When the Dog Bites

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?

 

 

 

 

The Post that Almost Wasn’t

In all the years since the inception of this blog , I have never come this close to NOT posting on a Thursday. The reasons for this are both simple and complicated.

On the simple end of the spectrum, it was Christmas week. A week that did not go according to plan, so was more rushed than intended, but was also wonderful in spite of a few set-backs. The busy week meant that I had not written a post in advance of this morning, so when I awoke at 3:20 a.m. nauseous and chilled, the next eight hours of physical illness and discomfort did not really lend themselves to sitting at a computer capturing my thoughts in words. When I felt well enough to sit up and log on, I also felt empty. Which leads to the complicated reasons for almost missing a Thursday post.

Had I found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about the incredible example of patience and acceptance provided by Mike. We got on the road at 6:45 a.m. Monday, intending for Mike to be at an important appointment for his son, leaving directly from there to head to Iowa for Christmas. We blew a tire less than four miles from home, during rush hour on I35W. Not only did he remain completely calm while maneuvering  out of traffic, he was remarkably sanguine about missing the appointment, despite the fact his son had made it clear he wanted Mike there. While I was starting to ratchet up toward hysteria, he refused to be flummoxed, reminding me there was no point to drama – there was nothing we could do but make the best of it. Through a long morning of waiting for the vehicle to be road-worthy, missing the appointment, and eventually getting on the road, his calm demeanor remained intact. Even though it meant missing dinner and an evening hanging out with his sisters, Mike entered fully into our stops in Cedar Rapids, visiting friends who had newborns to show off. Not once did he attempt to rush our time with friends in order to get back on the road, no matter how much he may have wished to. Yes, if I had found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about patience and gratitude, and the deep examples of each from that day.

If there had been time to write a post on Tuesday, I would have written about being cared for by family – even though the family was not my own. From the delicious home cooked breakfast, to a Christmas Eve celebration 27-people strong. Laughter ruled the night, dinner was direct from Pizza Hut, and love was expressed in hugs and words and hijinks. While I missed my own big family, there is something recognizable as “home” in spending a chaotic night with any loving, large family. Had I somehow, miraculously, found time to write on Tuesday, I’d have written about the spirit of love at Christmas, and how wonderful it is to bask in its glow.

Then there was Wednesday, Christmas itself. If I had found the time, between bouts of sitting and chatting in three different homes, between moments of sharing and silence, I would have written about kindness and generosity. I would have written about the happiness of watching someone you love relax completely and be at home. I would have written about a surprise Christmas gift that touched me deeply. I would have written about how little it mattered that we never showered – after all, there was a phone call which said, “Come over, I’m frying eggs”, but which meant, “Come over and I’ll show how much I love you by cooking for you.” A shower doesn’t rate next to that. If I had written yesterday, I definitely would have had plenty to say.

To say I feel empty today is only half true – physically, my body rebelled against and rejected all of the rich indulgences of the past few days and emptied itself in the early morning hours. Emotionally, I feel flat, not empty. The rich experiences of family and friendship over the past few days make today seem flat by contrast. But the reality is so much more complex. All of the amazing feelings and examples of the past few days – the love, kindness, laughter and generosity – were not fleeting. They are abiding and real. That we don’t taste, touch, see, feel them daily is our human failing.

So, when I finish writing today’s “post that almost wasn’t”, I am going to put on some Christmas music and sing along. I’m going to reconnect with the many feelings of the past few days, and I’m going to celebrate them all. Why waste a whole day feeling empty and flat when I can feel  filled with light and joy?!

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.)

Flashback Friday: Incipience

This old polaroid is a photo of two of my favorite women in the world. The dark haired one is my cousin Stephanie, while the blondie is my sister, Gwen. I have no idea when or why this photo was taken back in the late 1960s – but I do know why I am posting it today! I am heading up to Dubuque tonight to attend the opening of one of Steph’s shows, this one at the Carnegie-Stout Library (in the old rotunda). Steph is an accomplished artist, and her work is truly stunning, whether it is drawing, painting, or her trademark bead mosaics. (You can view here work here.) The piece, La Luna, is one of my favorites. (The entire surface of the piece is crafted from beads, each individual bead placed painstakingly, one at a time, into the piece.)

When we are children, we love the people in our lives regardless of their skills or talents, regardless of who they might become in the future. Steph has always been a part of my family, and I don’t remember spending any time in childhood thinking about the person she might become as an adult. As so often happens, our grown-up lives took us in different directions. I saw her occasionally, though I was always happy to spend time with her when those moments arose. Then one day I turned around and really looked – and discovered this amazing person. Loving Mom, great friend, gifted artist, beautiful human being. My cousin – and, I am happy to say, my dear friend.

