Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM
Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM
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And we’re walking…

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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More Than A Flimsy Web

I know what they're going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!
I know what they’re going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!

Many people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality typology. (If you are not, here’s an easy introduction to the concept.) My personality type, which has remained fairly consistent over 20+ years of periodic assessments is INFP – which stands for introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. INFPs often feel a bit odd, resulting in part from the fact that only roughly 1-4% of the adult population assesses as this type. My type has been described as “passionately concerned with personal growth and development”; we may present a “calm and serene face to the world, and can seem shy, even distant around others. But inside they’re anything but serene…”. And this: “The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.” (read one full description of the INFP here.)

Do I really need to ask those of you who know me whether any of this is ringing a bell? I have heard many variations on the comment “Is there ever a time when you aren’t thinking?”, most recently when my friend Molly said, “I just don’t think deeply about these things like you do. I’m more practical, and go right to how to fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing Molly, apologies if I didn’t get the tone right – she was complimenting me!)

INFPs are idealists, and among the four types of idealists, they are categorized as “healers”. The problem with being in relentless pursuit of personal growth and development is that the INFP’s gaze – I mean MY gaze – is so often turned inward that we forget it is our mission to help others heal. I forget that I am my best self when I am turning an empathetic and loving gaze outward, rather than the more frequent self-critical (and inward-directed) navel-gaze.

This discussion of my “type” is all prologue to the heart of what I want to share today.

Two weeks ago I made what was intended to be a low-key trip back to Iowa to visit friends. I didn’t call everyone I know and make a bunch of advance plans for get-togethers. Instead, once in town I contacted people one at a time, setting up coffee or breakfast dates. These past months of major transition in my life have included so many great group activities, contrasted with long periods of aloneness, that I was craving deep conversation and one-on-one reconnections with dear friends.

As often as I have, in recent years, received exactly the thing I most needed, one would think I’d have learned to trust this life process. But I haven’t. It invariably surprises me each time. Throughout the weekend, my friends offered me the gift I most needed – the gift of their own questions, pain, struggles. The gift of saying (figuratively, not literally), “But enough about you, I’m ready to talk about me.” When friends trust us to take in their difficult emotions and return a commensurate depth of regard, to take their trust and return love in its place, it is an immeasurable grace. Denise Levertov expresses this so beautifully in her poem, “Gift”:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

–Denise Levertov

If there is a gift and a lesson in the beauty of my friends choosing to trust me with their questions, part of the lesson is this: that my deep questions and broken places are also a gift to share. Not my angst-y whining about “what am I going to do?”, but the truth that lies beneath that – the hurts and cracks that I rarely choose to share (it’s so much more convenient to pretend that the surface concerns are the real issues, isn’t it?).

Saturday, I did my best to offer that gift to another friend. I found it so incredibly hard – I put my sunglasses on in a dark coffee shop so I didn’t have to make eye-contact, for crying out loud.   I did a horrible job of expressing what I was feeling, but my friend did a good job of listening. And he directly stated the action I need to practice: “You have to open up and make yourself vulnerable if you expect me to know what you’re feeling.” True words for all of us at those times when we feel lost or misunderstood.

I want to thank the people in my life who offer me the gift of their neediness, their hurts and their questions. I understand how difficult it is to see that as a gift you give rather than as a burden you drop on an “unsuspecting friend.” But I know it is a gift because of how much it means to receive it. This alone should be enough to remind us to pass the same gift on to others, though it often isn’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not just a way of opening to our own growth and insight. It is also a way of helping those we love stretch their capacity for empathy and compassion, to take on the role of healer and give up (for a time) the incessant self-absorption endemic to our days.

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Handle with compassion