Practicing Klexos

There are ways of thinking about the past that aren’t just nostalgia or regret. A kind of questioning that enriches an experience after the fact. To dwell on the past is to allow fresh context to trickle in over the years, and fill out the picture; to keep the memory alive, and not just as a caricature of itself. So you can look fairly at a painful experience, and call it by its name.

      — “Klexos: The Art of Dwelling on the Past” from Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig

There are things I regret.

For example, the many times I’ve felt lonely when people I love – and who love me – are only a phone call, text, or Facebook message away.

I regret the times I’ve felt someone’s sorrow or pain in my own heart, yet neglected to tell them, “I’m here. I care.” Neglected to just show up, casserole or kleenex or whiskey in hand.

I regret all of the minutes I allowed to slip past while I played mah jong online, or half-heartedly watched “Shark Tank”.

Most of all, I regret the times I neglected to bring my better self to difficult circumstances. The times I’ve let hurt, fear, panic or hopelessness rule the day. While I can rise to the occasion, it is humbling how often I do not.

Thinking about rising to the occasion (or failing to) I recall two arguments: decades apart, each had the potential to end a cherished friendship. In both instances, a friend accused me of acting from hurtful motives so far from what I felt or intended that the accusations seemed unrelated to me, completed unmerited. What I chose to do, how I chose to respond in the moment of hurt feelings and wounded pride, determined the course of those friendships.

In the first situation, I chose to cover my hurt with angry, proud, defensive pronouncements. A friendship built over the course of three years ended, forever, in three thoughtless minutes. In the second situation, I waited to respond, allowing myself to get centered in my own truth. That friendship continues to this day.

If I “look fairly” at these painful moments, what can I see? By applying klexos, the art of dwelling on the past, what can I learn?

First, if klexos is “a kind of questioning that enriches an experience after the fact”, I am discovering that it is important which past experiences I take the time to question deeply. Delving into those times when I failed to behave as I would have liked feels less instructive than mining the times I did choose to act as my best self.

With regard to the arguments in which two friendships hung in the balance, I think I learn more by questioning the second because that is the outcome I want to replicate. How did I convince myself to hold off from responding, to stay in the awful feeling place of the accusations leveled against me? What enabled me to review my own choices and actions with fairness, to allow that even some piece of my friends’ perspective could be merited? What were the characteristics of the communication that followed this internal “centering”, that allowed me to speak honestly but also with compassion – to hold the dynamic tension between our disparate perceptions in such a way that the thread between us didn’t snap in two?

These questions are worthy ones to ask of the past.

Looking back, it is true: I have regrets. But I also have successes, those shining moments in which I chose the right path. If such a thing as klexos actually exists, there is a reason it is described as an art (the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination). The artistry lies in selecting which memories serve as fertile ground for growth, as sound launch-pads for propelling us forward into a closer alignment with who we mean to be, rather than who we regret having been.







Truth Arrives in Silence

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

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“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.


Truth, 2016

It was New Year’s Day and I was feeling ambivalent. About pretty much everything. I wasn’t in the mood to reflect on the year just ended, nor did I feel quite up to staring down the barrel of 2016 with unblinking fortitude.

I noodled around online instead.

A post popped up on a friend’s social media feed, its flashing letters calling out to me like a carnival barker: “Find Out Your Word for 2016!” Easily distracted by shiny objects, I clicked on it. In almost exactly the same split second it took me to regret clicking, the word generator selected randomly for me:

Your word for 2016 is – Truth.

“Crap”, I thought. “That’s the last word I wanted”. Without even reading the explanation that came with the announcement, I hurriedly moved on to a different site.

But, of course, the damage was already done. Why, I wondered, had I responded so vehemently to the word “truth”?


Two summers ago, when I worked the opening shift at Starbucks, I often spent long afternoons riding my bike. My friend, Mike, was bike commuting from our apartment building out to his office in the suburbs and I would sometimes ride out to meet him for the commute home. The trip was 17 miles each way, and offered a variety of surfaces and several hills in each direction.

I finally hit my stride with hills that summer. I can’t say that anything in particular clicked into place, other than that I had, perhaps, finally spent enough time in the saddle. Anyway, the hills on our commute back to the city were long and rolling, so we would fly down one hill and immediately begin ascending the next. Mike was always ahead of me heading into the uphill climb, but about half or two thirds of the way up, I would pass him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Mike was in great shape – lighter, stronger and faster than me. When we rode together he often needed to moderate his pace so I could keep up. But I overtook him on those hills, and it was exhilarating! Not because it activated a competitiveness in me – although I wouldn’t be human (or honest) if I didn’t admit there was a smidgeon of that. But the main reason I found it so wonderful? It was evidence to me that I had developed a kinesthetic knowledge, a way of uniting my body and the machine I was riding into one efficient, smooth, and cohesive entity. Riding those hills well was deeply satisfying in a way that had nothing to do with anyone or anything else: my body my bike.


