The Wisdom to Know

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
–Reinhold Niebuhr

Here’s a disclaimer, right up front: serenity is not a quality I have generally understood, nor have I actively sought serenity in my daily life. I offer this truth, not as a self-criticism or as some kind of humble brag. I just wish to make it clear at the outset that I don’t know much about serenity.

That said, I’ve been thinking about the serenity prayer quite a bit lately. Not so much the serenity part, but the acceptance, courage, and wisdom parts. Each of us may decide for ourselves whether we are blessed or cursed to be living in these “interesting times”; for my part, it feels important to wonder if I am responding as my best self. Acceptance, courage and wisdom play a huge role in that assessment.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

I am an Idealist. Even as a child, adults were often hurling this word at me as if it were an epithet: “You’re such an idealist!” It became a phrase I hated. Once I understood what the term meant, I was confused about why people seemed to think it was a bad thing. It came as no surprise when, in graduate school, I studied the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and found myself to be an INFP – the Idealist. All of this is background so you will understand when I say I have trouble with this line of the serenity prayer. My brain looks at the world and struggles to find things that I cannot change. So far the list is minimal: weather, in the short-run (over the long run, climate change suggests that I can have, for good or ill, an impact on weather); someone else’s choices (though I can impact the circumstances, opinions, feelings that may guide those choices)…Ok, let’s face it – I just don’t think there are things I cannot change!

This goes deeper than a personality preference. If I believe (and I do) that we are all connected, then it behooves me to take a long view of  change. The ripples I send out into the world (my actions, my thoughts, my being) effect change – whether I see or comprehend their impact is almost irrelevant. Of course, I take the most pride and pleasure in having a visible, measurable impact for the good. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m aware that sometimes I have a negative impact as well. This does not make me proud.)

Acceptance of the things I cannot change, then, becomes more about accepting that I will never single-handedly change society or culture in a manner that is immediately operational. Institutional racism, for example, will only change if many people like me act in concert and with good will to create change then continue to act in ways that support and institutionalize equality. Learning to accept that change is both possible and occurring, even when it is imperceptible to me, is as close to finding serenity within the context of this line as I am likely to get.

…the courage to change the things I can…

I admire courage. Whether it is evidenced by someone acting on their convictions, taking a chance on the untried/unknown, or putting themselves between another person and harm I try to recognize and support courage when I see it in action. But I, myself, am a bit on the cowardly side. For most of us, courage is not a response we can plan in advance; it is too easy to reason ourselves off the hook. When we do act with courage, more often than not we are moved to act by immediate circumstances unfolding around us.

But the serenity prayer isn’t speaking to that kind of “in the heat of the moment” courage. It is talking about the courage to face our own weaknesses; the courage to stand in our truth day after day, even if/when no one stands with us; the courage of our convictions that “there is a right thing I must do” regardless of the cost. I am sometimes called to speak truth to power, but often find it difficult to do the speaking – much like being unable to scream in the midst of a nightmare, fear of the possible repercussions interferes with my courageous expression. This line of the serenity prayer calls me to find my voice and make it be heard anyway.

Speaking of finding my voice, there is also the courage required to be a broken record in service to justice. To consistently call on the “better angels” (as Lincoln put it) of our nature to heal and to forgive and to forge new understanding requires tenacity and commitment. At a time when it is fashionable to use the phrase “social just warrior (SJW)” as a pejorative, the courage to walk this path daily is often unrecognized or unwelcome – yet absolutely necessary for change.

And so I pray for courage.

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom,” says Confucius. “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Whatever of actual wisdom we gain via these methods is precious. Like the proverbial pearl of great price, not only have we paid dearly for it, but it can be lost to us if we do not treasure it and if we do not use it.

Proverbs (4:6-7) tells us: “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Wow. That bears repeating:

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

So wisdom is more than self-knowledge, deeper than experience. It is nothing less than gaining understanding – which requires these things, but also empathy and compassion. There is no wisdom that is merely self-referenced. No wonder wisdom feels both so important and so difficult to attain.

Given all of these musings, is it any wonder I’ve been unable to get this darn prayer off my mind? So much for serenity!

Look, I’m not the kind of idealist who expects perfection; but I am an idealist who believes that whatever better future we imagine is possible. I’m not sure I need to find serenity at the cost of choosing which change is possible, because what is possible is always changing. I am willing to concede that there are limitations to my ability to change the world, to change systems, to change minds or hearts. But these limitations are not limitations of possibility but of imagination and they are made less possible when I cower rather than act with courage. I believe that courage is a muscle that can be made stronger through repetitive use – whether I stand, speak or take a knee to express what I hold as truth, what I value.

