Learning Not to Kill the Magic

On my recent visit to New Mexico, my parents and I drove to the Jemez State Monument. The drive from their home in Rio Rancho to the monument is gorgeous. As we passed one of several pueblos my father recalled stopping there once. He told the following story about that brief visit:

“We stopped at the visitor center, and there was this kid working there. He asked us where we were from, and I told him, ‘Rio Rancho now, but originally from Iowa.’ He said he hadn’t been many places, but he’d had the chance to visit Iowa the previous summer. Then he said, ‘And I saw something magical there. Something I thought only existed in books or movies – I honestly didn’t believe they were real.’ And you know what he was talking about? Fireflies! Course, it’s too dry down here for lightening bugs. Just imagine what that would be like – dusk on a June night in Iowa – if you’d never seen them before. No wonder he thought it was magic!”

A couple of weeks later, I was enjoying an incredible June dusk on the back patio of my friends, the Dennis’, in Iowa. As the fireflies began to light up the yard, I was remembering that conversation just as I heard a loud SMACK and the words, “Got it!” from one of the Dennis girls. In dismay, I asked why she killed the firefly, and her answer was, “I don’t like them.” A few minutes later, her sister joined us and the entire process was repeated – another lightning bug dispatched to a violent, early grave. At that point, I couldn’t refrain from sharing with them the whole story about the pueblo kid who saw something special in the insect’s beauty. I concluded my morality tale with the line, “Don’t you see? When you killed those creatures, you were killing the magic. Is that really what you want to do?” Two pairs of shoulders lifted in identical shrugs.

Heavy sigh.

Fast forward another week, to the Fourth of July. Minneapolis, MN. To celebrate my first holiday as a Minneapolitan, my friend Mike and I spent the entire day on our bikes exploring the city: Lake of the Isles, Sculpture Garden, Loring Park and Greenway, Nicolett Mall, St. Anthony Main, Gold Medal Park, the Guthrie, Boom Island, University of Minnesota campus.

Strange mirrored reflections in window, on the Endless Bridge, The Guthrie Theater
Strange mirrored reflections in window, on the Endless Bridge, The Guthrie Theater

Late afternoon found us back on St. Anthony Main, thirsty and just a tad hungry. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant, with perfect seats to watch the crowd already gathering to stake out their fireworks-watching spots, though it was just striking 5:00 p.m. The server brought our menus, including the daily specials sheet, and Mike remarked that the flatbread on the normal menu looked good. I mentioned that there was another flatbread on the specials menu, to which Mike replied, “I saw it. Not interested, too complicated, too many ingredients.”

Now, I didn’t really care or have a stake in what Mike ordered for dinner. So there was no point in my follow-up to him, in which I pointed out that there were the same number of ingredients in both flatbreads. What I was trying to say, but not managing to spit out, was that the description of the special was more complicated and flowery, but that the actual ingredients were pretty basic. It completely came across as argumentative. Truly, it didn’t matter, yet I couldn’t seem to drop the subject, which quickly became (justifiably so) irritating to my companion. When I finally did stop talking, Mike and I sat in silence for a few minutes.

And that’s when I realized that there are lots of ways to kill magic. If our fun and easy 4th of July companionship had been a little bug with a phosphorescent butt, I would have just smashed it – but good! And while this moment was a very minor example (Mike was gracious enough to let it go and we were both able to enjoy our fish tacos), it is indicative of something I believe we all do, namely: failing to appreciate wonder when it occurs, so that we end up squashing it.

Sometimes it’s an issue of perspective. Like the Dennis girls, for whom fireflies have always been around, familiarity breeds contempt, or indifference. Someone for whom that thing, be it an insect, an experience, an emotion, is unusual or extraordinary is often more open to the wonder or magic of it. This is also true in relationships. Think about being a teenager and hearing someone say something complimentary about your parent(s) – shocking! Or when a new friend reminds you of a special quality in an old friend whom you’ve “gotten used to” and you suddenly realize you’ve taken that friend’s amazing quality for granted. The trick is to find ways to see things with new eyes, to keep refreshing your perspective. I never want to forget the wonder of bicycling, for example – how much I love that feeling of riding, of moving fast under my own steam, my body keeping a stick of metal attached to two wheels upright in an act that completely defies gravity. But training for endurance events, like RAGBRAI, can make the experience feel like a chore, rather than a joy. So I do my best to change things up, take new routes and trails – or like last night, jump on the chance to head out for a night ride (which is a completely different animal than daytime rides). Obviously, this would be impossible to do with everything in our lives. Keeping perspective fresh on household chores, or grocery shopping, may not be possible or even worth the effort. But something as amazing as little insects twinkling and sparkling in your backyard on a perfect June night – definitely worth a little effort to keep the magic alive.

