Too Young to Be So Damn Old

14 07 2017

 

 

The past couple of years, I’ve been struggling with midlife anxiety. Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet (and may never), fearing the future and whether I will have the wherewithal to survive comfortably, terrified that some amorphous but horrible tragedy will strike. I’ve sometimes felt like the busy thoroughfare of life I started down became a dead-end street when I was, somehow, not looking.

I’ve finally had enough of that.

I can’t stop bad things from happening through sheer force of preemptive fear. They will either happen or they won’t – and I’ve decided to be miserable when I have to be rather than volunteer for it in advance.

Here are a few other things I’ve decided:

  1. I will not watch depressing movies about early-onset alzheimers. I don’t care if they have beautiful cinematography, amazing scripts and finely wrought performances from an entire cast of academy award winners. Please reread the first paragraph above if you don’t immediately grasp the reason for my boycott.
  2. I will deviate from social norms if I feel so inclined. Really? You want to publish a list of things women my age should or shouldn’t wear/do/be/think? Go right ahead. But the minute you try to shame me into compliance if I choose otherwise, be prepared. Most of you have never been on the receiving end of the full force of my verbal wrath. Believe me, you will not like it.
  3. When I am feeling “stuck”, I will not write my own obituary or walk through a graveyard to contemplate the fleeting nature of time. I know there are workshops that use these activities to good purpose. But at this point in my life, writing my own obit is a little too real. Save these activities that “begin with the end in mind” for people who are actually at the beginning.
  4. I will not apologize for my gray hair…or my magenta, blue, or purple hair if I choose to go that way. If I color my hair, I do so for me – not because anyone else has an opinion. Who knows, there may be some wild colors coming. Gray hair makes me feel old, which in turn causes me to feel anxious. I hope that won’t always be the case, so I’m letting myself ease into it. I promise you, I’m not trying to recapture my youth. I’m aware that youth is not only fleeting, it has done fled.
  5. I will stop, throw in the towel, or give up any elective activity I so choose. There was a time I could not put down a book I had started reading until I had finished it. No more. I’ll never get that precious time back. So now, if the book isn’t doing something for me, I can quit it. Same for movies, card games, and seeing every booth at the farmer’s market. When I’m ready to be done, I’ll just stop. (The exception is Monopoly – I won’t even start playing that game so don’t ask.)
  6. I will follow my curiosity, even if it means I’m the oldest one in the room. I’m actually already used to being the oldest one in the room. I’ve been immature for my age basically my whole life. I thought that alone might protect me from midlife anxiety, but not so much, it turns out.
  7. I will sing the song in my head if the mood strikes me. This goes for whether the song is playing on Muzak or not. Since I was in about sixth grade, I’ve been self-conscious about singing in public. But recently, I’ve caught myself singing in the hallway at work or, once, while checking out the sales racks in Von Maur department store (they have a live pianist there). Sometimes you just have to belt out a Manilow tune.

Speaking of singing, I discovered a wonderful Swedish proverb earlier this week.“Those who wish to sing always find a song”. Fear and anxiety often encourage silence. The longer we are silent the greater the power our fears hold over us. I’m not entirely sure what reminded me that I am someone who wishes to sing. I’m just grateful to finally be finding a song again. I recommend taking my list of “decisions” with a grain of salt. But if you suddenly hear someone singing “Ready to Take a Chance Again”, you can bet your hard-earned money its me.





What I Allow

22 06 2017

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”  –Robyn Davidson

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  • In 1975, Robyn Davidson moved to Alice Springs, in Australia, to work with camels in order to prepare for a trek across the desert.
  • In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean agreed to be the spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate named Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
  • On December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 180-foot-tall, 1500-year-old California redwood tree in order to prevent it from being cut down.

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Recently, I came across something called the five second rule. No, this is not about dropped food. This rule is used to help get you unstuck and moving forward. The basic concept is this: you have an idea about something you could/should/wish to/want to do (ask a question in a public forum, clean your bathroom, take dinner to a friend convalescing from surgery). Such ideas come to us all the time, but often we don’t act on them. The longer we take to act, the less likely it is that we will take the action at all. The five second rule suggests counting backwards from five, challenging yourself to act on your thought or idea within that five seconds – thereby short-circuiting the tendency to (through procrastination or fear of failure, etc.) forego action.

Since reading of this concept, I keep noticing how many times I think of something to do yet do nothing. It is not only astounding – it is deeply disturbing. It is disturbing because part of the noticing process has been paying attention to the self-talk that keeps me from action. How humbling is it to really hear myself rationalize laziness, excuse sloth, forgive weakness, and cave in to fear.

