The Voice of the Beholder (Allowing other voices to help shape our personal narratives)

“Who does the telling shapes the story. Recall the classic Japanese movie, Roshamon and the principle it demonstrates. A man is murdered and a woman is raped, and four people tell what happened. Each person’s version is “true”, yet each version tells a different story. It matters who does the telling.”                –Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., from Crossing to Avalon

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I went to a cross country meet. I went to support my friend, Ryan, who coaches the team at the university where I used to work. I was happy to cheer for the college’s current student-athletes and a couple of faculty friends who were running. However, at this annual event there is always an alumni contingent running – and I was mostly there for them.

Chatting with friends and former colleagues, I got two different versions of how things are going at the university these days – either everything is great or the whole place is about to implode. In other words, when it comes to this particular institution’s story, it clearly matters who is doing the telling.

During the women’s race, which was first, I stood with the husbands and children of my former students (some of the husbands were also alums). We talked about their jobs and family lives; I listened as they teased one another and revived old team jokes. But when the women appeared in that last stretch to the finish line, all attention became focused immediately on finding and cheering for those we knew. One by one, the women crossed the finish line, and their families went to congratulate them on competing and completing the race. Eventually, most of the runners had finished; the stragglers, separated by wide margins, were clearly pushing their limits to keep running.

The other spectators had mostly drifted off to congratulate the finishers, but I remained with one husband and his happy, smiling baby girl, waiting for the last alumna runner to come into view.

I had watched on Facebook as former athletes replied to the race event page, good-naturedly goading one another into signing up. Or self-deprecatingly agreeing to run, with apologies for being out of shape or unprepared. I had seen the post when this young mother had capitulated and added her name to list of those running. From her ambivalent “What the heck, I’m in,” I knew she was not at all certain it was a good idea. But she showed up. And she ran.

When she eventually came into sight on the long, straight stretch to the finish line, this is what I saw: a woman pushing herself to finish what she started, even though every breath and every step hurt. She was red-faced, sweat-drenched and yes, I could still see the signs that she’d given birth a few months ago. I thought she was amazing. Awe-inspiring, in fact. When she came up to us, I congratulated her. I told her she’d done a fantastic job, that I was impressed – every word of which was true.

Her first words were, “I shouldn’t have done this.”

We enter many events in our lives with trepidation, with fear. We feel unsure of ourselves; sometimes we’re conflicted about whether we’re doing the right thing. We feel ourselves stumble, we’re aware of every mistake or misstep. And when we share the story of those moments, we are focused on the many ways we fell short. How we just missed the mark. But for those who witnessed us at these times, during these difficult events in our lives, the version we tell may sound completely foreign.

In observing us, others see the ways we have overcome the things that hold us (and often them) back. They see our strengths, our gifts set loose to grace the world around us. They are able to respond to these things from a place of pure appreciation, pure celebration, in a way we may never be free to when sharing the story ourselves.

It may well be true that my young friend “shouldn’t” have run that day. But the beauty I saw in her effort, determination, follow-through and sheer grit was also completely true. If she can hear that truth, and hold the tension between her version and mine as both/and, rather than dismissing one as a fiction, she might learn something about herself that would be good for her to know. For one, that she can be inspiring to others without being perfect.

Over the years, I’ve written numerous times about voice – learning to use mine, the ways our culture tries to silence our voices (especially if we are women, people of color, poor). I’ve said it is vitally important that we honor our own voices. I stand by all of that. But have you ever noticed that, in our own version of events, we often tell the story from the perspective of our insecurities? Shaded by self questioning instead of celebration? So I want to argue that there is also a time for letting someone else tell our story. And in listening to that story, allow that their version of events may hold truths about us that are worth hearing.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe it is vitally important that we be allowed to shape our own stories, to craft a personal narrative that tells our own deeply complex, inevitably flawed, yet also beautiful and grace-filled truths to ourselves – and then shares them with the world. We can sometimes get stuck in the negative narratives we tell ourselves about who we are, about the life experiences that shaped us and, in so doing, wounded us. We can get stuck in a version of our story that keeps us in that wounded state. Moving from a crippling narrative into an empowering one is incredibly hard. It is also paradoxically simple (not easy). Simply, we craft a different narrative. One that works for us by allowing that our presence and our giftedness are real and substantive. And they contribute value to our world, despite lacking perfection. Despite being messy or sometimes difficult to speak and hear.

