In the midst of the city, discovering the village

It was late evening  on a bitterly cold Sunday. Mike and I had gone to the gym, and were returning home. As we passed the Simpson Church homeless shelter, we were waved down by several men standing on the corner. I wasn’t sure what was going on, as Mike slowed to a stop and pressed the button to open the drivers side window. It was dark, I was cold, and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to stop so I asked Mike to please move on. But he didn’t.

One of the men approached closer to the car, his hands held in the air, open palms toward Mike. He asked for directions to the overflow shelter downtown. His language, his posture, the way he held his hands were all meant to reassure us that he intended no harm and I realized that we weren’t being scammed or victimized.  These men were simply in need of a warm place to spend the night; a little assistance. Suddenly, I was grateful Mike had been driving, instead of me.

Life is full of these moments – the ones where a seemingly small choice is required of us. Sometimes, the moment seems insignificant to the degree that we don’t even realize there’s a choice being made. Smile or not at the slow grocery checker? A word of caution to the person behind you to take care, the sidewalk is slick just there. Offer to take a photo so the happy group of strangers can all be in it. Other times, the moment calls for something more significant – an investment of time or cash, an emotional commitment, an inconvenience to ourselves. In these moments, we not only know we’re making a choice, we know the choice is bigger than the moment. Still, the choice is ours.

It has, famously and truthfully, been said that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The need to be part of a caring and generous village doesn’t end at childhood, though. Successfully navigating this life – whether you are five or fifty – takes a village. We don’t discuss this much. We live in a culture that prefers to believe the myth that hard workers will be successful – and people who need help are weak, or lazy, or just trying to get something for nothing. And if things have mostly gone well for us, we begin to think that we are self-sufficient and will always be able to rely on our own resources (internal and external) to handle whatever comes our way.

In my life, there have been enough examples to teach me otherwise. One Christmas when I was a teen, my father’s wallet –  which contained the holiday bonus he had just cashed – was stolen at the dentist’s office. Imagine the feeling of that loss, with six children at home awaiting the usual hoopla. But the next day at work, the cash was magically (and anonymously) “returned”. Or years later, when my beloved brother-in-law entered an experimental cancer treatment program and my sister needed to stay in the hospital with him – in Houston, a city they didn’t know, with two young boys. Their friend, Angela, travelled from Ohio and cared for the boys in an apartment sponsored by a local church. The treatment took six months, and Angela stayed for the duration. Or when my good friends (who would prefer to remain nameless) loaned thousands of dollars to other friends to start their dream business – then turned around a couple of years later and did the same for a sibling. It wasn’t that they had extra cash just lying around. It was that they were willing to accept small hardships themselves in order to help people they loved build their dreams.

Still, with these examples (an many more), I somehow came away seeing only one side: when I am able to help others I should do so. And I’ve tried to keep that in mind in both big and small ways as I’ve lived my life. I completely missed, however, the flip side of that lesson: that there would be times of real need in my own life. And in those moments, I would have to both rely on others to care and to actually ask for help. In missing this side of the lesson, I grew to believe in my own myth – that I was a helper, not a needer. A giver, not a taker. An offerer, not an asker.

This winter is teaching me otherwise. I have needed emotional support, logistical help, financial assistance, rides, a welcoming place to spend Christmas – the list is long. Friends have given me cash (both anonymously and directly), paid for nights or lunches out, given up garage parking so my car wouldn’t die in the extended seriously negative temps. If I hold on to our cultural myths, this neediness will crush my self-esteem – a by-product those who have helped me would never want. Instead, I’m learning to let go of the myth, to develop a proper humility (i.e. “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people : the quality or state of being humble” per Mirriam Webster). And with that humility comes deep gratitude.

You see, in a village, the streets go both ways. The neighbor who offers help today is the neighbor in need of help tomorrow. There is a flow of energy back and forth. It does us no service to tell ourselves otherwise. I can’t say it has been an enjoyable lesson or shift in perspective. But I can say, even though I am still in the midst of it, that it has been necessary. Life is about growing, learning and evolving. Sometimes, moving forward is neither easy nor painless. Yet move forward we must if we value making the most of this precious life we’ve been given. In moving to a big city, I’ve discovered my citizenship in a village – a village of which I am proud, and grateful, to be part.

