Choice Reflections

30 03 2017

When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.

One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.

We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!

Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.

I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served  up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I  felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.

All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock.  Obviously, I survived.

This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.

It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.

It might be none of those.

That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.

It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.

But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?

Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?

These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?

Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.

 

 

 





A Rose By Any Other Name…Friend

23 03 2017

“I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.” – John Cusack

Snapshot: Saturday afternoon, East Village, Des Moines, Iowa. My friends, Layne and Kristen are ahead of me on the sidewalk, my friend Tammy is walking beside me. I can see the state capitol behind the two leading our small pack, so I call out and ask them to stop so I can take their picture. Layne says, “It feels like we’re out shopping with our moms.” We all laugh, but I still take the photo.

We were in Des Moines visiting Layne. A few weeks ago, we were reminiscing about our friendships on social media, and I thrust this weekend gathering upon her – “Let’s all meet at Layne’s”, and she gracefully accepted the challenge of houseguests despite her busy life as a working mom whose job requires regular travel.

In these first few hours of our reunion, the pace was a bit frenetic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it felt like we were meant to be jubilant in our togetherness, yet hadn’t quite shifted back into in-real-life mode, as opposed to texting and direct-messaging mode. No one said, “OMG!” or “LOL!”, though it would not, perhaps, have felt out of place.

It didn’t take long for a shift to happen. In one store, Layne said, “Let’s go home and hang out with Oliver” (her adorable toddler son) and that was all it took. The honest longing in her voice to be at home, and our willingness to move past the triteness of the “girl’s weekend” cliche of being out on the town (not that we weren’t planning an evening involving much wine and “Cards Against Humanity”, also a girl’s weekend cliche) were all it required.

Here is what wasn’t cliche about our weekend gathering: The five of us (sadly missing our fifth wheel, Tricia, who could only be with us in spirit due to family obligations) are unlikely friends. We span four decades of life – with at least one of us in each decade from their 20s through their 50s. We have a variety of academic degrees and divergent interests. Some have families, others do not. We met in our workplace, where I hired and supervised all but one of the others. Often, this alone would prevent my inclusion in the group – people may love their boss as a boss, but it is somewhat less likely that they will become the kind of friends who crash at each others’ homes.

The two youngest, whom I hired as Hall Directors right out of college, have a light in them that shines warmly. Like other millennials, they grew up reinforced and supported for their uniqueness. While many people my age lament what they see as the problematic aspects of this generation, I celebrate their positive qualities. I wish that women in my generation had been taught to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our competence, to allow our unique qualities and quirks to be more than fodder for bullying or self-shame. Since the day we met, and for the rest of our lives, I will do everything in my power to help these two hold on to that shine – despite the ways our world may work to dim it.

The middle two are literally two of the most supportive and loving women I know. Empathic and honest, they don’t shy away from those difficult places that friends sometimes to fear to go with each other. And they love to shake things up a bit, to belly laugh, to be occasionally outrageous.

For the five of us, it was a soul-satisfying adventure to work together. It remains an adventure as we maintain our connectedness while living in different cities.

One of the most surprising things in my life has been the richness of relationships: rich in variety, depth and nuance. Because of this richness, I have often been disappointed in the dearth of words to describe our relationships. We have concrete words for family connections (though everyone of us experiences the actualities differently), a few words for romantic relationships, and some for friendship. Many of these words are used so broadly, as placeholders for suck a multitude of variations, they end up lacking degree or depth.

This is why, I suspect, my younger nieces and their age-cohort tend to call whichever friend they are with at the moment “my best friend” in the comments on their Instagrams or Snapchats. It is also why, in graduate school, my friend, Cathann, and I began calling each other “comrade” – not because we shared a political affiliation, but because we felt words like “pal”, “buddy”, “friend” didn’t capture the intellectual quality of our emotional connection with one another.

