The House or The Tree?

“But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.”

                                                                                                                John Muir

On Sunday evening, I left my apartment to take a walk, and stopped at my mailbox on the way out. I’ve developed the bad habit of only checking my mail sporadically – often enough that bills don’t languish past their due dates (admittedly sometimes by a razor-thin margin). To my surprise, the mailbox yielded a wonderful, newsy, handwritten letter from a distant friend!

It was a cool early summer evening, a fresh breeze ruffling the profusion of new summer growth everywhere. I savored the letter as I walked, enjoying my friend’s stories of her life. Most especially, I appreciated her self-reflection as she, like me, struggles to find her way in midlife.

One thread in the letter concerned her ongoing struggle to navigate personal relationships – a theme most of us can relate to. My friend wrote that she has spent a lot of her life thinking that she is deficient in some way, that when her relationships were troubled or refused to thrive, it was because of some lack in her, some sabotaging flaw. She went on to say that, lately, she’s been trying on a new perspective: perhaps, she wrote, these other people in her life had been/are assholes (users, takers, completely self-focused). The kind of people who keep shifting the bar intentionally so that she would work harder, do more, within the relationship to keep their attention, their love. Maybe, she wrote, she’s not the problem, after all.

At this point in the letter, and in my walk, I felt the need for a pause. I sat on a short cement wall, one hand on the sun-warmed cement, the other, holding the letter, resting in my lap. I looked across the street, seeing an abandoned house with a tree in front of it (pictured above). As I gazed at this scene I thought:

How easy it is for us to see ourselves as this house: broken, abandoned, lonely, spoiled, past our prime. Unloved.

How easy it is to see everyone else as that tree: strong, beautiful, inviting (it has lilies dancing all around it’s trunk!), sheltering. Wanted.

We think we are so lucky that the tree has chosen to be near us.

What would happen if we shifted our perception, adjusted our vision, and thought of ourselves as the tree?

And what if we think of some of the people who come into our lives as the lilies, and the birds, and the many tiny creatures who are at home with us? They enhance our lives and we enliven theirs; we mutually benefit.

Now and then, one of these houses appears. We generously offer it shade, and companionship. But we don’t allow it to alter our basic tree-ness: we stay whole and beautiful. We are ourselves, and we know that the house is itself, too. It is not our task to make the house feel whole and new again.

What if, instead of thinking we are lucky to be chosen, we thought, “We are all so lucky to be together.”

At this point, I got up and resumed by letter-reading and walking. When I got home, I felt relaxed and content, so although I’d intended to sit right down and write a return letter to my friend, I went to sleep instead.

When I got up the next morning, the week’s needs and events overtook me almost immediately. But at least once each day, in the midst of the busyness and overwhelm of the work week, a little whisper has come into my mind. “What if you are the tree?” it asks. Gradually, I have begun to see how that would change everything.


What I Allow

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”  –Robyn Davidson


  • In 1975, Robyn Davidson moved to Alice Springs, in Australia, to work with camels in order to prepare for a trek across the desert.
  • In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean agreed to be the spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate named Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
  • On December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 180-foot-tall, 1500-year-old California redwood tree in order to prevent it from being cut down.


Recently, I came across something called the five second rule. No, this is not about dropped food. This rule is used to help get you unstuck and moving forward. The basic concept is this: you have an idea about something you could/should/wish to/want to do (ask a question in a public forum, clean your bathroom, take dinner to a friend convalescing from surgery). Such ideas come to us all the time, but often we don’t act on them. The longer we take to act, the less likely it is that we will take the action at all. The five second rule suggests counting backwards from five, challenging yourself to act on your thought or idea within that five seconds – thereby short-circuiting the tendency to (through procrastination or fear of failure, etc.) forego action.

Since reading of this concept, I keep noticing how many times I think of something to do yet do nothing. It is not only astounding – it is deeply disturbing. It is disturbing because part of the noticing process has been paying attention to the self-talk that keeps me from action. How humbling is it to really hear myself rationalize laziness, excuse sloth, forgive weakness, and cave in to fear.

At the same time as this heightened self-awareness, I have been reading Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her trek across the Australian desert accompanied by four camels and a dog. In the final paragraph of her memoir, Davidson shares the thought I quoted, above, about what she learned. Two important takeaways in that one short sentence:

  1. You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.
  2. The most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step.

Davidson goes on to say that, like all important life lessons, these two need to be re-learned, over and over throughout our lives.

After finishing the book, I set it down and thought, “I should go for a walk.” Unbidden, my brain began the process of counting backwards from five…four…three…

“Alright!”, I told myself, grabbing my tennies. After changing my shoes, I headed outside, and spent about an hour walking around my neighborhood. Thoughts of Davidson’s trek – the fact that she had an idea but zero skills or experience to back it up, yet did it anyway, blew my mind. And it led me to think of other people I’ve admired who said yes to a thought or idea, not sure where it would lead or how it might turn out.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Julia Butterfly Hill, both social justice heroes of mine, came to mind. Neither of them knew, when they first took action on an idea, that it would become a life-altering choice. The idea came – in the form of an invitation or a creative solution to a problem – and the first step was taken. The path revealed itself over time, just as Davidson’s trek wound its unexpected way through the Outback. For Sr. Helen, next steps took her into the international spotlight as an advocate for those sentenced to death. For Julia, that first choice led to 738 days living in the tree which became known to people everywhere as Luna.

