Treading Water: A Zoo Story

16 10 2014

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The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.

 

 

 

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Unfolding: Rilke, a paper crane, and me

5 09 2013

Image 2I don’t know the official name of the garden. I had seen it from my bike as I rode past. It looked like a quiet place to sit and think, across the street from its showier cousin, the Rose Garden. It wasn’t until after I had admired the little waterfall that I thought to notice the copper statue of a stylized crane, green patina-ed from the weather, or the boulders surrounding it. Each boulder contains a plaque, also weathered, with instructions for folding an origami crane. The first plaque begins, “Spirit of Peace: Fold Your Desire for Peace into a Paper Crane…”

I had come to the garden to contemplate a poem which came to me through circuitous routes, and which I knew upon my first cursory reading would require quiet and space. Here it is:

“I Want to Unfold” by Ranier Maria Rilke
 
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m to small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones —
or alone.
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 

In the art of origami, a simple square of paper is folded in such a manner as to be transformed into something else, something other than itself. These days, I feel tightly folded, holding myself erect with the artificial strength of reinforcement from bent and pleated layers. I may appear to have wings, like the crane. But that is an illusion: I am earthbound, folded tightly in upon myself as a protection from all my self-doubt and fear.

I want to know my own will, and to move with it. That was, after all, the whole point of the changes which led me here. I felt I had a firm idea of it in April and May, but as the summer passed it slipped more and more from my grasp. August and it seemed to disappear altogether. My days are peaceful on the exterior, but inside they are a turmoil. I have folded my desire for peace, let alone to know my own will, so deep I can’t quite get my fingers on it.

I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. Closed equals hidden, equals secret. Why choose folded, to remain closed? Fear, shame, guilt. Fear of my own inadequacies; shame that after all of the grace and the love I am still much afraid; guilt for the ways (large and small) that I know I am failing the gift of this time.

Unfolding. Unfolding equals exposing, unearthing, truth-telling. Exposing my vulnerabilities (the snivelling coward that lurks in my heart); unearthing through careful toil my hopes and dreams; telling the truth about my uncertainties and shortcomings, but also my talents and courage (which share space with that coward).

I want to unfold. Because, unfolded, I am myself: a plain square of paper, open to the sunlight. Able to breathe because I am no longer tightly crimped. My pride wants me to “be among the wise ones — or alone”, but truthfully, I am content to be alone and small enough for this world. It’s only on my bad days I think, “Any smaller or more alone, and I would disappear.”

As I sat in the Peace Garden, contemplating the Rilke poem through the oddly curved lens of my current life-in-limbo, I wasn’t thinking about the Divine, or Rilke’s obvious desire for deeper connection and relationship with God. I wan’t thinking of peace. I was thinking about the falseness of being closed – of pretending to be less needy or more sure than I am. Of the artiface, not the art, of origami.

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And then I saw it: one tiny white paper crane among the plantings. Fragile and pure, untouched by the dirt it rested upon. One wish, not the famous one-thousand, for peace. One tiny, fledgeling hope for something better. And I laughed, realizing that while a person should take care to remain unfolded, it is fine for paper. The paper crane was made more by folding, while I was less. Yet both of us yearn for peace – the peace that comes with understanding and compassion.

That peace must find a beginning in my own heart.

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Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

13 12 2012
Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
 
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“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”
 

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!





Keep on dreaming, even if it breaks your heart

5 07 2012

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

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

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

Keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart.

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

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

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

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

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




In praise of the mess

29 09 2011

There are these seemingly strange coincidences which happen in life. You hear about a random thing, like the artwork of Ursus Wehrli, and suddenly the name and his work are everywhere: on your cousin’s facebook page, in “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress, at Juxtapoz.com. (To see his work, go to http://www.juxtapoz.com/Current/the-art-of-clean-up-by-ursus-wehrli)  Wehrli, for those who haven’t been running across him almost daily for the past week, is an artist whose work is obsessed with bringing order to what normally appears random or chaotic. I admit to looking at his work (a photograph of alphabet soup followed by a photograph of the same soup with letters arranged alphabetically, for example) with a certain amount of awe for the sheer labor-intensity of it. The compulsive nature of it. The high-magnitude need for order it reveals.

The other night, I went directly from the office to an appointment, to a drive-through for a dinner salad, then back to the office for a program sponsored by my department. When I arrived home at 10:00 p.m., I popped some popcorn, kicked off my shoes, and reclined in the LaZyBoy in my living room. Looking around me, I saw the accummulated mess of several weeks of a busy schedule: on the sofa, stacks of clean laundry crammed to one end, down comforter and pillow jumbled at the other; table tops cluttered with empty soda bottles, empty microwave popcorn bags, empty take-out containers; five pairs of shoes/sandals scattered on the rug…and I briefly imagined Ursus Wehrli walking into this environment and attempting to bring order to it. For a moment, I felt embarrassment at what he would make of things. Then I mentally shrugged my shoulders and opened my 1,000 page fantasy novel.

When, a brief time later, I fell into a half-sleep sitting up with my book open on my lap, I had a very strange waking dream. In my dream, Ursus Wehrli, did in fact pay a visit. His dreamland alter-ego was played by this actor:

Alan Tudyk Picture

(Alan Tudyk) who played the German rehab patient, Gerhardt, in the Sandra Bullock film “28 Days”. Ok, so I type-cast in my dreams – doesn’t everyone?!

Anyway, Ursus was acting as a “life consultant”, and I had hired him to help me get my life and house in order. Literally. He insisted that my calendar be arranged so that the shorter appointments occurred earlier in the day, while longer appointments followed later. Of course, every activity was considered an appointment, meaning that every activity was blocked on the calendar. Sleep, as the longest block of each day, therefore came last. No napping allowed. All belongings: clothing, beads, towels, tchotchkes were grouped together with each other, then also size- and color-coded. My house began to look like a crazed organizer or Martha-Stewart-on-steroids had been there. At first, my dream-self loved this newfound clarity. I was getting caught up on paperwork, there were no dirty dishes or laundry haunting my activities, and every night I slept in my bed (as opposed to sitting bolt upright on a chair in the living room) at a completely regulated time. But I began to think of poor Ursus Wehrli as an evil taskmaster devoted to making my life completely regimented. I became agitated, looking for a way out of this overly regulated life.

Then I fell asleep in earnest, and at some point the dream segued into one in which I was stuck on an elevator and no one would help me get out. Then my alarm went off.

I felt relief when I woke, looked around, and realized that the mess of my life remained unchanged from the night before. A fully lived life is messy. Not every activity can be categorized and advance-planned. If one makes it a mantra (as I have) to “choose people and doing over solitude and navel-gazing”, perfectionism drops off the list of important values. Symmetry is lovely when it occurs naturally, but when it is forced and regimented it loses its appeal. So my house is messy – in the past few weeks I’ve worked a lot, worked out a lot. I’ve talked deeply and thought deeply. I’ve travelled and I’ve relaxed. I have listened and served. I’ve been pampered. I’ve played a part in possibly saving some lives (or at least weaving a safety net for some fragile souls). Some nights I’ve slept for ten hours, others not at all. On at least one occasion, I even slept in the afternoon! Why would I choose dusting or dishwashing over all that?

The people, the places, the time blocks of my life are rich and rewarding. They are also messy, crammed, thrown together in sometimes strange combinations. And I couldn’t be happier. Seriously, I would choose this chaos over well-ordered days and a clean house every time. That might disappoint my mother, and cause Ursus Wehrli to hyperventilate. But, so be it. I love my mess.