My own words come back to me…

30 04 2015

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 “…I suspect the truth is that gratitude should be the center from which I live into each moment of this precious life I’ve been given. Each moment experienced as gift – I wonder how that would change my perceptions? My interactions? My creativity and flexibility when faced with life’s challenging and emotionally depleting days? What if I could also add my own imperfections to the list of items I am grateful for? Wow, that would likely be a game-changer. Imagine saying, “Thank you for my fear.” “Thank you for my confusion.” “Thank you for my flawed nature.”

—“The Very Things”, Jenion, March 28, 2013

Sometimes the smallest things lead us to the very place we need to be. This week, an unexpected comment on the two-year-old post quoted above has reminded me of a simple but important truth: even at the times when life feels difficult and overwhelming, there is much to be grateful for.

This week I am grateful for:

  • the few but precious moments of soaking up sunshine;
  • for friends who bring me meals because I am too tired to eat;
  • for colleagues who share their emergency stores with me;
  • for an evening with my writing group and their positive encouragement and support;
  • for stolen moments on my bike;
  • for loved ones near and far who share their cares and who hear mine.

As I re-read that post from 2013, it occurred to me that being able to say “Thank you” for our own imperfections is synonymous with saying thank you for our humanity. Thank you for this chaotic, messy, sometimes scary, always edifying human experience called life. The times when our lives feel overwhelming or especially hard may be exactly the best times to allow gratitude into our crowded hearts.

…On that morning,
not much else
will have changed.
Whatever is blooming
will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting
will wilt. There will be fields
to plow and trains
to load and children
to feed and work to do.
And in every moment,
in every action, we will
feel the urge to say thank you,
we will follow the urge to bow.
~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

 

 

 

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The Grace of Recognition

23 04 2015

(Quote by Boris Pasternak)

On the day I met my friends Kate and Victoria, I found myself (somewhat tipsily) telling them that I felt certain we were destined to be friends. They were very kind to me, a strange woman squatting next to them in a bike shop parking lot, pledging friendship after a hot afternoon of alley cat bike racing. They were kind, but I’m also pretty sure they thought I was just drunk.

In the intervening year, as our friendships have grown, we have laughed about that moment. But the truth is, I’m so glad I spoke aloud what my heart had whispered to me.

Writer and philosopher John O’Donohue writes about the “anam cara” or “soul friend”, a person “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” He also writes that many of us have such friends but we are largely unaware – our lack of awareness and presence in our own lives cloaks that friend’s presence. He says, “Sadly, it is often loss that awakens presence, by then it is too late. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.”

It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.

You would think we would easily recognize our “soul friends”: those who are most emotionally available to us, those whose friendship calls forth what is best in and for us. How could we not recognize those friends who would as willingly walk beside us through difficulty as well as through sunshine?

O’Donohue has an answer for that question, as well. He writes, “Though the human body is born complete in one moment, the birth of the human heart is an ongoing process. It is being birthed in every experience of your life.” In other words, we learn these lessons and skills slowly, through experiencing those moments of grace, as well as through experiencing their opposite. Like a friend who recently lamented to me, “Why do I always chase after the cool people, when I should be focusing on the ones who are always there for me?”, we get distracted by the shiny and showy. We forget, or fear, to delve beneath the surface, to test the depth of intimacy that is possible with these individuals.

In friendships where we plumb those depths, we learn a great deal both about ourselves and about the other. Years ago, a friend confided her deepest life secret to me – I was stunned and humbled by her choice to share it with me. Afterwards, there was no longer any possibility of a surface friendship or acquaintance between us. Which isn’t to say we were no longer able to hurt one another or betray one another. Indeed, hurt and/or betrayal then became open territory for discussions and sharing, too.

I would take the injunction to “pray for the grace of recognition” one step further. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition and the courage to speak it. For example, my dear friend called the other night just to tell me, “Whatever happens in life, I will always take care of you.” She said she told her husband she was going to call and say that, and he told her I already knew. Which I did. But the gift of having it declared aloud was precious and meaningful to me at a time of uncertainty in my own life. An “anam cara” knows when it is important to speak.

Recognizing and cultivating soul-friends may require us to invest our energies differently than casting a broader net of acquaintanceships does. It also opens our lives up in so many ways, as we experience the generative nature of intimacy. “Love begins,” says O’Donohue, “with paying attention to others, with an act of gracious self-forgetting. This is the condition in which we grow.” In my life, the intimacy with and support of my closest friends has freed me to take risks and to attempt creative work. They are the foundation that underpins my flights of discovery. As I hope I am for them.

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Today’s post is a reflection on my reading of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue

 





Open Windows

16 04 2015

When I was in college, I fell in love with the work of writer John Irving. One day, I came home (I lived with my family) from a full day of class and work to find a new, hard-cover copy of Irving’s The World According To Garp laying on my bed. The first page inside bore the inscription, “Jeni: Keep passing the open windows. Love, Dad”.