At the same time as this heightened self-awareness, I have been reading Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her trek across the Australian desert accompanied by four camels and a dog. In the final paragraph of her memoir, Davidson shares the thought I quoted, above, about what she learned. Two important takeaways in that one short sentence:

  1. You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.
  2. The most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step.

Davidson goes on to say that, like all important life lessons, these two need to be re-learned, over and over throughout our lives.

After finishing the book, I set it down and thought, “I should go for a walk.” Unbidden, my brain began the process of counting backwards from five…four…three…

“Alright!”, I told myself, grabbing my tennies. After changing my shoes, I headed outside, and spent about an hour walking around my neighborhood. Thoughts of Davidson’s trek – the fact that she had an idea but zero skills or experience to back it up, yet did it anyway, blew my mind. And it led me to think of other people I’ve admired who said yes to a thought or idea, not sure where it would lead or how it might turn out.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Julia Butterfly Hill, both social justice heroes of mine, came to mind. Neither of them knew, when they first took action on an idea, that it would become a life-altering choice. The idea came – in the form of an invitation or a creative solution to a problem – and the first step was taken. The path revealed itself over time, just as Davidson’s trek wound its unexpected way through the Outback. For Sr. Helen, next steps took her into the international spotlight as an advocate for those sentenced to death. For Julia, that first choice led to 738 days living in the tree which became known to people everywhere as Luna.

It is easy to think of these women, and others like them, as extraordinary; to think of them as possessing something special with which the rest of us were not gifted. But I’ve had the good fortune to break bread with both Sr. Helen and Julia, and I’ve discovered that this kind of thinking is, mainly, a cop-out. They are lovely, wonderful, fiercely loving individuals – but they are not some special subspecies of homo sapiens. They are not that different from me or you.

If, as Robyn Davidson suggests, we are as strong and powerful as we allow ourselves to be, then these women have opted to allow strength, resilience, individual personal power – love – to flow through them. If Davidson is correct, the biggest difference between them and me is this issue of “allowing” myself to be powerful.

I’m not off on any quests through hostile landscapes, nor will Susan Sarandon be portraying me in a movie any time soon. Still, isn’t it time to seriously consider life’s most important question? Will I continue to sit on my couch making excuses, or will I allow myself to be as strong, as powerful, as I am capable of being?

“The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can one person make a difference?”  Each and every one of us does make a difference.  It is actually impossible to not make a difference.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”  http://www.juliabutterfly.com/

 





Green is the Color of Grace

25 05 2017

Act as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that your actions make any difference.                                                                                                –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Back in December, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Follow the simple instructions, then…Voila!…in mid-winter you’ll have a beautiful flowering plant to lift up your spirits!

As you might have guessed, I didn’t follow the instructions.

First, I forgot to bring the bulb home from the office. In late January, I finally carried it into my apartment and deposited the box, unopened, on my dining table. It sat there until I was home sick one afternoon in late February. I was ill, depressed and tired of the unremitting grayness that is Iowa in winter. I thought that planting the amaryllis might help me feel more hopeful. And it did, at first. I not only planted and watered the bulb, I spoke to it daily about growing and hope and life.

The papery top of the bulb developed a green tinge, which seemed promising, although I couldn’t discern any actual growth. Over time, though, even that greenish color went away. It seemed unlikely that anything would ever grow. February ended, March passed, April flew by. The lifeless brown bulb just sat on my table, unresponsive for so long that I stopped talking to it, even stopped noticing it as more than just another item on a perpetually cluttered surface.

Except for the days I felt especially discouraged – on those days, I saw it as an emblem of my inability to do anything right.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of things there are to get done in any given day. Mired in these tasks, I am unable to focus on the bigger picture – the one where what I’m doing makes a difference in the world, is about more than just running on an endless hamster wheel. Every time it seems like things are getting on track, that there might be an opportunity to look ahead – maybe even get ahead – things fall apart and I’m buried again.

The sense of failing at my own life overrides other perspectives.

In the middle of such a seemingly hopeless cycle this week, I was frantically searching for one piece of paper among the piles on my kitchen table when I happened to glance at the forgotten amaryllis pot. One tender green shoot has emerged from the bulb’s dry papery skin. Of course, it happened when least expected, when hope of it happening had been surrendered.

“Of course,” I exclaimed aloud, likely startling my neighbor whom I could hear leaving her apartment just then.

Of course – because we won’t always immediately (if ever) see the fruit of our labors.

