems to be so brimming with possibilities it is often difficult to choose from among them. But I’ve always been a hard worker, it’s in my DNA. So I am gradually buckling down to the work of self-discipline – which is vastly different when the things I am being disciplined about feed my soul and don’t just earn a satisfactory performance review and a heap more work.

It is a strange thing to realize that I have had these choices all along. No matter what I was told, or what I grew up believing. No matter what pressures I felt internally or externally. It is strange to know that I will continue to make some choices out of fear or love or resistance that may not be the best choices for me. It is especially strange to realize that I took comfort from the very tracks that steered my life away from being the life, and me becoming the person, that was meant to be. When you jump the tracks, that false comfort is denied to you. You have to find your own stride in the trackless wilderness.

And that seems a fitting way to describe where I am today: I jumped the tracks, and now I’m finding my own stride. I can’t quite see the features of the horizon, but it isn’t gray. And my tracks won’t end up going nowhere at all – they’re heading somewhere of my own creation.


My Day In Inspirational Sites and Life hacks

If I ever set out to write a memoir, one of the things that will be abundantly clear is that I have spent an inordinate amount of my time trying to reconcile seeming opposites and contradictions in my life and my personality. They say that geography is destiny, so I blame it on growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, a town that (at least in the 60’s) was rife with dichotomies. North End/South End; Flats/Bluffs; Irish/German; Catholics/Everyone else.

One of the ways this tension of opposites is playing out in my life right now is my aversion to inspirational and “life hacking” websites, twitter feeds, memes on Facebook, etc. And, conversely, my attraction to the very same.

The aversion stems from a couple of things. Even if they’re too treacly to bear or potently not true, they proliferate. Also, they suggest (in 25 words or less) that you can fix your life by applying one easy concept. Life is not that simple. Right now, I am in the “struggling to create a life” phase of major life change. Every day for me is both easy and incredibly hard. It is complicated. My emotions are up and down more frequently and with more dizzying speed than any roller coaster. I alternate between complete silence and frenzied interaction. When we are living through times like this in our lives, we see over-simplifications and light-airy platitudes as the bullpucky they are. On Twitter, I am following @AdamsLisa, a woman living with metastatic breast cancer. She rails against the use of breast cancer pink awareness by many businesses as a marketing campaign. They’re all about survivors of the disease, not about people living with it. When she calls them on it, they basically say they’re focusing on uplifting messages. So much for the realities.

The attraction to inspirational messages stems from the desire to manage my emotions, marshall my positive energy and motivation to keep moving forward – as opposed to standing still when that appears to be my only option. I know that how I think about my life, my time, my days makes all the difference to whether I sleep at night, satisfied that I’ve been doing the “work” of my life – or whether I am in my arm chair at 3 a.m. panicked and crying.

I’ve waded through a lot of online stuff, and I’ve found a few things that are good go-to sources for self-management. And by trial-and-error, I’ve discovered a few life hacks of my own that give me some direction when I start to feel directionless.


  • Every morning, nestled in my email, is the daily post from “Marc and Angel Hack Life”. I never go a day without reading it. Most of their posts are lists. They can be repetitive, but there are a couple of things that set them apart from similar sites, in my mind. First, many of their lists are questions, and good ones, to ask yourself. Second, they have a way of addressing the complexity of life choices while also suggesting we make things too complicated. An occasional swift kick to the booty doesn’t hurt either.
  • Once a week, I get “The Great Discontent”, an on-line magazine that interviews one artist, designer, photographer, etc. each week. The interviews are not short sound bytes. They cover both the difficulties/failures and successes these creatives have faced. Invariably, I read something that either energizes me or makes me rethink an attitude that has been holding me back.
  • On Facebook, I follow SRF Creative Studio, to see artist Stephanie Failmetzger’s posts chronicling the progress of her art, one piece at a time. Her work is beautiful, demanding, and squeezed into her life amidst raising a family and a job. Talk about reminding others that we can probably fit more into our days! I also follow some local cycling organizations, which keeps me abreast of local happenings for an activity that I love and ways I can participate in keeping the momentum going as the city works on being bicycle and walking friendly. Finally, I follow even though they post a lot that doesn’t apply to me. Their posts on cycling, general fitness, and nutrition are short, interesting, and a reminder I need.
  • On Twitter, I have learned to follow lots of people – and to unfollow them if their tweets are mainly repetitive chatter. Recently, due to recommendations from several sources (most notably my cousin, the artist Stephanie Failmetzger) I have been following Maria Popova @brainpicker. Brainpicker describes itself as “A discovery engine for meaningful knowledge, fueled by cross-disciplinary curiosity” and is curated by Popova. There is quite a bit of repetition in tweets, but the information is interesting and, yes, inspiring. Another person I follow is Ian Lawton @ilawton, whose site “soul seeds: seed the change” has had some truly insightful posts. Be warned, though, he tweets incessantly and continually feeds to the same articles. I have wavered at to whether I would keep following, but every time I actually click on the link, I find a post or reflection that triggers a thoughtful response. I’ve kept one or two higher education folks on my twitter feed, the best of which for my money is Eric Stoller @EricStoller. His tweets are a blend of personal and professional, and when he shares content I almost always find it valuable.

