The Post that Almost Wasn’t

26 12 2013

In all the years since the inception of this blog , I have never come this close to NOT posting on a Thursday. The reasons for this are both simple and complicated.

On the simple end of the spectrum, it was Christmas week. A week that did not go according to plan, so was more rushed than intended, but was also wonderful in spite of a few set-backs. The busy week meant that I had not written a post in advance of this morning, so when I awoke at 3:20 a.m. nauseous and chilled, the next eight hours of physical illness and discomfort did not really lend themselves to sitting at a computer capturing my thoughts in words. When I felt well enough to sit up and log on, I also felt empty. Which leads to the complicated reasons for almost missing a Thursday post.

Had I found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about the incredible example of patience and acceptance provided by Mike. We got on the road at 6:45 a.m. Monday, intending for Mike to be at an important appointment for his son, leaving directly from there to head to Iowa for Christmas. We blew a tire less than four miles from home, during rush hour on I35W. Not only did he remain completely calm while maneuvering  out of traffic, he was remarkably sanguine about missing the appointment, despite the fact his son had made it clear he wanted Mike there. While I was starting to ratchet up toward hysteria, he refused to be flummoxed, reminding me there was no point to drama – there was nothing we could do but make the best of it. Through a long morning of waiting for the vehicle to be road-worthy, missing the appointment, and eventually getting on the road, his calm demeanor remained intact. Even though it meant missing dinner and an evening hanging out with his sisters, Mike entered fully into our stops in Cedar Rapids, visiting friends who had newborns to show off. Not once did he attempt to rush our time with friends in order to get back on the road, no matter how much he may have wished to. Yes, if I had found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about patience and gratitude, and the deep examples of each from that day.

If there had been time to write a post on Tuesday, I would have written about being cared for by family – even though the family was not my own. From the delicious home cooked breakfast, to a Christmas Eve celebration 27-people strong. Laughter ruled the night, dinner was direct from Pizza Hut, and love was expressed in hugs and words and hijinks. While I missed my own big family, there is something recognizable as “home” in spending a chaotic night with any loving, large family. Had I somehow, miraculously, found time to write on Tuesday, I’d have written about the spirit of love at Christmas, and how wonderful it is to bask in its glow.

Then there was Wednesday, Christmas itself. If I had found the time, between bouts of sitting and chatting in three different homes, between moments of sharing and silence, I would have written about kindness and generosity. I would have written about the happiness of watching someone you love relax completely and be at home. I would have written about a surprise Christmas gift that touched me deeply. I would have written about how little it mattered that we never showered – after all, there was a phone call which said, “Come over, I’m frying eggs”, but which meant, “Come over and I’ll show how much I love you by cooking for you.” A shower doesn’t rate next to that. If I had written yesterday, I definitely would have had plenty to say.

To say I feel empty today is only half true – physically, my body rebelled against and rejected all of the rich indulgences of the past few days and emptied itself in the early morning hours. Emotionally, I feel flat, not empty. The rich experiences of family and friendship over the past few days make today seem flat by contrast. But the reality is so much more complex. All of the amazing feelings and examples of the past few days – the love, kindness, laughter and generosity – were not fleeting. They are abiding and real. That we don’t taste, touch, see, feel them daily is our human failing.

So, when I finish writing today’s “post that almost wasn’t”, I am going to put on some Christmas music and sing along. I’m going to reconnect with the many feelings of the past few days, and I’m going to celebrate them all. Why waste a whole day feeling empty and flat when I can feel  filled with light and joy?!

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And the Winner Is: Yukon Cornelius

19 12 2013

Do you ever find yourself wondering about strange things? My mind leads me into flights of odd fancy with a regularity that might frighten others, if they could but spend a few hours eavesdropping on my internal monologue. As I sat to write today’s post, I was thinking about fictional Christmas figures, and began to wonder which character would best represent the Christmas message I need to hear this year. The truth is, I’ve been pretending the holiday isn’t happening. Not out of a bah-humbug spirit – more of a self-preservation instinct as I struggle with homesickness and anxiety about the future. I’m afraid that if I “keep Christmas” I’ll just sink like a stone in a sea of emotion.

