But I’m Not Dead Yet…

” ‘If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet.’ This is a line my mother said to me the other day, while she was issuing a gentle warning not to fall into the trap of letting your life get smaller as you get older…No. She begs to differ. As you get older, there is no more time to be careful, and no more REASON to be careful…this is the time to seize as much life and joy and adventure and learning and novelty as you possibly can…”  — Elizabeth Gilbert


A couple of years ago, having just entered my 50s, I was speaking with a colleague at work about my plans to make a change in my life and career. She said, “We’re the same age, aren’t we? And you still have this desire to change? At this point in life, I just want to make it through the days without too much thought.”

I remember, in my hubris, feeling sorry for her. After all, 50 was the new 30 – everyone was saying it. And I was feeling…not young, exactly, but an internal urgency that masqueraded as youthful energy. So I went off on my quest to change my life, and a lot of things happened.

Did you learn the tale of Icarus when you were younger? Icarus and his father, Daedalus, attempted to escape captivity on the island of Crete by flying away on wings Daedalus had constructed of feathers and beeswax. He warned his son, Icarus, not to fly too high, or the heat of the sun would melt the wax holding his wings together. But Icarus, in his pride at his father’s invention and his new ability to fly, did not heed the warning. As he flew closer and closer to the sun, the wax on his wings melted, causing the feathers to drift away. Soon, Icarus realized he was flapping his bare arms, and plunged into the sea.

This tale was used to teach us about “hubris”, to the ancient Greeks meaning excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods. These days, without the gods to blame for everything, we think of it as the arrogant, self-confident pride that comes before a fall.

When I used the term “hubris” to describe my attitude toward my colleague, I wasn’t referring to the desire and urgency I felt to change my life. I was referring to my boastful attitude that I would never feel as uninspired as I thought she was; I would never be so complacent, so tired, so ready to lay down the reins.

A year ago this week, I started a new job in Woodbury, MN. I was in that job until the first of June – and it was the most hellish two months of my life. After two weeks in that crucible, I was hanging on by my fingernails. When my coworker, Jody, called me to quit without further notice, I told her in no uncertain terms that it was a really crappy thing to do. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My new job wants me to start right away.” The truth was, she had no new job. The following day, she killed herself. Jody’s death was not something I could truly take in at the time – there wasn’t room in the crazed hours of that life to feel anything other than exhausted.

In the year since, I have been truly graced with blessings – and I am grateful beyond the words to describe it. But I have also had difficulty shaking off the exhaustion; I find myself, at times, just wanting to get through the days without too much thought. Today, inexplicably, I am finally filled with grief over Jody’s lonely death. I understand, now, what I didn’t three years ago as I sat in my colleague’s office: sometimes, it is enough to get through the day.

Sometimes it is enough – but not forever, at least not for me. Tomorrow, or someday soon, an internal urgency will prompt me into forward motion. And if it doesn’t happen on its own I will seek it out, because I don’t believe in letting my life grow smaller as I grow older. But I’ve also learned the truth about hubris: it isn’t about flying too high, its about thinking everyone else is below you. We will all move forward in our own ways and at our own paces. I’ve been learning to be less judgmental about that, and more compassionate about the ebb and flow of people’s energy. As I extend that compassion to others, I’m also learning to let some of it flow back toward myself.

I’m not dead yet, which means I’m not done yet.



Love Locks, Stickers and Disenchantment with Words

Love locks on the Brooklyn Bridge

This past weekend, my brother talked me into downloading a chat app for my phone. One of the app’s most notable features is a prolific library of downloadable stickers, many of them tiny, animated gifs of strangely whimsical cartoon figures. I have to admit, I have had a lot of fun finding and using clever stickers – a donut doing push-ups; Rodin’s “The Thinker” with an animated thought bubble that says “So?”; a cartoon gladiator giving a big thumb’s up. Until I started playing with this app, I would never have understood the attraction to a set of tiny images of a horse and frog dancing sinuously together. The idea is this: why use words when the perfect gif speaks volumes?

Also, this past weekend, I was reminded of the Love Locks phenomenon. While I have never placed one, my understanding is that people use love locks as a visual memorial – whether to a relationship or to the achievement of a personal milestone. The fact that it is a lock symbolizes permanence, the lasting nature of whatever the love lock is memorializing or testifying to.

These two phenomena are very different. The stickers are momentary ephemera, created by the thousands, used a couple of times then forgotten in the rush to find newer, more amusing or creative gifs. Love locks, on the other hand, are intended to attest to the permanence of whatever they are commemorating, be it true love, friendship, or self efficacy. It strikes me, though, that while motivated by different impulses both attempt to transcend the use of words in order to communicate emotion.