All of it, always, returns to wisdom. Knowing how and when to act, whether speech or silence is most needed, how to exercise your courage so that it is strong when you – and the world – need it most…wisdom is the generator of true discernment. And if in gaining wisdom any of us find a modicum of serenity as well, may we be blessed by it.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”                                         –Abraham Lincoln

 

Excuses are reasons past their prime

When, exactly, do reasons become excuses? 

I’ve been wondering.

I was having coffee on Sunday with three dear friends whom I don’t see as often as I’d like these days. At first, we talked about normal life stuff: food, our crazy schedules, the difficulty of maintaining perfectly groomed toenails. When you haven’t been together in a while, it takes some “warm up” talk before you get comfortable and start sharing what’s really going on in your life – how you feel, not just what you’ve been up to.

When we got to the real stuff, I listened with compassion to my friends’ concerns, as they did to mine. But afterwards, thinking about what I’d shared, I couldn’t help but wonder: was I holding onto reasons so tightly because I was, in fact, using them as excuses?

Many of the things that trouble us in life are not of our own choosing, and even the things that initially are choices often turn into things that are beyond our control. One example: you choose to have a child, but once they pop out you are basically SOL in the control department. Another example: I chose my job, but that doesn’t mean that, in any real sense, I get to choose how each day in that job unfolds. Mostly, I try to manage the chaos and hope for the best.

There are reasons, often good ones, for why things turn out the way they do. Which is fine – end of story – if the way things turn out is copacetic. But when it isn’t? When we’re unhappy or uncomfortable with where things are (where we are)?

How long do reasons remain reasons in that unhappy or uncomfortable space? When do they morph into excuses? I haven’t exactly figured that timing out yet.

But I do know that change has happened for me.

If I’m honest, I realized it when talking with my friends on Sunday. As I told them the reasons for my 80-pound weight gain and loss of physical fitness, I heard it in my own voice. “Menopause,” I said. “Medications,” I added. “Mobility challenges!” And that’s when I heard it: the false, tinny note of self-excusation.

What might have been reasons to begin with are not any more. Now, they’re just the excuses I use to justify inaction. Realizing this totally sucks. Now, I have to stop making excuses and make changes instead. And the fact is, making changes is hard. There’s also no guarantee that the outcome of these changes will be everything I want it to be.

But the eventual outcome isn’t the most important reason to change. A much more important reason is to be able to say, without reasons or excuses, “I’ve done the best I could do.” No matter what else happens, I’ll be really glad when I can say that again.

What We Learned From What We Lost

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Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

     —from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

In 2008, the city I live in experienced a catastrophic flood. It surprised us, the waters rising fast and destroying so much of what made our town unique. I’ll always be haunted by the memory of cresting the hill on the south side of town, after the main flood waters had passed, to discover the very heart of the city enveloped in darkness. The sorrow and loss of it.

For eight years, many people labored to not only bring the city back but to make it better, stronger, more distinctive until you could literally feel the energy of creativity and new growth.

And then the unthinkable: another flood threatened the city in the very same way. This time, we had some warning, a little time to prepare. And the people, remembering, rolled up their sleeves and got to work saving our city and each other. It was inspiring, and it was humbling – and it was an example of what we are capable of when we forget our differences in the midst of what we share.

We still have our differences. We still have our critics. We still have our imperfections. (I myself will still complain that there’s not even a decent cup of coffee to be had after 4:00 p.m. on Sundays.) However, what we learned from what we lost is ours now – we own it, and it has changed us for the better.

How $8 Changed Me

When I moved to Minneapolis in 2013, I went with a good deal of confidence in my professional skills and abilities. I have a masters degree in counseling and student affairs, and I had worked in increasingly responsible positions in higher education administration, crisis response, judicial affairs; I had excellent supervisory experience. I was fairly certain that, even though I was making that move without having already secured my next position, I would find a job that utilized my skills and offered me the opportunity to engage with my community.

There were tons of job for which I was qualified. I applied, I made phone calls, I received assistance and introductions from friends. Nothing materialized. When it became clear that I needed an income even if it wasn’t from an ideal position, I looked for an hourly job that would ease my financial worries while still allowing me the time and energy to continue my job search.

