Course Corrections, Part 1

“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in the hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.”

—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

There is a weight loss commercial that plays fairly often on a local television station. A woman shares her before and after photos, tells a snippet of her story, then ends with the line, “Now I can finally be who I am created to be.” Every time I hear this line, I cringe. First, I dislike the suggestion that she could not be fulfilled until she reached a specific weight. Second, it suggests that there is a great deal of specificity to “what we are created to be”.

Here is what I have come to believe: we a not born for a singular purpose. Instead, we are called to a life of purpose, the expression of which takes many forms throughout the span of our years. In order to live lives of purpose, we must learn, also, to live on purpose.

Two years ago, I quit my job and moved to the Twin Cities to experience a new chapter in my own quest for a purposeful life. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my livelihood, I just knew that what I had been doing for 20+ years no longer called me. In fact, I felt depleted and beat-up, as if I had survived a war-zone instead of a long career in the ivory tower of academia.

Occasionally, when driving, I make a too-severe course correction, causing my vehicle to sway dangerously out of control, whiplashing from side to side like it might tip over. Then I regain control and equilibrium and continue on my way. The past two years have seemed a lot like that – the necessary swerves of a powerful course correction. The fact that they may have been necessary does not decrease the difficulty and/or fear I felt while experiencing them.

In the quote above, Parker Palmer references several paradoxes of human experience. First, he says, “the deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure”. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was deeply convinced that that I was taking a leap of faith. I believed that, although the way forward wasn’t immediately clear, all would be revealed to me as it fell into place. It did not take long for doubt to creep in. I was so joyful when I first took that leap! I remember my father telling me, “Hold on to that feeling, because there are days coming when things will be really hard – and all you’ll have is this memory to remind you why you made the choice to leave your past life.” In my doubt, I remembered his words, but I found it nearly impossible to recapture the joy that had provoked them.

I was so hopeful, back then, as I took up my new life. But Palmer reminds us that we are likely to experience hope and despair as twin arcs. First, I would have creative ideas, meet interesting people, dream big dreams and hope for big outcomes. Then, nothing would come of these things and despair would swallow me whole. What carried me through the slough of despond was attention to detail. I would notice and allow small spots of beauty or evidence of connection with others to lead me back toward the hope that I would find a way to engage with purpose again in my life.

Finally, Palmer says “the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring.” There were people I loved and with whom I felt a deep connection. But I left them behind when I moved here. The longer it took to establish meaningful relationships in my new community, the more pain I felt at being adrift in a sea of strangers.

I share these experiences of doubt, despair and pain because they have been excellent instructors. From the deepest doubt in myself, I have learned humility. From the darkness of despair, I have learned that light has to be created and nurtured from within, then shared with an outward thrust into the world. And from the pain of loneliness and loss, I have learned that connecting with others is not only a human urge, it is a necessity for a fulfilling life.

Most important, I have learned that the majority of us will not experience a lightening bolt of inspiration which shows us, in unerring detail, our life’s purpose. Rather, if we wish to live lives of purpose, we must seek out purpose in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. This isn’t to say we don’t have volition or the freedom to choose. It, first, means that life doesn’t happen in the logical, sequential, easy to read manner that our faith, hope and love expect. But it also means that all three – faith, hope, and love are both emotions that we feel and choices that we make. That is the “on purpose” part of the equation.

These reflections come on the eve of new course corrections in my life, which I will share in more detail in next week’s blog post. These two years there have been deeply felt learning experiences on both ends of the spectrum: faith and doubt, hope and despair, love and pain. The thread of purpose has been woven through each aspect of experience as I have wondered what purpose(s) I served, as well as how my daily choices could be made with intention. There have been times of clarity as well as times when I couldn’t see the path before me. Still, faith, hope and love are powerfully resilient in service to a life of purpose.

