You had me (and maybe lost me) at “Hello”

27 02 2014
Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color.

Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color. Talk about connection!

“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
― John Milton

On Monday afternoon, I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the late afternoon sunshine for a walk. This long, brutal winter is taking its toll on so many of us. I confess to feeling isolated, compounded by a low-level anxiety sitting squarely on my solar-plexus. Getting outside despite the ice and cold helps. As does good old-fashioned self-talk. So, as I walked, I was thinking over the changes that I’ve made in my life in the past year. So much happiness and light on one hand, so much difficulty and anxiety on the other. I wondered, “Am I happier than I was this time last year?”

Just as I pondered the question, a young man walking toward me stepped out of the tiny footpath carved in the deep snow and ice, giving me room to pass. Our eyes met, and he said, “Good afternoon! Would you be willing to be part of a documentary film project? I have one question, and you can say as much or as little as you like to answer it.” He went on to say that he is an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design working on a class project. I’m a sucker for college students, so willingly agreed to be filmed (despite my resemblance, in my winter gear, to a Minion from “Despicable Me”.) He lifted his camera, started rolling, and asked, “Would you say you are happier today than you were last year?”

I started laughing. What are the chances he would pose the very question I had been considering? Synchronicity on this scale cannot be ignored! For a brief moment, I felt the sun on my back and glanced at the cityscape in front of me and felt the magnitude of change my life has gone through in that year. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but in that moment my answer was, of course, “Yes!” (and that I had just been pondering that very question). After I finished speaking, the student stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Boris, by the way. What an amazing coincidence! Thanks for helping me out.”

I’ve written quite a bit, lately, about these brief encounters with strangers. I’ve said that striking up conversations with people I’m not required to talk to has enriched my days in a variety of ways – and has helped me feel less alone in my new home. Meeting Boris was one of many happy exchanges. You can imagine, then, my immediate reaction to the new project from Oprah/Skype – “Just Say Hello” – was a positive one. The project proposes to battle loneliness, endemic in our modern,  socially isolated culture by encouraging people to simply say hello to one another. It enlists enlists a cadre of celebrities and even has a theme song, written and performed by Rita Wilson. I 100% endorse the concept – and, as you know, I really work to practice it.

But.

Meaningful connection is what is needed to combat loneliness. It isn’t simply a matter of how many people say “hello” over the course of a day, though that can help. It is much more important that we find and connect with people who understand us, love us, upon whom we can rely. In her August 2013 article on Slate.com, Jessica Olien cites the research and concludes: “Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it..” (see the article, here) We don’t talk about it, because admitting we’re lonely, no matter how many of us are, makes us feel like losers. In my experience, we tend to hide the things we think make us look bad – which, when the issue is loneliness, means that we tend to shut ourselves off and self-isolate even further.

My fear is that the “Just Say Hello” campaign will turn out to be just another one of those touchy-feely-celebrities-making-themselves-look-approachable campaigns that will dissipate into nothingness. And reading the #justsayhello on Twitter didn’t exactly allay my fears – 140 characters is way more than double what it takes most people to say “Hello, Oprah” (even the ones begging her to follow them back, plz!). In my humble opinion, we have more than enough sound-byte inspiration and motivational memes. What we don’t have is enough people making it past that first 140 characters of interaction into the realm of real relationship. And I’m not dissing Twitter here (or other social media, for that matter) – I know a number of people who have developed friendships IRL from Twitter interactions. My own life has taught me, though, just how hard that shift from “Hello stranger” to “Hello friend” can be – how much more work, time, shared experiences it takes.

Over this past week, I’ve followed Oprah Magazine’s on-line efforts with the “Just Say Hello” campaign, and I’ve been heartened to see that they are taking it further. There have been stories about how that first howdy has led to lasting friendships, stories attempting to de-stigmatize loneliness by sharing statistics and causes, stories encouraging people to reach out. The focus is often on how you may not know what your “hello” means to someone else, though. On how you can help someone else who is lonely. I don’t take issue with that – I simply want to add to it:

My name is Jenion, and I am lonely. Even though sometimes I feel like a loser right now (and I HATE admitting that and would prefer to pretend I’m fine) I know it will change, that I won’t always feel this way. The power to change that resides within me – and I can be proactive in bringing it about. First, instead of curling into myself and isolating, I need to make extra effort to stay connected to loved ones both near and far. Rather than hiding my loneliness, I need to expose it so that those who WILL support and love me CAN. Second, I need to keep saying hello. Right now, most of the people I see in a given day are strangers. None of them will become friends if I remain silent when we meet. Third, I need to stop being ashamed of my loneliness. Given my current life circumstances, it’s pretty normal to feel this way.

