Jumbly

17 03 2016

CAM04142

jumbly
adjective jum·bly \-blē\
Definition: jumbled, confused

The truth is, every area of my life is pretty jumbly these days.

That makes me uncomfortable, as it would most people, I suspect. And that discomfort has caused me to focus on all of the ways that my life is “less than”: less than ordered, less than complete, less than fulfilling. In short, less than perfect.

And then something happened that stopped me in my tracks. An unexpected generosity, offered gently when least expected. If this were entirely my story to share, I would explain – but since it’s not, I’ll just ask you to imagine: you have an armful of various fragile objects you must not drop, each varying in size and weight; objects keep getting added to this load until you are in danger of dropping them all. Just when you are about to lose your hold, someone quietly walks up and takes the largest, heaviest object. Without asking, without calling attention, without expectation of return.

This generous act did not fix all the jumbly-ness of my life.

But it did set in motion a re-ordering of my thinking. I was reminded of a great vintage shop in Minneapolis called Hunt and Gather (pictured, above). The shop is filled with a jumbly mess of stuff. When you first arrive, it can feel overwhelmingly chaotic. You wonder how anyone finds anything there. Then, surprisingly, the chaos of it overwhelms your mental need for order. You suddenly begin to see beauty and whimsy in the details; the very messy-ness of the place becomes charming. And instead of thinking about the ways the place is “less-than” (less than clean, less than organized, less than roomy), you begin to think about the ways it is wonderful.

One simple act of generosity helped me to see my need to create that same kind of shift when looking at the jumbly chaos of my life. Instead of letting the chaos overwhelm me, I can look for the beauty and whimsy within it. Its ginormity can be recast as abundance; as “greater than”: complex, multilayered, generative. When I am able to make this shift in my perspective, space opens up to see all the ways my life is wonderful – not only all the ways it is “less than”.

Suddenly, I can look at the jumbly mess and understand Nietzsche when he says:

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”

 

 

 

 





Bellyflops vs Swan Dives: Splash over Depth

6 08 2015

Three things I’ve read this week have really got me thinking: the first is a story, believe it or not, about Madonna; the second is the transcript of a speech about justice; and the third is an article about why we Americans deserve Donald Trump as a candidate in the presidential race. The premise of each is similar; namely, that we tend to substitute the easy thing or the splashy thing for the right thing – and then hail the one as if it were the other.

In a piece published in The New York Times titled “Growing Older with Madonna”, Jancee Dunn reminds us that Madonna is known as the queen of reinvention. Certainly, she has tried many styles and set many trends. In her mid-50s now, she looks great. But her latest video feels somehow not right – she struts around, falling down “drunk” with her skin-tight dress riding up to reveal her underwear, declaring that she’s going to party all night and kiss who she wants and no one is going to stop her. Really? I remember that attitude from when I was 19, but then I grew up. The article asks a probing question about Madonna as an artist: “Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving?”

The next instance of a sort of cultural “mistaken identity” or transposition of concepts comes from Anand Giridharadas’ address to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum. “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” . In it, Giridharadas discusses the difficulties of questioning the status quo when “…This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein…” He goes on to say that as they seek solutions to the great disparities in the world, they never quite manage to address the root causes. He calls it the “Aspen Consensus”, in which “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.” As a result, they are (in his words), trying “to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice.”

The third, a Frank Bruni op-ed from The New York Times, discusses the confusion we’ve created between politics and entertainment, stating “…of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.”

Reinvention instead of evolution; generosity instead of justice; celebrity instead of authority, personality instead of leadership. If these various journalists are correct, we as a culture are routinely replacing values and ethics which require maturity, depth of conviction, and the courage of character with things that have a similar appearance, but which never take us below the surface into the realm of thoughtful and right action.

In some ways, the two photos (below) encapsulate this idea. The first photo is of someone engaging in a belly flop. At the pool, belly flops are an easy way to garner attention. They are loud, splashy; they require that people pay attention – even if only to avoid getting wet. Anyone with the desire to garner attention can pull off a belly flop. When well-executed, onlookers are delighted.

In many respects, the second photo looks much the same as the first. However, the second photo is of a swan dive. The swan dive begins with the same wholehearted, arms-spread-wide posture. However, at the last moment, the swimmer pikes and actually dives into the water. Swan dives result in a clean entry to the water, very little noise, almost no splash. They require practice, skill, an urge toward perfection of form. One can perform a swan dive in a crowded aquatic center with very little notice, especially at first. When well-executed, onlookers need to actually be paying attention to notice. However, when paying attention, onlookers are often wowed.