Dad was referencing another of Irving’s novels, The Hotel New Hampshire. In that novel, the phrase was used repeatedly to reference a suicide by one character, and for the surviving characters to remind themselves and others to avoid the temptation of opting out in the same way. The phrase stuck with me, as I’m sure it has for other readers of the novel, over the years. Occasionally, I have uttered it, sometimes to myself and sometimes to friends, at moments that were particularly stressful or trying.

After last night, I may never use the phrase in that way again.

I came home from a long haul at work, very tired and in need of some inspiration. As I sometimes do, I grabbed a random book off the shelf, and headed to the coffee shop for a hot Americano and some reading. It is an interesting game of trust in providence to put a good, maybe even “the right”, book in my hand when I do this. Almost every time I find something I need to hear or think about in the book I grab.

Last night, the book was Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue. I bought the book new, but have owned it long enough that the pages are yellowed. At some point, I clearly read the first three chapters, as I have underlined and made notations. But last night, perusing the table of contents, I saw a chapter titled, “Work as a Poetics of Growth”. Because my work life, and my professional future, have been so omnipresent lately, this chapter seemed a good place to commence random reading.

Early in the chapter, O’Donohue uses the image of a tower of windows to describe the “complexity of growth within the human soul”. He asks the reader to imagine a tower of windows, and sadly notes that many people remain stuck at one window, always looking at the “same scene in the same way”. He suggests that growth occurs when one draws away from that window, walks around the tower of the soul, and sees all the different windows that are available. We see different possibilities through different windows, “new vistas”. O’Donohue says, “Complacency, habit and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision – the window through which you look.”

With that line, my attention was truly caught. I have often, with sadness and regret, described the decades of my thirties and most of my forties as a period in which I wasn’t feeling my own life. I was stuck at one window, not able to see new perspectives, only the one landscape I felt trapped within.

O’Donohue goes on to say:

“Deep within every life, no matter how dull or ineffectual it may seem from the outside, there is something eternal happening. This is the secret way that change and possibility conspire with growth…Change, therefore, need not be threatening; it can in fact bring our lives to perfection. Perfection is not cold completion. Neither is it avoidance of risk and danger in order to keep the soul pure or the conscience unclouded. When you are faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth, you are engaging in your life. The soul loves risk; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter.”

I sat with one line from that paragraph for long minutes, my warm coffee cradled in my hands. “When you are faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth, you are engaging in your life.”  At this time in my life, when I make it to the end of an exhausting day only to wonder what, if anything, I have accomplished, I find this thought very energizing. My life is not perfect, but I AM engaging in it. For me, learning to trust my own inner guidance, to make my own choices regardless of (sometimes completely against!) the advice of well-meaning loved ones, is a new window for me. It isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect. But there is no question, now, of me feeling my own life.

I can look around me at others who are making the choice to engage, as well. A friend who chose one day to move from the window at which he had been standing for years, a window through which he saw only failure and hurt. Choosing new windows, he sees himself accomplishing things he didn’t realize were possible. A colleague who was frustrated and felt used and lied to in her work life, confided in me that she realizes she needs to change her perspective, and that she is actively seeking mentors and role models to help her grow. My dear friends Molly and Kate, who successfully pitched to job-share a position for a women’s leadership nonprofit. None of these individuals have chosen to stay at a window through which they view the world with complacency, habit and blindness. For no one has this choice to be faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth been easy. There are rough spots aplenty, there are chasms to cross in both our actions and our thinking. But we are doing it – and as a result feeling our lives more deeply than ever before. We are experiencing the stretching, and sometimes the muscle strains, of growth.

In the end, O’Donohue’s version of the open window speaks more deeply to me than Irving’s. However, it is useful to note that both recommend passing the windows – both writers see the danger(s) inherent in stopping too long at any one window. Both authors speak of metaphoric death: of the body and/or of the soul, should we stop moving. Should we stop growing. As a result, I challenge myself – and each of you – to step away from the window of complacency. Check out new windows and perspectives on life. It can be uncomfortable to remain actively in the risk and ambivalence of growth, but it is infinitely better than being stuck.

 





The Longing and the Gratitude

9 04 2015

“I want to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, of groundedness, of enough, even while I’m longing for something more. The longing and the gratitude, both. I’m practicing believing that God knows more than I know, that he sees what I can’t, that he’s weaving a future I can’t even imagine from where I sit this morning.”
― Shauna Niequist

Over the years, I’ve gotten really good at longing for things. There are things I perennially long for, and things that I fleetingly desire. But if I am honest, there’s always a longing for either more or different.

In some ways, this longing for more or different is what urges me to continue to grow and seek new experiences that enhance my life. It is what prods me into meeting new people, taking risks, into seeing where new adventures will take me.

The down side is that I find it difficult to hold the tension between longing and cultivating, as Shauna Niequist calls it in the quote above, “a deep sense of gratitude, of groundedness, of enough”, which I also deeply wish for.