What is the word for “my friend whom I love like my child except that I also get to be my totally flawed self with unlike a mother gets to be”, I wonder? Or the one for “this woman is exactly the person I want to be except that I get to keep my own stuff, just take on some of her loveliness while also experiencing it in her”? What do I call “my not-brother who makes me feel loved and protected and respected as a woman even when I swear like a longshoreman when we’re together?” The best word I can find for each of these friend.

I am grateful for the multiplying ways we are able to remain in contact with the people who offer this rich texture to our lives. But one thing the weekend in Des Moines reminded me of is that there is no substitute for time spent in physical proximity to the people we love. To see the shifting facial expressions, hear the laughter and the vocal expressions of emotion, to feel the hugs and occasional slugs on the shoulder – the sensory experience of relationship is so vitally important. And it is for this reason that, like John Cusack says, I will continue to force people to have coffee with me – or foist my company upon a distant friend. I am so deeply grateful for each and every buddy, pal, comrade, colleague, co-conspiritor in my life…for each and every friend.

“Wherever it is you may be, it is your friends who make your world.” – Chris Bradford

 

 

 

 





Light Every Candle That You Can

16 03 2017

Lately, too many days have followed this pattern:

I wake from a dead sleep, struggle to untangle myself from the sheet and blanket on my bed and stumble to the bathroom to get ready for the day. As I drive to work, I am angry at every other driver for,,,existing, apparently. I jump into work like a kid jumping into the deep end of the pool before actually learning to swim – after a long, breathless time, I paddle and flail my way up for air. The day is gone.

I drive away from work listening to my brain argue with itself about stopping at the gym. The days I stop are the good ones. Many nights I lie to myself that I will trade the workout for a productive night at home, checking many items off the needed-to-do-last-week list (and I always believe that lie, despite all evidence to the contrary).

At home, I check the news while my dinner cooks. I give up any thought of productivity, as the day’s latest atrocities suck my energy into the waiting ocean of anger and despair. I take my dinner upstairs and eat while watching The Voice or This Is Us or, God help me, The Match Game. Whatever. I play a jigsaw puzzle game on my Kindle until I fall asleep. Sometime later, midnight or one, I wake up. Stiff from sleeping upright, I get ready for bed.

But I don’t sleep when I get there. I try reading a book. The good ones are the ones I can concentrate on long enough to fall into the story. Some nights, that just won’t happen. I lie awake and try to breathe through the ambient anxiety. Or I open social media on my phone and, before you know it, two hours have passed. I finally fall asleep again, not only worried, but truly heartsick. I dream chaotic or stressful or lovely dreams. In the morning they are all jumbled together, and I try to tease them apart, parse them like an obtuse sentence. When my alarm sounds, I tell myself not to get up, “Just lie here (warm and comfortable and thoughtless)…just a little while longer”. And I do.

Until I have to get up and the whole thing repeats itself.

This past week, on Sunday evening, I had tickets to see Carrie Newcomer perform. I had to fight the inertia of Sunday night, plus a winter weather advisory, just to get myself in the car. Once at the venue, my friend Molly joined me. We chatted until the lights went down and Carrie and her accompanist came onstage.

I heard an owl call last night
Homeless and confused
I stood naked and bewildered
By the evil people do

Up upon a hill there is a terrible sign
That tells the story of what darkness waits
When we leave the light behind.

I felt like Carrie’s first words described where I have been living – bewildered, in the darkness.

Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still

And I was. Weeping in the dark auditorium, I felt, for the first time in a while, not quite so alone in my despair. The whole world (not just me) weeps. And then:

Though shaken I still believe
the best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.
I am a voice calling out
Across the great divide
I am only one person
That feels they have to try
The questions fall like trees or dust
Rise like prayers above
But the only word is “Courage”
And the only answer ” Love”

There have been songs written about this experience of sitting in a theater or a bar, listening to a stranger whose song articulates what has been living, unarticulated, in the listener’s heart. Carrie’s words spoke directly out of my heart – and I am certain that she chose this opener for me. Because a gifted artist knows her audience, and those of us gathered that night were all in need of a blessing. We are all part of the weeping world, but, yes – still believing in what words like courage and love stand for; believing in the promise of the “beautiful not-yet”*

Later, after the concert, Molly and I walked to our cars, arm-in-arm, through swiftly falling snow. The crystal flakes landing on my upturned face felt like a benediction, their melting a baptism. Washed clean of my wretchedness, I was ready to follow Carrie’s exhortation, and hold the promise in my heart:

 

Light every candle that you can
For we need some light to see
In the face of deepest loss,
Treat each other tenderly
The arms of god will gather in
Every sparrow that falls
And makes no separation
Just fiercely loves us all.

 

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Note: Carrie Newcomer’s opening song, lyrics quoted above, was “I Heard An Owl”. You can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/MyD632qIww0 . Carrie’s songs are amazing, a balm to my weary soul.

* “The beautiful not-yet” is the title to another of Carrie’s songs.





The Echthros In the Mirror

9 03 2017

“She tried to pull herself together. “Remember, Mr. Jenkins, you’re great on Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’ That’s how it is with human beings and mitochondria and farandolae – and our planet, too, I guess, and the solar system. We have to live together in — in harmony, or we won’t live at all. ..”             –Meg Murray in A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

The first time I read the “Wrinkle In Time” series, it was a trilogy – now it is a quintet. I began re-reading the series recently, primarily because there is a quote from the third book that has always stuck with me. In that book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Mr. Murry, an eminent physicist, tells his family that to live in a peaceful and reasonable world, they must first create a peaceful and reasonable world within themselves and their own family.

Lately, I haven’t felt that I am living in a peaceful and reasonable world.

In response, I found myself returning to these books I read decades ago. In my initial reading, I liked the middle book, A Wind In The Door, least. While I have yet to read the last two in the series, published years after the first three, I am surprised to find that this middle book is my current adult favorite. I would try to explain the plot, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I am convinced that I would make a hash of it. So, without getting into too many of the story details, here’s my attempt to explain why I love this book now, as a middle-aged adult.

The story is cosmic in it’s scope, while taking the characters into the tiniest of microcosmic space – the mitochondria within a human body’s cells. Meg Murry, the protagonist, learns that literally everything in the Universe is connected, and that while we feel separate, that is an illusion. Once inside the mitochondria, Meg can’t communicate in the same way she would normally – words and sounds. Meg learns, instead, that “communion” (intimate fellowship or rapport) can happen, though, because of the very connectedness of everything. She is able to commune with other people, other sentient beings, even with the mitochondria in her brother’s body’s cells – and it is through this communion that she saves the day.

Meg saves her brother, and by extension human existence, from the Echthroi: the enemy that threatens to X things out of existence. X-terminte them. Cause them to cease to exist. When I was a kid, I often thought that ideas in books were solely the imaginal offspring of the author. Now I know that L’Engle didn’t make up the concept of the Echthroi – in fact, Echthroi (Ἐχθροί) is a Greek plural meaning “The Enemy”. The singular form of the word is Echthros (Ἐχθρός). L’Engle’s explanation of their purpose, a quest to erase things from existence, speaks to me on a deep level.

Just last week, I heard a story on NPR about the last three remaining Northern White Rhinos: Sudan, Najin and Fatu by name. They are currently living in Kenya, guarded by armed protectors around the clock. Scientists are striving to discover ways to prevent them from finally being X-ed out of existence. These rhinos have been hunted for their horns, believed by some to have magical properties, and depleted as well by the decimation of their habitats. When they are gone, somewhere in this universe the song of nature will hit a dischordant note, and a beautiful part of the whole will cease to exist. This fills me with dread and grief, for in that moment, the Echthroi will have been successful.