I found a part-time job (which quickly became full-time) at an upscale grocery store, as a barista in their Starbucks kiosk. When I was offered the job, I was told by my new supervisors that they understood where I was in the job search process – both of these managers were also women with excellent backgrounds who had found it difficult to get professional positions. They hired me, primarily, because they had empathy for me – and I was grateful for the opportunity.

My starting hourly wage was $8.00 an hour.

I had been poor before, but it had been nearly thirty years since I had truly been poor and not just “cash strapped” periodically. Being poor takes skills, and you lose or forget those skills if you are not called upon to regularly use them. You don’t exactly forget being poor – rather, you forget just how truly wearing it is on your psyche. If you live for very long in the relative luxury of middle class, your experiences become anecdotes of your scrappy past, rather than painful stories of survival. At least, that’s how it was for me.

My fellow baristas were a font of information for me on how to get by, how to recover my skills for living small. First, they found out that I was paying $800 a month for my COBRA insurance, and it was eating up my savings in giant gulps. My coworkers informed me that I likely qualified for county healthcare assistance (this was just as Obamacare was coming into being, and I ventured onto Minnesota’s health care marketplace and discovered that my colleagues were right). I entered the rolls of public assistance for the first time in my life.

Coworkers told me about the best food pantries – where they would go to get actual meat once every two weeks, or fresh produce that was still really edible. I didn’t use these resources, because I could supplement my earnings with some money from savings, and I was suddenly viscerally aware of the very real people working side-by-side with me who were trying to raise families on their $8.00/hour. I didn’t want to take food that a family might need.

I liked my job. But it meant eight hour shifts on my feet and I could never afford shoes that met dress code AND were comfortable on my feet. It meant closing one night and opening the next morning, on way less than eight hours of sleep. It meant working weekends and evenings; never two days in a row off, never a set schedule. I had a hard time adjusting, difficulties juggling my own life needs around the schedule. I missed out on a lot – and, again, I just had me. Many of those I worked with were juggling their families’ needs as well. Working in food service, we were supposed to call in sick if we had any illness that might be communicable. But we had no sick leave, no PTO. If we missed a shift, we didn’t get paid. I began to understand how e-coli spreads in fast food restaurants – diarrhea is not always a good enough reason to miss a fifth of your weekly pay.

The other store employees were unionized, we were not. They received scheduled pay increases, benefits. We did not. It was a very strange dichotomy within one store – everyone assumed that we had the same deal they did. To compound this, customers and coworkers alike kept complimenting us on Starbucks’ “generous” benefits – which we didn’t get because we were store employees, not Starbucks workers. Also, like baristas everywhere, we listened patiently to our customers complaining about their days – wealthy people complaining to struggling ones about the cost of the private schools their children attended, or that insurance didn’t pay for their cosmetic surgery. Many days, I left work feeling the strangest kind of dissonance – grateful to get back to my neighborhood and grab a coffee at The Boiler Room, where the general shabbiness felt welcoming and unpretentious.

I developed some of the skills necessary to survive earning so near the minimum wage: I learned what stores and shops had specials when; I never walked past change lying on the ground; I became a connoisseur of the best cheap toilet paper (and I shopped for it regularly at the BP gas station next door to my apartment). I rode my bike everywhere I could – and I enjoyed it – to save money on gas and vehicle maintenance. I managed when my apartment had no running water or no heat (and when it did have mice) – the rent was affordable and it wasn’t a horrible place to live, in spite of these occasional hardships. I learned to cut my own hair, or to go to Cost Cutter on the days of their $6 specials. I said goodbye to pedicures, to having facial hair waxed, to television, to shopping. I waved a fond farewell to artisanal cheeses, charcuterie boards, movies, theater tickets. I had internet, but only because I lived close to downtown Minneapolis and could use the city’s subsidized service.

What I couldn’t ever get the hang of was trying to live this way and still maintain a sense of self-worth. I know I made choices, and those choices resulted in where I was. But it felt as if other people controlled my outcomes (the people who had no issue, for example, telling me they wanted to hire younger professionals despite the fact that age discrimination in hiring is illegal). And there were systems in place that felt actively hostile to my efforts to make a better life. For example, when I needed assistance to get signed up for health care, it took two days worth of navigating telephone call trees to finally talk to a human being – who informed me that I had the wrong agency. He gave me a number and I started all over on another phone tree. (Folks, I have a masters degree and worked for decades in higher education – if I couldn’t follow the convoluted directions successfully, I submit that it would be difficult for many others to do so!) Another example: the two years I made the least money of my entire adult life were the ONLY two years I owed federal AND state income taxes, to the tune of several hundred dollars. Thinking about the panic and anxiety that induced can still make my pulse race.

