What Rob Lowe and I Know

A few days ago I found myself clicking on an article from Oprah Magazine that popped up in my Facebook news feed: “Ten Things Rob Lowe Knows For Sure”. I can’t say I was pining for an article showcasing Rob Lowe’s personal epiphanies, but I also can’t say I wasn’t curious once the opportunity to learn them presented itself. Since Rob and I are both featured in Oprah in May, I thought I would take a page from his book (or O’s magazine) and share some things I know for sure. I don’t have as many on my list (Lowe shared 10) and mine are likely to be less succinct – but then, these items are being written by me (unlike Rob’s, which are tagged, “As told to…”).

1. We all have a nasty voice in our heads that speaks to us in horrible ways. Telling it to “shut the @#$* up” until it can be respectful is one of those practices, like meditation, that we know is good for us but is really, really hard to do. Do it anyway. None of us is perfect. Letting that voice call us stupid, ugly, incompetent or worse doesn’t change that. Instead, it undermines our resilience and self-confidence. If you don’t want to channel Stuart Smalley, (aka Senator Al Franken!) that’s ok. Start by noticing when your inner voice is bullying you and take a moment to say, “Stop!”

2. Eating five slices of Casey’s pizza and chasing it with a bag of Easter candy isn’t the end of the world. Is it a great choice? Probably not. But it was the choice you made and there’s no point in dwelling on it. The good news is, it says nothing about your ability to make better choices in the future! It has been five years since I began serious efforts to live a healthier life. I haven’t reached a point at which I feel ready to say I’ve achieved all my goals; however, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and that I continue to move forward. I’ve learned that staying the course isn’t about never straying, its about always reminding yourself that you’d rather get back on the path.

3. Being happy and feeling happy are not the same things. Learning to differentiate between the two is an important aspect of self-awareness and self-discipline. Seeking the high of feeling happy in every moment leads us to take the easy road, to settle for lack of personal and/or spiritual depth, to flit from one person or experience to another in hopes of feeding the happy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling happy, of course. But right relationship with others, with our life’s purpose, with ourselves is what makes us deeply happy – and achieving these things takes us through tough times and difficult moments.

4. It isn’t all about me – neither how others behave toward me nor how I behave toward them. Remembering this allows forgiveness and compassion to flow between us. Especially if we both operate under this assumption!

5. What I know for sure is flexible, adaptable, malleable. It is these things because what we understand changes as we grow and as our life experiences inform our perspectives. At 18, the list of what I thought I knew for sure was long and adamant. Not so at 52. Now, I feel grateful for this lifelong learning process – I’m enjoying being surprised when life shows me new things. Which brings me back to Rob Lowe, who says,

“Staying young is an inside job. Look at what kids are. They’re curious, they’re excited, they’re interested—all of the very things that, if you’re not careful, you’re not when you’re old.”

And that, friends, is something both Rob Lowe and I know for sure!


Rob Lowe

Knitting Spoons?

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown

I want to share a story about something that happened at my knitting group last night. But first, you should know one thing about knitting group: I don’t knit.

You might think that fact would somehow preclude me joining such a group. And in other circumstances, you would probably be right. But I was invited to join the group late last fall, at a time when I was hungry for human contact – and I was grateful that these very nice ladies were willing to include me. I immediately discovered that, although the group is self-described as a knitting group because knitting is something most members do (and it’s easily done in a social setting in a coffee shop), most of the women who attend also love beads and beadwork – a serendipitous connection that allowed me to feel less self-conscious about my yarn-free lifestyle. My second discovery was that no one really cares what I bring to work on, in fact, last night I showed up basically empty-handed.

To say no one cares gives the wrong impression. I should say, no one judges. They clearly care, because whatever I have brought has occasioned curiosity and interest. Like most loosely affiliated groups, the attendance at these gatherings ebbs and flows, so in the three or four monthly installments I’ve been able to attend, the faces have varied. I’m not yet entirely sure of everyone’s names, and last night was the first time I met the infamous Anna (who brought a treasure trove of handmade beads for show and tell).

The day had been a busy one for me, and I arrived at knitting group still in the clothes I had worn for a late-afternoon job interview (also why I was sans project). After everyone had caught up and most were beginning to work on the projects they had brought, I started to excuse myself saying I needed to get home to write my blog post for today. One of the women, Anne, asked me what my blog was about. I’m never certain how to answer that question. What is this blog about?! So my friend Kathe, who was my connection to this group, piped up and shared her thoughts then said, “Jen, tell them how your blog got started.”