I can see the handiwork of the Echthroi all over this world: in North Korea, where the quest to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the globe is progressing; in Syria and elsewhere, when we fail to prevent genocide; in the US, when we choose name calling and finger pointing over substantive dialogue.

In A Wind In The Door, one way Meg must fight the Echthroi is by seeking within and finding/summoning love for her nemesis, Mr. Jenkins. In our very real world, fighting the echthroi is often an inside job as well. I increasingly believe that we cannot change the world around us if we do not seek first to change ourselves. When I stop to think about this, I must admit that the echthroi reside in me. In fact, when I rage, when I hate, when I name-call or finger-point the echthros IS me.

It may sound strange that I would love a book that reminds me that I am responsible for the world at such a deep level; that I would love a story that bluntly suggests that the fight between good and evil in the world is real, and the battleground is my own self. But Meg Murry reads a lot like my insecure teen self – and she does, eventually, successfully embody love for Mr. Jenkins, despite the numerous ways he failed her. Meg helps me believe that I am up to finding this kind of courage in my own heart.

More important, the book gives us one imaginative interpretation of what we know in our hearts to be true and science is rapidly proving – namely, that we live in a connected universe. We are part of a vast web of life that is interdependent, born from the stardust of Creation. And our purpose is compassion.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.                                   –1 Corinthians 13:1-2

 

 





Seven Years Social

2 03 2017

(Note: A strange glitch prevented this reflection from actually posting last week, when it was written. Luckily, the sentiments haven’t changed!)

Seven years ago this week, I joined Facebook.

I know this because all week I’ve been regaled with those little “Friendversary” videos FB produces. Like many people, I would guess, I find them a bit cheesy – especially when they celebrate things like my 7-year friendship with my father. Also, though, there was a photo collage and comment posted to my wall by my friend Layne that was beautiful in it’s capture of joyous, raucous, supportive friendship. In part, it read, “Oh Jen, this is something. And telling of the photos- they include so many people. You rang in a whole chapter of my life, one of the greatest! The chapter that MAKES the story.”

As a result of that post, and after a flurry of instant messages, a group of friends who have not been in the same place together for three years have put a date on the calendar to rectify that long separation. I can’t wait to just BE with these women.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, I’ve also been tweeting for seven years. When I moved to a new city in 2013, I learned about a social event on Twitter, and went with my friend Mike. (One of two friends I already had in that city, Mike and I had reconnected through FB after twenty-seven years apart.) Over craft beer and ice cream, conversations with apparent strangers suddenly became reunions of a sort, as our Twitter handles were revealed and we realized we’d been talking to each other for months, 140-characters at a time. Though I didn’t know it at that night, the people in that room would become the core of my friend-group in my new city: my fellow volunteers at Open Streets events, the members of my writing group, my teammates on alleycat “races”.

Such are the promises and true possibilities of social media – to connect and reconnect, to nurture shared interests, to meet people whose orbit wouldn’t otherwise intersect with ours but, somehow, should.

That shining promise is why I am not a fan of the algorithms that have been developed by social media platforms. You know, those formulas that have narrowed the scope of what we see and who we connect with, what ideas are allowed to cross-pollinate, etcetera. Based on the assumption that we want more of the same – the same products, people, politics (propaganda) – these algorithms pre-select content for us. The other day, I tried to send a friend request to someone I know – and she tried to friend me – and we couldn’t do it. Even though we were sitting side-by-side, we were not able to find each other. Even though we both opened up all our security settings, we couldn’t find each other. Eventually, the only way in was through a third person’s tagged photo. I’m so grateful it wasn’t this hard to reconnect with high school and college friends seven years ago – I hate to think of my life without the enrichment those relationships have brought, thanks to social media.