If, like me, YOU are lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Being lonely does not have to be chronic or debilitating. If it makes it easier to reach out, focus on helping someone else – in the end, the life you save may be your own. By all means, just say hello. But whenever possible, take it one step further. Don’t let it stop at hello, take it one step beyond hello into the realm of true connection.

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matt and Zoe Rose being silly at the park!

Matt and Zoe Rose, part of my “world garden”, being silly at the park!





Thursday, February 27, 2014

27 02 2014
Sorry, I cropped it to cut out my toes. Winter has not been kind to my tootsies!

Sorry, I cropped it to cut out my toes. Winter has not been kind to my tootsies!

Many of you have commented that I haven’t been posting my weight weekly. My feeling has been that I will continue to do my best to live a healthy life – including a clean diet and exercise. I am still concerned with managing my weight, and will post periodically – to keep myself honest AND to update you on my progress! As of today, I am within 20 pounds of my goals weight. I’m beginning to think it might be possible to get there – however, I am concerned with body composition, too.  I need to work on building muscle and decreasing body fat. If I make progress there, I’ll let you know 🙂





Sleepwalking Through Life

20 02 2014

Some days it’s clear
So I can see it:
What to be and how to be it
But some days I wonder
And some days I doubt it
Today I’m hopeful I can knock it off tonight
This sleepwalking through my life
–Lyrics from Kevin Devine’s “Sleepwalking Through My Life

Not too long ago, my friend Kathe and I were having coffee. We’ve met for coffee often enough, and at such a variety of locations, I don’t really remember those details. What I remember is the conversation coming around to the years in our lives that each of us consider “lost” in some ways. And Kathe said, with quiet fierceness, “I feel like I don’t want to waste a minute of the time I have left. I know people – a 20 year old who got pneumonia and is still not out of the woods after a double lung transplant, a woman dying of metastatic cancer (she named several others facing major life issues). These are people I know, not just know of. I’m not waiting for anyone else to approve, I’m going to go for what I want. I don’t want to regret how I spent my time.”

A few years ago, I made some changes in my life that led to the feeling of having awakened from a dream. Those “lost years” were truly gone, having been spent in a haze and rush of doing without any real sense of purpose. When I woke up, I felt that same sense of urgency as Kathe – this life is too precious and too short to waste any more of it sleepwalking. Since then, I’ve made a pretty good effort at living mindfully, at consciously choosing. I’ve actively said “Yes” or “No” based on a picture of my life being about more than getting through it.

Then this winter happened.

This winter has been a difficult one for many; the weather extremes have made it so. I am far from alone in feeling that meeting the daily challenges presented have required a much larger portion of my energy than usual – a few minutes on Facebook convinces me of that. And it isn’t that I stopped making choices or living as consciously as possible. It’s that it has became harder to maintain a center or core of certainty. Harder to maintain a vision of where I hope to go, how I hope to impact this world. Some days, I feel like I’m on the right track, I’m acting in ways that are moving me forward. Other days, I simply feel lost.

On Tuesday, like much of the midwest, Minneapolis experienced a truly beautiful, warm day. I decided to head outside, and walked several miles through the downtown, over to the North Loop. Along the way, I reveled in the sunshine, stopping to take photos and observe the city and its people. I stopped at a little shop I know of that carries awesome postcards. I went to a combo bike/coffee shop I’d heard of but never frequented. I stopped for a few groceries at Whole Foods market. Then I began the trek home.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook already know the story of what happened next:

I was standing on the sidewalk (about two feet back from the curb), waiting for the crossing light, when a woman came up beside me. She said, “Here in Minneapolis we don’t know what’s coming, but we try to make the best of it, right? My only hope these days is in God.” I nodded and smiled, having nothing to add. Then she said, “This light is really long, think I’ll go the other way. Good luck,” and she walked off. Not 15 seconds later, a bus cut the corner too close to the curb and splashed through a pond of melted snow and slush, completely drenching me from head to toe, like in the movies.

I freely admit that the incident was funny. I wish it had been seen by someone I know so we could laugh together about it. Or, better yet, captured on video so I could share it with you. Once I got over the initial sputtering indignity of it, I resumed my walk home. However, my mood was completely changed. Instead of the carefree, “in the moment” feeling of my meandering walk downtown, the way home became contemplative. First, I wondered about the woman who spoke to me. Was there a special message intended for me in her comment about not knowing the future, but trying to make the best of things? Was the drenching intended to wake me up? Have I been living too much in the moment, and not enough in the world of making the future happen? Have I spent the winter sleepwalking after all?