When I finished sharing what I hope was an abridged version of the hunger challenge/weight loss journey chronicled on Jenion, Anne spoke up again, sharing that she had participated in a hunger-related charity called “Empty Bowls“. For the fundraiser, Anne made a copper-enamelled bowl which raised over $2,000 for the organization. She said, “I was at a friend’s house who does copper-enamelling and she asked what I wanted to do, so I made three items. The first was the bowl, and I’d like you to have whichever of the other two you like.” With that, she handed me two enameled pieces strung on thin leather chords. Both were lovely. I didn’t know what to say – I was so moved by her generous impulse. I removed each necklace from it’s protective plastic bag. As I turned them over in my hands, trying to decide, Anne commented that the larger of the two reminded her of a spoon, which was a fitting connection to both the hunger issue and the Empty Bowls fundraiser. The piece was crafted with a beautiful iridescent enamel, and two holes for findings to connect. The bottom one has a simple piece of leather chord attached, but Anne said, “You can attach whatever you want to the bottom of it.” And next thing I knew, Anna of the wondrous bead display had plopped a glass lamp-worked bead down in front of me, saying, “This one would look perfect!”

And that’s how I left knitting group with a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry that I will always treasure.

There are so many lessons for life contained in this story. The first is about openness – mine AND that of the knitting group. When I told Mike I was invited and planning to participate in knitting group, he asked me in surprise, “Do you even know how to knit?!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders – not being a knitter seemed surmountable, whereas remaining lonely and disconnected did not. That the women in the group have been open and accepting of someone who shows up with odd projects unrelated to knitting (or none at all)  is cause for gratitude.

The second lesson I see in this story is one of true connection – which only happens when you are able to get beneath the surface of things. Kathe is a great one for nudging me to share authentically in a variety of ways. She rarely allows me to leave things at an off-hand comment. Had she not encouraged that I share more than a surface-y response to the question about my blog, Anne and I would not have discovered our connection to caring about hunger issues.

The third lesson is about freely sharing our gifts. Kindness and generosity are traits that come naturally to some. The rest of us need to cultivate them with mindfulness and attention. Sometimes those gifts are tangible, like the gorgeous handcrafted items I held in my hands as I left knitting group last night. Other times, the gifts are intangible but deeply felt, like the gifts of friendship and connection that I carried home in my heart.

The spoon-shape of the necklace brings to mind a story I first heard at a youth group meeting in high school. The story goes that, in hell, everyone sits at a table set with an incredible feast. Permanently attached to their hands is an impossibly long-handled spoon. All at the table are invited to eat to their hearts’ content – however, they find the spoon handles are so long that they can’t actually bring food to their mouths. So they sit at a feast, frustrated, starving, and unable to eat. In heaven, the story continues, the scene is set in exactly the same way: a table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous feast. Each person has a long-handled spoon attached to their hand. The difference: in heaven, the guests at the table use the spoons to feed each other. I love this metaphor, not so much as a story about heaven and hell but as a way to approach life today: be open to the opportunities to be fed by the generosity of others. At the same time, be as open to expressing your own heart through generosity toward others. That reciprocal flow of energy can, I believe, not only benefit the direct participants, but will also add to the measure of good in the world. Every time I wear my new necklace, I’ll be reminded of this and spurred to act accordingly!


The two pieces haven't been united yet, but here you have an idea (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)!
The two pieces haven’t been united yet, but here you have an idea what the final necklace will look like (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)! Trust me, the photo doesn’t do justice to the enamel-work.






On Honesty: Reflections of a Reformed Liar

Always tell the Truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said.
~ Mark Twain

I guess I’ll just blurt this out: I haven’t always been a stickler for the truth.

In fact, during my formative years, my parents grew weary of me stonewalling where the truth was concerned. Once, I was sent outside to get firewood from the pile against the back wall of our house, underneath the picture window in the family room. There had been wet weather, followed by plummeting temperatures, which caused ice to form like a layer of cement between the neatly stacked rows. I grabbed a piece of wood and it wouldn’t budge, so I applied brute force. The log broke free from its ice casing and flew upward – directly into the plate glass of the huge window, cracking it straight up the middle. After brief consideration of my course of action, I quickly gathered the rest of the firewood and took it inside. I didn’t mention the broken window to anyone as I nonchalantly proceeded through the day.