My personal “life hacks”:

  • First, I don’t know if these really qualify as “life hacks” so much as activities I’ve discovered that help me feel like I’m working on my life, even though I am not actually employed yet. In order to make myself get out of the apartment and interact with the world, I instituted an Instagram project in which I take a daily picture of something I see here in Minneapolis. This accomplishes two things: gets me out and learning my way around the city AND forces me to pay attention to my surroundings while I’m out. I created some rules for the project in order to provide a sense of discipline for myself. I must take the photo with my phone (so no staying home because I don’t feel like packing up the camera equipment) and the photo I post must, unless humanly impossible, be taken the same day it is posted. If you want to find me on Instagram I’m jhnsn728.
  • As my friend, Sue, puts it, I now “speak to people I don’t have to”. This particular life-hack I picked up from my friend Mike, who has always done it. I’ve discovered that you learn so many things this way! To illustrate, the other day I was walking through a nearby neighborhood and stopped at an inviting little grocery store just to check it out. I struck up a conversation with the young man behind the counter, Maxwell Singletary, because the store t-shirt design was very distinctive. Turns out, Maxwell had drawn the illustration, and also had for sale ($1 each) xeroxed copies of two comic books he drew, both versions of “The Metamorphosis”. Well worth my $2, and worth the effort of speaking to someone I didn’t have to!
  • Volunteering for events, also a life hack I picked up from Mike, has been an awesome way to get to know more about both my new city and the people living here. In the case of the Basilica Block Party, I gained access to an event I could never have afforded to attend. But perhaps the best of these experiences has been the Open Streets Minneapolis events, where I volunteered to be a roving photographer. Having a camera, and the job of documenting the events, opens so many people up and gives me the opportunity to practice photography, a creative outlet that I love. The fact that Mike has loaned me a better camera than I can afford to own, with multiple lenses, has been amazing. These events bring out hundreds of people and businesses into their neighborhoods to have fun and interact. I have met some truly interesting folks – activists, nonprofit reps, local artists.
  • Learning how to cook nutritious, fresh, and local on a budget. Partly from necessity, partly because I love the challenge of making delicious yet healthy food. I have a few recipes I will be sharing in the next weeks on my recipes page here on jenion (which I have been ignoring shamefully). Some recipes have come verbatim from another source, which will of course be cited. But I’ve ventured into creating a few of my own, as well.  Hopefully, you’ll try some of them yourselves!
  • Finally, one of the things I’ve always said I wanted to do was write more. Well, the only way to do this is to write. So I have two hacks for this one. The first is that I have several notebooks of varying sizes and one goes with me on every outing about the city or to a local coffee shop. I jot down ideas, thoughts, fragments of stories. Second, I’ve begun using a device to focus my regular writing practice. I use a random word generator online, then write something – a reflection, a memory, a story – triggered by that word. I got this idea from two sources. The first was a journal I created a few years ago in which I did basically this same thing, though it was used more as a tool for uncovering personal issues than as a creative outlet. The second source is a great site on WordPress called WordBowl. I haven’t started publishing/posting any of these random word stories, but if/when I do, I’ll let you know. Also, if you have a word you’d like to suggest to me, I’ll take those in the comments section! If I actually write a piece based on your word, I will share it with you even if I’m not publishing to the blog or my Tumblr site (so include your email if I don’t have it!)

And there you have it, my inspirational go-tos and life hacks. As I said at the beginning of this post, I am always attempting to reconcile opposites within my personality and my thinking. I’m guessing that my quest for a unified self will be a life-long endeavor. I’d be very interested in knowing if you have recommendations for sites or hacks that work for you – please feel free to share in the comments!