Of course – because nurturing hope, tending growth, changing hearts, holding space for healing is important work, but accomplished below the surface.

Of course – because our most meaningful work often resides in attending to the drudgery of details.

Of course – because when we take/hold everything too seriously, too personally, too joylessly, too fearfully we forget about grace.

When you’ve forgotten that grace exists, each time it manifests in your life it is a surprise. A miraculous, living, green tendril that reminds you: everything matters.

 

 





Letting Go of Certainty

15 12 2016

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 





Love Yourself?

23 06 2016

Last summer, while visiting my brother in Chicago, I insisted he stop the car so I could take a photo of a yoga studio. Not because it looked particularly different from any of the other store-fronts or even yoga studios we had already passed. I wanted to take a photo of its name: Self-Centered Yoga. I wondered what the focus of this particular yoga studio was: Centering the self? Centered on the self? Selfishly self-referenced? It struck me as funny, and I wondered if the owners were knowingly playing on the irony of the name – that to many people who don’t practice yoga, those who do are entirely too self-centered.

I share this story to illustrate my own ambivalence about the topic of loving oneself. Maybe being self-centered has gotten a bad rap? How and how much are we meant to love ourselves?

Even the bible presupposes self-love: the second of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31) tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself”. We get ample instruction in loving our neighbors throughout our childhoods – share, be nice, “stupid” is a bad word…but very little information is forthcoming about exactly how we are to love ourselves.

A couple of months ago, a friend shared with me that she was responsible for chauffering a speaker for the day, and that he had been very inspiring. She sent a link to his Ted Talk, and I watched it. In telling his own inspiring story as a survivor of trauma, he shared that one of the most powerful things he’d done to bring about change in his own life was to love himself; to believe he is both loved and worthy of love. Looking himself in the eyes in a mirror, he tells himself he is loved.  (Here is the link to Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s powerful Ted talk: https://youtu.be/K_WL5iqvPlY)

A few weeks ago, someone I admire told a story about how using an affirmation of self-love has improved her energy, her relationship with her husband, and her ability to focus on her life goals. I admit, while I kept my skepticism to myself, I was doubtful. This story wasn’t about a healing response to trauma – it was about a young woman trying to live her best life. Hmmm.

I am currently reading a book which suggests ways we can make changes in our lives to live more in line with who and what we want to be. Every chapter ends with a list of “practical” steps or tools to take to accomplish this. Every list ends with “Love Yourself”. It took me several chapters to pick up on this, but then I went back and checked. Yep, every chapter ends with the exhortation. Love yourself.

And then last week I saw the video I shared at the top of this post. I was very moved, seeing this girl’s emotion upon realizing that the doll looks like her. She hugs it to her tightly and says, “I love you.” This simple phrase speaks volumes: you look like me and I love you; I need to believe AND express that I am loveable.

When the same message is repeated over and over again, and directed toward me (as opposed to being a repetitive cultural refrain or social media meme), I think it is important to pay attention. So, what am I supposed to be taking away from this particular thread in my life, popping up repeatedly and insistently over the last eight weeks?

Success coach and author, Jen Sincero (I’d like to take her name as my alter-ego!), says:

“We’re born knowing how to trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hair-dos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back. Then, as we grow and learn from the people around us, we replace many of these primal understandings with negative false beliefs, fear, shame and self-doubt…And while there are countless ways that we rip ourselves off, there’s one way in particular that is, without a doubt, the most rampant and the most devastating of all: we invest everything we’ve got in believing that we’re not good enough. We arrive here as perfect little bundles of joy and then set about the task of learning to un-love ourselves!”   (from You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life)

Fear. Shame. Self-doubt. If I am honest with myself, I’ve invested significantly more of my personal capital in these three than in self love. It is undoubtedly true that this has been to my own detriment, as it keeps me from taking risks, from moving forward with confidence, etc. More important, what I am beginning to understand is that it has also been detrimental to the world I live in and am helping to co-create. Fear, shame and self-doubt cause me to respond to the world by closing in on myself, shielding myself from the prying eyes of criticism or ridicule for being the loser-failure I think I might be. And that closing in (those months of binge-watching “Castle” reruns, the 750+ games of “Monkey Wrench” word search, the daily hours of retweets about politics) keeps me focused on anything BUT impacting the world by sharing my unique gifts and best self. And if I am truthful, harshly judging myself leads me to be much more judgmental about other folks. I want to start labeling them: idiot, moron, baby, coward.