Another difference between the belly flop and the swan dive is that many of us, witnessing the two, firmly believe that we might be able to pull off the belly flop ourselves. But we don’t think we are capable of the swan dive.

Which brings me back to the ideas discussed in the articles I’ve referenced above. Reinvention is relatively easy. Many of us change things about ourselves, re-order the ephemera of our lives with some regularity. If we stop to think of evolution, of truly and deeply becoming the person we are capable (even meant) to be, we grow immediately wary. Or weary. We don’t really think of ourselves as having the fortitude to work that hard on our own growth and development. Often, we rely on life events to propel us in new directions, rather than being willing to undertake self-improvement or self-empowerment, or our own transformation. Yet we are spiritually called to this, I believe. We feel an inner pull toward evolutionary change, but we are unsure or overwhelmed by the prospect of how to proceed. And we – out of laziness, or fear, or unwillingness to upset the apple cart of our lives – settle for cosmetic change.

Generosity in place of justice is another easy substitution for most of us. And the difficult thing here is that generosity is, in itself, a good thing. I would never argue against it. All too often, though, we stop at generosity when what our communities and our world require is justice. We tell ourselves justice is the province of extraordinary souls – the Ghandis, Mother Theresas, MLKs of this world. We feel this way because justice requires deep change. It requires a willingness to root out the systemic causes of injustice. It calls us to act in ways, and with regard to issues, that are complex and difficult to sort out. We could be wrong. We could be facing much more powerful people and forces than ourselves. Most discomfiting of all, we may need to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and still stand our ground. Generosity feels so good. Justice is often just plain uncomfortable.

Finally, we engage in the fascination of celebrity. It is fun to follow the lives of the rich and famous. But somewhere along the line, we have confused noteworthy with newsworthy when it comes to the well-known. More disturbing is the idea permeating our culture that, somehow, celebrity status serves as shorthand for deserving, smart, accomplished, and admirable. Somehow we allow ourselves to think that those whose personalities loom large in our media are also more knowing and more creative. Have better ideas. Are more thoughtful. Here’s the thing: just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they actually know anything – nor does it mean that they are right-er (smarter, better, or more deserving) than the rest of us. But we’ve been led to believe (and allowed ourselves to accept) otherwise. So Chloe Kardashian’s butt sets our agenda, diverts our attention from the starving butts, the homeless butts, the butts without clean water – the millions of persons suffering from lack, systemic inequalities, racism. We sate our interest in the wider world, the world outside ourselves, with celebrity brand junk food. We fall for the splash and not the depth.

Why am I going on and on about this? Especially when the writers of the articles I’ve cited have made their points more eloquently (and more succinctly) than I? Because each of them touched on a slightly different facet of what I see as endemic in 21st century American culture – the willingness to settle for the big splash because we lack the will, perhaps the self-discipline, to reach for the swan dive. To work toward the fulfillment of our own potential as well as toward the creation of a world in which all people can potentialize. I, personally, need to work at maintaining a focus on right instead of easy, on deep instead of the kind of broad that comes from the “squirrel? squirrel?” distractibility of modern life. I feel that longing for the clean dive that takes me well below the surface, and I believe I am not alone in that.

Yesterday, I heard a quote on the radio as I drove (and because I was driving couldn’t jot down who said it), that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it. It terrifies me to think that we are a generation belly flopping our way to oblivion. More than that, it saddens me to think how we continue to squander the miracle, the absolute gift, of life in this incredible, amazing, generative Universe. So I am going to work hard to evolve, to leaven my generosity with action for justice, and to call forth my own leadership skills instead of letting those with larger personalities hold the field. I’m going to practice diving for depth.

 

 





Knitting Spoons?

17 04 2014

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown

I want to share a story about something that happened at my knitting group last night. But first, you should know one thing about knitting group: I don’t knit.

You might think that fact would somehow preclude me joining such a group. And in other circumstances, you would probably be right. But I was invited to join the group late last fall, at a time when I was hungry for human contact – and I was grateful that these very nice ladies were willing to include me. I immediately discovered that, although the group is self-described as a knitting group because knitting is something most members do (and it’s easily done in a social setting in a coffee shop), most of the women who attend also love beads and beadwork – a serendipitous connection that allowed me to feel less self-conscious about my yarn-free lifestyle. My second discovery was that no one really cares what I bring to work on, in fact, last night I showed up basically empty-handed.

