Real Life > Fiction

Atticus Finch. That’s who I want to be when I grow up. He’s the greatest guy ever – a good dad, a good lawyer, doing the right thing. And he knows he’s not supposed to win, but he’s doing it anyway.                                                —Sean Patrick Maloney


All my life, I’ve been easily inspired by characters in books. Fiction (I should say good fiction) illuminates any number of character traits, helping the reader not only to see but to connect viscerally with both those traits they wish to emulate and those they know (to their chagrin) they already possess.

And so I have emotionally connected with passionate, dramatic, loyal Jo March in Little Women. But also with Amy March, her vain and jealous little sister. With girl detective Nancy Drew, but also her less-perfect counterpart, Trixie Belden.

Then there are characters like Atticus Finch, or Aragorn or Jane Eyre whose goodness and courage are legendary. These characters teach us about integrity. And while they may wrestle internally with doubt, the reality is that we know they will unerringly choose to do the right thing. That’s why we love them.

And that is one of the beauties of fiction.

In real life, I can find examples of many people who inspire me with their enthusiasm, their activism, their passion. Or, conversely, who allow me to be forgiving of my own humanity, by reflecting my own foibles and failings back at me. It is much harder to find examples of people in my daily life who choose to do the right thing when doing the right thing is truly hard to do: when it requires personal sacrifice; when to do so one has to put away feelings of righteousness or bitterness; when there is nothing remotely rewarding about taking that path. Much as I might wish to, I am not likely to serve as this kind of example for others.

One of the reasons it may be difficult to discover such individuals in our daily lives is that they are masquerading as ordinary friends and neighbors. They don’t appear to be starring in their very own epic tale. Instead, they appear to be schlepping through life like the rest of us. Now and then, though, the scales fall from our eyes and we can see the paragon shining through someone else’ mask of ordinary. When this happens, it can be breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Moving.

I had one such experience last week.

A dear friend recently lost a parent. I could attempt, here, to describe my friend’s relationship with her parent in detail, but that isn’t my story to tell. Suffice it to say, there were many valid reasons for my friend to have broken off contact with this person. But she never did, as much as others argued (myself included) for her to do so.

Several years ago, the parent’s health began to decline. As it did so, it became clear that other members of the family intended to either avert their eyes or to take advantage in a grab for money. So my friend stepped up to the plate, showing both compassion and resolve to do the right thing for a person who neither appreciated nor, arguably, deserved such consideration.

For years my friend worked with her parent and with the parent’s healthcare providers. Due in part to personality, and in part to the ravages of Alzheimers, the parent was manipulative, verbally abusive, and regularly leveled  false complaints against my friend. But day after day, week after week, my friend did whatever she could to provide care, comfort and presence. Some days, my friend could hardly hold herself intact emotionally. It was never easy.

She didn’t have to, there was no one policing her choices. My friend could have put her parent in a care facility and felt justified in staying away. God knows, it would have been so much easier to do this. But she took the harder course. At the end, when the parent took a final breath, my friend was there. Only one unpaid hand touched that parent and attempted to ease suffering. My friend: hero, exemplar, and shining example masquerading as ordinary.

Grace is a gift given when least expected – unearned, yet generous. Further, grace  expects nothing in return. By this definition, my friend offered grace (repeatedly) to her parent. Being an instrument of grace in that parent’s life took determination, integrity, the discipline to continue digging deep in service to deeply held inner values. Dare I say it – against all odds, it took love.

I can think of a number of fictional characters who might have the wherewithal to accomplish what my friend did. For them, it would be easy – their author need just envision it, then write it. Voila. For the rest of us ordinary human beings, it is never so simple. Despite our best intentions, we have difficulty staying the course. The harder it is to do the right thing, the longer we must commit, the less likely it is we will. Doing the right thing without thanks, accolades or public pressure – that takes something special.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I would add that, no matter how poignant and lovely a story (and its characters) may be, truth is way more beautiful for being real. I am so grateful to have a friends’ example of grace to inspire me.