What Shapes Us

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

On our recent road trip to New Mexico, my family took Mike and I to Kasha-Katuwe, better known as Tent Rocks. The unique landscape was originally formed by massive eruptions in the Jemez volcanic field, which “spewed pyroclasts (rock fragments), while searing hot gases blasted down slopes in an incandescent avalanche called a ‘pyroclastic flow’.”  The resulting formations are spectacular.

We climbed a little over 1100 feet (from an altitude of 5570 to one of 6760), taking in the most amazing views of both the tent rock formations and the surrounding New Mexican landscape.

Tent Rock formations
Tent rocks in foreground, mountainous New Mexico in background

One of my favorite parts of the hike, both on the way in/up and on the way back/down, was the trail leading through the slot canyons. Over time, wind and rain have carved canyons and arroyos into the rock, creating passages (like the one pictured at the top of this post) of surpassing beauty. For most of the morning, we hiked through 100 degree temperatures, thin air and a burning sun. These canyons of layered rock were hushed and cool by comparison.

The stillness of the canyons gave rise to contemplation. Like the rock, which was shaped by the forces of nature, we too, are shaped by the vissicitudes of life. Our choices, our experiences, who we love and how we learn – all have a role in shaping us. Therefore, it seemed especially poignant to share this experience, and these thoughts, in companionable silence with Mike.

We met when I was 18, Mike 19. We were still fresh, unmarked clay. Our faces shone with, as J.D. Salinger put it when speaking of college students, “the misinformation of the ages”. Over the next few years, we shared some powerful experiences as each of us attempted to discover the direction of our lives. Eventually, though, we found that we were bound in different directions, and we parted ways.

The weathers of life – births, disappointments, marriages, jobs, successes – had their way with us over the next thirty years. Molding and shaping us into mature adults, careworn and wiser (we hope). And then, surprisingly, bringing us back onto each others’ paths. Under the extra pounds, the gray hair, the wrinkles, the familiar past could be glimpsed. Only now, the layers and textures add depth and surprise. They offer possibilities that didn’t exist in our earlier friendship: wisdom and generosity of spirit, compassion and forgiveness. Human capacities with which youth is often barely acquainted.

So tonight, back home in my little house in Iowa, I am thinking of Kasha-Katuwe and the lessons it taught me. Time makes shape-shifters of us all. I am grateful for this learning. I am grateful for this earth which teaches me. And yes, Mike, lest you think I left out the most important part (again), I am grateful for your company on this path.

Mike and I, at the top!

Road Trip!

When I was a kid, there were few things more exciting than vacation. In the Hanson household, that could only mean one thing: road trip! Load up the station wagon, roll out of bed in the middle of the night, and hit the open road! Since we generally left sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., most of the eight members of the family barely woke up enough to join in the rousing a capella rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, which for some reason was our traditional hittin’ the road song. As the last strains died, the car grew eerily quiet, as one by one they drifted back to dreamland.

These were probably my favorite hours of the trip, when just my dad (who was driving, of course) and I were awake. My seat was always right behind his, and I often sat forward, likely breathing down his neck. We didn’t talk, mostly, just kept silent company. Occasionally, one of us would see something worth mentioning. It was a treat to be with my family when they were all asleep. It was one of the few times in my childhood when they weren’t completely overwhelming.

We didn’t have a lot of money, so the trips sometimes boiled down to a long drive to a distant motel that had a pool. In between, we’d check out a variety of places, most of which we couldn’t afford to enter. Imagine six kids plastered against the windows as we drove through the Wisconsin Dells, home of the kitschy tourist attraction…without stopping. We often tease my father about pulling up to museums only to look at the admission price and get back in the car. The most famous of these stories involves the Hockey Hall of Fame. The fact that we couldn’t afford to enter made the experience more memorable than if we had entered its hallowed halls…none of us even followed hockey!

Then there were those moments which were unexpectedly magical. In Winnipeg, where the hotel lost our reservation and we ended up in luxurious accommodations. Or when we got lost somewhere in the Smoky Mountains and crested a rise to see the “hollers”, early morning mist clinging to the trees. In Baraboo, Wisconsin where I got to help a clown with a magic trick, under the big top of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Even some moments, just riding down the highway, everyone finally awake and singing. The time my sister, Gwen, had an incident with a donut and a glass of chocolate milk. Or immediately knowing Dad had gotten coke instead of pepsi at the soda fountain and arguing with him about it.

I loved the family togetherness on these trips. With eight of us in the car, there was no way to spread out and “do your own thing”, though my sister Chris often tried. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was my Mom’s version of hell on earth: the sheer din of everyone talking, whining, laughing at once. But I also developed a love for the lure of the unknown. I never knew, as a kid and a passenger, what was coming up. Everything on a road trip, therefore, was a surprise to me.

