Jenion, the Many-Handed: Chaos, Time and Change

Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on. — Buddha
 
Chaos breeds life, when order breeds habit. — Henry Adams
 
When tempest tossed, embrace chaos. — Dean Koontz
 

My house is a shambles. Three times last night I either tripped or stubbed a toe on something that didn’t used to be where it currently is. Junk proliferates, and my vision of orderly packed boxes and neat piles of “to donate”, “to friends”, and “to the dumpster” dissipates. Just being with, and among, this chaos exhausts me before I even begin to work at bringing some order to it in the few hours I’m snatching back from the dinners and coffees that we’re cramming into these “last days”.

Two nights ago, I sat in my living room maniacally sorting through thousands of buttons – feeling like Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.

And that is just on the level of “what am I doing with all my stuff?!” The chaos is threatening to overwhelm me on an emotional level, too. After nineteen years in the same job, seventeen of which have been as a “live in”/”live on” staff member, the process of separation is really strange. For example, I had no trouble parting with files and piles of paper in my office. One day of concerted effort filled both the document destruction bin and several recycling receptacles. On the other hand, I’ve been slow to complete the work that needs doing before I leave – a pared down list of “final” things. Then there’s the commemoration of my longevity and the celebration of my impact on the campus which is sweet, poignant, and at times a little like listening to myself being eulogized. When it feels too surreal, I have to go walkabout – lots of extra visits to the chapel and the coffee shop in order to maintain emotional equilibrium.

In addition to kind words and amazing memories, I routinely get one or the other of these comments: “I’m so jealous” or “Congratulations on your retirement.” Both feel completely understandable while, at the same time, leaving me at a loss for what might be both an appropriate and kind response. By my calculations, and with what all of the prognosticators say about the increasing retirement age, I have a full two decades of work left. So I laugh (if with a slight hysteria) at the retirement comments.

The comments about jealousy are harder. It doesn’t feel like this place I’m in is a somewhere others want to be – uncertain, unknown, unplanned. Frankly, those who are most emphatic about their jealousy are in the best positions to be here without the narrow financial margin I’ll be balancing upon, which makes it incredibly difficult not to call them out – tell them they CAN be here, they just don’t choose to be. On the other hand, I understand their comments – it has been freeing in a manner I can’t describe to have put an end date on this particular stage of my life.

On the other hand…I find myself wanting to use this phrase to begin most sentences these days. The current level of chaos in my life lends itself to so many possibilities, I picture myself looking like one of the many-handed Hindu deities. On one hand, this. On the other hand, that. And on the other, other hand, something entirely different. Interestingly, Kali, the goddess whose name came up when I googled ‘many-handed Hindu deities’ is the goddess of Time and Change. Time feels in short supply right now, while I have a bumper crop of change to manage. And the only way I know how to do that is to lean into it, to borrow a recently popular term.

Leaning in to change, to chaos, can be both a daunting and an empowering experience. Some people have lauded my courage in taking this leap of faith – I feel less courageous and more like I’m whistling in the dark, hence “daunting”. But I do feel empowered, as well. For maybe the first time in my life the choices I am making are not being made out of fear or a need to control things in order to feel safe. I don’t feel safe. But I do feel right, somehow, as if this is the right thing to do at the right time to do it. Which lends a certain peace to the chaos that is my life right now – like the calm in the eye of a tornado or hurricane. The maelstrom is happening, and sometimes I’m whirled up in it and trying to relax enough not to be hurt by the buffeting. But in other moments, I experience the “rightness” at the center. And that feels empowering.

We live in a rainbow of chaos. — Paul Cezanne

What Do Adventurous Women Know…and how do I learn it?