Why am I writing about this now? We are in a political season, and things have been ugly. In the process of all the mud-slinging and the intentional lie-telling on both sides of the political fence, I am afraid that many of the real issues that we should be paying attention to, even fighting over or for, are getting lost in the rhetoric.

I was so much better off than people who are truly living in poverty and struggling to make it. I had family and friends who could (and did) offer support in both financial and emotional ways. I had retirement savings that I could, if needed, dip into. I had some excellent, quality goods that I already owned prior to my downturn in fortunes that prevented me needing to find ways to purchase them (a car, a bike, good quality clothes, etc.)

And it still ground me down. The more I learned about how my coworkers struggled, the more I became convinced that change is needed. These people worked full-time jobs – some of them had other part-time gigs as well. Sometimes their children had special needs, and often these needs went unmet or only partially attended to. One minor setback – like a car battery that dies in Minnesota’s polar winter – could sink them into a hole it would take them years to scramble out of. Working their butts off the whole time. God forbid they should break a leg or get cancer and be unable to work.

Now, as I am vetting candidates at the local, state and federal level, I am listening closely to what they say. And I am reading their platforms. And I am asking them questions when I can. I want to know what they think about the minimum wage. I want to know what priority they place on making sure that every working American can feed his or her family. I want to know how they will ensure that people on a fixed income will be able to afford both food and health care. I met a local candidate the other day who said his goal is to eradicate poverty in our county within the next 50 years. That’s a goal I can get behind – but I want to know how he plans to start that ball rolling – I want to know it isn’t just a hook being used to get him elected.

I’ve heard so many arguments that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because nothing changes. Being poor for a couple of years in mid-life has taught me the lie of that response. Who holds office, who sits at the table when decisions are made, has a very real impact – especially for those who are at the bottom of our social class structures, those who are living in poverty, those who have been disenfranchised in some way. Safely ensconced in my professional, white, middle-class world, I am not as susceptible to the immediate pendulum swings. But the people at the edges feel every slice.

I have kept this piece intentionally personal, and I haven’t argued for one side or the other of the political heads/tails of our two-party system. What I am arguing for is the fact that our votes do make a difference. Being an educated voter, therefore, is crucial. I have always voted, though often I have been a lazy citizen, accepting what candidates have said without looking closely at what they actually mean – what programs and planks and platforms have their votes and ongoing support. Having experienced and compared different cities, counties, and states has taught me that real differences exist on the basis of how these communities have voted. Communities are made up of individuals like you and me.

Please, don’t fall prey to voter apathy and disenchantment; don’t believe the lie that your vote makes no difference. My vote is one drop in a vast ocean, I know. But an ocean’s waves are powerful, and they shape the shoreline. How you vote, how I vote, makes all the difference to people living at the water’s edge.

 

 

 

Waves

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“[The waves] move across a faint horizon, the rush of love and the surge of grief, the respite of peace and then fear again, the heart that beats and then lies still, the rise and fall and rise and fall of all of it, the incoming and the outgoing, the infinite procession of life. And the ocean wraps the earth, a reminder. The mysteries come forward in waves.”
Susan Casey, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Three years ago this month, I was in Florida for a conference. Since we had a rental vehicle anyway, a friend and I took a day to do some sightseeing, and ended up at the Canaveral National Seashore. It wasn’t exactly warm on the beach, but it was significantly more so there than in Iowa at that time, so we weren’t about to forego the opportunity to walk and sit in the sand for a while.

I remember watching the waves as they rushed onto the beach then pulled back out to merge with the sea. I had the strangest sensation (something to do with the combination of staring at sunlight on water, the overwhelming sound of the water, the rhythmic motion of the waves) that I, myself, was rushing forward, then pulling back.

And indeed I was. On the verge of major life changes, I felt my soul pushing me toward new shores, but my ties to all that lay behind me exerted an equally powerful pull to fall back into the sea of my then-current life. The fluid grace of the water lay in its refusal to fight for one or the other – rather, the water ebbed and flowed naturally with the energy exerted upon it. The waves, the water existing at the leading edge of that energy, had the greatest potential to change and be changed – it could change the beach or be changed itself by what it carried back with it. Generally, both occurred together.