At dinner that night, my dad said, “Your mother and I would like to know who broke the window in the family room.”  I looked around the table at the innocent faces of my siblings and surprised myself by fessing-up. My folks were so astonished that I had stepped forward they were speechless. I didn’t even get in trouble for the costly damage. Years later my parents told me that they knew it had been me, but had never anticipated that I would own up to it: they always gave me the opportunity to come clean but I so rarely chose any road but the one to perdition.

In graduate school, I worked as an intern in a research and service project in which we provided values-based career counseling to academically gifted students in exchange for their participation in our research. Each student took several instruments – a personality test, a vocational preference assessment, and a values inventory. The values inventory (a version of the Rokeach Value Survey) asks takers to rank order values according to the importance of that value to them. The interns who provided the counseling interventions and interpreted survey results to the student participants took the instruments and engaged in the counseling session activities during our training. Many of my graduate cohort selected “honesty” as one of their highest values. (This was also true of professional colleagues later in my career.) I never understood this. Not once did honesty crack my top five.

In group discussions about the values we selected, I often found myself stating that “The truth is overrated.” I had numerous arguments to shore up my position. I believed, I said, that truth was malleable and an absolute reliance on it was detrimental to one’s overall smooth functioning in life. I can’t even remember all of the examples and justifications I used – they were many and I was eloquent in explaining my position.

As I matured (remember I was a late bloomer), I began to believe my own hype about truth less and less. When I noticed some inner discomfort with my old stand, I decided that I had been confusing the concepts of truth and honesty. I decided that truth was not always convenient, therefore could be set aside in unimportant situations. Honesty, on the other hand, was linked somehow to character and integrity. As such, Honesty should be observed, in spirit at least, at all times.

Yes, I am capable of the mental gymnastics to have accepted that I could tell an untruth (a lie) while in service to the greater value of honesty. However, it is instructive to note that at the time I engaged in these mental gymnastics, I was living a very constricted life – one in which I was emotionally isolated in spite of being surrounded by people constantly through my work in higher education. I was ballooning up in weight – until I reached a high somewhere above 350 pounds. I felt insecure, fearful, and lonely.

Something was seriously wrong with my whole perspective on truth and honesty. Eventually, I came to see this. One of my great “AHA” moments in life came when I realized that my vigorous defense of lying was a way of supporting my decision to continue lying to myself. And the whole argument that I could be honest without being truthful was simply a rationalization to allow me to feel like I hadn’t completely given up on the concept of integrity. The truth was that I lied to protect myself – in exactly the same way that I gained weight to erect a self-protective barrier to keep from being hurt. The two were inextricably bound with one another, entwined coping mechanisms. When I began to address one, I was forced to take a hard look at the other.

A few things I’ve learned on this journey to be more truthful with myself and, therefore, to create a more honest presence in my life and the world:

  • “Some people will not tolerate such emotional honesty in communication. They would rather defend their dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others. Therefore, having rationalized their phoniness into nobility, they settle for superficial relationships.” ~ unknown author

When we fear emotional honesty, we choose isolation. I once thought that people must not pay close attention to me because they didn’t “get” me. When I started being honest with myself, I realized that people didn’t get “the real me” because I never shared her. I was virtually always posing as a person I thought others might like. Getting beyond the superficial requires dropping the pose.

  • “We tell lies when we are afraid….afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.” ~ Tad Williams

The fear grows stronger because we have added the fear of being “found out” in our dishonesty. It grows stronger because we have fed it. And it grows stronger because we have further removed ourselves from right relationship – with others and with ourselves. Being that far removed from human connection is a very frightening place to be.

  • “Our lives improve only when we take chances- and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” – Walter Anderson 

I originally set out to lose some weight. That’s all, just improve my health and get in better shape. I quickly realized, however, that for me that task would be impossible without getting real with myself – without telling myself the truth about what I ate, how much, and why. I’m not sure I would have set out on that journey if I had realized how it would affect every aspect of my life, every thing that I thought I believed. Because once you begin telling the truth in one area of your life, it has a cascading effect. You find you need to do so in other areas. The risk is real, because choosing to be truthful with yourself will lead to change.