I am a devourer of true life adventure stories by the women who lived them. It started casually, with travel anthologies. Then I discovered Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman and I had a new hero and a new secret passion. Of course Eat.Pray.Love.  More recently, Wild.  And it hasn’t just been books. My friend Wendy and I obsessively watched the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” the summer it came out on DVD (based, if loosely, on a true life adventure story). I’m a sucker for blogs by women on adventures – Travel Destination Bucket List, for example. I began following this blog while its author, Anita Mac, was chronicling her solo trans-Canadian bike journey and have since travelled to Croatia and on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella with her. My latest avidly followed blog is My Meandering Trail, where I am following Jordana on her solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each of these women have great stories to tell, and they tell them well. And while each gives space in her storytelling to moments of fear or self-doubt, by and large the overriding impression I come away with is of admirable courage, self-efficacy, and joie de vivre. They have moxie, pluck…and whatever other old-fashioned words are reserved for women who have a little something out of the ordinary in their make-up. With my life in transition, my jumping-off point only three weeks away and no firm plan in place yet, I find myself looking to these women and wondering if it might be possible to channel the skills and qualities they embody and which I so desperately need. With that in mind, I’ve identified some things adventurous women seem to know that I’d like to get more conversant with:

Adventurous women know how to manage their stuff

I’m mostly talking actual, as opposed to figurative or emotional, stuff here. These women know how to organize, manage and corral the daily items that fill our lives: furniture, linens, shoes, and tchotchkes. They ruthlessly purge, pack, or otherwise pare down much of what they own in order to begin their adventures unencumbered. So far, I have managed to recycle three small cardboard boxes and shred a pile of old credit card bills. To say “I haven’t hit my stride yet” is to make a prize-winning understatement. Here’s an example: I have a decorative item which was given to me as a gift. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d look at, much less choose to purchase, in a gift-shop. But the person who gave it to me is beloved, and it was given to commemorate a special occasion in my life. In an effort to decide if it is worth packing and hauling to storage, I’ve carted the darn thing into every room multiple times this week. It has surely travelled more miles within my house than the paltry few between here and my storage unit. (Which, by the way, I haven’t actually reserved yet.) And I still can’t decide whether to keep it or put it in the “donate” or “regift” pile. Thankfully, my adventurous friend, Sue, came to visit one evening this week. She walked me through the best ways (and which containers to use) to pack my house. Her advice about what to keep and what to divest myself of: “Be ruthless”. Ruthlessness in the management of stuff – the first thing I need to learn to become an adventurous woman!

Adventurous women don’t hesitate to ask

In the past nineteen years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “I could NEVER do what you do!” Often they follow this comment with something about how they hate conflict. And it’s true – my career has been full of high-conflict, high-stress moments when the issues at hand have been incredibly difficult to navigate. And I am proud of how I’ve handled these difficult situations. But I have a secret to share. In spite of a reputation for direct and honest communication, I cannot make a cold-call to a business to ask questions. Additionally, I am terrible at asking people for help if what I need help with carries an emotional component. Adventurous women are curious, and ask questions because it is part of their nature. Part of how they successfully navigate their courageous lives is their willingness to ask for what they need. How can I plan a whole new more adventurous life when it takes me three days to work myself up to contact storage companies? I think of Jordana, contacting companies to ask for sponsorship of her trip – and getting some awesome support and swag as a result. I definitely need to get me some of those questioning cajones! (Hey, has anyone heard of companies willing to sponsor a middle-aged woman’s career/life change?)

Adventurous women have a specific plan

Well, I’m just plain screwed on this one. I can’t seem to think past vacation, which is the first step of my journey to a new life. I have a vague plan. No specific dates, no specific locations. Just a gut sense that I have to take most of the summer to feel my way – unless right livelihood presents itself. In which case, I’ll know it and change my trajectory.

At this point, my parents and many of my friends are reading this post and beginning to hyperventilate. Please don’t. I am holding enough fear, panic, and fear- and panic-induced motivation at bay to satisfy all of us. But it is back there, behind the voice telling me to take my time. Cheryl Strayed had never tried to lift her backpack until the morning she planned to set off hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Foolhardy? Probably. But did she survive? Hell, yes – even thrived. Sometimes, adventurous women know what they need, and they move toward it even if they haven’t got all the answers in advance. My whole life, I’ve been an answers (and fool-proof assurances) in advance girl. This feels like my opportunity to step forward with trust instead of surety. Eek!