More important, in this time of social/political upheaval and unrest, I wish it didn’t require such deliberate determination to find and hear voices speaking from perspectives other than my own. (Unfortunately, the only ones it IS easy to connect with are the trolls. Trolls: the reason we can’t have anything nice on social media anymore. But trolls are a topic for a whole different post…) Many more knowledgeable people than me have written about what this means in real terms for the divisiveness and polarization happening in our society.

I can attest, though, that my personal sphere suffers from this polarization. The original promise of social media was that it can/could offer a place for dialogue rather than division. And while this is still possible, it has grown exponentially harder. The whole blame for this can’t be placed at the feet of our algorhythmic overlords. A significant portion of the blame is ours – our refusal to carry the norms of civility with us from IRL interactions to online ones. Our refusal to maintain civil and respectful discourse IRL, so that it sometimes feels we’ve completely abandoned efforts to talk through our differences anywhere at all. Our fallible and fragile egos, which tell us to take it personally when someone we like (or love) strongly voices a different opinion.

Seven years into my own social media venture, there are moments when it feels like all the promise, all the possibilities, have been lost.

On the other hand, there are also still moments of true connection available – if that is what we value and what we put forward ourselves. For example, I’m FB friends with a woman who lives overseas. She’s an evangelical Christian and political conservative married to an American serviceman; I am none of those things. I’ve never met her – we connected through one of my sisters. We don’t often actually speak directly to one another on FB, other than to give the occasional thumbs-up. However, in the past year my respect for her has increased tremendously. She is a rare individual who uses social media to gather a variety of perspectives – and she responds with respect and kindness even when her views and another’s are diametrically opposed. She responds with the same integrity even when the other commenter shares angry, vitriolic or uninformed opinions. She initiated a very interesting and thoughtful thread during the presidential campaign, trying to understand the response to Syrian refugees in America, given her perspective as an American living in Europe, where so many refugees were being resettled. Recently, in the week following the Women’s March on Washington, she began a conversation about abortion – probably one of the most compassionate dialogues I’ve ever witnessed between women with a variety of perspectives about one of the most divisive and polarizing issues of our times.

In another example, shortly after the presidential election, a Twitter acquaintance sent me a direct message. He wanted me to know he was sick of all the politics still filling his Twitter feed. “The election is over. Trump won. Can we please get over it already?” he asked. I replied, letting him know that while I wouldn’t talk exclusively about politics, I couldn’t pretend that I don’t live in this time and environment. I would continue to follow my own moral compass, and if he wanted to unfollow me in order to stop seeing my issue-oriented tweets and retweets, I would understand. He replied, “Oh no, I won’t do that! Its too hard to connect with intelligent thoughtful people. You won’t get rid of me that easily!” I remember smiling when I read that – nice to have friends you’ve never met who don’t intend to drop you over differing worldviews.

I’ve seen many complaints about how social media has become a constant barrage of politics and protest. I’ve also seen some interesting, thoughtful responses to those complaints (along with one or two less thoughtful ones). We’ve all heard or know of someone whose relationships have been negatively impacted over this – people unfriended or unfollowed on social media AND in their off-line relationships as well. This makes me sad. And it compounds the degree of polarization between us, rather than holding out the hope of healing it.

I, for one, hope for increased understanding. I, for one, hold out hope for the positive possibilities of interconnection offered via social media. Admittedly, the daily thrill of logging on, eager for multiple notifications and/or friend requests has lessened significantly over the years. Some days I honestly “just can’t” with the flame-throwers and trolls and (even) the Facebook “friends” who haven’t learned how to argue without taunting, insulting or gloating. However, this week’s barrage of “friendversaries” has reminded me that I have ample evidence of the positive effects of social engagement online, as well. My life has been so enriched by connections that I’ve made via the interwebs. It is the gratitude I feel for these relationships that allows my hope to remain alive and well. It is what keeps me reaching out on various platforms – and what allows me to celebrate my “seven years social” with each and every one of you who read this blog entry.

Happy anniversary, my friends!

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” — Mark Zuckerberg