I had been living in the vast ocean of my life for a long time, and suddenly found myself on that leading edge where change was most possible. I lived there, briefly, allowing myself to change and (in turn) creating change – carving new shorelines. But I couldn’t seem to find within myself the water’s ability to flow; I fight for control, insist on “deciding” – or, another way of saying it, choosing sides. Three years on and I still haven’t quite caught the knack of moving naturally with the energy waves. But here I am, still on that front edge, hoping to change and to create change.

I’ve been thinking about that day and that experience quite a bit lately. A colleague said last week, “Everything is about waves! Spooky action at a distance, gravity waves – all the discoveries are about waves! What are we supposed to be learning in our lives from all this talk about waves?”

Perhaps it is simply to accept the ebb and flow that is experienced at that leading edge of the wave we call “change”; to accept that change occurs over the vastness of time and in the immediate moment at once. Perhaps I am supposed to stop trying to control the pace and meaning of change and, instead, experience it as it unfurls.

“The mysteries come forward in waves,” Susan Casey says. And the waves themselves are a part of it all.

The Wave

Run with the flood

Ebb when you must

Mount to the moon’s call

Dare, flow and trust

This tide has to be

Its force will not break you

Cannot unmake you

For you are the wave

And there is only the sea.

            –Joy Pitman

Incipience: The Mystery of Becoming

Last week, I arrived back at work from a lunchtime errand to discover surfaces everywhere topped with clear plastic take-out containers. In each container was a bunch of milkweed leaves and a caterpillar. Accompanying each was a handout, introducing the creature inside as an incipient butterfly. I’ve never watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, so I was fascinated to have this opportunity placed in front of me.

The first thing I learned is that caterpillars poop a lot. Seriously, they were productive little things. For a day or so, I watched them eat away at the milkweed, filling their containers with caterpillar “mulch”. Then I got used to their presence, busy with other things, and didn’t notice when a change took place. Suddenly, there were no caterpillars, just bright green pods hanging from the tops of each plastic container – they had become chrysalises while I wasn’t looking.

Each chrysalis started out bright green with a small line of metallic-looking gold dots across it (which I will come back to later). By this point, I was determined not to miss the remaining steps of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I checked on them throughout the days, finally noticing that their color was changing. At first, it appeared that the chrysalis was turning black, but over time (and upon closer inspection) I began to see the colors of the butterfly emerge within the clear casing of the chrysalis.

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And then, not too much longer and this happened:

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Many people have rhapsodized about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is an image that has been used as metaphor many times, and watching the process is endlessly fascinating. I can’t even begin to speak about it as beautifully as so many others already have. But what I loved about watching this transformation was knowing that the seeds of evolution were inside the wriggly caterpillar all along.

Science tells us that there is no structural commonality between caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillar literally dissolves into a kind of genetic goop inside the chrysalis. Cells which had remained dormant within the caterpillar, poetically called “imaginal” cells, take over:

These little groups of cells that start developing very early in the caterpillar’s life but then they stall, and so they’re just in there waiting, and they don’t start growing until the very end of the 5th instar (the last caterpillar stage). —Journey North: Monarch Butterfly

What emerges is something completely different. But those imaginal cells? They were there from the beginning. From this I take two lessons for myself:

  • Within each of us resides the seeds of what we can become – and we can literally change our form (transform) from within.
  • What we have the potential to be is radically different from who we already are.

Remember that line of metallic dots on the green chrysalis? (If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the dots in both.) They intrigued me, so I did a little research and discovered this: they are a mystery. Science has not yet explained them. I take great pleasure in knowing this. We can transform our lives, our very sense of who we are – that potential, that incipience, exists within us. But there’s mystery in us, too. The beautiful, shining mystery of creation that defies human understanding.

This past week, everyone who stopped to look at, discuss, celebrate, and set free our butterflies noted not only the incredible biology of the process, but also the deep mystery. And we all shared, if briefly, in the joy of transformation. I can’t hold on to those moments, but I want very much to remember them. Especially at those times when I begin to feel, “This is it. I am finished becoming. I’m set now in this form, in this way of being in the world and in my own body, heart, soul.”  Because those moments are the ones when I need my own imagination (my imaginal cells, if you will) to kick in. That is when I need to remember the joy – and the beauty – that is activated with the conscious choice to change and grow.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed…If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”  — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life

 

X-asperated: Can I Change My Generational Affiliation?