Images have always spoken powerfully to our hearts. But there seems to me to be a new weariness, even a cynicism, about words residing underneath the popularity of and preference for images these days. I see much less sharing of motivational and inspirational quotations on social media lately – perhaps understandably, as overuse of meaningful quotes and well-turned phrases clashes with the lack of both inspiration and thoughtful rhetoric in our current political and cultural discourse. Mistrusting what people say, are we placing greater faith in images? Certainly, it is easier to slap a cynical cartoon sticker on something than to find words that convey what you truly feel. But is the image more true or trustworthy?

I’m not opposed to images, and these ruminations are not intended to be “against” anything. Rather, as a lover of words, I’m wondering if we are likely to miss them as we, increasingly, omit them from our communication. Words, used well, offer a precision that can be lost in images. A crying toddler is an image, but there’s a reason parents the world over say to that toddler, “Use your words!”

So, I plan to keep having fun with the app. I’ve downloaded new stickers of sushi sumo-wrestlers and I can’t wait to use them in some witty repartee with my brother. And who knows, I may one day feel the need to click a symbolic padlock shut in testament to something profound in my life. Meanwhile, I’ll continue using my words – and encouraging others to do so as well. There’s a deep connection between using your words and having a voice. I believe our voices are sorely needed in today’s world.

“Words… They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos…”

–Tom Stoppard





adjective jum·bly \-blē\
Definition: jumbled, confused

The truth is, every area of my life is pretty jumbly these days.

That makes me uncomfortable, as it would most people, I suspect. And that discomfort has caused me to focus on all of the ways that my life is “less than”: less than ordered, less than complete, less than fulfilling. In short, less than perfect.

And then something happened that stopped me in my tracks. An unexpected generosity, offered gently when least expected. If this were entirely my story to share, I would explain – but since it’s not, I’ll just ask you to imagine: you have an armful of various fragile objects you must not drop, each varying in size and weight; objects keep getting added to this load until you are in danger of dropping them all. Just when you are about to lose your hold, someone quietly walks up and takes the largest, heaviest object. Without asking, without calling attention, without expectation of return.

This generous act did not fix all the jumbly-ness of my life.

But it did set in motion a re-ordering of my thinking. I was reminded of a great vintage shop in Minneapolis called Hunt and Gather (pictured, above). The shop is filled with a jumbly mess of stuff. When you first arrive, it can feel overwhelmingly chaotic. You wonder how anyone finds anything there. Then, surprisingly, the chaos of it overwhelms your mental need for order. You suddenly begin to see beauty and whimsy in the details; the very messy-ness of the place becomes charming. And instead of thinking about the ways the place is “less-than” (less than clean, less than organized, less than roomy), you begin to think about the ways it is wonderful.

One simple act of generosity helped me to see my need to create that same kind of shift when looking at the jumbly chaos of my life. Instead of letting the chaos overwhelm me, I can look for the beauty and whimsy within it. Its ginormity can be recast as abundance; as “greater than”: complex, multilayered, generative. When I am able to make this shift in my perspective, space opens up to see all the ways my life is wonderful – not only all the ways it is “less than”.

Suddenly, I can look at the jumbly mess and understand Nietzsche when he says:

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”







“[The waves] move across a faint horizon, the rush of love and the surge of grief, the respite of peace and then fear again, the heart that beats and then lies still, the rise and fall and rise and fall of all of it, the incoming and the outgoing, the infinite procession of life. And the ocean wraps the earth, a reminder. The mysteries come forward in waves.”
Susan Casey, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Three years ago this month, I was in Florida for a conference. Since we had a rental vehicle anyway, a friend and I took a day to do some sightseeing, and ended up at the Canaveral National Seashore. It wasn’t exactly warm on the beach, but it was significantly more so there than in Iowa at that time, so we weren’t about to forego the opportunity to walk and sit in the sand for a while.

I remember watching the waves as they rushed onto the beach then pulled back out to merge with the sea. I had the strangest sensation (something to do with the combination of staring at sunlight on water, the overwhelming sound of the water, the rhythmic motion of the waves) that I, myself, was rushing forward, then pulling back.

And indeed I was. On the verge of major life changes, I felt my soul pushing me toward new shores, but my ties to all that lay behind me exerted an equally powerful pull to fall back into the sea of my then-current life. The fluid grace of the water lay in its refusal to fight for one or the other – rather, the water ebbed and flowed naturally with the energy exerted upon it. The waves, the water existing at the leading edge of that energy, had the greatest potential to change and be changed – it could change the beach or be changed itself by what it carried back with it. Generally, both occurred together.

I had been living in the vast ocean of my life for a long time, and suddenly found myself on that leading edge where change was most possible. I lived there, briefly, allowing myself to change and (in turn) creating change – carving new shorelines. But I couldn’t seem to find within myself the water’s ability to flow; I fight for control, insist on “deciding” – or, another way of saying it, choosing sides. Three years on and I still haven’t quite caught the knack of moving naturally with the energy waves. But here I am, still on that front edge, hoping to change and to create change.