All that said, you’re probably wondering whether I always tell the truth now. I can honestly say that I try to. This new life I’m working to establish offers me daily opportunities to assess the veracity of what I tell myself – about who I am, about what I want, about how I relate with others in my new community. I don’t have to share it all with everyone, but I do have to take some time daily to reflect on how honest I’m being with myself.

Integrity is telling myself the Truth. Andy Honesty is telling the Truth to other people. – Spencer Johnson

The Wonder Years

Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)
Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)

Tonight I started thinking about the television show “The Wonder Years”. I loved that show, including the way it always left me feeling slightly melancholy with nostalgia for the early ’70s. I know exactly what triggered it: on my afternoon bike ride I crossed the Mississippi River by bridge twice, reminding me of how central a character the river has been in my life. I thought about the towns I’ve lived in along its banks, including Hastings, Minnesota.

I never think about Hastings without thinking about my yellow 10-speed bike. I miss it, and that makes me feel a bittersweet longing for my preteen life. Hence, “The Wonder Years” (“The series depicts the social and family life of a boy in a typical American suburb from 1968 to 1973, covering his ages of 12 through 17.” Wikipedia) Each episode was narrated by the adult that the lead character, Kevin Arnold, eventually became. In the series finale, the final narration goes:

“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”

Cue one lone tear, gently gliding down my cheek.

1968-73 were some pretty great years in my own sepia-toned memories (though at 7-12 years of age, I was a bit younger than Kevin Arnold). It is easy to look back at those years with both nostalgia and wonder. But as I started down that memory lane one more time, a thought stopped me in my tracks – “NOW – these years – are the real wonder years”.

What?! These are the wonder years? Although the thought was my own, I questioned it. Truthfully, childhood is easy to idealize in its remoteness from our adult lives. And while our teen years are, indeed, full of discovery, they are characterized more by self-consciousness than by self-awareness. Most of us only feel the wonder retroactively, as we look back later, seeing the things we learned and discovered from the vantage point of understanding. The years themselves are anxious and angst-y. We learn by trial and error, we don’t actually understand the ramifications of much of what we do – we barely comprehend that there ARE or WILL BE ramifications, which allows us to experiment. In retrospect, this process of self-discovery seems wondrous.

Compare that with the reality of adult life, when we know that there will always be costs associated with benefits, when knowledge of our limitations tempers our vision of possibilities. When caution often precludes change. Suddenly, the wonder all seems to be behind us.

Unless we get lucky. For several years, I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken root in my life as somehow unique. Unusual. A mid-life transformation that I was singled out for, gifted with. Admittedly, it began with a literal message from God (a fellow retreatant saying, “In prayer, I was given a message for Jenifer: God says he has a new path for you. Be ready.”) I am grateful, and still feel amazement at the changed life I am living and creating. But I’m also looking around me and seeing some truly incredible transformations in lives other than my own: Kathe has created a happy second marriage, moved from the suburbs into the city, and begun a career she loves, finally working for herself. Sue returned to her hometown after surviving a frightening end to her marriage and an actively malicious end to her job; she faced the demons of depression, and has created a life that includes a fierce passion for serving adult learners and the grace of time and closeness with her family. And then there’s Mike.

On Sunday, just a year after beginning his journey toward health and wholeness, Mike began the day running in a 15K with friends. The man who specifically told his trainer he wouldn’t run, voluntarily joined new friends to run further than he had ever attempted before. After the run, he changed into different spandex and we hopped on our bikes for 16 miles of riding, joining a community of friends for the afternoon. On Monday, he blew past a personal goal he was fearful he wouldn’t achieve.

I stand in awe, or as Rabbi Heschel called wonder: radical amazement. These stories and transformations (and others) have prompted me to think that perhaps that point just after the middle of our lives are the wonder years. The years when we wonder, “Is this all that I am meant to be and do?”, or, “What would it take for me to truly live a better life?” and that wondering leads to change.

Change is hard, and later in life – unlike in youth – we undertake it knowing it will be hard. Transformation requires commitment, tenacity, a willingness to follow through on actions that scare us. Transformation is work. Childhood and the years immediately after it have taught us this. So the real wonder is choosing change and transformation anyway. The real wonder years are the ones in which we keep choosing to change and grow despite having already experienced life long enough to know how it can test us.

Part of me will always wax nostalgic about my childhood. I’ll always miss that yellow ten-speed. The Mississippi River will flow through my veins no matter where I go or who I become. But I think the part of my life I will invest with the most awe and, yes, with the most wonder, is NOW.