Adventurous women don’t sweat the “solo” part

When I’ve lamented being alone in life, my friend Layne has tried to comfort me by asserting that everyone is just as alone. Her approach is unique; most of my friends try to convince me that I’m not alone because of the large number of people who love me. The truth is, when it comes to making decisions and living the consequences of those decisions, I’m on my own. I have no idea whether it would be easier if I was part of a couple, or if it would be harder. I look at the women whose adventures have inspired me, and I see that they have struggled with the same things – and yet, they’ve found ways to be empowered by the solo nature of their adventures. Empowered because they’ve remained open to meeting new people, to having new experiences, to learning about themselves and the world around them. I’ve lived “smaller” out of fear in the past. One of the things I want to learn from adventurous women is how to live “larger” in spite of the fear. As one blogger says, “I will never be fearless, but I can choose to fear less.”

Adventurous women dare to go “all in”

In every one of the true-life adventure stories I’ve come across, women have let go and jumped in with both feet. For some, this has meant the start of a completely new life. For others, it has been a shining experience which stands out from the ordinary life lived both before and after the adventure. Perhaps my coming adventures are on a smaller scale than selling my home and all my belongings and living the rest of my days as a world-travelling nomad – but they are still a stunning departure from my previous life-choices. My friend, Sara, put it this way for me, “You’re not really the ‘leap of faith’ type, are you? But you’ve been risk-averse for so long, you’ve probably stored up some really good risk karma, so why not use it now?” Not exactly an “all in” mentality – but close enough to get me started!

So, I have my work cut out for me – both with the actual activities associated with leaving my job and my house and with the mental and emotional preparedness for leaving. I’ll figure out the stuff, develop the plan as I go, and remind myself to cultivate curiosity so that asking for things (even if it is only information) gets easier. I’ll continue to be inspired by other women who’ve taken courageous and adventurous paths, hoping that the reality of living with less fear of the “what ifs” will translate into living more completely, more fully. Maybe someday other women will be reading my “true life adventure story” and deciding they can choose differently too. That would be an amazing end to this story, wouldn’t it?! I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what happens with each turn of the page.

I’ve Entered the Long Jump of Faith

“The woman silhouetted in the painting is leaping – with abandon and joy, it seems — across a chasm. She is looking ahead, at her goal, not down at what is or is not currently beneath her feet. Does she know, I wonder, what lies ahead? I doubt it – it seems clear that this is a leap of faith. Faith that she’ll land safely on the other side. Faith that the choice to leap was the right one. Faith that the time for leaping had arrived. And faith that, whatever awaits on the far side of the chasm, will be worth facing and taking the leap.” 
                   —Jenion, January 24, 2013 “Take a Flying Leap”
 
“And with that experience and knowing, perhaps it is time for me to become a person of faith, not just a person of beliefs. Time to close my eyes and take a step, trusting that I will put my foot down in the very place I need to be.”
                    —Jenion, April 4,  2013 “Have a Little Faith”
 

On Monday, April 22, 2013 I finally took the leap of faith that I’ve been working myself up to all year – I resigned from my job without having a clear idea of where I will land when my feet touch down on the other side.

Hopefully, there will be time before May 31, when my resignation takes effect, for looking back and celebrating. But right now, there are so many things that need to be done and prepared. It’s not one of those leaps that happens immediately – it is more like a slow-motion long jump. I pushed off the ground with my resignation, but I won’t actually be out over the chasm of the unknown for a little while yet. I have paperwork, planning, and packing to do before then. Mountains of each. I want to thank the friends and family with whom I endlessly debated my options – your promises that I would never be homeless or hungry went a long way toward lessening the fear of action.

What am I hoping for? I believe it is time to create a different life for myself. One in which I am not as limited by the demands of my job (nearly 20 years as a first-responder, ever on call, others as my top priority) so that I can be free in my off-hours to engage in a variety of pursuits that have been tabled – whether that is creative work or volunteering or exploring. I don’t know what the future holds. How strange is that feeling? I might find right livelihood quickly, or it may take a while. I might stay here or I might go elsewhere. I do not expect it to be easy, but I do expect that I will find my way.

Composing a life is an improvisation, one which calls on us to be clear about what we value so that the decisions we make along the way are made from the right place. Whether we are staying put or moving on, whether we are staying the course or charting a new path, we need to remain centered in what is real as opposed to what is mirage – what is true value as opposed to imposed value (imposed cultural values, such as “more is better” or “busy equals virtuous”). As environmental activist, Julia Butterfly Hill said during her campus address Monday, (serendipitously just hours after I tendered my resignation): “We are all co-creating our world every moment with every choice…Regardless of perceived boundaries. We are not victims, we are co-creators.”