The Best and Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”   (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

As an English major, a lover of literature, and a fan of Charles Dickens, the line quoted above has long been familiar to me. It is one of a handful of first lines of classic literature (including the openers to Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) often cited as superlative examples of how to draw a reader in from the first word. While Dickens’ line is far from short, it is wise – capturing the idea that every age in human history can, and likely will, be described in this manner.

Not to worry, I haven’t suddenly started blogging literary criticism. I have been thinking of this line, not in the context of the larger world and global forces, but in the context of my own life right now. In some ways, this is truly the best of times: I am discovering new people, places and passions. I am realizing the depth of love and friendship in my life, which is both humbling and energizing. However, in other ways, this is also the worst of times: I feel worried and anxious about money and finding sustaining work, and I find it difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth in the face of constant flat rejection of my skills and experience.

This ping-ponging from up to down and back is wreaking havoc with my resiliency. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to keep focus on the present – to remember that this moment is the one I have to pay attention to. The more I worry about tomorrow, next week, next month, the more I fritter away today in distraction. Keeping focus, both on this moment and on remembering why I am here in the first place, takes mental discipline and emotional commitment. Some days, I find these hard to muster. Other days, well, those are the “best of times” and it is easier.

Last night, I met Kathe at the end of a long day for each of us. We were both tired, and the atmosphere of the coffee shop where we met was less than inspiring (crowded, cold, dingy lighting). As we talked, Kathe told me about the many people in her life struggling in real, consequential, “life or death” ways. She said, “These are people I actually know, not people I know of.” She went on to say that she feels a sense of urgency to live each day as fully as possible, because it has been brought home to her lately that we each have a finite number of them. It was an excellent reminder – that very urgency was a significant part of what led me here in the first place.

So, today is here. It’s an extremely cold morning again – schools cancelled for cold all over the state. But the sun is shining, and I’m alive and aware that this day is a precious one. It may seem like we’re smack dab in the middle of the winter of despair…but I think I’ll declare it day one of my personal “spring of hope” and take my cue from that.

Dark Birds

Artist: Kelly Moore

a full blown dark bird 
has flown well past being
an outsider or a misfit
and no longer needs to be
part of a group or wear
a label or needs to be
i am
we are
our own person
born in the clean space
of the desert powerful beings in our truth
choosing our own path
living our own lives
often loving
places and people
others dont care for or understand
we are simply
dark birds

(poem by artist, Kelly Moore)

4:00 a.m. I am lying awake in the dark of my room, listening to the wind outside howl. Its mournful sounds are anemically echoed in the high whine and hiss issuing from the radiator at the head of my bed. The alarm will go off in twenty minutes, and I face a choice: spend the next few minutes mostly asleep or mostly worrying about things I can’t change at 4:00 a.m. I choose sleep.

It seems like a small choice. But our days are filled with these small choices. Added together their sum equals this thing we call “my life”.

One spring a few years back, I visited Pecos National Historic Park in New Mexico with my parents. I felt some sort of magic there, emanating perhaps from the confluence of history and landscape. I wanted a moment to just soak it in, so I let my parents walk on ahead. The wind was strong, and as I stood still on the trail, I felt it blowing against me with force. I watched as a raven flew toward me. It drew even with my eyes, just a foot or so in front of me, and hovered there, riding the air current and making eye contact with me. After a minute, the raven opened its wings and flew off in a graceful arc. The momentary spell was broken. As I rejoined my parents, my dad asked, “What did that blackbird have to say? It looked like he was giving you a message.”

Perhaps it was more a lesson than a message, one that I needed the distance of time to learn. As it hovered in front of me, the raven’s wings were not moving. They were simply holding steady, allowing the wind to do the work. It wasn’t that the bird did nothing. Rather, the bird did the very thing we struggle against so often in our lives: it trusted the flow.

How simple, yet how incredibly difficult, is that? Still, the lesson is clear and can be found in many spiritual traditions as well as in self-help and pop psychology books. The language varies, of course, but the message is the same: stop worrying and learn to trust.

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Buddha: Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Lao Tzu: Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

The wind has, if anything, picked up force in the hours since I first heard it blustering. I can hear bits of detritus being blown against the windows: broken twigs, a few dead leaves that somehow escaped being buried in the snow. As I think about these forlorn items, I realize that there is a difference between being a twig buffeted willy-nilly by the wind and the raven. The twig exerts no will, while the raven wills itself into the flow.