As an adult, there is still no vacation – unless I’m headed to an exotic locale overseas – I like better than a road trip. I have friends who can’t bear the drive from here to Chicago (a mere four hours). I feel like I’m just getting warmed up for the road when I hit the Loop. In this day and age, when we’ve depleted our resources, it is wasteful and arrogant, I suppose, to adore (and indulge in) long drives in personal transport. I rationalize that my ten year old car only has 74,000 miles, so most of the time I am not wantonly wasteful of gas. And then I load things up, and head on out looking for the odd and unusual, something that let’s me know I’ve left home and entered the wider world. And you better believe I’m singing.

The Sunday Roast: Guest Post by Emily Muhlbach

Emily Muhlbach is a kindred spirit, lover of words, and believer in bone-crushing hugs. She is also a talented writer, communications, marketing and social media specialist. If you want to read more of her work, you’ll need to encourage her to start a public blog – or check out her professional work at magazine.mtmercy.edu. Enjoy this Sunday Roast!

When my good friend Jen asked me to consider writing a blog on Tolkien, I hesitated. I worried it would come out wrong. And let’s face it, people actually read Jen’s blog. I got stage fright. But as I reflected on the subject matter, the words started to come.

So here it is: Why I Love Tolkien’s Writing

Most of my favorite elements are wrapped in Tolkien’s work. The messages are true and noble. The heroes are relatable; the danger is powerful and allusive. Each character is blessed with special giftings that only they can offer the cause, giving everyone a destiny and rich role to play in the events that shape their futures.

I love destinies and fighting for a cause. I love the greater good that is worth all else to save. You can see it in the characters of those fighting that they would willingly, gladly give all for the chance to see that greater good still live. And I believe, deep down, we all love these things. They speak to us in ways other messages do not; they make our spirits come alive.

We all want to take that moment and decide the better cause, the truer true…to chase the noble arch. As Gandalf would say, “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

I love these books and movies for the sheer weight in them. The evil the Fellowship fights is the battle I wish to fight. I want to be on that field, for how meaningful for your role to hold such depth of purpose; for your actions and allegiances to carry such significance?

There is a wisdom and light the characters exude; giving off passages and quotes that resonate with me on a spiritual level. As whispered in the third movie, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair…” that promise echoes core beliefs of my own. The books and movies are mystic and lovely, and yet wholly familiar, reflecting something deep within me.

For all these reasons and more, Tolkien’s writing will forever be dear to me. But there is something else that keeps it close to my heart. My brother.

When those movies first came out, my brother and I were not friends. We were not close and did not know each other in ways that stick with you past adolescence and young adulthood. Then The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and every wound was healed. Both of us instantly fell in love with it – the lands, the swordsmanship, the quotes, the score, the gallantry, the battle.

And suddenly the two of us were whole. We found ourselves with a shared cause and a shared love. We fell under the same banner, rode under the same flag. We saw the movies over and over again, quoted them, researched them, unearthed our Elvish names. It was as if we finally came to know each other. In recognizing the things we were both drawn to, we saw each other in new ways, reflected off each other.

The last movie came out in 2003, which seems like a lifetime ago. My brother died in 2008, after we had grown close. In that time I learned he loved to write, and was working on a novel. He wrote poetry and song lyrics, and had a wisdom about him that his friends sought him out for. And I learned all this because those movies brought us together.

When I saw the trailer for The Hobbit my heart jumped, and the thought entered my mind before I could identify and stop it, “I can’t wait to tell Henry.”

But I can’t. And I won’t be going to see it with him, to visit the lands again that we love and the characters that we identify with. But when I sit in that theatre and see our old friends on the screen, he will be in my mind and on my heart the entire time, and I will wish dearly and desperately that he was traveling to those worlds with me once again.

So you see, I cannot undo those movies and how they have impacted me, nor would I ever wish to. For they represent ideals, treasures and resolve that I hold dear – and they represent a piece of my brother’s heart. And for that, they will always remain in mine.

Though here at journey’s end I lie

In darkness buried deep,

Beyond all towers strong and high,

Beyond all mountains steep,

Above all shadows rides the Sun

And Stars for ever dwell.

I will not say the Day is done,

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Flashback Friday: A Couple of Mothers!

My niece, Hallie, St. Francis, my sisters Gwen and Chris pose prayerfully, and not very reverently, outside Rancho De Chimayo (at least, I think that’s where we were!).

I chose this photo because Sunday is Mother’s Day. Chris and Gwen are two wonderful mothers, and I wanted to celebrate them today. Their parenting styles couldn’t be more different. (Those of you who know them – am I wrong?!) But I have to say, they have each raised two children – all four of them intelligent, generous, funny, and loving human beings.

I am blessed to have, among my family and friends, some truly amazing women who are also incredible parents. To all of you, from my mom (Shirley), to my sisters and sisters-in-law (Marsha and Maria), and all my friends who are moms (I can’t list all of your names, but you know who you are!) I want to say thanks for blessing my life with your wonderful kids: babies, toddlers, children, and adults!