 And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen… yourself, right now, right down here on Earth. — Bradley Whitford



“Gotta Get Through Here, Dude”


Do not be your dorky self. Do not make a scene. Do not call attention to yourself. Do not show your feelings. Do not, under any circumstances, act as if you matter.

I don’t believe in any of these dictates.

I don’t believe in living life as if I don’t count.

I don’t believe in accepting whatever anyone else wants to dump on me.

But I sometimes find myself living as if I do believe those messages and dictates. As if I have no choice but to take whatever is being handed to me. When I feel insecure, when I feel alone, when I am anxious for people to like or love me, I revert to behaviors which, instead of making me more lovable just make me easier to take advantage of. To disregard. To hurt.

The other night, I was on a social ride sponsored by a local bike shop. We were riding to St. Paul for ice cream at Izzy’s, second-best ice cream in the cities (sorry, but Sebastian Joe’s remains number one in my heart!). We were a large group, and were asked to ride in pairs. I fell into place alongside my friend, Kate. As we rode, we got on the subject of body image and how it can impact every part of our lives. If we let it. If we choose to accept all of the cultural messages we receive. Kate told me that she had a “come to Jesus” moment in her own life.

“I realized, this is what I’ve got. Short of surgery, I can’t buy a new face or body. So I’ve got to be down with the ones I have. And anybody who tries to make me feel bad about that will just get the five fingers of death!” (she brandished her fist in the air to emphasize this point).

As we crossed into St. Paul, we faced the dreaded Marshall Avenue hill. I’d never ridden it before, but those who had warned that it was a tough one. I was feeling good, had been enjoying the ride and conversation, and I’m good at riding hills thanks to RAGBRAI. So while Kate waited to take the hill with her partner, Victoria, I forged ahead. I charged up the hill, passing friends and fellow riders. When I reached the top, I was winded but felt great – for about thirty seconds. And then…horrible, unbelievable pain whapped me in the head. I have never felt anything like it. My head felt both as if it was being squeezed in a vice and as if it were coming completely apart at the same time. I didn’t know what to do. Several friends rode up and, as they passed, asked if I was ok. At first, my indistinct answer was, “I don’t know”. But as the pain continued without abating, it became “I don’t think so” then, “NO”. I wasn’t ok.

As I stayed put, trying to breathe through the pain, the ride sponsor stopped beside me. He sat quietly and patiently while I tried to figure out what I might need. Kate and Victoria rode up and stopped, their faces full of concern. Then two other friends rode back from further ahead to see what was wrong. I was frightened. And I didn’t have a clue if the appropriate response was to shake it off or ask for an ambulance to be called. But what I focused on, what I was worried about, was that my “emergency” was interrupting everyone else’ good time. I didn’t want them to miss their ice cream, or have to stop having fun on my account.

So I insisted we move on to Izzy’s. I got off my bike and locked it up, and realized that Kate and Victoria were planning to stick with me. Victoria said, “If we’re bothering you and you’d prefer us to give you your space, just let us know.” But the last thing I wanted or needed at that moment was space. I don’t really remember waiting in line for ice cream or what we talked about. I was just doing my best to appear completely normal while feeling nauseated, in pain, and scared. Every time I made eye contact with Victoria, I knew she knew that’s what I was doing. As we got our ice cream and tried to exit the shop, our way was blocked by a bunch of guys who were just coming in the door (the line snaked halfway down the block outside). I stood there wondering how to make my way out, when Kate stepped up and just calmly said, “Gotta get through here, dude!” and the crowd parted with ease, apologizing for blocking the way.

Such a simple thing. The three of us burst out laughing on the sidewalk. Kate proudly repeated her line, “Gotta get through here, dude” several times, enjoying our response to her directness. And then she said, “Jen, you have to be more like that. You have to stop caring and develop an attitude. ‘Hey, I’m sorry if my health crisis interrupts your trip for ice cream, I can’t care about that right now – deal with it, dude!’ That’s what you need to say. And if anyone has a problem with that, you know what to do…”

In unison, we both lifted our fists and said, “Give ’em the five fingers of death!”


