After the Bonk

bonk*:  Expression used by cyclists to describe excercise-induced low blood sugar levels; being a feeling of light-headedness and weakness in all limbs. Similar to ‘The Wall’ in running. Has fallen out of usage in recent years due to alternative meanings. — Urban Dictionary
One of the realities of life for true afficionados – whether it is books, movies, running, or some other thing that is loved – is that even at times when we aren’t engaging with the thing, we talk about the thing. For the better part of the last year, this has been the case with me and bicycling. I’ve read about cycling, I’ve talked about it and written about, I’ve participated in the Thursday night twitter meet-up called #bikeschool – but I haven’t been riding.
I’m making a concerted effort to change that, primarily because I miss the way biking makes me feel when I do it – calmer, fitter, more engaged with my community and with nature. I do love riding – even more than I love talking about riding.
April is the month that I pledge (for the past three years) to ride every day. It’s called #30DaysofBiking. Begun by friends in Minneapolis, it has become a worldwide movement with teams in cities all over the place – including Spain and Belarus**. April, at least in east-central Iowa, is also a mixed-bag of weather, which is part of the challenge of keeping to the pledge.
This year, the first three days of the month offered a cycling challenge in the form of high winds (which I gladly faced rather than the sleet I rode in last year on the #30daysofbiking kick-off ride in Minneapolis). Friday and Saturday I dutifully rode, pushing against headwinds and trying to remember the tricks of countering gusty crosswinds to remain upright on my bike.  Dressed in layers and wearing gloves against the early spring chill, I was excited to be out riding my new bike.
Sunday, April 3, was a beautiful day; sunny, with temperatures climbing into the 70s. I had social commitments early in the day, but I was itching to get out for the day’s ride. It was mid-afternoon before I managed it, but as soon as my tires hit the pavement, my spirits soared. I headed south on the trail, nodding or calling friendly greetings to the other trail-users, plentiful on such a gorgeous day. The winds were still gusty and strong, but when I set out they were manageable. And at my back.
When I last rode regularly, it was not at all unusual for me to easily ride thirty or more miles in an afternoon. My mind remembered that – overriding any signals from my body that I hadn’t stayed in shape to do that easily. So I rode and rode, loving the experience. Eventually, my brain received the message my body had been sending for a while: turn back or you’ll regret it! When I did turn around to head back into town, I was immediately struck full-face by 40-mile an hour winds. Um, yeah. The ride back was going to be a bit more difficult.
In one section of trail, surrounded on all sides by open fields, the wind threatened to sweep me right off my bike, and my bike right off the trail. Suddenly, my awesome Sunday ride had become (in my mind anyway) an epic battle between me and the elements. My knees painfully protested the degree of force necessary to crank the pedals. My mind contracted – gone were the sweet fancies that had flitted through it on the ride out. Now, my only thought was a repetitive, “Keep going.” When I allowed myself a rest stop, I rationed the water in my bottle so it would last a bit longer, even though my mouth felt bone dry. Because it was my third ride in as many days, I was sore from getting accustomed to my new saddle. My knees had commenced screaming. I considered calling a friend to come pick me up, but rejected the idea with stern self-talk. At the downhill section where speeds well over twenty miles an hour are typical even while sometimes coasting, fighting the wind I never got above 13 mph. My attention was so concentrated that I hadn’t noticed the clouds massing until it started to rain. And then, weirdly, my feet started cramping. I got off the bike and walked until the cramps subsided. Then I rode some more.
As suddenly as it had started, the feeling that I was locked in an epic battle against the weather ended. I was simply exhausted with another two miles to go before reaching home. The rain had been brief, but the wind continued unabated. My internal dialogue went silent. There was nothing to do but keep moving. And so I did.
Later, after a shower and food, my body was sore and tired. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the afternoon’s ride. When, I wondered, would I be able to get out again? How would I keep challenging myself to push my limits? I realized, with real surprise, that – miserable as I had been – I had been enjoying myself! Not the kind of enjoyment that results in warm feelings and easy laughter – not even the enjoyment I felt after riding in last year’s sleet, because that was derived in part from the camaraderie that develops when friends share difficulties. No, this brand of fun was definitely a more serious kind. I hadn’t been in any real danger – I could easily have stopped and called for assistance. But I didn’t, and the serious fun of it was exactly that. I pushed myself to do more than I thought I could. In doing so, I realized that I was capable of more.
I bonked hard that day. But what I learned was this: what I am truly capable of doing is only visible after the bonk. And that is an important lesson to keep hold of in other parts of my life. I wasn’t embarrassed that I crashed and I didn’t waste time berating myself (though I could have taken some measures to mitigate or prevent it). Instead, I was proud of myself for keeping on. Why is it so hard to generalize that experience to the other parts of life? Lord knows, I crash and burn in my personal and professional life with regularity, and sometimes it is my own fault. But why should I allow the crashes to define my sense of self-worth, when what comes afterwards is often more revealing of who I am and what I’m capable of achieving?
I think that is what “serious fun” is all about: challenging limits, not solely for the sake of doing so, but in order to learn and grow. And that’s what I’m taking with me this time, after the bonk.
*Yes, I know bonk is a word used in other contexts that are sexual in nature – try to be mature enough not to snicker about this every time I use it in the context of cycling, please!
**My friend, Patrick Stephenson, is the driving force behind this movement of “joyful cyclists” which contributes, through sponsorships, to cycling charities – check it out online!.