The thing about a leap of faith is that you have to practice actual faith. Faith isn’t the absence of fear, rather it is the knowledge that beyond the fear lies the right path. Faith that, wherever my feet touch ground, I will be walking the path that I am meant to be on.

Dear readers, I hope that you will come on this journey with me – I will certainly be keeping up to date through weekly posts on Jenion! I’m interested in your stories of taking a leap of faith – please feel free to share your stories in the comments section!

Wish it. Will it. Do it.

“…you will sooner or later experience something almost magical: the moment when your mind, led by your sense of yearning, embraces the next step toward the best life you are capable of living. This is the moment when desire stops being just a story about what might happen and becomes a template of what will happen; the moment when “I wish” becomes “I will.”
          — Martha Beck “The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life”
 

Earlier this week, I read a post over at “-200”, which made me cry. The post, titled “A life for my birthday”, shares Ben’s story of living in the depths of despair before deciding that instead of taking his own life, he would take action in his own life. I was moved by Ben’s honesty and depth of feeling, and by the fact that I recognized  Ben’s story as my own: different in particulars (of course), but very similar in essentials. (Thanks to April Hageman for sharing Ben’s blog with me!)

I can’t point to one moment. But I can point to a series of moments – and some very powerful experiences of intervention and grace – which led me to that magical point where “I wish” became “I will”…

…I will lose weight…

…I will make exercise a habit…

…I will learn how to eat healthy, whole, nourishing food…

…I will LIVE my life, not just wait it out.

The thing I didn’t realize, that I am still striving to learn in a visceral way every day, is that this particular magic will spur a person on to wishes they didn’t dare allow themselves before. And you’ll want to take these new desires and turn them into action too.

Wishful thinking. I know only too well the ways it can be a trap – it kept me sedentary and daydreaming my way through life for decades.

But wishful thinking can also be a catalyst once you’ve learned the trick of turning that desire into intention, and intention into action. Like all tricks worth knowing, you will have to talk yourself through it again and again (because practice is the only thing that perfects the technique). There are three simple steps:

1. Wish it.

2. Will it.

3. Do it.

Simple, I say. But not usually easy.

Joyful, but sometimes also painful.

Magic — as in “unfolding in wonder and awe”, not as in wand-waving incantations and instantaneous transfiguration. Practical, hard-won, life-changing magic. If Ben and I can do it, so can you.

Let your desire become intention.

A Valentine from Me to You: You’re Not Alone

Think about it, there must be higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine…

—Steve Winwood and Will Jennings

When I was a child, then a teenager… even into the decades of my twenties and thirties…I never questioned that my life would be like most everyone else’s. I would meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family. As I got older and it wasn’t happening, I told everyone that was a-okay with me. I didn’t want it. So what if it was a lie? I shrugged it off and didn’t dwell on it.

By my early forties, I’d told the lie enough times that I was comfortable with it. Besides, at that point I’d gained enough weight that mostly people didn’t ask me about it anymore – whether I was seeing anyone, or wished I was, became a moot point. We all knew no one wanted someone like me. We didn’t talk about it. Ever.

Later in that decade, when I decided to change my life, to come out of my lie-induced trance, amid all of the incredibly beautiful, powerful and positive experiences came this realization: my supposed “okay-ness” with being alone was the biggest crock I’d ever sold myself.

Around that time, at a wedding, one of the bible readings opened up a pit of anger so vast I almost couldn’t contain my ire and join in the celebration. The reading didn’t beat around the bush – I thought they were the most cruel verses I’d ever heard. From Ecclesiastes 4:9:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

I stayed in that pit of anger for a long time, unable to claw my way out. At or to whom could I direct my wrath? I was just learning not to despise myself and that felt good enough that I didn’t want to turn my rage inward. So I directed it at the only other entity I could think of: God. And let me tell you, I am certain it was no coincidence that, during this time period, everywhere I turned people in my life were vociferously thanking God for the amazing partners He gifted them with. How that pissed me off, and fueled the fire I was burning up in!