I am well aware that avoidance and suppression are not healthy coping mechanisms. Luckily, I was raised a reader and a Catholic, so I believe in the power of story and metaphor to change perspectives and help me realign my mental and emotional states. Hence, the creation of a “Christmas Character of the Year” contest in my head.

The perennial favorites and the immediate frontrunners for my personal Christmas Character of the Year were, of course, George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life) and Ebenezer Scrooge (from A Christmas Carol). After all, both of these characters, through divine and/or supernatural intervention, experience life-altering paradigm shifts from scarcity thinking to abundance. George, in realizing the wealth of intangibles, like love and respect, present in his well-lived life; Ebenezer in recognizing that his fortune is meaningless if hoarded rather than used for the common good. This year, in particular, I need to maintain mental vigilance to keep my thinking from devolving from scarcity to panic, so it seemed as if these guys would be duking it out in a fantasy cage-match for the title.

But. Then I thought of my old pals, Rudolph and Hermey, two misfits from the North Pole who set out to be independent together. Their quest to find a place where they “fit in” turns into a heroes’ journey on which they learn the worth of things like loyalty, courage, steadfastness. They also learn that, while their unique gifts and attributes may not be readily apparent to everyone or in every situation, there will always be a need or use for them eventually. Each of us should nurture and  appreciate what makes us US, if we hope to create lives of meaning and purpose. Perfect messages for me, as I struggle to create a new life and home here in the city.

The more I thought about it, the more characters presented themselves for consideration. There is Artaban, the 4th wiseman in Van Dyke’s classic The Other Wise Man. Semi-historical figures like St. Nicholas or Good King Wenceslaus. Santa, the jolly old elf, himself. A host of supporting characters: Clarence the Angel, Mary the loving and loyal wife, Bert and Ernie the odd couple of Bedford Falls; Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s nephew Fred; Clarice the doe, King Moonracer, Mama Claus, the Bumble. Many characters bearing messages of striving for right, faithfulness, loyalty, fortitude, love.

And then Yukon Cornelius walked through the doors of my memory.

He’s a strange figure providing comic relief at moments when the “Rudolph” claymation story became uncomfortably frightening for children. Yukon Cornelius, prospector on a quest for treasure, with his sled dogs and his trusty pick-axe. That strange licking sound he makes before declaring (over and over), “Nuthin’.” He doesn’t find any treasure, but it doesn’t bring him down. Instead, he keeps trying and he adapts. No gold? Ok, he changes his mind and looks for silver. He gets the importance of small things, as evidenced by the quote, “I’m off to get my life sustaining supplies… Corn Meal and Gunpowder and Ham Hocks and Guitar Strings”. He never lets fear get the best of him – he’s resourceful (as when he creates an iceberg in order to escape the Abominable Snowman); he’s brave when his friends need to be rescued; and he keeps his sense of humor (declaring with a chuckle the reason his fall into the ice crevasse was not a fatal one: “Bumbles bounce!”).

True, George Bailey is an “Everyman” to whom most of us can relate – the perfect advertisement for the quote “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Ebenezer Scrooge learns that we have a finite amount of time in which to become the person we are meant to be; and he learns that lesson so well as to serve as a cultural icon for personal transformation. But this year, I feel drawn to the humble figure of Yukon Cornelius. Trusty, dependable, even-keeled: there are much worse traits to cultivate in times of emotional upheaval and uncertainty. He fails, but tries again repeatedly. Not a single “Nuthin” causes him to waver. He just puts it out there, again and again, thrusting that pick-axe into the earth.

For these reasons, I declare Yukon Cornelius to be my Christmas Character of the Year, 2013. Who is yours?





Thursday, December 19, 2013

19 12 2013

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As I got my scale out this morning, I knocked several things off the vanity and onto the floor. I was so surprised by the reading, I decided not to edit them out of the photo. Stuff on the floor, ungroomed toenails, whatever – I’m pretty happy with this picture! Healthy eating and exercise are really amazing tools for self-management!





Expectancy

12 12 2013

December always carries a sense of expectancy, of waiting with bated breath, for something magical or wondrous to occur.