To begin, it sucks being born on the cusp. The definition of cusp, “a pointed end where two curves meet”, makes this clear. The cusp is an uncomfortable place and I was born squarely on that point – my birth year falls into the dead zone argued by researchers – some claiming I’m a Baby Boomer, others that I’m Generation X.  Its no wonder I’ve never felt like I really fit anywhere. Like there isn’t any breathing room because members of those two big-ass generational curves are taking up all of the oxygen.

Add to that the fact that I’ve always thought of myself as a late-bloomer. My whole life has been one long game of catch-up: to my siblings, to my classmates, to my coworkers. Fashion trends? My brand-new clothes are inevitably so last year. Social trends? If I notice them they’ve progressed so far past the tipping point they’re lying on the floor ready to be walked over by the next new thing. I have always thought this the likely reason I feel so comfortable with people who are younger than me – I’m marginally ahead of them in life experience!

Taken together, these two factors have had me, since moving to Minneapolis, thinking a lot about generational differences. Minneapolis is a happening place, a city with a young population. It has been named one of the best cities for new college graduates to find employment. It certainly appears that Millennials have already been handed the keys to this particular kingdom – but more about that later. Suffice it to say, my Gen X butt has been handed to me a few times since moving here. Or, as Jeff Gordinier describes it, I feel as though (along with the rest of my generation) I’ve been “shuffled off to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers”. (X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking)

“We’re equipped. We’re wary enough to see through delusional ‘movements’; we’re old enough to feel a connection to the past (and yet we’re unsentimental enough not to get all gooey about it); we’re young enough to be wired; we’re snotty enough not to settle for crap; we’re resourceful enough to turn crap into gold; we’re quiet enough to endure our labors on the margins.”

                                   —Jeff Gordinier

According to Gordinier, Generation X, smaller than either generation it is wedged between, was destined to be marginalized from the start. Our formative years were marked by national failure – the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency. Our coming-of-age was marked by the stock market crash of October 1987. In fact, he says our generation was destined to be “bushwhacked” by bad economic conditions repeatedly. By way of comparison, Gordinier claims, “the Boomer and Millennial viewpoint is ‘I want to be in the fucking spotlight’. Gen Xers are uninterested in the spotlight. They’re more interested in dodging it and doing good work quietly. I think theres a sort of comfort in the margins.” (from Helaine Olen’s interview of Gordinier on AlterNet)

The more I’ve read about Generation X, the more I’ve been forced to reconsider how well I fit. Turns out, I was most uncomfortable with the slacker stereotype of Gen X (because I’ve never been a slacker). The rest of it sounds…well, familiar. Gordinier believes that Gen X is “doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking.” Gordinier’s book, ultimately, takes a positive view of the generation, as does this somewhat hokey clip from Karen McCullough:

Most of the literature finds praiseworthy attributes in Gen X, including creativity and innovation on a large scale – after all, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia (to name a few) had their genesis in Gen X.

But that still doesn’t mean I’m happy about being Gen X, despite finding I actually fit in. Dodging the spotlight and doing good work quietly, acting and being comfortable in the margins, is an apt description of me, my professional life and my choices. And while I have been most comfortable in the margins, it turns out that it has perhaps done me a disservice to live there. That kind of life does offer internal satisfactions – I have earned respect from people who matter to me, feel I have made a difference to those I’ve served, and believe I’ve continued to learn and grow as a person. What taking comfort in the margins does externally, though, is create room for others to take advantage of or take credit for, misunderstand or belittle, your work and accomplishments. And forget the Millennials’ obsession with building their personal brands; margin-dwellers are the opposite of branded or self-promotional. We’re a generation of wall-flowers, hoping that our quiet good work will speak for us.

And perhaps it does, though often not loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony of “spot lighters”. It is one thing to choose to operate on the margins, and another thing altogether to feel you are being pushed there by people or forces that don’t value what you have to offer.

Where is this generational navel-gazing taking me, you may wonder. Many of my age-mates and fellow Gen Xers, who grew up being overshadowed by Boomers and bitching about it, now complain about Gen Y, the Millennials. Incessantly. I am not one of the complainers. But in this city abounding with Millennialism, Gen X sensibilities always seem to be a step behind. There’s no denying the energy created by Millennials – and the desire to be part of that energy is contagious. It all leaves me wondering whether I can adapt – use my late bloomer qualities to flower in this zeitgeist. Can a person switch generational affiliation? I can’t change my age, but is it possible to change my way of thinking to be more Millennial? And do I want to?