In closing, I’d like to share another story – the fact that it also is a story about running is purely coincidental. In July, my friend Molly ran her first 5k. Afterwards, she told me it was hard but she was really glad she had done it, and that her daughter, Kate, was present to see it. Molly hoped that Kate would take some important lessons from this: that women can take on the challenge to be physically strong; that it is a good thing to push yourself beyond what you thought you could do; that it is important to finish, even when it is difficult.

When I saw Kate for the first time after the race, she ran over for me to pick her up and said, “Jen, did you know mom and Aunt Alissa ran in a race in Door County?”

“Really?!”, I asked.

“Yes! And guess what, Jen!,” Kate crowed. “Mom won!”

My eyes met Molly’s over Kate’s head. Both of us were smiling, though Molly’s smile was also a bit of a cringe. I know she wanted to correct Kate’s impression, tell her that she hadn’t won the race. But I silently willed her not to. Kate was at the race, after all, and had seen everything she needed to see. Her four-year-old mind came to exactly the right conclusion – her mom was a winner. And Molly, like most mothers battling their parenting demons, needed to hear that. I hope she allows Kate’s version to inform the story she tells herself.

Yes, it matters who does the telling. But if, when crafting your story of yourself, your personal narrative, you find yourself stuck on the things that are wrong, flawed or wounded perhaps you can look to the people who love and admire you to contribute some positive perspective without dismissing them. Yes, their vision of you may be biased for the good, but yours is likely biased toward the negative. Together, they may flesh out a more realistic version of you! And I promise you – though the story will be different, it will still be true.

Intense Clarity

“There’s nothing quite as intense as the moment of clarity,

when you suddenly see what’s really possible for you.  — Christine Kane

Once, many years ago, I was driving down  Highway 30 at a good clip (about 75 mph). The road had just changed from two lanes to four lanes, divided by an emerald green grass median. I was in the right-hand lane, passing another vehicle on a curve, boxed in by cars both in front of and behind mine. And that’s when it happened: I saw a wooden palette fly off a truck taking the same curve from the opposite direction. As the palette cartwheeled across the median, I could see the line of it’s trajectory as if it was a lighted runway leading directly to me. Because of the cars on every side, I couldn’t speed up, slow down or move out of the way. Time slowed and stretched exactly like a film on slow-mo, the palette’s roll appearing gracefully choreographed. I followed my mind through each step of reasoning leading to the realization that there was nothing I could do to stop the impending collision, and I still had time enough to wonder, “So, this is it? This is how I die?”

News flash – it wasn’t. Curiously, there was no fear in that split second after the possibility that “this is it” occurred to me. But there was a certain clarity of mind that suggested I relax into the moment. What else was there for me to do? To my utter amazement, the palette smashed into my Saturn, then slid under it. There was no crash, though I slowed down, not really understanding how I was still on the road. The other cars surrounding mine didn’t hesitate though they couldn’t have failed to see the impact as wood splintered and flew in every direction. They disappeared down the highway as I finally found a hole and pulled onto the shoulder. There was significant damage to the car – both driver’s side tires were bent out at crazy angles. I had ample time, during my two hour wait for a tow truck, to wonder about that odd moment of clarity.

Since that experience, I have had other, similar, moments – in the midst of sudden unexpected events, that still moment of pause. These haven’t all been events when I thought I might be facing death. But each was a moment when I suspected that what was happening right that second might be the catalyst for a complete sea change in my life. The event that turned my life, or the community or even the world to a new course. A new path. And in the middle of each event, that still moment of clarity in which my conscious self stepped out of the slipstream of time to ask, “Is this it?” When that happens, any tension, anxiety or fear I feel dissipates. I am aware that I am aware.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the moment was a significant or historic one and sometimes not. On the morning of September 11, 2001 when I watched in real time as the second plane crashed into the twin towers was definitely significant (and a moment I shared with millions). But whether each event changed my life’s trajectory, causing my own cartwheel through existence to appear graceful – or not – seems almost anticlimactic to the experience of that brief clarity and cessation of fear. Whether I remember what preceded or led to that moment, I remember those moments. Standing on the path through the national monument at Pecos, New Mexico staring into a raven’s eyes. Pausing on the hill above Cedar Rapids and seeing the downtown in complete darkness during the flood of 2008. On my bike in the woods, hugging a tree I had nearly careened into headfirst. In each mental picture is the memory of that curious calm, suffused with a clear mental light.