In order to resolve the tension, for much of my life I just set aside the longing. I felt it in my heart, but I refused to act in ways that moved me toward what I desired. Instead, I took refuge in what I thought I was supposed to do. What I should do to be safe, to be liked, to live a life that looked right from the outside in. All the while, feeling terrible from the inside out.

The other night, I lay in bed thinking about how I’ve changed in the two years since I left my professional life in higher education and took the leap of moving to a new city with no real idea what kind of life awaited me here. I have tried to learn how to follow my instincts, to pay attention to what my heart and my intuition tell me. This isn’t an exact science by any means – there are no guarantees that I will choose rightly, especially after a lifetime of ignoring my intuition. Like all things, I believe I’m getting better at listening to my heart as I practice doing so.

It occurred to me, as I reflected on this, that listening to my heart and distinguishing what I truly long for, as opposed to what the world, what others, what my fears say I should long for is a way of listening for the voice of God whispering in my ear.

And this is why I am working to cultivate the sense of enough in the here and now, even as I long to continue moving forward toward more. Creating the life I desire isn’t only about pushing toward something else, it is also about being present in what I have and taking the time to appreciate it. To be grateful for the gifts of today is not the same as settling for stasis.

But to hear a whisper, one must learn to be still.





Digging for Treasure

2 04 2015

On Sunday, I texted a friend about plans to go on a group bicycle ride to kick off #30DaysofBiking. The weather was gloomy and expected to get worse. I wrote:

“I’m at the laundromat. Planning to re-evaluate when I get home and check weather radar. Feel bad if I bail, but not really up for riding in deluge and high winds.”

When I got home and checked the weather, I felt reassured that we were expecting light rain for a brief period. The wind was supposed to pick up as the afternoon progressed, but I reasoned that I’d be home before it was too bad. So I layered up, put on my helmet, and took off to meet the other 250 or so riders at Gold Medal Park.

It began sprinkling as I rode. The entire time we waited at the hill for the group to gather, then to have our official photo taken, I kept up a running inner dialogue. In it, I talked (and agreed) with myself about how reasonable it would be to break from the group as we left the park and ride home. After all, I don’t own rain gear, so I would likely be soaked immediately if the rain picked up. Also, I had a particularly busy week coming up and a Sunday afternoon to prepare would be so much more useful than a ride in the rain. You get the idea.

But when it came time to line up and begin the ride, I found myself queuing-up with friends and riding slowly into what had become a true rainstorm. Ten minutes later, the rain had changed from steady-but-gentle to ice pellets being hurled at exposed skin by 40-mile-an-hour winds. My glasses were useless, but I was one of the lucky ones: my eyewear protected my eyes somewhat from the mini hail pelting us. Others were riding with eyes more than half shut. We slowed to a crawl, miserably hunching into ourselves on our bikes. Occasionally, we passed under a bridge or some other momentary shelter, and shouted encouragement or commiserating comments to one another. But we kept riding.

It turned out the weather forecasters had been correct about one thing in particular: the worst of the weather was of short duration. Eventually, the rain stopped (although the wind remained strong), and intermittent sunshine began to warm us from our pre-hypothermic states. There was high-fiving and self-congratulating throughout the group, one friend going to far as to announce we had all earned our badges in “badassery” that day.

But I am not rad. I am not “bad ass”. And even though I joined in the general air of braggadocio – because it really was epically horrible weather for biking – I couldn’t help but reflect on what qualities I do possess that ended up convincing me to ignore my own inner inclination to ditch the ride that day. I came up with two self-descriptors: stubborn and tenacious.

It would be lovely to honestly assess myself and come up with adjectives I can wear like superhero shields: Courageous! Intrepid! Stupendously Amazing! But even for the purpose of self-affirmation  applying these words to myself feels silly and false. But Captain Tenacious? She may just be my inner (somewhat nerdy) super-hero: not readily relinquishing a principle or course of action; persevering, persistent, determined, resolute, patient, steadfast, untiring, unswerving, unshakable, unyielding. Stubborn.

The moments in life when we need to dig deep within to find the wherewithal, the will or the energy to continue moving forward through literal or metaphorical storms are like an inner treasure-hunt. Instead of quitting, we dig a little deeper – unearthing truths about ourselves we may not have been able to see in the bright sunshine of perfect days. Some people may, indeed, find courage and other heroic traits residing within. I found an inner doggedness. It turns out, I can look back in my life and see many moments when my innate tenaciousness has pulled me through when shinier qualities haven’t been as useful. And I’m ok with that – in fact, I’m willing to celebrate the discovery of this personal treasure.

What about you? What inner treasure have you unearthed on this life-long hunt of self-discovery? Whatever qualities you’ve found, no matter how sexy (or otherwise) those traits may be, I hope you’ll take some time to celebrate them. They are, indeed, what makes you and your path unique.