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Corinthians 13:12-13


Playing by Ear

I’ve always admired musically talented people, especially those who seem able to hear any music and play it back without practice or written music to follow. It is as if their ear, hearing the notes, immediately translates them into a language that they know how to speak and, voila, the music flows back out of them almost magically. When I am around musicians who can play by ear, who improvise, who easily pick up a new instrument and bring forth a tuneful sound, I am often mesmerized. I feel awed by what they are able to do.

How do they first discover that they can do this?

Not being in possession of this gift myself, I don’t really know. But I imagine that, for some, the discovery comes in childhood, before they’ve been taught by life experience to doubt the possibility. But for others, there might be a moment when they decide to give it a shot. Perhaps they’ve felt the potential for a while, maybe even taken some music lessons, but haven’t had enough self-confidence to just break out and go for it. And then they do, and the whole language of music fully opens to them.

Of course, to be really good, to improve, they must practice. But what I’m interested in exploring here isn’t how a good musician hones his or her craft. Rather, I’m interested in that intersection of potential and reality, and of what it takes to cross that threshold.

We all have these thresholds in our lives. These places where we can either continue to live with our unrealized potentials or we can attempt to bring them forth into reality. How do we begin?

I discovered an Alan Alda quote that really speaks to crossing this threshold: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.” The wilderness of our intuition. For most of us, intuition remains a wilderness precisely because we choose not to explore it. In the age of Google maps and street views, we are very unused to making any move without mapping it out first. And that is in the physical world, where we operate most of the time with relative ease. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it is for most of us to move into the wilderness of intuition, where we aren’t comfortable being, where everything is unfamiliar at first.

Sure, there are those who seem to follow their intuition with ease. But just as I am not musically gifted, I am also not one of those who easily stepped into the wilderness, following the call of my intuition. Nor has it always been an easy path. Here are a few things I’ve learned on this expedition out of my own City of Comfort and into the wilderness of intuition.

Fear walks beside you.  Panache Desai, in his book Discovering Your Soul Signature, says “Life and life situations will call us out on our fear, every single time.” For me, fear comes in many forms – concern that I am not putting my attention where it needs to be; fear that something bad (illness, an accident, etc.) will happen and derail me; fears about lack (of money, of love, of time). The key, according to Desai, is to learn to allow. He reminds us that emotions are simply energy in motion. He says, “I have to learn, again and again, to catch myself…allow the fear to run through me like a river out to sea.” When I am able to breathe through my fear, then let it go, my sense of abundance and gratitude reasserts itself and I am able to keep moving forward.

Trust is essential. There are two types of trust that I have found important in the wilderness of intuition: trust in my own gut AND trust in a higher power. First, my gut. I ignored it for so many years of my life that I had to take what amounted to a remedial course in learning to heed it. I set small tests for it before making big decisions based on it. Each time – whether I listened to it or not – the lesson has been the same: my gut knows the way. And there are few feelings worse than hearing your gut say, “I told you so, but you didn’t listen.”

As for trust in a higher power, when I set my foot to this new path in the wilderness, I intellectually believed that God (the Universe, the Source of All Being) would provide. Believing that in my head is a radically different thing from living with it in my heart. It turns out that I suck at trust. Despite mounting evidence that trust is warranted, I regularly experience a crisis of faith – usually when I forget to allow fear to move through me and, instead, stop to live within it’s energy.

The wilderness is a teacher. When I was a teenager, I saw the animated film, “The Point”. In the story, the hero Oblio is the only kid in The Land of Point born without a point (his head is rounded). It is against the law to have no point, so Oblio is banished to The Pointless Forest. Where he learns, of course, that everything has a point. In many ways, leaving my City of Comfort to enter the Wilderness of My Intuition has reminded me of Oblio’s journey. Some of my lessons have been strange ones, gleaned from interacting with unusual people and experiences. Some have been emotionally difficult, while others have been truly joyful experiences. Following your intuition may lead you into odd places, but what you learn (about yourself, about your world, about your callings in life) is essential.


