Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!

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Conference – Day 2: Activism

I began the day with an early morning trek to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was too early to enter the museum and see the exhibits, but that is not what I was there for, anyway. Like millions of others over the years, I visited the museum to see the Rocky steps. You know, the ones Rocky tackled as part of his training for the big fight in the original Rocky film. One of the reasons that movie has inspired so many is the whole idea of one regular guy taking on a corrupt system and, through application of hard work and heart, overcoming the odds that are stacked so high against him.

Turns out, this was a fitting way to begin the second day at the NASPA Conference. The morning’s featured speaker was Emmanuel Jal, whose autobiography War Child tells the story of his turbulent youth in Sudan, where he witnessed many atrocities, at the age of eight became a child soldier, then a refugee and one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. But Jal’s path was destined to cross that of Emma McCune who saved him (along with 149 other Sudanese children). Jal now works for peace and to better the lives of those in his home country living in poverty. His goal is to change the world. I know he managed to take a bunch of college administrators and turn us into dancing fools this morning, so maybe he will succeed.

The afternoon featured speakers were Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the documentary filmmakers who brought us King Corn the story of how hidden corn in our diets has literally changed us. They also took on a project of farming out of the bed of an old pickup, leading to their high-profile Truck Farm.  Advocates for sustainable practices in food production, they have also started an activism project modeled on Americorps, called Food Corps. Their aim is to send young adults into communities to teach about whole foods, grow school gardens, and get communities really thinking about the startling effects of our current food consumption patterns in the United States. This is a public health crisis (1 in 3 children is on track to develop Type II Diabetes), it is a social justice concern (our poorest communities have the least access to fresh foods), and it touches everyone. After the session, I spoke briefly with Curt Ellis, who is spearheading the activism side of their ventures. He indicated that Iowa (my home state) is one of the first 10 states to which Food Corps workers will be sent. We spoke about some of the challenges in Iowa of speaking directly and truthfully to farmers and to powerful business interests about these concerns. He said he’s met with higher level management at businesses such as Cargill (to name one major industry in my community) – and he believes that by and large they want the same things he does, among them food that makes people healthy rather than sick. The ten states they’re starting Food Corps in were selected because they already have statewide organizations which will support Food Corps’ mission and purpose. In Iowa, there are a couple of campuses with strong Americorps programs, and they will also be working with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

In addition to the two featured presentations, I went to two additional sessions. One of these also fit todays theme. The presenters, from Marquette University, discussed the development of a social justice living-learning community based on the life and work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day, an activist whose example has inspired many to enter fully into lives of those who have little.

In all, I walked away from today’s formal events ready to take action in both my work and my own life. Inspiration is a great thing, but today’s speakers reminded me that without action, great ideas remain just that. As Emmanuel Jal, Ian Cheney, and Curt Ellis know, inspiration must lead to action in order to spark real change.  And this brings me back to Rocky. As we all know, sometimes the road to change is difficult and requires hard work. We love what Rocky stands for because he succeeded through sheer perseverance. Emmanuel Jal fasted for over 600 days to raise money to build a school in Africa because he promised the children he would do it. I don’t know about you, but I definitely call that perseverance! I’m happy to have both the fictional hero and a real life one to learn my lessons from. And the lesson I learned today is that it isn’t really a question of CAN I do it (am I good enough, strong enough, talented enough to change the world). Its more a question of WILL I do it? And the only way to answer yes to that question is…to get busy!