This past year, I barely rode. I changed jobs twice and I’ve been living in a place of transition. Consequently, I was experiencing what a colleague calls “grief resistance” – riding just hasn’t felt fun since I returned to Cedar Rapids, missing the cycling culture (and my bikey friends) in the Twin Cities. Several times a week, at the gym, I climb aboard a spin bike and ride. Sometimes, I close my eyes and pretend I’m riding outside, actually going somewhere rather than just spinning my wheels. But mostly I just make myself pedal, varying the tension and the speed to get my heart pumping and work up a sweat.

Driving home from the gym after a less-than-satisfying session, I had a depressing vision of myself living like that every day – on auto-pilot, tired, anxious, my body heavier and more lethargic than I prefer. And that is when I began to more deeply understand my aversion to the word “truth” as my word for 2016.

The truth is, I’ve been avoiding my own truth for a while now. Avoiding consciously addressing what my heart already knew: that I’ve been abdicating my responsibilities to myself and my life. I’ve been making excuses instead of making active choices.

The truth is, going through life transitions is challenging; it can be really hard to do – like riding a bike up long or steep hills. You can fight the hill, complain about the hill, whine the entire way up the hill – but eventually you’ll need to crest the hill, however you feel about it. The kicker is that there will always be another hill, whether immediately in front of you or just visible on the horizon.

The truth is, hills are a fact of life – both the literal and the metaphoric ones. You can let them depress you or you can find them exhilarating. The main difference is in your approach.




I Love My Uncle Tommy…And Other Emotions that Require Examination

For years, I had a recurring dream that Tommy Smothers was my uncle (here’s a link if you’re too young to recall the Smothers Brothers). Don’t ask me why my dream consciousness threw Tommy Smothers into the archetypal role of beloved-but-distant uncle in a repetitious drama of melancholy and regret. It just did.

Those dreams felt so real, though, that I would wake up distinctly sad, yet warmly affectionate toward a complete stranger – one whose schlocky humor I had out-groaned many years earlier.

One night a few years ago, friends and I had tickets to see a band at a nearby casino. As we made our way past game rooms, dining rooms, and souvenir shops to find the concert venue, I happened to spy none other than Tommy Smothers! Unbeknownst to me, he was also performing at the casino. Such was the power of our dream connection (on my end at least), that I was actually walking toward him, ready to greet him with a welcoming hug before I came to my senses.

Our eyes met briefly, just before I pretended that it had been my intention all along to duck into the restroom just behind where he stood. His held a certain wariness that I’ve sometimes seen when in proximity to celebrities – an inner bracing against the force of fans who presume too much. That look, a perfect mixture of wary and weary, cut straight to my heart. Poor uncle Tommy, I thought.

I share this story as an illustration: what we feel is not always a reliable basis for action.

This is not to say that emotions should be discounted. Only that, sometimes, they need to be examined before they are used to guide decisions or choices. It isn’t really a problem that I feel an inexplicable tenderness toward Tommy Smothers, unless I behave as if that dream-generated emotion is a sound basis on which to act.

There are many examples, most of them less absurd, that illustrate this point. From the seemingly insignificant – transient emotions like anger toward other drivers or disappointment over a Rose Bowl loss (sorry, I’m a Hawkeye and it is still fresh) — to bigger, more impactful emotional situations, there are many times when a mature response calls us to do more than feel our emotions. Sometimes we need to examine what we’re feeling with a critical eye. We need to ask ourselves “What is the truth behind what I’m feeling?”

In an age when we are called to live with passion, to trust our guts, to express rather than swallow our emotions, it is out of fashion to call for emotional restraint. Isn’t that the big defense used for fear- and hate- mongers like Donald Trump? That he is just “saying what we’re all feeling”? I suggest that we are confusing living and acting from our truth with living and acting from our momentary feelings. Distinguishing between the two requires reflection and a willingness to honestly examine our own choices – two other things that, coincidentally, seem to be out of fashion right now.

Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, encapsulates this powerfully:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Our emotions are powerful stimuli. I am not advocating that we attempt to ignore them, or that we not consider them when making decisions and choices. I am, however, advocating for that space to which Frankl refers. Advocating that we see the space, and make use of it to center ourselves before choosing our responses.

It was easy for me to choose not to approach Tommy Smothers at the casino. It is harder for me to choose to behave in a hopeful and proactive manner when I am feeling anxiety about the future. It is harder for me to hold back from lashing out when a friend has hurt me. It is very hard to confront my feelings of fear when I am in unfamiliar surroundings. I don’t judge myself for having those emotions. I have them, and I need to allow myself to feel them. But I also need to recognize that there is a space between them and my choices – and in that space, lies my opportunity to remain centered in my core self, my core values.