Passports

When the phone rang, I was attempting to get three things done at once. I sighed with exasperation at yet another interruption before picking up. A friendly voice on the other end of the line greeted me, then said, “I was calling to see if you’d be interested in an all-expenses paid trip to Italy.”

Without boring you with the details, I’ll just say that this was a legitimate offer to participate in a group experience with colleagues. Someone in the original travel group had dropped out, opening a spot – which was offered to me. “Of course,” my friendly benefactor added, “you’ll need to have a current passport.”

Flash back to January, when news reports cited anticipated lag times for passport renewals. Flash back to conversations with my parents, New Mexico residents, whose state-issued IDs did not meet federal standards – making passports mandatory for air travel. Flash back to the many, many times I said to myself and others, “I should get my passport renewed. You never know when you might need it!”

Flash back to all the times I hadn’t followed through on that thought.

Those of you inclined to forgive my lack of forethought on this one, may ask in my defense, “How often does someone need a passport without advance warning, really?” I appreciate the kindness motivating your words, but just judging by the stories I’ve personally heard from friends and family of their frantic efforts to get passports or have theirs renewed, it actually happens not infrequently. I could, logically, have seen something like this coming.

Let’s broaden the lens a bit, though. Suddenly, it becomes possible to see many situations that have blown up and opportunities that have been squandered due to a lack of application. I’m great at the forethought part – I often think about the things I should or could do to be prepared for possibilities or eventualities. Not often enough, though, does the thinking translate into doing.

As a Girl Scout, I memorized the three-finger pledge (On my honor, I will try to do my duty to love God and my country…) but don’t recall ever hearing that the Girl Scout motto, like the Boy Scouts’, is: Be Prepared. Still, I can hardly blame my scout leaders for not ingraining in me the impetus to be ready for what life might bring my way. My mother, Shirley, was always a believer in getting up and at the day’s chores early, just in case something fun came along (and chores must always precede fun). Plus, American culture is chock full of aphorisms (“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”) and inspirational examples and quotes I should have learned from:

“It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself. But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Embarrassingly, my own life history is littered with torn up tickets to adventure I’ve received and been unable to use due to my own lack of readiness. In virtually every one of these situations, I had thought in the previous days, weeks, or months that I ought to do the very thing that would have allowed me to say “Yes!” when Opportunity came knocking. Somewhere along the line, you’d think I’d have learned the value in listening to these thoughts – clearly my intuition providing wise counsel.

Recently, I went to dinner with a friend who had received good news after a health scare. She insisted that each of us raise our glass and solemnly swear to live every day to its fullest, with abandon and joy. As we clinked glasses, she beamed at us and declared, “Mischief managed,” with a satisfied nod. I wish it was as simple as a declaration pledged with margarita glasses (or, in my case, a giant glass of water). It may not be that easy, but it doesn’t need to be as difficult as I sometimes make it.

So, while I won’t be heading to Italy this month, I will be heading to the passport office to expedite my passport renewal. Contrary to popular sentiment, lightening does sometimes strike the same place twice. And I don’t plan to look that particular gift horse in the mouth a second time. Truthfully, at this point in my life, I don’t want to tear up any more golden tickets due to my own inaction – I’m going to try to listen when my intuition suggests I get up and complete my chores!

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Feeling Time

Oh, it’s time to start livin’
Time to take a little from this world we’re given
Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all….

One evening last week, I got dressed up (well, if fleece leggings under a long skirt passes for dressed up) and made my way to Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theater to see the musical, “Pippin!” I was very excited to go to my first big theater event in the Twin Cities – and there was the added element of adventure since I was attending alone (though I planned to say hello to my favorite usher, who was working that night). I had longed to see this show for several reasons. First, since high school, I have loved the show’s most well-known song, “Corner of the Sky”. Second, I saw a piece on CBS Sunday Morning about the preparations and practice the touring cast (the very cast I was about to see) had made to be ready for this physically demanding revival, re-imagined as a circus-themed production complete with acrobatics and high-flying aerials. Third, I knew nothing about the actual story, so the show would be almost entirely new to me.