I didn’t come up with any answers on the long, wet walk home. And as I’ve wrestled with the idea of whether I’ve been “sleepwalking” through life too much this winter, I did an internet search and came across a site that said, “The nature of things is that sleeping implies waking: anything that sleeps wakes up.” I found that thought to be a comforting one. Like so much in life, perhaps there is a cyclical nature to sleeping/waking in terms of conscious living.

So, for now, I’ve decided to be as awake as I know how to be. Some days that will be easier than others. Some days, I will just enjoy “being” in the bright sunshine of the moment, others I will experience the cold drenching of a wake-up call. Mary Oliver writes  “As for life,I’m humbled, I’m without words sufficient to say how it has been hard as flint, and soft as a spring pond, both of these, and over and over…” Isn’t that the truth?





Look what came in the mail today!

19 02 2014

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Yes, I know it’s Tuesday and not Thursday, but I’m sharing a brief post tonight in order to share my excitement!

I rarely win things, but a few weeks ago I entered a giveaway contest on ellisnelson.com, a wordpress blog I follow. And I won!

I have been intrigued by and wanting to read Ellis’ YA novel, “Into the Land of Snows” ever since I read her synopsis of the story (please take a gander at it on her blog). And, as of today, I am able to do so – courtesy of the author herself!

If you go to Ellis’ blog to read the book synopsis, please take a look around – I’ve enjoyed every post I’ve read. And here’s to happy reading for all of us! Thanks, Ellis!





Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

13 02 2014
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM





The Music Scene and The Syndrome: Two Gifts

6 02 2014
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At Icehouse, listening to Louis and the Hunt and Fair Oaks

The very first thing Mike sent me when he learned I had decided to come to Minneapolis was a link to The Basillica Block Party’s volunteer sign-up page. He assured me that the annual Block Party was not-to-be-missed, but tickets were spendy – volunteer and you may get to hear some of the bands for free. Without knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we agreed to sell raffle tickets the first weekend I was officially a Minneapolitan. What an awesome decision that was – we had free-reign of the event, got to hear all the bands, and while selling raffle tickets met and talked to hundreds of people (mostly) in a festive mood.

And so it began.

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I met Mike’s dad, Rex Beck, when I was in college. We hit it off right away, which made me feel special – right up until I discovered that Rex hits it off with everyone. His family even has a name for it, “Rex Beck Syndrome”: the capacity to strike up a conversation (and likely a friendship) with literally anyone, anywhere – and the propensity to do so.

I didn’t notice it so much back then, but the Rex Beck Syndrome has a genetic component. At least two of Mike’s siblings show telltale signs of having inherited it. But of the five of them, Mike is the one who most readily shows markers of the full-blown syndrome. He makes friends with tourists in the downtown Target parking-garage elevator. He never leaves a party or reception without new Facebook friends. Once, we noticed a woman putting up an autumn display in her yard. Two hours later, as we drove by again and she was still working, Mike stopped the car in the middle of the street and rolled down his window to tell her, “Nice job! It looks fantastic!” When he caught me staring at him with a surprised grin, he said, “What? She spent all afternoon working on it – the least I could do was make her feel like it was worth it!”

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On a cold Sunday night we drove around the block a couple of times before finding a parking space in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. I was tired, having already been on my feet for an eight hour shift that began at 5:30 a.m. that day. We walked quickly past several establishments with an international flavor on our way to what appeared, from the outside, to be a generic dive bar. Once past the bouncer, wristbands and handstamps in place, we entered an electrified atmosphere. The opening set by the band MisterWives was already in progress and blowing the crowd at The Triple Rock Social Club away. Standing room only. I looked sideways at Mike, completely engrossed in the music and barely able to contain his excitement to see the headlining band for the night (American Authors). With an internal shrug of the shoulders, I steeled myself and approached the rather intimidating bouncer – who just happened to have an extra chair beside him. I explained why my feet hurt, and he nodded knowingly and let me take the chair, telling me to enjoy the show as I walked away.

We saw three bands that night, each on the cusp of big career happenings. (Just this week, American Authors announced their headlining tour. MisterWives’ EP, which came out a couple of weeks after the show, was at the top of the iTunes chart within days.) Happily seated, surrounded by people completely absorbed in the musical performances, I forgot my tiredness and chair-danced my way through the evening.