It is easy to think of these women, and others like them, as extraordinary; to think of them as possessing something special with which the rest of us were not gifted. But I’ve had the good fortune to break bread with both Sr. Helen and Julia, and I’ve discovered that this kind of thinking is, mainly, a cop-out. They are lovely, wonderful, fiercely loving individuals – but they are not some special subspecies of homo sapiens. They are not that different from me or you.

If, as Robyn Davidson suggests, we are as strong and powerful as we allow ourselves to be, then these women have opted to allow strength, resilience, individual personal power – love – to flow through them. If Davidson is correct, the biggest difference between them and me is this issue of “allowing” myself to be powerful.

I’m not off on any quests through hostile landscapes, nor will Susan Sarandon be portraying me in a movie any time soon. Still, isn’t it time to seriously consider life’s most important question? Will I continue to sit on my couch making excuses, or will I allow myself to be as strong, as powerful, as I am capable of being?

“The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can one person make a difference?”  Each and every one of us does make a difference.  It is actually impossible to not make a difference.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”


Inspirational vs Motivational

Inspirational tweet:  “Stop wishing and start willing.”                                                             Response to tweet:  “I will college was free.” *

A few days ago, I read these tweets and moved on. But I keep thinking back on them with a chuckle.

I’m pretty much over my “inspirational quotes” phase. These days, I am likely to sigh heavily and skip them. Even when a friend I know is quite earnest reposts or retweets them, I might mutter, “yeah, right”. Often, I find myself wanting to make a clever response (such as the one above) or perhaps launch into a diatribe about why that particular quote is insipid or too Pollyanna-ish.

Usually, I am able to refrain from raining on someone else’s positivity parade. The reason for this is that I’m not actually against inspiration – I can be happy when others find it in a snappy, clever sentence. In fact, I seek inspiration in life as much as the next person. Lord knows (and so do you if you read this blog) I’m not against finding inspiration in pithy or meaningful quotes. However, more and more I find, that inspiration comes to me in less easily digestible platitudes. And forget the haranguing pep-talkers who string them together into long paragraphs that seem to shout at me “BE INSPIRED, DAMMIT!”

I follow a former student of mine on FB and Instagram. I read everything she posts, even (maybe especially) the really long stories. I always come away feeling inspired. She writes from the depth of her heart about raising her six adopted kids, her experiences as a foster mom, her fierce love and joy amidst the chaos and exhaustion of everyday life. Her very real experiences and thoughts are so much more heartening and energizing to me than an impersonal adage.

I am inspired when people I respect share themselves authentically. I am inspired when people who have accomplished something I admire them for or wish I could emulate, show that they are imperfect and vulnerable too. I’m less inspired when someone goes all Vince Lombardi on me in order to light a fire under my feet.

In much the same way that I have had my inspirational meme phase and passed through to the other side, I admit I am moving past my political meme fascination as well. For a time, since the last election, I was delighted to come upon a list of witty protest sign slogans or humorous (even shocking) tweets that encapsulated someone’s political bent – especially if it happened to match how I am bent.

I am finding it much harder, as time goes on, to find relief in these mini-position statements. Yesterday, I woke to the news of that horrible high-rise apartment fire in London, then to the shooting of congressmen on a Virginia baseball diamond. The news all day was horrific or glum or demoralizing. One item after another in a ghastly line. On such a day, what feeling person could truly take joy in snippy one-liners?

Just before bed, I happened to be online trying to track down some information for a project I am doing at work, and I came across the following quote from Lynne Twist, activist and author.

“Many social justice or social activist movements have been rooted in a position. A position is usually against something. Any position will call up its opposition. If I say up, it generates down. If I say right, it really creates left. If I say good, it creates bad. So a position creates its opposition. A stand is something quite distinct from that.

There are synonyms for “stand” such as “declaration” or “commitment,” but let me talk for just a few moments about the power of a stand. A stand comes from the heart, from the soul. A stand is always life affirming. A stand is always trustworthy. A stand is natural to who you are. When we use the phrase “take a stand” I’m really inviting you to un-cover, or “unconceal,” or recognize, or affirm, or claim the stand that you already are. “

What struck me about this quotation, is that it differentiates between two concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably but which, as she points out, are actually quite different. I found myself looking at my own political biases, and hoping I can be someone who takes a stand, and not someone who continues to set up the push-pull dichotomy of taking positions. I know what I stand for, but do I articulate that so others know? Or do I just contribute to the right/left/right/wrong/up/down/red/blue tug of war?

As I thought about this concept of “position” versus “stand” , I realized that the same kind of differentiation can be made between “inspirational” versus “motivational”. Suddenly, it became clear that I’ve been conflating the two.