A fourth reason I was excited about this particular experience was that it was taking place at the Orpheum Theater. Years ago, before I ever thought of moving here, I visited my friend Mike on a Halloween weekend. That visit was memorable for several reasons, most importantly because I met Mike’s sons (Alex and Matt) for the first time. One of the things we did that weekend was take a haunted tour of the Orpheum. It was a fun, almost magical, tour – but not once did it occur to me that I would ever attend a show in that beautiful, historic theater. So, as you might imagine, my heart was full before I walked in the door to see Pippin. (Oh, and my favorite usher, mentioned above? Mike, of course!)

I found my aisle seat, toward the back of the main floor. I was thrilled, as a vertically challenged viewer, to discover that no one was seated in front of me. In fact, mine was the only occupied seat in my entire row and the row in front of me. The house lights went down and the stage lights up, and I was in my own little envelope of space with the show.

A brief plot synopsis might be helpful. Pippin is a young prince who feels he is called to lead an extraordinary life, and sets out in search of his place among meaningful events and activities. In the end, however, he discovers that giving your heart to the life you have is truly meaningful, even if that life is one of ordinary pursuits. (Check out www.stephenschwartz.com if you want to know what the show’s creator has to say about its themes and meaning.)

In Act 1, Scene 4, Pippin visits his grandmother, Berthe (played in the show I saw by the amazing, Tony-award-winning Priscilla Lopez). Berthe’s show-stopping number, “No Time At All”, was a song I knew but didn’t realize was from Pippin. The 66-year-old Berthe/Lopez not only looks incredible when she strips down to a trapeze-artists’ costume, she manages to fly through the air AND SING, appearing completely at home in the aerial number. “No Time At All” becomes an audience sing-along, and while I thoroughly enjoyed belting out the choruses, by the last one, I found myself overcome by emotion.

Now, days after my Pippin! experience, I find myself still singing that chorus – and ready to share why it choked me up.

One reason was the sheer admiration I felt for Priscilla Lopez. What an inspiration that was – I hope in my mid-60s to be ready, willing and able to engage so audaciously with the challenges life offers me.

But there was also a more spiritual component to what I felt. Throughout my life, there have been moments when, in the midst of a special experience, I have felt myself step out of the stream of time. When this happens, my “normal” self remains as is, doing whatever it is doing. In this case, I remained in my seat thoroughly enjoying the performance. But my consciousness somehow steps outside my experience, and is able to look upon it (and myself) with some separation. Briefly, at Pippin, I stood outside the moment, and saw myself shining with enjoyment, radiating life and energy. The worries and cares of the day had dissipated, I was no longer concerned about the financial splurge required to purchase my ticket; no longer worried that I had forgotten where in the unfamiliar ramp my car was parked; no longer awkward about indulging in this experience solo. Looking at myself, I saw beauty. I knew that this is how we are meant to live: without unreasoning fear, without concern for conforming to expectations, but with energy and joy for this moment we have been given. The gift of this present.

As we grow older, our sense of time changes. It rushes past us, faster each year. Sometimes I am stunned that another week, month or even year is already gone. This feeling of time rushing past creates anxiety, bordering often on fear. Though people talk about young adults being in too much of a hurry, of their need to slow down and let their lives unfold, I am finding that this is much harder to do at 53 than it was at 23 or 33. Back then, I thought I knew there was time for everything. Now, I am very aware as each day passes that it was another grain of sand in a rapidly diminishing hour-glass. I can’t count the grains that are left and I have no way to accrue more than are already there. This makes it very difficult to allow my life to unfold. To have patience. And so the anxiety creeps in, ratchets up as I worry that I’m not moving fast enough in my life.