At some indefinable moment, my angry defiance gave way to angry tears. I cried until the pit I was in filled with my own salty water. Suddenly, instead of being trapped in a pit I found myself swimming in an ocean of grief. After literal decades of choosing not to feel anything deeply, I felt every second of my mourning over what had never come to be. It wasn’t merely that I had no significant other at that moment, lots of people share that predicament. It was the fact that I have never had that. Never been cherished, wanted in a mature romantic relationship. Its a bit harder to find people who share that life experience – in part because who wants to admit that out loud? It feels defective. Deficient. I astonished myself with the number of tears I was capable of crying. I surprised (and frightened) my friends; seriously, we would look at one another in astonishment when yet another crying jag would take me in the middle of a seemingly innocuous moment. I was SAD. SAD. SAD.

One day, my feet touched bottom. On an emotional level, I was still doing that sniffly, hiccupy thing you do after a long hard cry, but I had come to the shore of that particular ocean. I wasn’t laughing it off, by any means, but I wasn’t in danger of flooding the midwest any longer.

Here’s the thing: even in the middle of my deepest anger and my soggiest grief, I was happy in a way I had never been before as an adult. Some days were downright joyful. Let me say that again so we all can feel the magnitude of what I’m saying here: some days, when I was angry beyond my ability to articulate it, or when I was so sorrowful I sat through dull work meetings trying not to cry, I was AT THE SAME MOMENT happy and sure of my own well-being.

How was that possible?

How is the reason I am rehashing all of this in a post on Valentine’s Day. In the three+ years I’ve been posting to this blog, I’ve discovered that the more honestly I share my true experiences, the more likely it is that someone – reading what I’ve written – will recognize him- or her- self in my story. So I feel confident that you’re out there. You know who you are – the person feeling so desperately alone. Unworthy. Defective. I want you, whoever you are, to know you don’t have to feel that way. Or at least, that isn’t the whole picture of who you are, or what your life can be.

First, it was possible to be both enraged and joyful because the more I opened myself to others, sharing my triumphs, failures, angers, and even my grief…the more others were willing to offer me love, friendship, and support. Incredible, amazing people in my life were able to understand that I was experiencing something profound. They couldn’t experience it themselves, not being me, but they could walk through it with me – and they did.

Second, it was possible to be both deeply sad and happy at the same time because the sadness was residual – left over from the past. Oprah (and therapists everywhere) always says that if you don’t let yourself feel it now, you’ll feel it later. With interest. So whatever you’re feeling, let it be felt. I ate to cover up my feelings, and while it seemed comforting at the time, it made things infinitely worse. I’ll take angry, crying, healthy and happy Jenion over my old dangerously overweight and sleepwalking self any day.

I came, eventually, to the shore of my ocean of grief with this realization: when you focus on what you don’t have, you will always feel deprived – even if you are surrounded by riches. And I am surrounded by blessings. When you focus on what you don’t have, you devalue not only the gifts you do have, but the givers of those gifts: the people who do care, who are there. And that includes my nemesis, God. This realization has recently allowed me to make my first, tentative, overtures of friendship toward God again. Don’t get me wrong. I still blame God. I am just learning to grudgingly accept that I don’t know everything God knows (including the big picture of my life).

In all of this I see the workings of a higher love, and it fills me with gratitude. That it would be possible to change my life never occurred to me until it started happening. That I could discover it possible to be happy with myself – even though I might wish some parts of my life were different – was a revelation to me. I know that since it was possible for me, it is possible for others, too. Possible for you.

There must be higher love, as the song says. Without it, life is wasted time. Look inside your heart and…stop wasting time. You may have to do work with yourself that is truly hard. And you may have to deal with feelings you buried in the past. But while romantic love, married love, is a beautiful thing – it isn’t the only thing. You are more than your relationship status, so much more! And you are not alone, no matter how utterly single you are this Valentine’s Day. In fact, you are loved.

Pulling a Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I’ve lived my life, in some ways, a lot like Forrest Gump – at least during his running phase. In the movie, Forrest claims he just felt like it, so took off running and kept going. Until he didn’t feel like it anymore. Plain and simple, just like the character of Forrest Gump himself.