The past couple of weeks have been a time of frenzied activity and a certain amount of anxiety. My sleep patterns have been disrupted by worry-induced insomnia. My ability to stay centered emotionally and mentally through long, demanding days has been tested. And in the midst of that, another of those moments of awareness: late on a hot and humid afternoon, standing on a path leading through restored tall-grass prairie. Later, as I thought about it, I realized that I am notoriously bad at predicting, while in the experience itself, whether a moment is a pivotal one or not. I have generally assumed that having that moment of clarity is a sign of the importance of the moment as a turning point; but I have been proved wrong way more often than right. What if I’ve been thinking about this backwards? What if instead of predictive those moments are redirective?

What if the point of that clarity is to remind me that attempting to see the future is, well, futile? Or to remind me that I am more effective when I am centered – not when I’m trying to control circumstances outside my scope of influence? What if that still, uncluttered moment is my reminder that relaxing in this very present here and now, waiting patiently for the unfolding of whatever is to come, is the actual way forward. It isn’t that this moment is important and pivotal, it is that each moment is. I am aware that I’m aware. And that is enough for right now.



Learning factions

The school year has had a rolling start this month; some students began classes weeks ago and others just started today. My friend’s daughter, Abby, started seventh grade a couple of weeks ago. After school on the second or third day, my friend noticed that Abby was pensive, maybe a little down, and asked if something was bothering her. In a voice tinged with desperation, Abby responded, “Mom, I don’t have a faction!”

When my friend repeated the story to me later, I was grateful I’d read the Y.A. bestseller, “Divergent”, so I was able to immediately grasp the problem. (The story of “Divergent” takes place in a futuristic society divided into five factions. As teens approach adulthood, each chooses the faction with which he or she feels most aligned. The heroine, Tris, discovers that she is divergent – meaning she has no true faction.) In Divergent, Tris feels like an outsider, never quite fitting in. My young friend, Abby, feels the same.

Believe me, I can totally identify with Abby. As a freshman in high school, I remember feeling factionless. I had a few friends, but they were from several different social groups and tended to identify most strongly with those groups, of which I was not a member. Many Friday nights I attended football games with a group of girls I never really saw, otherwise. The people I ate lunch with at school weren’t the same people I had sleepovers with on the weekends. Most of the time, this was fine. But whenever numbers were an issue, I was the odd man out – I got cut from the roster. Which left me high and dry, feeling “out” at those exact times when a freshman really needs to feel “in”.

The summer between my first and second years of high school, my siblings and I joined an inter church youth group (ICY). On a hot Tuesday night in July, we met about thirty other high school kids and four college-aged leaders at the Lutheran church. For an hour or so, we played some kick-ass volleyball on the church lawn. The game was relaxed, inclusive, fun. There was no cutthroat competition – though there was plenty of humorous braggadocio. After the game, we adjourned inside the church. In the sanctuary, everyone pulled up a piece of floor and the guitars came out. We sang a few songs, said some prayers, then began a style of interaction based on what our leaders called “Serendipity”. With our eyes closed, we mingled in the group until the leader told us to join hands with another person, eyes still closed. My partner was Dave*, one of the college guys leading the group. Each of us was given a paper plate and a crayon, and asked to make a nameplate for our partner. In addition to our partners’ names, we needed to answer four questions about the other person – putting an answer in each “corner” of the round plate. I don’t remember all of the questions, but I’ve never forgotten that, in the upper left-hand corner we were supposed to answer the question, “If your partner were a color, what color would they be?” Dave, making a nameplate for me, wrote “yellow”. I was shocked…and delighted. I’d been expecting gray, black, brown – no one had ever described me as yellow before! The whole evening was fun, but more important, I felt welcomed and included in a way that was so outside the norm of my usual, angst-y, teen interactions.

On the way home, I basked in the glow of every positive thing that had happened that evening. Later, when I went to bed, I lay there replaying it all in my head. And as the bright energy faded, giving way to sleep, I knew one thing: I had, indeed, found my faction.