To say no one cares gives the wrong impression. I should say, no one judges. They clearly care, because whatever I have brought has occasioned curiosity and interest. Like most loosely affiliated groups, the attendance at these gatherings ebbs and flows, so in the three or four monthly installments I’ve been able to attend, the faces have varied. I’m not yet entirely sure of everyone’s names, and last night was the first time I met the infamous Anna (who brought a treasure trove of handmade beads for show and tell).

The day had been a busy one for me, and I arrived at knitting group still in the clothes I had worn for a late-afternoon job interview (also why I was sans project). After everyone had caught up and most were beginning to work on the projects they had brought, I started to excuse myself saying I needed to get home to write my blog post for today. One of the women, Anne, asked me what my blog was about. I’m never certain how to answer that question. What is this blog about?! So my friend Kathe, who was my connection to this group, piped up and shared her thoughts then said, “Jen, tell them how your blog got started.”

When I finished sharing what I hope was an abridged version of the hunger challenge/weight loss journey chronicled on Jenion, Anne spoke up again, sharing that she had participated in a hunger-related charity called “Empty Bowls“. For the fundraiser, Anne made a copper-enamelled bowl which raised over $2,000 for the organization. She said, “I was at a friend’s house who does copper-enamelling and she asked what I wanted to do, so I made three items. The first was the bowl, and I’d like you to have whichever of the other two you like.” With that, she handed me two enameled pieces strung on thin leather chords. Both were lovely. I didn’t know what to say – I was so moved by her generous impulse. I removed each necklace from it’s protective plastic bag. As I turned them over in my hands, trying to decide, Anne commented that the larger of the two reminded her of a spoon, which was a fitting connection to both the hunger issue and the Empty Bowls fundraiser. The piece was crafted with a beautiful iridescent enamel, and two holes for findings to connect. The bottom one has a simple piece of leather chord attached, but Anne said, “You can attach whatever you want to the bottom of it.” And next thing I knew, Anna of the wondrous bead display had plopped a glass lamp-worked bead down in front of me, saying, “This one would look perfect!”

And that’s how I left knitting group with a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry that I will always treasure.

There are so many lessons for life contained in this story. The first is about openness – mine AND that of the knitting group. When I told Mike I was invited and planning to participate in knitting group, he asked me in surprise, “Do you even know how to knit?!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders – not being a knitter seemed surmountable, whereas remaining lonely and disconnected did not. That the women in the group have been open and accepting of someone who shows up with odd projects unrelated to knitting (or none at all)  is cause for gratitude.

The second lesson I see in this story is one of true connection – which only happens when you are able to get beneath the surface of things. Kathe is a great one for nudging me to share authentically in a variety of ways. She rarely allows me to leave things at an off-hand comment. Had she not encouraged that I share more than a surface-y response to the question about my blog, Anne and I would not have discovered our connection to caring about hunger issues.

The third lesson is about freely sharing our gifts. Kindness and generosity are traits that come naturally to some. The rest of us need to cultivate them with mindfulness and attention. Sometimes those gifts are tangible, like the gorgeous handcrafted items I held in my hands as I left knitting group last night. Other times, the gifts are intangible but deeply felt, like the gifts of friendship and connection that I carried home in my heart.

The spoon-shape of the necklace brings to mind a story I first heard at a youth group meeting in high school. The story goes that, in hell, everyone sits at a table set with an incredible feast. Permanently attached to their hands is an impossibly long-handled spoon. All at the table are invited to eat to their hearts’ content – however, they find the spoon handles are so long that they can’t actually bring food to their mouths. So they sit at a feast, frustrated, starving, and unable to eat. In heaven, the story continues, the scene is set in exactly the same way: a table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous feast. Each person has a long-handled spoon attached to their hand. The difference: in heaven, the guests at the table use the spoons to feed each other. I love this metaphor, not so much as a story about heaven and hell but as a way to approach life today: be open to the opportunities to be fed by the generosity of others. At the same time, be as open to expressing your own heart through generosity toward others. That reciprocal flow of energy can, I believe, not only benefit the direct participants, but will also add to the measure of good in the world. Every time I wear my new necklace, I’ll be reminded of this and spurred to act accordingly!

 

The two pieces haven't been united yet, but here you have an idea (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)!

The two pieces haven’t been united yet, but here you have an idea what the final necklace will look like (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)! Trust me, the photo doesn’t do justice to the enamel-work.

 

 

 

 

 





Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

13 02 2014
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





The Post that Almost Wasn’t

26 12 2013

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?!