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While biking across the Stone Arch Bridge, I stopped for a fresh perspective.

At other times, though, it isn’t an issue of perspective, it’s one of awareness. It seems so often in life that I am caught up in my own inner dialogue instead of the moment in which I am living. I think of it as PMAD: Present Moment Awareness Deficit. Last week, I went to my first Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. I stubbed my toe tripping up the stairs and fell forward (luckily, not spilling much of my cold beer). By the time we had found and climbed to our seats, I was no longer in the stadium, I was in “Jenland” and my stream of consciousness went something like this:  “I’m bleeding! I can’t believe I am bleeding. All over my sandal. The night is ruined. I’m bleeding, I smell like beer, I’m sweating, the kid behind me better stop kicking my seat, I wish I had worn something else, I hate my hair…” You get the picture – my body was sitting in an amazing location, with the Minneapolis skyline spread before me, but my head was literally not in the game. And social media contributes greatly to PMAD – it’s hard to notice the moment you’re having when you’re conversing via text and checking facebook statuses with/of people who aren’t in that same moment. Wonder and magic could be exploding like fireworks all around you, and you might miss it completely.

Great view, from Target Field
Great view, from Target Field

Looking back, this is what I regret most – the times I realized, too late, that marvelous, mystical, enchanting things were happening all around me and I was too busy being mentally snarky to notice or fully engage with them. Over time, I’ve been learning to recognize the signs of PMAD in myself and I’ve picked up a great technique to counteract it. I tell my muscles to relax, tell my lungs to breathe deeply, and tell my inner chatterbox to shut the hell up at least until I’ve relaxed and breathed. Usually, that gets me back into the moment – as long as I recognize that I’m experiencing a PMAD episode to begin with. (This technique worked beautifully at the Twins game, by the way! What a great night that turned out to be – including actual fireworks!)

One of my favorite Roald Dahl, a man who understood how to appreciate the magic in life (or at least how to get it down on paper), quotes says “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whether I’m experiencing a stale, “blasé, blasé” perspective, or having a PMAD incident, I always hope to find my way back to watching with glittering eyes as the magic of this one, precious life unfolds around me. Unless I see it, I can’t fully experience it. And I think I’ve killed enough magic for one lifetime.

Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013
Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013

Keep on dreaming, even if it breaks your heart

In the early 1980s, I wrote a poem about driving around the deserted city streets of my home town at 3:00 a.m. on the 4th of July. No one but me ever really liked that poem. It was a snapshot of a moment in which I was consciously aware of my own being. I was fully in the moment, though it was a truly unremarkable one: two people, a pack of cigarettes, a Chevy van, a dying blue collar town.

I remember thinking, self-consciously, that it was like we were living in a Springsteen song. But I also remember thinking that, someday in the distant future, I would look back at that particular moment and be really glad for it. Glad for the friendship, and the cool night breeze off the river, and for the opportunity to really know where I came from. Now, decades later, I do remember, and I am glad for all those things.

Tonight, 4th of July 2012, I was driving home in the evening light, too hot in this heat wave to have the windows down. I haven’t smoked in decades, nor have I lived on the mighty Mississippi since the last millenium (and my hometown refused to die; in fact, is currently experiencing a renaissance). I was thinking about past Independence Days, when I heard a song on the radio that imposed itself on my conscious mind and drew me out of my reverie. It’s a song about a kid falling in love with music, and dreaming of creating a life playing and singing. The repetitive lyric is, “Keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart.”

Keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart.

I’ve written before about the distinction Parker Palmer makes between a heart breaking into pieces, and one which breaks open. Beauty and memory can both be occasions of breaking the heart open. As I listened to this song on the radio, I realized that dreams can, as well.