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I am, most naturally and deeply, an introvert. There was a time in my life when the very idea of speaking first to a stranger was overwhelming. When Mike and I reconnected a few years ago, I noticed his ease in speaking to strangers,  and marveled at it. Since moving here, I’ve had many opportunities to observe it. And, as in many things, being with an expert has allowed me to try it out myself – the expert (in this case Mike) acting as a set of social training wheels. If I got myself in too deep or too awkwardly, he could step in and smooth away the uncomfortable. In this way, I soon found myself striking up conversations with wait staff, with other pedestrians at a red light, with the people at the next table. As my comfort level grew, I began talking to strangers when Mike wasn’t around. It was a matter of great pride when an old friend told me Mike was rubbing off on me. She said, “You talk to people you don’t have to now.”

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The Cactus Blossoms at First Avenue

My “Minneapolis Music Scene” education, initiated at the Block Party, has not only continued but accelerated during this winter season. It has taken me to Roy Wilkins Auditorium to see Envy Corps, The Neighbourhood, and Imagine Dragons. But it has also seen me at Old Chicago in Eagan for the Friday night set (in bad lighting with horrible acoustics) of a young musician just starting his solo career. One Saturday evening began with a flamenco guitarist over dinner and ended with a CD release party for Fair Oaks, a band whose leader lives just up the street (though we didn’t know it until Mike introduced himself to the band). My education has included tickets to a Studio C live recording session with Walk Off the Earth. Most recently, it led to a two-night music binge at the granddaddy of all Minneapolis music venues: First Avenue, Prince’s main stage as well as performance venue for many musical legends over the years.

The thing is, I am neither a musician nor that much of a fan-girl. But I have always loved live music, and I’ve been loving the “educational” experience. Mike is both a musician and a self-described indie band junkie, so his excitement about the music scene and his enthusiasm for supporting young talent is contagious – it is fun to be around people who are jazzed and fully enlisted. More than that, I love being in a space where smart, talented, creative people are putting themselves and their work out there for public consumption and response. While I definitely appreciate and enjoy the more savvy performers we see (Caroline Smith, Grace Potter, Matchbox Twenty), some of my favorite moments occur when listening to or interacting with the less well-known, less polished, but no less passionate performers at the beginning of their careers (Jamison Murphy, He Who Never, Fair Oaks). Music performance offers such immediate consumer feedback – either the crowd is feeling you or it isn’t! When it works, the exchange of energy between musicians and their audience is powerful and heady. As someone aspiring to put myself out there, whether creatively, in a job search, or as the newbie in a new city, I get the courage that takes.

On our second night at First Avenue (it was a two-night birthday party for local radio station The Current), I found myself jostling for a better standing position when I noticed that the extremely tall man who had just pushed in front of me, partially blocking my view, was scribbling in a notebook. As you might expect from a Beck protege, I leaned forward with an opening salvo of, “You’re taking notes at a rock concert?”

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Mike, outside First Avenue, next to the stars of musicians/bands who’ve played there (the stars cover the outside of the building)

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Yesterday, I sat in The Boiler Room, sipping a piping hot Americano.  I had just initiated conversations with Michael, the owner, and with Linwood Hart, the artist whose work is on display there. I had sent a message online to someone I’ve admired from a distance, just to tell her that. I felt expansive, open to the world around me in a way that once would have felt frightening.

My thoughts, and the rightness of this feeling, suggested a confluence of sorts between my fledgling Rex Beck Syndrome and my Minneapolis music education. Mike thinks he’s been introducing me to the music scene, helping me to understand his love for it and spreading the contagion. And he has been – my enthusiasm is my own, not just a reflection of his. At the same time, it has been an education in how to feel a sense of agency – to be a swimmer in the ocean of people that is this city rather than a bit of flotsam carried about by random ebbs and flows. I’m still an introvert, but I am no longer confusing that with my irrational fear of putting myself forward. It turns out that people like – actually prefer – to connect. It turns out that I prefer to do so.

I’m thrilled that I have acquired at least a mild case of Rex Beck Syndrome – and I hope to pass it on! Speak up, my friends, don’t hold back so much of your enthusiasm and curiosity. There are a lot of people out there, aching to connect in ways big and small. Be the agent of that connection – be a swimmer not a floater!

As for my music scene education, I intend to continue that as well – Friday we’re checking out two new bands, then its two Jeremy Messersmith shows in two very different venues. Below is a list of bands/musicians I’ve seen whom I believe are definitely worth checking out and supporting. You can find most of them online – and if you like them, send them some love by way of purchase and/or social media!

Envy Corps. MisterWives. The Royal Concept. Jamison Murphy. He Who Never. Fair Oaks. Walk Off the Earth. Actual Wolf. Lizzo. Cactus Blossoms. Heiruspecs. Caroline Smith.