Frankly, I am not afraid of becoming a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, trumpeting statements like “I have a great mind, one of the best minds”. I don’t have that in me. But “imagine,” says Jen Sincero, “how different your reality would be (and the reality of everyone surrounding you) if you woke up every morning certain of your own lovability and your critically important role on this planet.” That might be a reality very worth investing in.

 





Hope in Darkness

3 12 2015

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“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” — Brene Brown

Every year in this season leading toward Christmas, when the days grow shorter and the nights exponentially longer, I think about darkness. Usually, I am thinking about the literal darkness that greets me in the morning and also accompanies me as I leave work at the end of the day. The mere lack of sunshine is enough darkness to provide fodder for spiritual reflection. Usually, I welcome these “dark days” as an opportunity to pause, to think about darkness as a metaphor, to remember that although light is what we typically strive for, we need to acknowledge – even accept – our dark places as well.

This year feels different. The news is filled with stories of our “dark side” as a human family – from Syria to Paris to Minneapolis and Chicago, from Colorado Springs to San Bernadino – our blood pools in the streets and our anger rages out of control.  Compounding that, it is full-blown election season in Iowa and we are bombarded with political squabbling of dubious gravitas and there is nowhere to hide.  This is the year of Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy – at best – appears to be “lie, bluster, name call, repeat”.

This December, my experience of darkness is not about seasonal metaphor. It is more palpable, more pressing – certainly considerably more DE-pressing – than typical. Despite the fact that I am far from the front lines on any of these issues (except the barrage of political rhetoric), my spirit is buffeted by the waves of ill-will, argumentation, hatred.

Where do I (we) find hope in this season of darkness? Does light exist, even in those moments when it is hardest to see?

Barbara Kingsolver says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  In other words, hope isn’t something you have, it is something you do (like love, like faith). In this sense, finding hope begins by looking within.

What do I hope for? I hope that love and right and reason and civilization win, in the end. I hope that peace reigns in both our hearts and in our world. I hope that, when difficult choices are presented to me by the darkness of our human failings, my actions will bring light instead of an increase of the dark.

But how do I “live right in it, under its roof”, once I’ve identified what I hope for?

I suspect the answer is deceptively simple; easy to conceive of but hard to do. For example, one day a couple of weeks ago, in the heat of Minneapolis protests over the death of Jamar Clark, I read that a woman I’ve admired for several years, Lisa Bender, stepped between a police officer’s gun and a protester. “I’m a council member. If you want to shoot someone, shoot me,” she said.  I’ve seen enough movies, read enough stirring novels of courage, to imagine taking such a step as a noble gesture. But in real life, that step had to cross a giant chasm of fear and uncertainty. And here’s the important part: it came not as a single act of courage; it was no “one and done” behavior. It came as part of a daily commitment of presence and engagement with her community, aligning herself with those whose voices are most in need of amplification to be heard.

Living under that roof shows just what kind of radical act hope can be.

I am inspired by Lisa’s example. However, many days I feel I barely have the energy to keep the machinery of my life operational. Radical hope feels outside my scope. Until I realize that holding my authentic center while being buffeted by the cyclones and sand devils of daily life can also be about living under the roof of my hope. My Facebook friend, Shannon, is a woman I’ve never met (long story). Her husband is an American service man, and they are stationed in England. After the attacks in Paris, in the first flush of anger and fear, she asked her friends to talk on her Facebook wall about the dynamic between maintaining safety and expressing compassion toward Syrian refugees. As one might imagine, there were a wide variety of responses. What I appreciated about Shannon’s response was that she invited dialogue rather than invective. She posted articles that were well articulated but came to a variety of conclusions. She didn’t foreclose on a predetermined answer. One could say it was just a lengthy Facebook thread – but in today’s climate, it felt like a ray of welcome light.

I am coming to believe it is a radical act to keep the light shining in my heart, when darkness threatens to take up residence there. Some days, it is enough to remember what we hope for – we can’t learn to live inside of something we can no longer see in the darkness that is swallowing us. Some days, we find the wherewithal to do more. In our world, it can be radical to act from hope rather than from despair.  When we do this, we are able to contribute some measure of light to the world around us – whether that takes the form of activism, engagement, charity, compassion, mercy, love or laughter.

In this season of darkness, I have hope that it will be enough.

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Note: This morning, just before posting this reflection, Lisa Bender posted a lovely reflection on Facebook. In part, she said: “One of the things about being a parent of little kids is that I can’t get sucked into that magnet because they need me to try and make all this bad shit stop before they get big enough to really see it. They force me to have hope and to act on that hope day in and day out in every little way I can.”

 

 





A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

26 11 2015

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.