In a little while, I will venture out of the protection of my apartment and into the gale-force winds. I will gird myself for the experience in a huge down parka. As I face the day ahead, I will attempt to will myself into the flow and then relax there, rather than be thrown about without volition like the twig. Another small choice, adding to the sum of “my life”.

Notes from the Vortex

As you are reading this, the weather phenomenon none of us had heard of before has, hopefully, begun to spin its way out of the Twin Cities. However, the Arctic (or Polar) Vortex has been nothing if not instructive. Scratch that. First off, it has been damn cold. THEN it has been instructive.  Now that I am a resident of the state that laughs at cold weather – while also being the first to cancel school statewide in anticipation of the Vortex – I have been doing my best to soak in the lessons. Foremost, I’ve learned that there is no substitute for maintaining good humor and positive perspective at these extreme times. Here are a few other things I’ve learned, filtered through my (mostly intact? bizarre? macabre?) sense of humor:

Never shut off your car. Or really any vehicle, when the temperatures are dropping to -30 degrees. I understand even jet batteries die when it gets that cold. My car, which was driven and got good and warm at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night was dead as a doornail by 7:00 a.m. on Monday. My co-worker’s car started right up, though. Her trick? Wake her husband to start and run the engine for 10-15 minutes every two hours overnight. Her solution will never work for me, though. First, I have no husband to force into the unenviable role of starter-bitch. Second, I love my neighborhood, but I am not that comfortable venturing out alone at 3 a.m. to sit in my vehicle. Third, I actually sleep at night. A friend posted this meme, which says it all, on my Facebook page:


There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I had never heard this phrase before but it, apparently, is the state motto. Kinda catchy. And I almost – though not quite – believe it. In fact, I’ll buy it right down to about -5, at which point I believe bad weather officially exists. I have successfully managed, by combining layers of inner- and outer- wear, plastic bags, and rubber electrician glove liners, to be outside at those temps for short spurts of activity – without feeling like my toes and other assorted appendages were about to fall off. I can even ride a bike around the block within acceptable levels of discomfort.

I have been told that clothing (and boots) specifically designed to protect against even more frigid temperatures exist. However, they might as well be mythical as far as I am concerned. I don’t have a house on which to take out a second mortgage to finance such attire. Or an elf queen of Lothlorien to gift me any.

plastic bags go over wool socks, under boots

Beware the “cascade effect“.  On Saturday night, the heat went out in my apartment. As did the electricity in all of my outlets except for the kitchen. I wasn’t home at the time, but when I returned, let’s just say it was a dark and very cold night. And that’s when I became familiar with the cascade effect, which, put simply is this: as soon as the first thing goes wrong in extreme weather conditions, prepare yourself for the next several to hit in rapid succession. No heat, no electric, no vehicle, AAA only taking calls for stranded motorists in dangerous situations, no mythical cold-gear so you can walk the 7.4 miles to work (or try to figure out the bus routes for the first time). Eventually, my landlord brought me space heaters, which blew all the circuits again. My friend and native Minnesotan, Kathe, predicted these things. I ought to have listened. Forewarned = fore-armed.

Responding to the “cascade effect”. IMPORTANT NOTE: it is actually warm in bed!

If you can afford it, invest in ski goggles. It doesn’t matter if you never intend to hit the slopes. If you wear glasses, it is impossible to cover your face AND see out of them at the same time. In temps low enough to freeze exposed skin in seconds, this presents a conundrum. Yesterday, the temps rose to 0 and I went for a walk in the beautiful sunshine, glasses in my coat pocket. There were icicles, formed by condensation from my breath, dangling from my eyelashes and bangs when I finally came back inside. The delicate skin around my eyes is chapped and red (I toned it down with green eye shadow). Amazingly, if it keeps me warm I don’t mind being seen wandering the city looking roughly like a yeti about to rob a bank (there are others of this species about town – we nod when we meet on the sidewalk). Goggles would just add a little extra touch to the ensemble. Yeti bling, if you will.

Try to have friends. Preferably kind ones. All joking aside, friends are vital to living through extreme weather. They offer practical advice (“Try to stay warm!”), actual assistance (rides to and from work), and emotional support (“Just checking in to make sure you haven’t frozen yet!”). It takes a lot of energy to put on three pairs of pants, two shirts, and extra socks every time you go out to retrieve the mail. Not all of us feel equal to that on our own. Friends are definitely my favorite survival gear.