Those of you who have known me for any length of time are likely wondering in what possible way I have been like this image of Forrest – I rarely run, after all. And I am hardly considered simple (recent descriptions have included cantankerous, introspective, difficult and an overthinker – not one simple in the bunch).

As I look at my life and ask, “What next?”, I can’t help but look back and wonder – what the??? How did I get here? It is as if I just jogged along the path of my life, for no particular reason continuing on the same trajectory. When I came to a roadblock or a turning point, I made a minute course correction and kept jogging. I figured that since I’d gone this far, I might as well just keep going. This is how Forrest crisscrossed the continent, and it is how I passed a lot of my days. I just kept going.

Aside from the obvious oversimplification – there were, after all, moments of soul-searching, difficult decision-points, days when striking out in a different direction was a near possibility – this is a fairly accurate description of my adult life. It is only relatively recently that I’ve learned to recognize the truth – the downside of over-identification with your career, your social milieu, your physical condition or your whatever is not that others define you by it. The downside is that you define and limit yourself. You are so far “in”, you can’t even see that there is an “out”.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for “staying the course”, for commitment. But Forrest just ran. He thought he “might as well”, which is hardly the same as commitment. And while he ran, a series of events and adventures happened around him. But they didn’t actually happen to him. They happened because other people were seeking meaning, looking for answers, trying to discover a purpose or a passion. (In the movie, others mistakenly assume that these things will be found by running with or after Forrest. We are meant to see these others as pathetic, but I think that’s open for interpretation. At least they are searching for something.)

One day, Forrest stops running and begins a new phase of his life. Who can say why, for sure? The same thing happened to me. One day I realized that I was just mindlessly running on a treadmill and calling it “my life”. I decided to stop doing that. Many people have asked, primarily wondering about my weight loss. “What was different? Why did it ‘take’ this time?” I don’t have a ready or easy answer for that. The day I stepped on the scale and decided 352 was a really high number felt, otherwise, like any other day. So did the day I started working out. I refused to begin with a solid statement of commitment, “This is the day I change my life!”, because I’d done that before and it hadn’t been true. I began with more of a “Meh. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.” I might as well.

If that’s how it began, very much in the vein of Forrest’s running phase, that’s not how it continued. Stepping off the treadmill I’d been running on took daily effort, and continues to take daily effort. I wake up in the morning and decide to exercise. Decide to eat more veggies and less dessert. Decide that I can go one more day without pizza. And in the other areas of my life, my emotional and professional and spiritual selves also have to make active choices, set goals, decide. There is no room for “I might as well” or “for no particular reason”. Because that old treadmill (or hamster wheel if you prefer) is still in working order and, even after several years of wakefulness, it is easy to step onto it and forget to choose. To just jog along with the status quo, to somnambulate at pace.

Steve Jobs famously stated that you can never connect the dots moving forward in your life. You can only connect the dots looking back. We still have to move forward, trusting that the dots WILL connect. There are periods when living consciously is exciting – we feel our own forward momentum and it is exhilarating. And there are periods when making deliberate choices day in and day out feels really hard. Sorry, Forrest, but as endearing a character as you are, I don’t want to be like you anymore. I would rather choose the hard way and stay awake, live with purpose, than look back at my life and say, “I did it for no particular reason.”

Walking in the Dark

Almost the first thing I notice: nothing looks the same. Though, normally, I have a strong internal compass, suddenly I lose my bearings easily and often. Shadows and pools of light transform even the most familiar streets into alien territory. At corners, I move up close to the street signs, shining my little key-fob light at the words, verifying that I’m someplace familiar, in spite of appearances.

Walking in my neighborhood at night, I notice little things like the discarded banana peel I almost stepped on (imagine what a story that would have made!), or that a surprising number of motion-activated flood lights pick up movement in the street. And I notice big things: the dearth of sidewalks; streetlights shining up into the orange leaves of the sugar maples. I notice clouds scuttling across the bright white harvest moon, blown by the freshening winds of autumn.

Recently, I have been grappling with issues and transitions in my life. Mostly, I have been unable to share them in this blog for two reasons. First, some stories are not mine alone to tell. Second, there are practical considerations which prevent me talking about some of these processes for now. But this blog has become my way of inviting others to share my journey, and your companionship on the road has truly motivated and inspired me to keep moving forward. To be bound to silence for the time being – this has truly been difficult.