Note: In my next post, in an attempt to answer those questions, I’ll be introducing you to some awesome Millennials I’ve met and sharing what I’ve been learning from (and about) them.

 

 

 

The Case for Uncertainty

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When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
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Moving

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Last year, my friend Layne and I both ordered “word of the year” bracelets from a small internet company. The word I chose: MOVE. As in so many areas of my life, I am late to the party, but I’ve finally arrived: I am in the midst of the disarray of packing, and one week from today I will be on the road.

While I have not been in this house for the entire nineteen years I’ve lived and worked in Cedar Rapids, the last time I moved my friends Sara and Amy were at my apartment the night before throwing things into boxes and sneaking items to the dumpster when I had my back turned. There was no careful culling through of my stuff, no separation of wheat from chaff. Consequently, the need to do so this time is significant. And slightly overwhelming.

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Throughout my small house, the rooms are in complete disarray. Nonsensical piles here and there have the look of unwanted detritus left behind in abandoned buildings. Nothing could be further from the truth – if it is still in the house it is wanted. Or I believe it will be wanted by someone, if not by me. I’ve picked some items to give as gifts: the Disney Trivial Pursuit game, the scented candles which would just melt in my storage unit this summer, the wrist guards I’ve already given to Eli and Abby Kohl (who immediately used them as part of their superhero garb). Others are too new-ish or too nice-ish to toss and will be donated to Goodwill. A huge tub of books are free game for any visitors or helpers who arrive to move my stuff to storage on Monday.

There is something about packing your belongings that feels like a reckoning – the process of calculating the worth of a life. When my house was together and things in place, it felt cozy, welcoming, homey. Each item had at least a small part in creating this impression. Taken apart, deconstructed, each component is judged on its own merit. Mostly, my things are humble and not worth much in a monetary sense. They start to look shabby and random when taken individually, wrapped in newsprint. Regarded as mere objects, my belongings don’t have anything special or grandiose to say about me or my life. I look at bare walls, studded with oddly spaced nails and picture hangers and begin to wonder if there was meaning in my having lived here or if my life has been as shabby and random as my things.

Luckily, those moments pass and I recognize them for what they are – a way to distance myself from the reality, the enormity, of the change in process. In the very moment I am about to become disconnected from myself to escape that reality, I find or pick up an object and memory comes flooding in – the pink depression glass water goblets that belonged to my grandmother; the charm against the evil eye that was my souvenir when Rosemary returned from Turkey; a faded newspaper  photo of my sister and her friends dressed as Jackie O. for an “art happening” in Iowa City. That’s when my accounting of my life’s worth shifts – when I remember that the value of these things lies in either their usefulness or, more importantly, the connection they offer to the people I love. By this reckoning, I am wealthy beyond measure.

Each time I finish packing a box in the chaos that is barely recognizable as my living room, I label it, put the lid on and carry it into the one room in the house that appears to contain order. Here there are stacks rather than piles. Things are hidden, but named. I walk in and immediately feel more calm about this move.

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When I can’t continue – either from the need to just sit down for a while, or from the desire to connect with others in the present moment (as opposed to the overwhelming connection to the past as I pack) I head for the dining room table. This is the one spot in which the present still reigns supreme in my house. Neither the past nor the limbo of “packed” have a hold here. I check Facebook, text Molly or Mike, think “I should clean this stuff up” knowing full well that I won’t until I have to.

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When my break is over and I head back to the grindstone, I stand for a moment staring at the remains – it seems as if so much has already been boxed up and made sterile by its placement in neatly labeled white cartons, yet there is still so much to do. I suddenly think of a time in the not-too-distant future when I will begin to reverse this process. The sterility of the packed cartons will give way to the mess of unpacking. And I can imagine my own joy in reuniting with these shabby things that, today, seem to have so little value. And I know full well that I will feel every bit as challenged, as overwhelmed, in that moment as I feel in this one. It makes me smile, and I suddenly think music is called for. I log into Pandora and find myself singing along with Imagine Dragons (“it’s time to begin, isn’t it?”) as I try to find a reasonable way to pack a three tiered dessert tray.

I am definitely, finally, moving.