A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

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.

 

 

 

Risk = Disruption

The path to exponential growth always includes – disruption – a letting go and a taking hold.             –from Disrupt Yourself, by Whitney Johnson

 

The other night I wanted something lighthearted to listen to while doing my dishes. I went online and found a Rolling Stones list of the 20 best comedy podcasts. #14 on the list was a podcast called RiskThe basic premise of Risk: people telling stories they never thought they’d share. It sounded interesting, so I clicked on it.

The first story I heard was told by a man who began with the moment he decided to kill his mother. The second story? A guy who shared a recovered memory of his mother taking him to a rebirthing practitioner. By the third story (a woman whose experience of loss was overwhelming) I was wondering exactly why this had been considered a comedy podcast. The stories were raw and powerful. Yes, they were told with humor, but I wouldn’t call them comedic.

Maybe that’s just me. (Admittedly, it might also have been the episode I listened to.)

The interesting thing is I had been feeling anxious and depressed. The previous night, like many in recent months, I had fallen asleep alright only to waken at 2:00 a.m. and find further sleep impossible. On my way home from work, I had been texting with a friend about how rarely these days I days I feel as if I am inhabiting my own life. She suggested maybe it was time to see a doctor. She wrote, “I didn’t mean medication only! That’s not the only reason to visit a doc. I’m sure they do other doctorly things. Of which I have no clue what.” That made me laugh AND I actually felt it, which is what led me to seek comedy for some relief that evening.

Risk didn’t make me laugh, but listening was therapeutic anyway. First, the stories were masterfully told. Second, while I personally had not experienced any of the events described, my empathy was activated as I felt along with these storytellers – my heart and my intellect, disengaged from my own stuff in order to engage with their sorrows, anger, love. When that occurred, in a strange way it brought me back to my center – it reminded me of who I am and how I came to be in this current place, this exact moment in time. It reminded me that there’s an arc to my own story, and I’m still in the middle of it.

This led me to think more about the idea of risk. The podcast is aptly named, because sharing oneself at that deep level so publicly carries risk, makes one vulnerable in an immediate and visceral way. When I first started writing this blog, I experienced that kind of risk very directly, both in the stories I shared of my own emotional journey and every time I uploaded a photo of myself standing on an easy to read scale. In my experience, others resonate with that kind of story telling. They respond with support and gratitude, because it touches them and, sometimes, speaks for them in ways they don’t feel able to for themselves.

For me, writing the blog, telling my story, became a way of practicing taking risks. I had spent a lifetime being extremely risk-averse, so I definitely needed the practice! But there was still a distance between myself and that risk – I posted the blog entry from the privacy of my cozy little cottage on Elmhurst Drive, then went about my day. I wasn’t face-to-face with that risk – it went out through the ether and I waited for feedback to let me know whether it had been a good risk or not.

What it was leading to, what I was practicing for, was learning to take risks in real life. Big risks that involve my whole self, my daily being in the world – risks where what is on the line is everything. It is often the case that test-runs just aren’t rigorous enough to truly prepare a person. The vulnerability of putting your thoughts and feelings out there is real, but putting your livelihood, your basic needs, your whole heart on the line is risk of an entirely different magnitude.

Only now, two and a half years into choosing to take such risks in my life, am I understanding that the disruption – to my world view, to my self knowledge, to my emotional composure  – that accompanies choosing that order of risk doesn’t settle overnight.