Add to that the discomfort we all feel at the thresholds of new places, when we know we want to enter but are unsure of what awaits us – and I am all verklempt. Inside, I roil. Emotion threatens to overwhelm me. An impetus to speak, to act, to move pushes outward from my core – yet I am in a moment of stasis before the rapid acceleration I am certain is to come.

When I must do something, I head out into the night to walk. Up and down streets I’ve taken for granted for years. Past houses full of neighbors I’ve never met, past dogs in yards begging for attention, past fallen leaves and trash cans set out for the morning collection.

As I walk, I talk to myself. Admonitions. To-do lists. Corrections to my faulty thinking. Snippets of poetry. Half conversations – some real, some my lines in imaginary dialogues. Occasionally, I check that this running-at-the-mouth is truly internal, that I haven’t started actually speaking out loud like the mentally-ill homeless woman who alternately breaks my heart and frightens me.

The parallels between the metaphorical road I am walking in my life and these actual night walks are not lost on me. In both cases, I am treading familiar/not familiar territory. Change is surrounding me, from the physical changes of autumn to the emotional and psychological changes required by liminal moments. I have to move forward, with determination and without fear (hello, since when have I not been afraid of the dark?). Focus is required to avoid tripping and to keep from psyching myself out. I am treading both paths alone.

I walk until my shoulders start to ache, usually the first sign of fatigue, which slows the mental synapses and causes my internal voice to grow quiet. My mind is finally free to notice the big and little things I mentioned earlier. I begin to hear the sounds occurring outside my own head: the scuttle of a squirrel chase, the frantic tinkle of windchimes, a distant siren’s wail. I lean into the wind and breathe deeply. Finally…finally…I relax. Finally, I can stop trying to force things. I can let go of the need for specific outcomes, and just lean into the now. Lean into the perfect red-orange of a fallen leaf on the black asphalt at my feet.

Peeling

 
“The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” — Simone Weil
 

When I named my blog Jenion, I thought it was a clever play on words – a combination of my name (Jen) with onion. My tag line: peeling away the layers. Like the onion, I had physical layers that needed to be peeled away. The peeling of those layers has slowed considerably, but the process has uniformly felt good. Like pulling off the dead skin after a sunburn, this physical peeling (a.k.a. weight loss) revealed softer, healthier, more glowing layers beneath.

At the beginning, I didn’t fully grasp that there were psychic and emotional layers that also needed to be pulled back in order to reveal both the person I hoped to become and the life I wanted to live. In part, I didn’t understand this because I had denied my own hunger, to borrow Simone Weil’s metaphor from the quote above. After all, I had eaten my way to more than 350 pounds – how could I possibly be hungry?

The soul, my friends, can be a powerful liar and deceiver in the name of self-preservation.

Not understanding what that process would involve, I began pulling away at the top, papery layers of the onion that is my emotional self. Some of it was easy – self-revelations seemed to come with each pound shed. Occasionally, though, the peeling skin wasn’t completely ready to detach, and there was a wince of pain. But with the support of others and the motivation provided by ongoing success, I persevered. And I discovered happiness in my life. True friendship. Joy.

That would have been a nice, happy ending, eh?

However, there was a deeper truth about this process of peeling away the layers that I didn’t understand, in fact am only now beginning to grasp fully. This truth has three parts: the layers never end; once you begin peeling them away to uncover your soul’s hidden truths, you have embarked on a journey that calls for your continued commitment; the deeper the layers you uncover, the greater the emotional pain you feel upon peeling them away. The pain, the emotion, comes from exposing hidden places to air and light. And even though you know that is good for healing and the process of growth, it still results in discomfort.

There may be those who think I’m being either pessimistic or melodramatic here. Why should life, why should being happy, be so hard? they might ask. I don’t know the answer to that. Why are things that come easily to some, so elusive for me? Why are things that are obvious and clear to me so opaque for others? Why is the sky blue?!

I am particularly short on answers as I busy myself with the questions that my life asks me to consider. I do think those elusive answers are bound up in the aftermath of having lied to myself, of convincing myself that I wasn’t hungry, that I wasn’t angry, and that I had nothing to feel sad about nor any right to feel lonely. All that hunger, anger, sadness and loneliness were part of a life-giving river of emotion which my self-deception damned up, creating a huge reservoir. Now, each layer I peel away from my inner-onion, creates a chink in the damn. The emotions start to leak out, and threaten to become a torrent. Onions, I should have realized, call forth tears.