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The Goodbye Girl

In 1977, the movie “The Goodbye Girl” was released. The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, who mostly didn’t screw up the screenplay or Neil Simon’s characteristic fast-paced dialogue. To top it off, the movie’s theme song was written and performed by David Gates – that’s right, David Gates of the supergroup “Bread”. There was not a thing about the film (or the song) that my 16-year-old self didn’t love.

One of the reasons I loved the film so much was that I identified with the title: The Goodbye Girl. My family moved around – not a lot, but more frequently than most of the kids I knew, who had been going to the same school, with the same kids, since kindergarten. I saw myself as the girl who was forced to move on just about the time I got good and settled someplace. I was always saying goodbye, and it was usually permanent. In the movie, I didn’t really care for Marsha Mason, but I completely saw my jaded, highly defensive, young self in her character’s self-protective snarky-ness.

Given this self-concept, a song lyric that promised, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever”  was pretty appealing. I can remember singing it with my friends, Pam and Steve, as we hiked back to our car one night in Cincinnati after attending an England Dan and John Ford Coley concert. This was just a couple of weeks prior to my family’s move from Ohio back to Iowa at the end of my junior year in high school. “The Goodbye Girl” lyrics were our promise to each other – “Goodbye doesn’t mean we’ll never be together again” – and it was our theme song from the day I told them of the impending move until the day I left town. I wanted it to be true, a promise I wouldn’t break. But in my heart, I suspected otherwise.

After returning to Iowa, I lived in Dubuque for seven years. Then Iowa City for nine. But even though there was continuity in the towns, I changed locations/homes and occupations frequently- college, graduate school and my first few professional positions meant a continuation of the goodbye theme. People were always coming and going in my life. I thought I was pretty good at goodbyes, and I maintained a certain stoicism through “goodbye” moments which I took as evidence of my skill.

What I didn’t understand until much later was that I wasn’t good at goodbye, I was actually good at never saying a truly open “hello”. After not letting anyone get too far under my skin, too close, when it came time to say goodbye, I could just let go. And I was really good at that.

Then I came here. Two years, the duration I originally signed on for, somehow became nineteen. And while there have been plenty of goodbyes – it is a college campus, after all: a fresh crop in each fall and a mature crop out each spring – there has been a great deal of stability, as well. Facebook, twitter, texting have all exploded during this time, impacting the ease and affordability of staying connected. I’ve changed in important ways, including intentionally opening myself to close relationships, even bringing some of those people I “just let go” of in the past back into my life.

All of which begs the question, as I prepare to leave, am I still The Goodbye Girl?

Of course, the first and most true answer is no. I never really have been. I’ve gotten it wrong in the past – refusing to get too close so goodbye won’t hurt isn’t a good or life-affirming coping skill. Burrowing in and creating a warm cocoon that I refuse to leave despite every part of me – head, heart, soul – urging me to move on isn’t a great approach either. And the truth is, I’ve been stuck in this warm, loving, cocoon for a long time: an incipient butterfly afraid to test my wings. Afraid that goodbye really does mean forever.

In the movie, Richard Dreyfuss’ character gets an acting job that requires him to leave to do a film on location. Marsha Mason’s character believes he is leaving her forever, and she tries, fiercely, to accept that and to stave off hurt. Then she discovers that he has left his prized possession (a guitar) behind – a sure sign that he will indeed return to her. Two weeks from today I expect to be on the road. I will have said my goodbyes to the campus, to the  women at Sister’s Health Club, to my colleagues and acquaintances. To my friends, to the families I am part of here, I will have made promises: to stay in touch, to come visit, to not be afraid to ask for help if I need it. I will be taking my prized possession with me though – this open, trusting, healthy, whole Jenion that you have all helped me to become. So it comes down to this: I know I’m not the girl I used to be. I trust that I will be able to stay centered within myself even when I am no longer anchored to this place. And I trust that the people, who make this place so important to me, will not disappear from my life like a puff of smoke – I have different, better, coping skills now. One of these is the knowledge that my home is right here in my heart, and it comes with me wherever I go. And those of you who populate my home do too. So I take courage and comfort from the words of the incomparable David Gates:

“Though we may be so far apart, you still would have my heart. So forget your past, my goodbye girl, cause now you’re home at last.”

(Note: for those of you who don’t know the song, here’s a link. It is way too sappy to actually include in the post! The movie is a classic, if you haven’t seen it.)