In her new book, Disrupt Yourself, Whitney Johnson talks about the need for disruption in the business climate as a way to spur innovation, both in your business and your career. But there are definitely applications beyond the business world. She writes about the slow beginning of change, but suggests that there will come a tipping-point, when progress happens more quickly:

“Self-disruption will force you up steep foothills of new information, relationships, and systems. The looming mountain may seem insurmountable, but the S-curve helps us understand that if we keep working at it, we can reach that inflection point where our understanding and competence will suddenly shoot upward…”

…and…

“…With learning, our progress doesn’t follow a straight line. It is exponential and expands by multiples. Instead of learning a fixed number of facts and figures each day, what we learn is proportional to what we’ve already learned. We needn’t merely plod along, moving one up and one over on the graph of existence…we can explode into our own mastery.”

In this sense, risk=disruption. When we take risks, we need to expect disruption. Whether that disruption lasts moments, days, or years it is uncomfortable at best, extremely painful at worst. But it is part of a well-lived life’s trajectory. The storytellers on the Risk podcast clearly exemplified the piece I sometimes lose sight of; namely, that every experience (especially, perhaps, the gut wrenching ones) leads to growth. You can’t see how it works when you are in the midst of it – it is only after you’ve passed through the disruption that you can look back and connect the dots. It is only after you’ve reached the top of the mountain (or the S-curve) that you can truly look back and see how far you came.

Until then, keep your face toward the climb. And if it helps, let someone else’s story remind you that it will all – eventually – be worth it in growth dividends. It will be worth it when you find yourself that much closer to the person you are called to be, to the life you are meant to be living.

 

 

 

The Landscape of Love

“If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.”
― Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

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I walked the long block in the rain. The only other people I saw were in cars driving past, on their way to work at 7:50 a.m. The door to The Boiler Room stood open, and as I walked in I was greeted by Michael, the owner and sometimes barrista. He asked, “How many days left?” When I said, “Three,” he replied, “Wow! That went fast!”

He doesn’t even know the half of it! Michael was referring to the brief weeks since I’ve known I would be leaving Minneapolis. But his comment made me think about the entire two years I’ve lived here and how they have flown past. Time is such a strange and fickle construct – after all, the first winter I was here was one of the longest, coldest, snowiest on record. Every moment of that winter time seemed to crawl miserably by. Yet now, it all feels like a flash of light passing ever so swiftly before my eyes.

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I arrived in Minneapolis just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Mike and I spent two days celebrating: a Twins game, riding bikes back and forth across the Mississippi River, eating great food at local restaurants. The other two days were a marathon of driving, loading, unloading and more driving to get me officially moved. Once that weekend was over, though, Mike went back to work and I was left to my own devices in a new and, mostly, unknown city.

That first day, I got on my bike and rode. I found The Midtown Greenway, and rode until I hit the river. Now I know I took the West River Parkway, but then I had no idea where I was headed: I just kept riding as long as there was a trail. Eventually, I ended up at Minnehaha Falls (though I didn’t know how to find the falls and rode right past). I took a photo of the train depot there, and texted it to Mike with the caption, “Guess where I am?”  Looking back, I laugh at the fact that, actually, neither one of us knew where I was!

Before that ride, I was drawn to this city for many reasons. But that was the day that Minneapolis took up residence in my heart. The day I felt for the first time that we truly belonged together. Like most relationships, my love affair with this city has had its ups and downs. During the Polar Vortex of 2013-14, I seriously considered a break up. Often, when I was poor and discouraged by an interminable and dehumanizing job search, I thought that perhaps love was not enough to live on. Through it all, though, there was a thread of joy that kept me feeling that this thing between Minneapolis and I was just “right” somehow.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned from loving this place:

For attraction to deepen into love, you have to see beyond the superficial. Early in my time here, I happened upon a local resident’s blog. The purpose of the blog was to showcase how, in the mind of its creator, the city was becoming uglier every year. While I understood the author’s points and the political statement he was making, I just couldn’t comprehend taking such a negative view. In my response to his blog were the seeds of one of the best things I did over the two years I’ve been a Minneapolitan: my #dailypicofmpls Instagram project. I made it a point to get out and about, both in my own neighborhood and in the larger city, to really SEE things. Big things (like the iconic Stone Arch Bridge) and little things (like quirky messages hand-chalked on sidewalks). I chronicled the sights I saw, indelibly imprinting the city on my heart one block at a time. I tried to embrace it all: the good and the bad; what was ugly and what was lovely.