After all that, there is still a happy ending here. Happiness, true friendship, joy – all these are part of the same river of emotion I once damned up through self-deceit. Un-damned, the river flows with all of the emotions: the good, the difficult, and the life-affirming ones. With tears and laughter, anger and love, hunger and peace.

I keep peeling with that vision in mind.

You Cannot See Your Future From Here

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot this summer. It has alternately filled me with excitement and dread. I have found my heart racing with anticipation and with sheer panic. Beautiful fantasies, check. Hyperventilation, check. One day I found myself asking friends, “Which do you think is most likely – that I’ll develop an ulcer or have a heart attack?” (They immediately voted for the ulcer, their reason being I’m in good cardiovascular shape from working out.)

With all this mental and emotional turmoil, it would make sense to pull back a bit and spend some time in calm reflection. Of course, that’s how I got to this point in the first place – calmly reflecting on what it is I want for my life: who am I, how do I intend to live, what is my heart desiring? (I guess you really can’t start out on a journey to change your life and then be shocked when your life demands that you actually change.) Anyway, I did what many of us do when looking for perspective these days, and sat down at my computer. I googled “quotes about the future”, and found some interesting statements, my favorite of which is:

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis
 

In other words, the future arrives in its own time, and all the hyperventilating in the world won’t bring it on any more quickly – or delay it, either. At the rate of 60 minutes an hour, there is time to breathe.

I quickly discovered, though, that a clever quotation – even from such an erudite source as C.S. Lewis – can only stave off anxiety or provide mental respite for a short time. I needed something more “meaty” to chew on. And that is when a friend reminded me of a book I read all the way back in high school. Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard.

This little book is an allegorical tale about poor Much-Afraid, who lives in the Valley of Humiliation, surrounded by her extended family, the Fearings. Much-Afraid is timid and suffers from physical disabilities and deformities which keep her feeling inferior and insecure. However, she has found employment working for the Shepherd, who promises to help her escape the Valley for the high places, The Kingdom of Love. If she will but trust and follow, she will be changed, her imperfections erased, and her feet will become “like hind’s feet”, able to leap gracefully and nimbly along even the steepest of paths.

Obviously, the reader is intended to identify with Much-Afraid. And I did (though not nearly to the degree I did when in high school). It is as she approaches the borders of the Kingdom of Love that the following passage appears:

“It did seem strange that even after safely surmounting so many difficulties and steep places, including the ‘impassable precipice’ just below them, Much-Afraid should remain so like her name. But so it was!”

Then, on the following page, the Shepherd places his hands on her comfortingly and says,

“Much-Afraid, don’t ever allow yourself to begin trying to picture what it will be like. Believe me, when you get to the places which you dread you will find that they are as different as possible from what you have imagined…”
 

And this is how God speaks to us, sometimes. In words or phrases which seem to appear in the moment of our need for them. It seems I read that whole book primarily for these few sentences. The first passage to remind me that everything in my life – my own weight loss, the journey I’ve been on to change so much about myself, the health issues and healings of my loved ones and SO MUCH MORE – should already have created a Fear-Less where a Much-Afraid once stood.

The second passage reminds me that there is no point in borrowing anxiety from the unknown – my creative imagination is not intended as a tool for anticipating, then dwelling on, worst-case scenarios. The reality is that worst cases, when they happen, are never quite what we thought they would be in specifics or scope or duration. Sometimes they are worse than we feared, other times, better or easier. In either case, we have to respond to them in the moment they occur. Having dreaded them in advance is not the tiniest bit useful in that moment.

As I adjust my thinking to encompass these two nuggets of wisdom, I find that my heart rate is slowing. I am not gulping big mouthfuls of air as if there will never be enough oxygen for me. I’ve mostly stopped worrying about an ulcer. Instead, I’m talking myself away from fear and into calm presence in the moment. And in that calm, I am able to identify the location of my next step forward – you know, a step that happens in this particular 60 minute increment of time. And then the next.