The gift I received during that musical number was awareness that this is a false sensation. It is always time to be living, always time to make the most of this world we’re given. Spring will turn to fall, it is inevitable. No point in getting all angst-y about it. No point in regretting the past or looking with fear toward the future. I am not in control of it. All I can do is choose how I interact with the gift of the present as it unfolds. I can be in it, living it, or I can waste it with fear, worry, anxiety.

When I arrived home after the show (after having no difficulty finding my car in the ramp, though I drove in circles on the one-way streets downtown for a while) I was still so energized by the experience that I couldn’t sleep. I posted this on my Facebook page:  “This is what the best art in any medium can do: shine a light into our shadowed spaces and allow us to see with new eyes.”

We are often advised in life to “pick our battles”. What I’m seeing with new eyes this week, thanks to Pippin!, is that my battle isn’t with Time. Time is unchanging – time is as and what it is. My battle is with false perceptions of time, which lead to fear and anxiety. And that is a battle I know I can win with faith in God, trust in myself, and attention to this gift of the present.

 

More Than A Flimsy Web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Denise Levertov

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

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

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

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Handle with compassion

Ineffable Gratitude

This week we have been experiencing fog. I love fog, the way it takes the familiar and makes it strange and mysterious. The way it hides some things completely, yet reveals others in striking detail, highlighting these objects so that you see them with new eyes. Fog makes sound confusing, muffling it and disorienting the listener (on a walk Tuesday, a friend and I kept hearing a sharp report like gun fire, yet we looked in opposite directions for its source). I don’t have a word for the effect fog has on my psyche. It is enchanting, disorienting, occasionally even frightening. All at once.

The same words can be used to describe how I have experienced this year. 2012 has been odd for me, full of true peaks and desperately low valleys. Yet both have primarily been experienced on an interior level, visible only to me. It has been as if I have been walking in my own emotional landscape during a prolonged season of fog. There are occasional signposts, infrequent landmarks that suggest I have been here before, that I do in fact know this terrain. Still, it has felt strange.

I have often been reminded, this year, of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Zeroing In”. In it, we listen as two people discuss their interior landscapes.

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony…

They suggest that there are places that we come upon, wandering our emotional landscapes, which without warning sink us in a quagmire or (worse) jump at us like a biting dog.

“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”

They say we learn to leap away from unexpected contact with these places:

  “Yes, we learn that
It’s not terror, it’s pain we’re talking about:
those places in us…
…that are bruised forever”

(read the entire poem here)

Fog. Internal landscapes. Emotional pain. Not exactly the traditional fare of Thanksgiving posts. That said, this post is, indeed, about thanksgiving – mine. My gratitude for the unexpected breadth and depth of feelings experienced in this ethereally fogged-up landscape of my soul.

For many years of my life, I kept myself well-defended within a fortress of walls too thick to allow much feeling to permeate. Those of you who have been on this journey with me know that, by grace, those walls were sent crashing down a couple of years ago. In the aftermath, there was a rebound into joy, liveliness, excessive positive energy. It was lovely, but even as I experienced it I suspected it wasn’t sustainable. I had no idea what to expect on the next leg of the journey, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remain at those heights.

It turns out that the current segment of my life’s path is the one that reminds me I am an ordinary human. I am being reacquainted with the reality of the human condition – we can use many means to escape into numbness, but numbness is not our natural state. Our natural state includes both joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and loss, high and low. And not just these opposite endpoints, but the full spectrum of each.

Does it sound strange to say, “I am grateful for the lake of tears I have shed this year” or “Thanks for the epic roller coaster ride of emotions?” I suspect it does, and in some ways I surprise myself by saying it – because there have been days when I desperately missed my fortress of denial.

There is something ineffable here, though.

Ineffable:  1.  Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
2.  Too sacred to be uttered.

Wow, did you catch that? Too sacred to be uttered. The gift of our humanity, of full participation in this life we have been born into and made for. It isn’t so much that I am at a loss for words, as that the right words cannot be found, cannot be uttered. And so Thanksgiving finds me able only to offer humble thanks for the bounty of a difficult (and fulfilling, and happy, and challenging) full- spectrum year.