The Mary Lambert song, Secrets, is posted for two reasons. As a dedication to Kate and the great conversation/life lesson, and as my new theme song! My past theme songs, Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” were also aspirational. I love the message of Secrets: namely, that you shouldn’t hide yourself inside – be who you are, without apology or shame. 

A Cartography of Purpose


“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
― Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

On a Saturday evening in early August, we stopped at the visitor center overlooking Duluth. Despite the haze in the air, and storm clouds rapidly approaching, the view was spectacular. I snapped a few photos, located Spirit Island with the assistance of the picture-graphic helpfully displayed below the plate glass windows, and used the restroom. Then, before we left the center, I wandered over to the literature display. Jackpot!

Back at the car, I happily stuffed a handful of new maps into my bag, anticipating an opportunity to pour over them in the near future. I’ve always liked maps. I’ve often thought this dates back for me, not to a love of history, but to a love of fantasy novels. Since Tolkein, fantasy novels have included obligatory maps and charts. I even own a volume of “Maps of Imaginary Places” – Middle Earth, Osten Ard, The Beklan Empire, Earthsea and many more – are places I’ve loved and visited in my imagination many times.

My past liking of maps has been eclipsed, however, by my current obsession with them. I have been collecting them since last fall – not collector’s items or costly maps, mind you; I collect free maps. They can be folded, multicolored road maps, such as the state map and state-wide bike trail map I nabbed in Duluth. They might also be small, black and white maps like this business card I picked up at Rustica:


Maps I love don’t need to be geographical in nature, either. I’ve discovered I’m not alone in this passion for maps and cartography; in fact, it is something of a trend the past couple of years. Maps lend themselves as pictorial markers for life’s journeys, whether through physical space or through interior, emotional and psychological space. There are publications and online sites devoted to this style of mapping. In an article on Brain Pickings, Maria Popova discusses this saying that the new cartography “places people rather than geography at the heart of the compass to construct a provocative new conception of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, not the body…expand the conception of a map as a flat reflection of geography and reclaim it, instead, as a living, breathing, dimensional expression of the human spirit.”

I find this particularly interesting, for several reasons. First, I drew such a map in my journal a number of  years ago (and wrote about it, here). Second, I’ve begun to wonder exactly what this latest frenzy for maps indicates about me and/or my life – is all of this curiosity and obsession a disguised attempt at “way finding” for my soul?

In my wondering, I’ve discovered a pattern that stretches throughout my own personal history: I tend to get hopelessly lost.

I have moments (days, months, even years) of extreme lucidity when I know who I am and feel that I am where I need to be – or am facing/moving the right direction. And then that sense of direction evaporates. On the map of my life, I have difficulty finding the “You Are Here” dot, much less the “X” denoting a destination. In the middle of a path, it disappears. I stop journaling, which serves as both my sextant and my telescope – what I use to see ahead, to measure my inner distances. I forget to have faith, substituting anxiety and fear for hope and trust. Without my instruments, I drift. Tacking one way then another without aim or direction.

Is it any wonder that, at such times, I find maps so appealing? Just give me something straightforward to follow, something that allows me to rest in my decision-fatigue: a winning lottery ticket, a how-to-manual, an owner’s guide, a girl-scout handbook. The problem with a new cartography that is “wayfinding for the soul” is that one must create the map as they go along, rather than having the compass points neatly delineated ahead of time.

Perhaps everyone feels this way. Perhaps adult life is exactly this sailing into uncharted waters, underprepared and hesitant. Perhaps this is why we create tools to chart our progress (set goals, make bucket and to-do lists). I don’t know, really. I only know that, for me, the process of making my way through this life is one of starts and stops. Of backtracking and moving circuitously. If I am my own cartographer, I am creating the map of my life one blind step at a time, hoping that what is revealed is a life of purpose, a life that has been well-lived.

“When you’re a cartographer, having to make maps sort of comes with the territory.
― Jarod Kintz, A Zebra is the Piano of the Animal Kingdom



Does This Mirror Make Me Look Fat?