Which brings us back to the idea of practice. Just as musicians, however innately gifted, must practice to develop their skills, learning to follow your intuition requires practice. You will want to regularly return to your city of comfort, which is ok. It is your touchpoint, your safe spot where you are surrounded by support. However, to grow and develop as a person, you will need to also make regular forays into the wilderness. Seeing, then seizing, the moments when the threshold between potential and reality can be crossed is how we learn to get really good at playing our lives by ear. And that, my friends, is an incredibly gifted way to live.



Awesome things will happen if…

I laughed out loud when I first read this meme on a friend’s Facebook page. I think the idea of an inspirational quote ending in such an unexpected way definitely worked as an attention-getter. More than that, though, it served as a much-needed reminder that, in every situation, I can choose to be happy or to be miserable. My choice doesn’t change the situation, but it significantly impacts my experience of it.

The past few weeks have been challenging in a variety of ways. A friend, who happened to be with me last week when one shoe dropped (there have been so many shoes dropping lately, you’d think I was a centipede) jokingly called me Job. We shared a laugh at that: right before my car, in which I had driven us to get ice cream to soothe my painfully sore throat, refused to start for the trip home.

In that moment, I realized that I had a choice: I could focus on the difficulties of the situation or I could focus on the blessings. After all, I was (thankfully) with a friend who had both the means and the generosity of spirit to help me out. I’m happy to say that, today, I chose not to give in to my inner miserable cow.

Victor Frankl, whose thoughtful ruminations and detailed recounting of life within the Nazi death camps, came to the conclusion that attitude is the final freedom each person holds. In speaking of the selfless behaviors of some people in the camps, Frankle says, “…but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We each face challenges in our lives. No one can say whose challenges are greatest, nor can we judge how others choose to face them. We CAN, however, be creative in seeing past our own misery. Just to be sure I was truly paying attention to the message, another friend posted the following video which brings the point home in an incredibly poignant manner. I love the message that joy can grow out of the worst of circumstances if we choose to put our energies there rather than investing in our misery.



And the rain…

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep…

                      —Mary Oliver, from “Have You Ever Tried To Enter The Long Black Branches

These are the weeks when it seems that every time I am too busy to think, much less look out a window or step outside, the sun is shining. And every time I have a few minutes to breathe, to walk or ride my bike, it is raining. I grow frustrated and feel stymied as my small windows of opportunity close.

Realizing (eventually) that it is counterproductive to rail at the weather, I wonder what message the rain brings me, what it is calling me to notice.

Monday afternoon, as I drove south on Highway 218, the rain reminded me that it is a life-giver. The fields were a rich loamy black, the ditches vibrantly green, and flowering trees perfumed the air as I passed. On the car’s radio, in-depth reporting about the drought in California offered a necessary counterpoint.

That night, tucked into bed in the home of a friend, rain tapped gently and rhythmically against the windows, splashing through leaves and bouncing off the ground, finally silencing the chorus of tree frogs enough to bring much-needed sleep. Rain is a comforter, a soother.

On Tuesday, driving again, the rain closed in, clouds and mist reducing visibility. My brain was filled with many thoughts and ideas and plans that needed sorting. In this instance, the rain served as an aid to focus.

On Wednesday, the rain helped me set a positive intention for a long day of work. As long as it was raining, why not set to work with a will?

Today, it has rained and will rain again for most of the day, the forecasters say. So I will redirect my plans and spend what free time I have with a friend, being enlightened and energized by art at the museum. And while I may have wished for hard riding or a hike in the woods, I know this, too, will feed my soul.

The rain has been a patient teacher while I have been its reluctant pupil. It has reminded me that life is lived in each moment I inhabit fully. Wishing moments away because they aren’t what I had planned or what my first choice would be is an ungrateful rejection of the gift that each minute brings. It is me, breathing just a little and calling it a life (to borrow from Mary Oliver). For even in those brief moments between obligations, between chores all of the “must dos”, I can throw open the windows and let the air reach my soul. There is no reason to let a little weather stop me.

“No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?

Well, there is time left –
fields everywhere invite you into them.
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk.”

(Mary Oliver “Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches”)