I’ve been thinking about that day and that experience quite a bit lately. A colleague said last week, “Everything is about waves! Spooky action at a distance, gravity waves – all the discoveries are about waves! What are we supposed to be learning in our lives from all this talk about waves?”

Perhaps it is simply to accept the ebb and flow that is experienced at that leading edge of the wave we call “change”; to accept that change occurs over the vastness of time and in the immediate moment at once. Perhaps I am supposed to stop trying to control the pace and meaning of change and, instead, experience it as it unfurls.

“The mysteries come forward in waves,” Susan Casey says. And the waves themselves are a part of it all.

The Wave

Run with the flood

Ebb when you must

Mount to the moon’s call

Dare, flow and trust

This tide has to be

Its force will not break you

Cannot unmake you

For you are the wave

And there is only the sea.

            –Joy Pitman

Not Finite

How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? Workers need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire. –Rumi

When we were in graduate school, my friend Cathann mentioned something in conversation that I’ll never forget – we don’t have a finite amount of love; therefore, giving love to one person does not mean we have less to give another. There is always more available.

I’ve not forgotten these words, though sometimes their truth sneaks up on me. It sneaks up on me when I’m not looking for new friends but they appear anyway. It catches me by surprise when I’ve been avoiding connecting with loved ones because “I’m too busy” but we somehow connect anyway – and I find that lightens, rather than adds to, my burdens. Unfortunately, this truth also catches up with me in moments of sadness and regret, when I realize I felt love that remained unexpressed.

I don’t know how anyone else experiences this, but for me, once I’ve loved someone I apparently carry love for that person inside – even if it is buried in the debris of broken promises or hurt feelings. Even if it was a love that I experienced in my childhood but has been left at the bottom of my heart, like a favorite teddy bear forgotten in a box in the attic. I suspect this is true for most of us, if the heartwarming stories we hear of people who have reconnected with past friends, lovers and lost family members are to be believed.

All that love just being hoarded somewhere in the over-stuffed storage-units of our hearts.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. A few weeks ago, I happened to see a comment on a Facebook feed, placed there by my ninth grade boyfriend. Now, I haven’t been connected with this man in so many years, I literally gave up trying to count them. Seeing his name, I felt a small rush of warmth and a sudden desire to reach out to him. I didn’t, though. (Honest admission: I did do a small amount of cyber-stalking, but it was just a few clicks on some internet links.) It left me wondering what stopped me – not from rekindling a relationship of some kind, but from simply saying, “Hello! I still think fondly of you from time to time.” The answer that comes back to me, in my most truthful moments, is that I didn’t want to be burdened with any messy-ness (what if he’s weird? what if he’s dangerous? what if he’s awesome and I don’t have time for another long-distance friend?) that could conceivably come from connecting.

And this week, I’ve been grieving the sudden death of my cousin, Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We spent a lot of time together as kids – he was a few years older than me and, exotically, lived on a farm. Tom was always kind and gentle and protective of me, even when he was teasing me for my “city” ways, or calling me Angie Palucci* – a nickname I hated from everyone else but didn’t mind from him. He’s the one who told me the truth about Santa Claus, because I was upset that the other kids were calling me a baby when their nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments went over my head. Tom’s the one whose crooked smile started with a downturning of the mouth before it lit up his face. Now that he’s gone, I feel the space he has been holding in my heart.

I’ve been regretting that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.  Wondering why I never took the turn toward the farm when I drove past on the nearby highway – I know I thought about it every time. I suspect it goes back to that idea of somehow being “burdened” – by people and their inevitable imperfections and needs? by love and its inevitable imperfections and needs?

Or is it the fear of finite inner resources? Fear of my own inevitable imperfections and needs?

I’ve said this before (and it won’t surprise anyone, especially those who know me), but I am a slow learner; I am someone who needs to relearn the same concepts over and over before they stick. Just thinking about that teddy bear in the attic is enough to remind me that I still feel love for it. All this time, I thought I was putting it away in order to make room to love something else, when what I was really doing was protecting myself. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in his button eyes as the limited, flawed person I am.

The reality, the truth I keep losing track of is this: My perfection is finite, love’s is not. There might not be room enough in my daily life to be connected to everyone in a perfect and non-needy way. In fact, I’m sure there isn’t – I will sometimes be the cause of hurt, sometimes let people down, sometimes be so focused on my own needs that I run right over you/your needs. But that’s about my human limitations, and not about love.

The sneaky truth, the one I keep losing sight of, is that love isn’t about me, created by me, or controlled by me; it has it’s own perfection that doesn’t flow from me. Unlike my time, my patience, and my impulse toward altruism, love is NOT finite – there is always more available.

Love itself describes its own perfection.
Be speechless and listen.

~ Rumi.

*(the name of a character on the Doris Day show that played in after-school reruns at the time)