From that point on, my high school experience was different. I had my ICY peeps in my corner, and I was loving life. Retreats, hay rides, late night guitars and bonfires. We met on Tuesday nights and Thursday mornings before school, cementing our connectedness with intentional yet fun activities. Interestingly, even engaged with my faction, I managed to maintain a few friendships outside the group. We liked each other for the sake of our shared interests and our individual personality quirks, without the need to be joined at the hip with one another – that’s what our factions were for! As far as I was concerned, it was the best of both worlds. I didn’t give much thought to the times that friends told me I was the only one in my group who would talk to them, or who was nice to them. I chalked it up to simple misunderstanding.

Junior year flew, full of adventures – from blowing up my chemistry lab to searching for the ever-elusive albino farm in the neighboring township to having my first jamocha shake at Arby’s. Then life happened and mucked things up.

The summer preceding my senior year, my family moved from Ohio to Iowa. I was devastated. At my new school, the senior class alone outnumbered the entire population of my previous high school. Back to being factionless, I had no clue where to sit, who to talk to, or how to address the rising panic I felt walking into the absolutely packed cafeteria. I had no one.

But here’s the interesting thing. Watching the other kids with their groups, I realized some important truths about factions. These are the things I want to say now to Abby, my young friend feeling so “out there” without her own crew.

First, factions always think they’re open to others, but they rarely are. For example, most of the students at my new school were decent people. Very few were actively cruel or hurtful. But most of them were also not actively kind. Or welcoming. Suddenly, I remembered my “outsider” friends commenting on the exclusionary vibe they got from my ICY friends. At my new school, the kids who were generous and open? The outsiders, like me.

I learned that having a faction can make you less compassionate – because compassion requires a reaching out beyond yourself, beyond your normal circles. When you have a faction, you don’t have to think about what it feels like to eat alone in a crowded lunchroom filled to bursting with other kids having fun – you’re too busy laughing for it to cross your mind. You don’t have to “reframe” to make yourself feel good about another Friday night at home with your parents when you’d rather be with friends…if you had any. Since you don’t have to do these things, you forget there are other kids who do. You literally forget to have compassion for them.

Another truth people don’t really explain ahead of time? Factions maintain their strength by a certain level of uniformity. Gryffindor is brave, Hufflepuff is loyal. ICY loved Jesus, volleyball and guitar sing-alongs. When you have a faction, you get lazy about needing to maintain effort to develop and keep friendships. The group all shows up and, voila! Shared experiences and assumed similarities of thought and emotion. Group membership becomes a shortcut to friendship – but like a lot of shortcuts, its doesn’t lead where you expect it to. Sometimes, you end up spending time with people you don’t really connect with. Or worse, you find yourself looking past behaviors you don’t endorse,  out of loyalty to the group – even when this makes you uncomfortable.

It also surprised me to learn, after moving, that the strength of my faction didn’t make me strong. When I moved to a new city, I had to find strength within myself, not in the group. (Although it did help to know, when I felt alone, that there were people somewhere who loved me.) Interestingly, what helped me move ahead were the friendships I had maintained outside my faction. I still knew how to be friends with a diverse set of individuals who weren’t friends with one another. I remembered that sometimes what was truest and most valuable about someone was protected, and had to be coaxed out with regard and attention. I remembered that there were no shortcuts to developing relationships. True friendship takes time, effort, patience.

In life, I want to tell my dear Abby, you will find yourself part of many groups. They’ll come together in a variety of ways, around a plethora of shared experiences – and they will often bring you joy. As an adult, I’ve discovered that the best kinds of “factions” are created by the synergy that develops when individually strong friendships coalesce together into groups that embrace rather than try to usurp those connections. Because it is the individual relationships you nurture and develop over time that will fill out the depth and quality of your life.

Dearest Abby, I would say. Maintain your openness to people who engage your compassion; to those who invite and invoke your individuality in return. Try not to leave your integrity at the threshold of your latest faction, no matter how tempting it is to gloss over troubling choices made by others or within in your group.

And whatever you do, lovely Abby, never discount the real gift of a lone friend in favor of the dream of belonging to a “faction”. Group hugs are never as satisfying as the embrace of one dearly loved friend.


*Note: I thought you might be interested to know that my partner, Dave, from my first ICY youth group experience, is none other than my beloved brother-in-law Dave Finnegan. 39 years later still in my life but now in the faction known as “family”!

Some day I may write a post specifically about the spiritual and religious formation I experienced through my involvement with ICY, but for the purposes of this post, it serves mostly as context for the joyful experience of finding my “posse”.