When you love a place, the issues that matter to that place become issues that matter to you. After the fall elections of 2013, I found myself celebrating representation by people who value similar things to me. For the first time in my adult life, I attended events featuring my ward’s councilwoman; our mayor; the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. On a bicycle tour of “The Grand Rounds”, I saw firsthand the unequal distribution of city funding. At Open Streets events I visited both affluent and less affluent neighborhoods, but was able to celebrate the vibrancy and unique character of each. On my own street, I spent time in places where I was the only non-Somali person present, I visited a powerful exhibit of Native American Artists at the First Nations Gallery, and I silently filed past the ghost bike commemorating a cyclist struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Love (like growth and most other worthwhile things) takes seed and flowers when you push yourself outside the confines of your comfort zone. For much of my life I let my introvert tendencies have ascendency – meaning I mostly sat back and waited for things to come to me. Living in a large metropolitan area, working part-time, and knowing exactly four people here when I arrived meant that mode of operation was not an option. So I pushed myself – to attend events, to talk to strangers, to make connections. I went to group bike rides solo. I walked and biked all over, often stopping to enter coffee shops and strange places (a chandlery, a visual arts center, a tiny neighborhood fresh foods market). I tried paddle-boarding, mountain biking, alley-cat racing. I volunteered as a bike parking attendant and as a photographer. I went to odd places and famous venues to see live music by musicians I’d never heard of. I joined a writer’s group and a joyful community of cyclists. Not every experience was wonderful, but each one helped me understand the value of being proactive rather than passive in my own life. And some truly beautiful souls entered my life as a result!

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As I walked back to my apartment from The Boiler Room I thought about the many things I will miss about Minneapolis, then about how little effort I made to love Cedar Rapids during the seventeen years I lived there last time. While there are many people I love(d) in Iowa, the only patch of ground I made any effort to care about was the hill on which Mount Mercy University stood.

I know now that I have to extend my own boundaries in ways I never did before I came to Minneapolis. I’m willing to concede that my failure to love Cedar Rapids as a place may have been a failure of my own imagination rather than a failure of the city to have anything to offer. More than that, I never invested myself there as I have here. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put what I’ve learned from my sojourn in Minneapolis into action in Cedar Rapids.

In the meantime, I’m going to let the rain today express my sadness about leaving the City of Lakes. Don’t misunderstand: I am excited about the new opportunities opening in my life. But for a little while, I need to feel the emotions connected with leaving this city I’ve grown to love so deeply. And, because there’s no equivalent to The Boiler Room in my new neighborhood, I may have to brave the downpour for another Americano.

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Our bikes outside The Boiler Room, Thanksgiving Day, 2013

 

The Grace of Recognition

(Quote by Boris Pasternak)

On the day I met my friends Kate and Victoria, I found myself (somewhat tipsily) telling them that I felt certain we were destined to be friends. They were very kind to me, a strange woman squatting next to them in a bike shop parking lot, pledging friendship after a hot afternoon of alley cat bike racing. They were kind, but I’m also pretty sure they thought I was just drunk.

In the intervening year, as our friendships have grown, we have laughed about that moment. But the truth is, I’m so glad I spoke aloud what my heart had whispered to me.

Writer and philosopher John O’Donohue writes about the “anam cara” or “soul friend”, a person “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” He also writes that many of us have such friends but we are largely unaware – our lack of awareness and presence in our own lives cloaks that friend’s presence. He says, “Sadly, it is often loss that awakens presence, by then it is too late. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.”

It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.

You would think we would easily recognize our “soul friends”: those who are most emotionally available to us, those whose friendship calls forth what is best in and for us. How could we not recognize those friends who would as willingly walk beside us through difficulty as well as through sunshine?

O’Donohue has an answer for that question, as well. He writes, “Though the human body is born complete in one moment, the birth of the human heart is an ongoing process. It is being birthed in every experience of your life.” In other words, we learn these lessons and skills slowly, through experiencing those moments of grace, as well as through experiencing their opposite. Like a friend who recently lamented to me, “Why do I always chase after the cool people, when I should be focusing on the ones who are always there for me?”, we get distracted by the shiny and showy. We forget, or fear, to delve beneath the surface, to test the depth of intimacy that is possible with these individuals.

In friendships where we plumb those depths, we learn a great deal both about ourselves and about the other. Years ago, a friend confided her deepest life secret to me – I was stunned and humbled by her choice to share it with me. Afterwards, there was no longer any possibility of a surface friendship or acquaintance between us. Which isn’t to say we were no longer able to hurt one another or betray one another. Indeed, hurt and/or betrayal then became open territory for discussions and sharing, too.

I would take the injunction to “pray for the grace of recognition” one step further. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition and the courage to speak it. For example, my dear friend called the other night just to tell me, “Whatever happens in life, I will always take care of you.” She said she told her husband she was going to call and say that, and he told her I already knew. Which I did. But the gift of having it declared aloud was precious and meaningful to me at a time of uncertainty in my own life. An “anam cara” knows when it is important to speak.