A "funhouse" mirror at (where else?) Tour de Fat
A “funhouse” mirror at (where else?) Tour de Fat

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, mirrors are mostly utilitarian objects. I look into them to a) make sure the toothbrush actually goes into my pie-hole instead of poking me in the eye; b) to double-check that my buttons are properly lined up with my button-holes; c) to ascertain that no glaringly horrible stains mar the clothing I probably picked up off the floor to put on. Sure, there are times when I’m getting ready for something special and taking care with my appearance – mirrors come in handy then, too.

I don’t avoid mirrors. In fact, in my apartment there are two whole walls of mirrors in exactly the places you’d most want them: the kitchen and the bathroom (luckily, unlike my friend Mike’s place, my bathroom “wall o’mirrors” is behind me when using the toilet). Because of this, avoidance is hardly practical. On the other hand, I also don’t go out of my way to  gaze into these mirrors. On the whole, I’d say my relationship with mirrors is pretty healthy.

Except when its not.

For example, one evening, as we toured out-of-town friends around the city, we found ourselves at the Guthrie Theater. The lobby leading to The Endless Bridge has deep-set windows with mirrored window surrounds. Usually, I have fun with these mirrors, as they reflect the sky and surrounding landscape in interesting ways and from unusual angles. But on this particular evening, I made a horrible discovery: Women my age, who have lost more than half their body weight, should not look down into a mirror. Gravity was not my friend. It conspired against me to throw every wrinkle and every bit of loose skin into stark relief. I was immediately plunged into a depression born of sheer horror. I wanted, nay, needed, a facelift – STAT! For the next twenty-four hours, I was obsessively checking my status in mirrors: a little old? a lot old? Just where did I fall on the spectrum between Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and  Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”? Every mirror I glanced at made me feel haggard and flabby.

Mirrors are nothing but bits of reflective glass, though. Despite our reactions, they don’t exist for the purpose of self-judgment or recriminations. As inanimate objects, mirrors cannot “make” us see  or feel these things. Rather, the self-criticism and self-loathing we sometimes feel are coming from sources more hidden and more insidious. We’ve drunk in our culture’s singular version of perfect beauty since birth, and we have internalized it to the point at which we can’t  even see that it is unattainable for everyone – even for those held up as models of it. They’ve been digitally or surgically remastered to look that way.

I’m proud to have lost so much weight, and even more so to have kept it off  (some days it seems almost miraculous). My body is so much stronger and healthier than it once was. I feel so much more physically free than I once did. Much of the time I happily celebrate my body and its accomplishments. Yet, I am also often sad, embarrassed, shame filled when I think of my body. It lacks symmetry, it lacks flatness, it lacks tautness. I have an excess of skin where I would prefer not to. There are rolls and lumps and overflows where there ideally should be none. The existence of mirrors will not let me forget this, though mirrors are hardly to blame.

The poet, Marge Piercy, laments our cultural desire for body perfection in several of her poems. In “Belly Good”, she speaks to her belly, saying:

…You’re not supposed to exist

at all this decade. You’re to be flat

as a kitchen table, so children with

roller skates can speed over you

like those sidewalks of my childhood

that each gave a different roar under

my wheels. You’re required to show

muscle striations like the ocean

sand at ebb tide, but brick hard…

In the poem, Piercy goes on to celebrate her belly, tracing it through her grandmother and mother, claiming its softness and spread as comforting, its presence as a strength. I was reminded of this poem as a friend complained about her belly getting in the way of tasks she was attempting. Her partner gently reframed this, saying that her belly was perfectly lovely and more useful than problematic. It was a sweet, fleeting moment. What if we could love our own bodies like that?  Shouldn’t we extend the same amount of compassion to ourselves as we so often do toward others?

Imagine how differently we might feel if we did so? And not just about our fleshy bits. What if our compassion extended to things like gray hair and wrinkles, balding heads and chin hair and crooked teeth? What if we took the highly un-American stance that all bodies belong on the beach (because it feels good and is good for the soul)? What if we celebrated the body electric, like Whitman and the kids from Fame? Beginning with my imperfect body. Beginning with yours?

What if we all finally made peace with mirrors?