When I was a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which nothing happened other than the tragedy that my siblings and I all grew up and stopped living together. I would wake drenched in tears. Ever since, I have had a dream of home which includes roots deep in a community, friends and family surrounding me, a house filled with love and laughter. I have realized all the pieces of this dream in my life, though never the whole. In lonely moments, this breaks my heart in pieces. Almost always, though, those moments are short-lived. They give way to the “broken open” heart. The heart that welcomes people into my life joyfully, the heart that fills with gratitude when I am welcomed.

We all dream of loving and being loved. Again, this dream causes many moments in life in which we feel broken apart. And then there are those moments when we become present to the ways our hearts can be broken open – open to capacity, open to realignment, open to acceptance. I had one such moment a couple of weeks ago while visiting the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. I found myself taking a pinch of the “holy mud”, famed for it’s miraculous healing powers, and smearing it over my heart with a prayer for my willingness to remain open to this dream. And a second prayer, to remain open, in gratitude, to the ways the dream is already fulfilled in my life.

This morning, I stood in line for a pancake breakfast, an annual fundraiser for the Ely, Iowa fire department. Behind me stood a group of older people, most in their 70s and 80s. They were talking about all of the fun they were having these days: volunteering, getting together with friends, keeping busy. One woman said, “I could stay home feeling sorry for myself. But I’m not going to!” It was a slow moving line, and the group kept all who stood around them entertained. When they discussed whether anyone was attending the evening fireworks, one gentleman (who had proudly proclaimed his age as 92) said, “Nope. After this, we’re going home and making our own fireworks.” Everyone, including the eavesdropping bystanders, laughed aloud. I found a new dream taking shape in my heart – the dream of a life well and truly lived to its very edges. This is a dream that requires effort and choice, no matter what happens in life to break your heart.

Some dreams stay with you forever
Drag you around and bring you back to where you were
Some dreams keep on getting better
Gotta keep believing if you wanna know for sure…
 
…Keep on dreaming, even if it breaks your heart.
 
(You can check out the music video of the Eli Young Band performing “Keep On Dreaming Even If It Breaks Your Heart” here)

Discovery and Rediscovery: Notes on the Best 4th of July Ever!

Here is a partial list of my activities over the 4th of July weekend, 2011:

  • Reunions with high school and college friends and their families.
  • Airshow, fireworks, and sparklers with various combinations of children and adults from the above.
  • 64 miles of bikeriding on unpaved trails.
  • A family reunion in rural Maquoketa, IA.

And here are some of the things I discovered or rediscovered over the three day weekend:

Discovery: Any place, including an apartment in an assisted-living retirement facility, can feel like home if the right people are assembled there.

Rediscovery: The joy of singing. Most especially songs originally written and/or performed by John Denver. With friends and guitar accompaniment. When no one cares whether you can carry the tune, hit the notes, find your range.

Discovery: That the happiness of reunions can be enhanced by including people who weren’t part of the original group. Betts, Mary’s partner; Ruth, Sheila’s 88 year old fireball of a mother; my dear friend Sue, who brought Lori whom none of us knew…not to mention the children of those we remember as (almost) children themselves!

Rediscovery: Dubuque’s Eagle Point Park is one of the most beautiful places I’ve spent time. It would hold up by comparison to many much more famous spots. Some very special memories, from early childhood through Saturday’s air show and picnic, reside there.

Discovery: Turning 50 doesn’t feel that strange when the friends surrounding you are that old, too!

Rediscovery:  A group of cousins may be able to laugh harder and have more fun than just about any other grouping of people.

Discovery: A family reunion full of people you are completely unrelated to can be very fun – especially when the family that invited you is uniformly warm and welcoming, whether they’re meeting you for the first time or the first time in 30 years.

It all started with a vague plan that a bunch of us would get together for parts of the weekend. Then, as the date approached, and plans became more concrete, I spent a moment or two wondering just how the groups and various events would work – would the people gel or would there be uncomfortable silences and people making every effort to maintain distance from those they didn’t know? I needn’t have spent one moment worrying. After all, at the core of the plan: friendships which have endured in spite of years and distance. Branching out from that core, were some of the people these friends love best in the world. Each event and permutation of the group worked. How could it have gone otherwise?!

Surprisingly, it was one of the teenage boys (initially dragged along against his will, I’m told) who declared, late on Monday night, that this was the “best 4th of July EVER!” And it was.