2014: Let’s Make it the Year of “It Isn’t All About Me” (In memory of Anita Mac, Travel Destinations Bucket List)


On the morning of New Year’s Eve, I opened my email to find notification of a new blog post at “Travel Destinations Bucket List”. When I entered the blogosphere, TDBL was one of the first blogs I followed. Back then, I eagerly read of Anita’s solo transCanadian bike ride, reveling in the idea that here was a woman who had the courage to take on a truly daunting adventure – and speak honestly about the fearful as well as serendipitous moments. I was also newly in love with biking, and remember telling my friends, breathlessly, about TDBL and how much I admired Anita. Anyway, the last time she had posted was months ago, and it had been a sad post wondering how to heal from a broken heart. So I was thrilled that there was finally something new from TDBL and I clicked on the email link immediately to find out about Anita’s latest exploits.

Sadly, what I learned was that Anita took her own life in 2013. The post was a tribute in which other bloggers were sharing “bucket list” items they intend to complete in 2014 in honor of Anita. Their tribute ends: “We encourage you to join us in this quest and take on at least one bucket list item in 2014, but more importantly, we also hope you take the opportunity to (re)connect with friends and loved ones during this holiday season…Our friend and fellow traveler, Anita took her life because she didn’t see any other options. We don’t want anyone else to feel that way. Please share the momentum.” (You can read the entire post, here.)

I don’t mind saying that reading the TDBL post rocked me. I didn’t know Anita, except through her blog, so I have given a lot of thought to the reasons learning about her death affected me so deeply. My immediate thought was that her blog presented a woman who loved life – through travel (to far away lands and to destinations closer to home) Anita explored cultures, foods, experiences that she wrote of as joyful, difficult, instructive, and fun. The cognitive dissonance between what I knew through her blog and the reality of this particular woman losing hope and happiness so completely is difficult to reconcile – and so sad to contemplate.

There’s more, though. Anita wrote, excitedly, about transitioning in her life from her full-time corporate job to creating a life more in keeping with her passions. She travelled to Croatia, then walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, writing of this journey as an opportunity for discernment about her future. She was hopeful and excited about creating a new vision for her life. As a reader, I followed every step. As a fellow journeyer seeking a way to change my own life, I took courage from her bold choice to move forward – even without a completely clear picture of what came next.

And so I arrived at the crux of my emotional response. Selfishly, perhaps, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Anita’s life and mine. We both set out to make significant changes in our personal lives, to take leaps of faith. The jump into the unknown is joyful and adventurous, and we have faith – in ourselves, in the world, in the “rightness” of this step. But what we don’t have is control. Over circumstances, others, the future. In Anita’s case, her beloved father’s terminal illness and the desertion of her significant other (which she wrote of in her final post) were among the things she could not have controlled for when making her decision to leap forward. I’m still learning – but I do know that the reality of major transitions is that they are harder than we anticipate, but in ways we didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) necessarily account for. Maintaining a positive outlook and/or a centered vision of your life in these times is very hard.

Suddenly the chasm between the woman who wrote with joy and the woman who took her own life seems shallower and easier to cross. What was unthinkable becomes understandable.

Isn’t this what often lies at the heart of our response to tragedy? The sense that it could have been us – that we are not as inviolable as we seem? Once our compassion is activated, we see our own humanity more clearly, are forced to take a more realistic look at our own lives.

To my friends and family, to those of you reading this post: these musings are not cause for concern about me. Taking stock these past few days has been a very good thing for me. I have ample evidence of the love and support of incredible people in my life (and a holiday season mostly separated from you only served to remind me of your generosity and love). Even when I struggle with fear, uncertainty, homesickness – I am concurrently in love with my precarious new life in this frozen city of the north. Even when I catastrophize in my thinking, I know my personal “rock bottom” will suck if I hit it – but I have alternative places to land if necessary. I am lucky.

In the end, though, I think about Anita Mac and the many others whose “taking stock” results in taking their own lives and I feel a deep sadness. We are all so occupied with our own issues and days and choices, so engrossed in our culture of self-fulfillment, that often we don’t think about others. We don’t notice that people we love are engrossed in a deep struggle to hold on to life and hope (granted, they often work hard at hiding that from us). So I echo the writers who paid tribute to Anita on TDBL – I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. It isn’t a bucket-list item, but it is a resolution: to take my eyes off myself often enough to pay attention to others. 2014 isn’t all about me – its about us, and how we all move forward into the future with adventure and joy.