“Motivational” wills me to do something, pushes me toward achievement. “Inspirational” fills me with spirit. The first is about doing, the second about being. At this point in my life, I am less taken with words (and the people who utter them) about motivating or pushing me. In my mid-50s, I hope my greatest motivators are intrinsic. If I’m seeking motivation externally (on Twitter, for example) I’m probably truly struggling.

On the other hand, I hope I am never too old to be en-spirited – whether by the spirit of love, or grace, or mercy or kindness. Authentic words (and the people who utter them) about sharing real struggles and victories will continue to touch me deeply – will continue to inspire me.



*Sorry, I didn’t take note of whose tweets they were, and I couldn’t find them when I went back to Twitter.


Give Light

“The cure for all the ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word love. It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.” –Lydia M. Child, abolitionist

In a small city like Cedar Rapids, people are connected to one another in ways that are not obvious – or even known – until there is a loss. Then, it is as if the threads of a tapestry light up and you can follow them as they criss-cross town. Folks who had appeared unconnected are suddenly linked, woven together by their shared sorrow. When the loss is sudden or unexpected, this effect is intensified; more so if the individual was a light-giver to others.

In these moments, so many things we are used to thinking of as important fall away, replaced by the certainty that love is paramount. Love given, love received, love multiplied exponentially by the very act of expressing it outwardly in ways big and small.

Suddenly, we understand that the people we see as “leaders” may have their roles, but the people who who give love freely, understanding that relationship is everything: these people are the actual beating heart of our communities.

When the communities we are a part of are reeling with the loss of such individuals, the paucity of loving leadership in the larger context of our state, region, or nation is revealed by stark contrast. You cannot lead from love and be a liar. You cannot lead from love and promulgate a scarcity mentality, in which your  group or country will not have enough if others do (leading to policies and acts that are needlessly cruel and selfish). You cannot lead from love and encourage hate.

It follows, then, that true visionaries are those who lead with and from love, who inspire love in others. Leading from love generates love – abundance, shared growth, community.

Maybe we don’t think of love as a quality of leadership. If that’s the case, maybe its time we start.

“Give light, and people will find the way.” — Ella Baker, civil and human rights activist



In other words: Forget about the dots

“Wanting an intimate relationship doesn’t mean I get one. But to paraphrase Stephen Stills, if I can’t be with the one I love, my best insurance policy against a sad, lonely old age is to love the one I’m with. The one who will never leave me, no matter what, for real. That one, of course, would be me.”         — Meredith Maran The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention


You take a step. Make a choice. Decide.

You never know exactly what to expect, how it will “turn out”, where it will lead. But you think you’ve looked at it from every angle you can, and it seems like the next right thing to do, so you think you know approximately, at least, what will happen.

In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, he said ““You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” You know this is true, but even hearing Jobs’ wisdom in your head at each decision-point doesn’t stop you from trying. Doesn’t keep you from thinking that, maybe, this time you’ve managed to connect the dots forward. This time you’ve mapped the trajectory of your own future correctly and all will proceed accordingly.

But it doesn’t.

You fail. Someone you rely on fails. Markets fail. You get sick. Someone you love gets sick. You calculated based on certain assumptions, now proven incorrect. (Donald Trump gets elected President proving all bets are off.) People refuse to act according to your predictions. Life refuses to act according to your predictions.

You feel disappointed, disillusioned, depressed. Alone.

Now what?

Self-recrimination (what did I miscalculate? how could I be so wrong? I must be missing a crucial gene!)? Shut down and spend days, weeks, just getting through until I can sit in my easy chair at night and fall asleep? Blame everyone else for not meeting my expectations (which, of course, are perfectly reasonable)?

I don’t have any prescriptions for fixing a life that goes off the rails, for solving the endless riddle of “how did this happen?” or “How did I end up here?”  But here’s what I’m learning*, or at least what I think I’m picking up on right now:

Whatever happens, wherever I go – I am the common denominator. Blame, anger, self-loathing…not helpful. Helpful? Compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness. If I have to live with myself, I prefer peaceful, loving cohabitation.

Whether I am proactive and take-charge or reactive and passive, I will experience the results. In which case, doing is preferable to wallowing; action preferable to waiting; woke-ness preferable to somnolence.

Endlessly ruminating on what happened yesterday or last week or four years ago, trying to pinpoint a moment “where it all went wrong”, is a waste of my energy. If I had known when I was 29 what my life would look like at 49, I might have chosen differently. But I didn’t know. And I chose what I chose. Move on.

Endlessly ruminating on the future, on my fears of being old and alone, or getting sick, or…just not ending up where I wish I would end up…only paralyzes me and wastes my days in longing. “Stop gazing at your reflection in the Mirror of Erised,” I practice saying to myself; step away, then step onward.


So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”       —Ranier Maria Rilke

* Like most important lessons in life, these “learnings” are not new to me. I am simply spiraling through them on another curve. Right now, it is helping to read a bunch of books about women my age reinventing themselves, changing their lives (whether forced to change or choosing to change).