Double Nickels

 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: 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. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.





outward thrust of joy

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.

Love Is

“Love and say it with your life.” 

–Augustine of Hippo

Saturday afternoon found me driving through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. You’ll know you’ve arrived where I was going when you’re almost to South Dakota and not quite in Minnesota.

Early in the drive, I talked on the phone (using the bluetooth feature in my car, in case you were worried about my safety). But there’s virtually no cell service west of Waterloo, so my preferred recourse for entertainment was Iowa Public Radio. A podcast called Snap Judgment began airing, and I found myself transported to Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011 – the day an EF-5 multiple vortex tornado tore the town apart.

Like me, you may recall news stories about a group of people who survived the storm huddled together in a gas station beer cooler. All told, 24 people survived in that small space, while everything around them was destroyed. People sheltered in beer coolers in other gas stations and didn’t survive. But for some reason, these folks did.

The podcast revisited that day, talking to several individuals who had been present. I listened to a mix of their reminiscences and audio taken at the time of the tornado. One young man spoke of getting to the gas station with his best friend, moments before the tornado hit, and pounding on the locked doors to be let in. He told about lying in the dark cooler as the storm raged outside, fearing for his life. Into that chaos, his buddy whispered “Hey man, I love you.”

That’s when they cut back to the audio recorded that day in the beer cooler. You hear a youthful male voice say, “I love you. I love all you all.” He’s answered by other voices, calling out to the strangers sheltering beside them in the dark, in the storm: “I love you.”

Listening, alone in my car and hurtling down the highway with nothing in my sights but blue sky and green, green cornfields, I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. Tears came easily to my eyes, rolling down my cheeks unchecked. Love. It is the natural state and impulse of the human soul, I thought. We get busy, we get distracted, and we lose sight of this truth amongst all the static modern life throws our way. But love comes back to us in moments of extremity: its the impulse that made so many on a plane over Pennsylvania or in the twin towers on 9/11 call their loved ones; the urge that made people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando text love to their mothers and partners; it is in the reflex that makes brave souls run toward a burning building or a car crash to help – or causes a Dallas police officer to shield a mother and her sons from a sniper’s bullets.

Love is our highest calling and our most natural state.

Love is the only house, as the song says, big enough for all the pain in this world.

Love makes us human. And yet, being human, we constantly lose sight of it.

Thinking this, isolated and alone in the bubble of my car, I wept. I allowed everything within me to mourn a week in which all of America seemed to have forgotten about love; to have forgotten that we are made to love one another. I cried for Philando Castile; for Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Laquan McDonald. My tears fell for Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol; for Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. I cried for their families, friends, communities and for all of us gripped by the overwhelming grief of their deaths. I cried for my own inability to know how to help or change things, and I cried because I am complicit in all these deaths through my own privilege and inaction. I cried because the impulse to love is not enough if it doesn’t lead to some expression: I love you. I love all of you.

In the aftermath of my crying jag (seriously, it was an ugly cry with snot and everything), I remembered a conversation I had once with my Dad. I had been recalling my grandfather telling me about the gun he kept in his glovebox “because of the niggers”. I told my father, who had just been named the local NAACP Chapter’s Man of the Year, that I was proud of him for overcoming the racist attitudes he was raised with. He said, “That’s your mom’s doing. I fell in love with her and she taught me to be a better person.”

There it was again: love. That powerful force that calms fear in chaos and can teach us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, it shelters and it nudges. And it is what will get us through these dark days if we allow our truest selves, our deepest humanity, to be our first and best impulse. After last week, after the recent months of anger and discontent and violence, it must be clear that choosing love is not the easy route; nor am I advocating some fluffy Pollyanna-ish wish-upon-a-star. Love in action is often hard. It calls upon us to stand up and speak up and lead up. It calls us to be our best selves and to look for the best selves not just in others but in “The Others” – whomever that is in our lives. When it gets particularly difficult to do, take this sage advice from C. S. Lewis, ““Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Acting from a place of love will always take us somewhere better than acting from fear, disillusionment, anger, blame or finger-pointing ever will.

Whatever darkness we are in: a beer cooler in a tornado, or caught up in a wicked storm of discontent, violence, divisive politics – love is the light that will illuminate it. Move toward that light; choose love.

I love you.

I love all of you,




So, this master brings together three of his servants and gives each of them a bag of gold. The first two invest the gold and earn tidy returns on it. The third buries the money to keep it safe. After a while, the master calls the servants back and asks what they’ve done with his gold. The first two explain that they invested the money, and are happy to return it – double its original worth. The third guy says, “Listen, I was afraid of you and what you would do if I lost the money. So I buried it – and here it is, every penny just as it was when you gave it to me.” The master is very pleased with his first two servants, but kicks the third one to the curb, crying, “Get out of here, you lazy imbecile.”

Actually, that is a heavily paraphrased version of the story. If you think you’ve heard it before, you probably have – it is a famous parable from the gospel of Matthew.

Before today, I’d heard this parable literally dozens of times. I never really thought it was great shakes as parables go. Plus, being what is called “risk averse” when it comes to cash, I’ve always identified with the servant who buries the money – and I couldn’t really understand the master’s overreaction. I mean, what would happen if that poor fearful servant had actually lost his masters’ money? That would have been so much worse than returning exactly what he was given, wouldn’t it?

Today, I heard it differently.

Today, the person telling the story said quietly, right at the end, “Imagine. He was given a treasure and he buried it.”

Just like that, I finally GOT it.

We have, indeed, each been given a treasure – made up of our talents, skills, gifts, love, heart, etc. That treasure is intended to be used, grown, shared, expanded. Not hoarded. Not kept from proliferating and adding to the world’s good.

Not buried.