In other words: Forget about the dots

“Wanting an intimate relationship doesn’t mean I get one. But to paraphrase Stephen Stills, if I can’t be with the one I love, my best insurance policy against a sad, lonely old age is to love the one I’m with. The one who will never leave me, no matter what, for real. That one, of course, would be me.”         — Meredith Maran The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention

 

You take a step. Make a choice. Decide.

You never know exactly what to expect, how it will “turn out”, where it will lead. But you think you’ve looked at it from every angle you can, and it seems like the next right thing to do, so you think you know approximately, at least, what will happen.

In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, he said ““You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” You know this is true, but even hearing Jobs’ wisdom in your head at each decision-point doesn’t stop you from trying. Doesn’t keep you from thinking that, maybe, this time you’ve managed to connect the dots forward. This time you’ve mapped the trajectory of your own future correctly and all will proceed accordingly.

But it doesn’t.

You fail. Someone you rely on fails. Markets fail. You get sick. Someone you love gets sick. You calculated based on certain assumptions, now proven incorrect. (Donald Trump gets elected President proving all bets are off.) People refuse to act according to your predictions. Life refuses to act according to your predictions.

You feel disappointed, disillusioned, depressed. Alone.

Now what?

Self-recrimination (what did I miscalculate? how could I be so wrong? I must be missing a crucial gene!)? Shut down and spend days, weeks, just getting through until I can sit in my easy chair at night and fall asleep? Blame everyone else for not meeting my expectations (which, of course, are perfectly reasonable)?

I don’t have any prescriptions for fixing a life that goes off the rails, for solving the endless riddle of “how did this happen?” or “How did I end up here?”  But here’s what I’m learning*, or at least what I think I’m picking up on right now:

Whatever happens, wherever I go – I am the common denominator. Blame, anger, self-loathing…not helpful. Helpful? Compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness. If I have to live with myself, I prefer peaceful, loving cohabitation.

Whether I am proactive and take-charge or reactive and passive, I will experience the results. In which case, doing is preferable to wallowing; action preferable to waiting; woke-ness preferable to somnolence.

Endlessly ruminating on what happened yesterday or last week or four years ago, trying to pinpoint a moment “where it all went wrong”, is a waste of my energy. If I had known when I was 29 what my life would look like at 49, I might have chosen differently. But I didn’t know. And I chose what I chose. Move on.

Endlessly ruminating on the future, on my fears of being old and alone, or getting sick, or…just not ending up where I wish I would end up…only paralyzes me and wastes my days in longing. “Stop gazing at your reflection in the Mirror of Erised,” I practice saying to myself; step away, then step onward.

 

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”       —Ranier Maria Rilke

* Like most important lessons in life, these “learnings” are not new to me. I am simply spiraling through them on another curve. Right now, it is helping to read a bunch of books about women my age reinventing themselves, changing their lives (whether forced to change or choosing to change).

 

 

Intense Clarity

“There’s nothing quite as intense as the moment of clarity,

when you suddenly see what’s really possible for you.  — Christine Kane

Once, many years ago, I was driving down  Highway 30 at a good clip (about 75 mph). The road had just changed from two lanes to four lanes, divided by an emerald green grass median. I was in the right-hand lane, passing another vehicle on a curve, boxed in by cars both in front of and behind mine. And that’s when it happened: I saw a wooden palette fly off a truck taking the same curve from the opposite direction. As the palette cartwheeled across the median, I could see the line of it’s trajectory as if it was a lighted runway leading directly to me. Because of the cars on every side, I couldn’t speed up, slow down or move out of the way. Time slowed and stretched exactly like a film on slow-mo, the palette’s roll appearing gracefully choreographed. I followed my mind through each step of reasoning leading to the realization that there was nothing I could do to stop the impending collision, and I still had time enough to wonder, “So, this is it? This is how I die?”

News flash – it wasn’t. Curiously, there was no fear in that split second after the possibility that “this is it” occurred to me. But there was a certain clarity of mind that suggested I relax into the moment. What else was there for me to do? To my utter amazement, the palette smashed into my Saturn, then slid under it. There was no crash, though I slowed down, not really understanding how I was still on the road. The other cars surrounding mine didn’t hesitate though they couldn’t have failed to see the impact as wood splintered and flew in every direction. They disappeared down the highway as I finally found a hole and pulled onto the shoulder. There was significant damage to the car – both driver’s side tires were bent out at crazy angles. I had ample time, during my two hour wait for a tow truck, to wonder about that odd moment of clarity.

Since that experience, I have had other, similar, moments – in the midst of sudden unexpected events, that still moment of pause. These haven’t all been events when I thought I might be facing death. But each was a moment when I suspected that what was happening right that second might be the catalyst for a complete sea change in my life. The event that turned my life, or the community or even the world to a new course. A new path. And in the middle of each event, that still moment of clarity in which my conscious self stepped out of the slipstream of time to ask, “Is this it?” When that happens, any tension, anxiety or fear I feel dissipates. I am aware that I am aware.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the moment was a significant or historic one and sometimes not. On the morning of September 11, 2001 when I watched in real time as the second plane crashed into the twin towers was definitely significant (and a moment I shared with millions). But whether each event changed my life’s trajectory, causing my own cartwheel through existence to appear graceful – or not – seems almost anticlimactic to the experience of that brief clarity and cessation of fear. Whether I remember what preceded or led to that moment, I remember those moments. Standing on the path through the national monument at Pecos, New Mexico staring into a raven’s eyes. Pausing on the hill above Cedar Rapids and seeing the downtown in complete darkness during the flood of 2008. On my bike in the woods, hugging a tree I had nearly careened into headfirst. In each mental picture is the memory of that curious calm, suffused with a clear mental light.

The past couple of weeks have been a time of frenzied activity and a certain amount of anxiety. My sleep patterns have been disrupted by worry-induced insomnia. My ability to stay centered emotionally and mentally through long, demanding days has been tested. And in the midst of that, another of those moments of awareness: late on a hot and humid afternoon, standing on a path leading through restored tall-grass prairie. Later, as I thought about it, I realized that I am notoriously bad at predicting, while in the experience itself, whether a moment is a pivotal one or not. I have generally assumed that having that moment of clarity is a sign of the importance of the moment as a turning point; but I have been proved wrong way more often than right. What if I’ve been thinking about this backwards? What if instead of predictive those moments are redirective?

What if the point of that clarity is to remind me that attempting to see the future is, well, futile? Or to remind me that I am more effective when I am centered – not when I’m trying to control circumstances outside my scope of influence? What if that still, uncluttered moment is my reminder that relaxing in this very present here and now, waiting patiently for the unfolding of whatever is to come, is the actual way forward. It isn’t that this moment is important and pivotal, it is that each moment is. I am aware that I’m aware. And that is enough for right now.

 

 

Managing the Cowbird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
              –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
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The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.

Except this back yard.

In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.

At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.

The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?

When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.

Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.

The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.

The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.

Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

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!