For me, of course, the season of Advent and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus is the traditional source of this sense of something about to happen. Some years, however, it is amplified by the anticipated arrival of new life – in 1987 my godson Nile was born on Christmas Eve, and this year my dear friends Sara and Molly are both due any minute.

The stories of my friendships with these three mothers, in some ways, tell the story of my life. Nile’s mom, C., was my comrade throughout graduate school; Sara was my student during the amazing first years of my career in Residence Life; and Molly was my peer, colleague, and collaborator in the time of hectic institutional change at the college. All three of them have impacted the person I am today in ways too numerous to list. And each has approached motherhood and childbirth differently. For someone who has never been a parent, the privilege to wait beside women I love and respect has been a gift.

C. told me the story of Nile’s conception, shared poems she wrote throughout her pregnancy (“I waited like an egg, already feeling the first inner stirrings”), read snippets of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” aloud as we sat in her trailer home, shivering in the cold of early winter. For C., pregnancy and birth were mystical and sacred processes, albeit natural. When Nile was born, he and I shared an immediate and profound adoration for one another. I learned second-hand the trials and tribulations of breast feeding while a Ph.D. candidate, the anguish of a baby suffering from a difficult to diagnose health problem; eventually, the horrible experience of a baby having surgery and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. There were many, many moments of inexplicable joy, and some of sorrow, shared between us throughout Nile’s early years. Sadly, C. and I drifted apart, both of us caught up in careers and lives that left very little free time or leisure to visit.

When Sara was a student, we often stayed up late talking on the purple couch in my apartment – or on a midnight run to Perkins (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?). Sara was a student of amazing promise, yet always claimed she wasn’t. She said, often, “I just want to get married and have a passel of kids!” or “I know I’m meant to be a mom.” Sara was a Resident Assistant, probably the best one that ever worked for me. Sara was and is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met. After she graduated, Sara refused to let go of me. She taught me, by example, what it means to be a steadfast and loyal friend. The child we are so happily awaiting this week is number four for Sara – and she was so right – she was meant to be a mom! Pregnancy appears to strengthen Sara’s aura of competence and self-assurance. She has often told me that two days in the hospital are like a mini-resort vacation.

As an only child, Molly worried that being a mom wouldn’t come naturally to her. All of her women friends, including me, tried to reassure her that she would be great. Still, she doubted. Her first child, my goddaughter Kate, is adorable and smart and observant – just like her mom. Molly presents herself as pragmatic and analytical and a realist. And she is all of these. But her hidden trait, the thing you don’t realize until you know her well, is that Molly is all heart. A trait Kate also inherited (for a while, taking Kate out in public was an exercise in empathy – she saw/heard every child in tears wherever we were, and it distressed her terribly. “Baby crying”, she would say, with a tremble in her voice and a furrowed brow.)  “Sister Baby” as Kate calls her, has some pretty spectacular women in her life, eagerly awaiting her appearance.

Me, with Abby (Sara's) and holding Kate (Molly's), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Me, with Abby (Sara’s) and holding Kate (Molly’s), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Each of these friends has offered me different gifts: tough love, gentle support, unwavering loyalty. The women and mothers they are have been mirrors in which I have been able to view myself clearly, helping me to grow in so many ways. As each has accorded me the honor of being part of her children’s lives, I have had to strive to learn how to be my best self.

Approaching Christmas, we are often told to focus on the “reason for the season”. This year, in particular, I find myself thinking of Mary. Mary’s life and pregnancy, like those of the mothers I know, wasn’t easy. Nor was her childbirth guaranteed to be painless. Yet, she not only accepted but embraced motherhood, opening her life and the life of her child to be shared by us all, through many generations. I am trying not to focus on the material accoutrements of the holiday and, instead, to train my gaze upon a humble birth. I hope to keep my attitude toward this humble birth – toward all humble births – one of wonder, of gratitude and of joy.

Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning…

—Sofia Lyon Fahs

(Notes: An excerpt from this poem was used in Nile’s birth announcement. There are many other parents, mothers and fathers, to whom I am grateful for the incredible privilege of sharing their children’s lives – you, too, are in my heart this Advent season!)





And we’re walking…

5 12 2013

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

5 12 2013

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It’s a cold one this morning! But the sun is shining on the snow that fell yesterday – beautiful!