Catching Sight: The Four A’s of Healthy Stewardship

I went out for a peaceful walk during my lunch break the other day. The air on that late summer day was oppressively humid and still. Not really thinking about anything in particular, I was just walking to clear my head. I passed the gated front of the fenced-in fruit orchard and turned right along the fence. The grassy path along the wire fenceline led invitingly into the woods.

I had decided to head in that direction, when something in the orchard caught my eye, just on the edge of my vision. I turned to look, and saw this:



I thought it was a little creepy looking, but I mentally shrugged it off and kept walking. Several steps later, I stopped and turned back. It occurred to me that this might not be a great thing to see in a fruit orchard. It also seemed, since the trees had previously been harvested, that it might be a while before anyone else visited the orchard. I thought, “If I don’t look into this possible problem, who will?” So instead of continuing my walk, I went back around to the gated entrance and approached the web.

Up close, it was even ickier to look at than it had been from a distance. And on a leaf just below the huge web, I noticed a mass of wriggly wormy-looking caterpillars, and the first film of a new web. I was definitely uncomfortable standing that close, but I wanted to take a photo to show to our outdoor staff so they could identify whether this was a problem (beyond the obvious issue of being unsightly). As I stepped in closer to get a clear shot, a breeze suddenly blew up, wafting the branch full of insects into my hair. Ugh – I shudder just remembering that sensation! I was completely grossed out.

As it turns out, what I happened across on my walk were most likely fall webworms, which in their adult state become a species of moth. They may not be particularly harmful to trees, though they do denude the branch inside the “tent” web of leaves. An infestation may completely denude affected trees, though, which may be harmful.*

So, other than the fact that we all enjoy sharing stories about things that gross us out, why am I telling you this?

Lately, I’ve been struggling to get (and keep) my act together. I am dimly aware of issues in my life which need to be addressed, but each time I catch sight of them in my mind’s eye, I just keep walking. Like Scarlett O’Hara or Clarice the doe, I conjure up a vague “tomorrow” when I will think about it, or make it happen. What this looks like is binge-watching television series on my Amazon Prime account. It looks like having another pistachio-chocolate chip muffin at Coffeesmith’s. It looks like my body waking each day achy from lack of exercise and my mind fuzzy from too-little sleep.

After work that day, I immediately showered (a whole afternoon thinking about those creepy-crawlies in my hair demanded that), then boiled water for a cup of tea. Standing in my kitchen, looking into the tea steeping in my cup, I caught sight of one of the things I had been avoiding looking at straight-on: my upwardly mobile weight. I am thirty pounds heavier than I was this time last year. I’ve known this was happening, but I’ve refused to train a direct gaze on it. My friends have not mentioned it. No one has taken me to task for it. In that moment, the reality truly hit me: if I don’t get ahold of this, no one will. After all, it is my job to manage my life and my health – on one else’s.

I quieted my mind as I stared into my tea. A picture began to form in my mind of what my life had been like at 350+ pounds. I forced myself to imagine being there again: how would I feel physically? The first sensation I recalled was the difficulty I had breathing. Followed by the halting process of going up and down stairs, carefully, one foot then the second foot on every step rather than the graceful flow of one foot, one step. How would I feel emotionally if I kept heading in that direction? Hopefully, I’ve dealt with much of the shame from the past – would it recur? Would new shame take it’s place?

With an infestation of fall webworms, addressing the issue before it gets out of control is the best management technique. Occasionally, lawn and garden pests or weeds are ignored until the gardener’s only recourse is to till the whole mess under and begin again. But most gardeners learn to respond as soon as signs of the problem appear. Pay attention. Take action. Assess the results. Adjust the behavior. And begin the cycle again.

Attend. Act. Assess. Adjust. The four a’s of healthy stewardship, whether what you are tending is a garden, a corporation, or a life; whether the concern is weight control, or money management, or communication. In life, it is so important not to ignore the things you notice out of the corner of your eye – to not move on as if you are Sergeant Schultz fromHogan’s Heroes reruns, perennially telling yourself, “I know nothing.” Pay attention. Engage in action. Assess the outcomes. Adjust the behaviors. Begin again, spiraling ever more closely to your desired results. More closely to your desired self.


*I am not a horticulturalist, entymologist, or a gardener of any stripe. Therefore, take my description with a grain of salt, and consult an actual expert if you are concerned about webworms!