Recognizing and cultivating soul-friends may require us to invest our energies differently than casting a broader net of acquaintanceships does. It also opens our lives up in so many ways, as we experience the generative nature of intimacy. “Love begins,” says O’Donohue, “with paying attention to others, with an act of gracious self-forgetting. This is the condition in which we grow.” In my life, the intimacy with and support of my closest friends has freed me to take risks and to attempt creative work. They are the foundation that underpins my flights of discovery. As I hope I am for them.

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Today’s post is a reflection on my reading of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue

 

Treading Water: A Zoo Story

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The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.

 

 

 

What Rob Lowe and I Know

A few days ago I found myself clicking on an article from Oprah Magazine that popped up in my Facebook news feed: “Ten Things Rob Lowe Knows For Sure”. I can’t say I was pining for an article showcasing Rob Lowe’s personal epiphanies, but I also can’t say I wasn’t curious once the opportunity to learn them presented itself. Since Rob and I are both featured in Oprah in May, I thought I would take a page from his book (or O’s magazine) and share some things I know for sure. I don’t have as many on my list (Lowe shared 10) and mine are likely to be less succinct – but then, these items are being written by me (unlike Rob’s, which are tagged, “As told to…”).

1. We all have a nasty voice in our heads that speaks to us in horrible ways. Telling it to “shut the @#$* up” until it can be respectful is one of those practices, like meditation, that we know is good for us but is really, really hard to do. Do it anyway. None of us is perfect. Letting that voice call us stupid, ugly, incompetent or worse doesn’t change that. Instead, it undermines our resilience and self-confidence. If you don’t want to channel Stuart Smalley, (aka Senator Al Franken!) that’s ok. Start by noticing when your inner voice is bullying you and take a moment to say, “Stop!”

2. Eating five slices of Casey’s pizza and chasing it with a bag of Easter candy isn’t the end of the world. Is it a great choice? Probably not. But it was the choice you made and there’s no point in dwelling on it. The good news is, it says nothing about your ability to make better choices in the future! It has been five years since I began serious efforts to live a healthier life. I haven’t reached a point at which I feel ready to say I’ve achieved all my goals; however, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and that I continue to move forward. I’ve learned that staying the course isn’t about never straying, its about always reminding yourself that you’d rather get back on the path.

3. Being happy and feeling happy are not the same things. Learning to differentiate between the two is an important aspect of self-awareness and self-discipline. Seeking the high of feeling happy in every moment leads us to take the easy road, to settle for lack of personal and/or spiritual depth, to flit from one person or experience to another in hopes of feeding the happy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling happy, of course. But right relationship with others, with our life’s purpose, with ourselves is what makes us deeply happy – and achieving these things takes us through tough times and difficult moments.

4. It isn’t all about me – neither how others behave toward me nor how I behave toward them. Remembering this allows forgiveness and compassion to flow between us. Especially if we both operate under this assumption!

5. What I know for sure is flexible, adaptable, malleable. It is these things because what we understand changes as we grow and as our life experiences inform our perspectives. At 18, the list of what I thought I knew for sure was long and adamant. Not so at 52. Now, I feel grateful for this lifelong learning process – I’m enjoying being surprised when life shows me new things. Which brings me back to Rob Lowe, who says,

“Staying young is an inside job. Look at what kids are. They’re curious, they’re excited, they’re interested—all of the very things that, if you’re not careful, you’re not when you’re old.”

And that, friends, is something both Rob Lowe and I know for sure!

 

Rob Lowe

Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

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

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

The Goodbye Girl

In 1977, the movie “The Goodbye Girl” was released. The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, who mostly didn’t screw up the screenplay or Neil Simon’s characteristic fast-paced dialogue. To top it off, the movie’s theme song was written and performed by David Gates – that’s right, David Gates of the supergroup “Bread”. There was not a thing about the film (or the song) that my 16-year-old self didn’t love.

One of the reasons I loved the film so much was that I identified with the title: The Goodbye Girl. My family moved around – not a lot, but more frequently than most of the kids I knew, who had been going to the same school, with the same kids, since kindergarten. I saw myself as the girl who was forced to move on just about the time I got good and settled someplace. I was always saying goodbye, and it was usually permanent. In the movie, I didn’t really care for Marsha Mason, but I completely saw my jaded, highly defensive, young self in her character’s self-protective snarky-ness.

Given this self-concept, a song lyric that promised, “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever”  was pretty appealing. I can remember singing it with my friends, Pam and Steve, as we hiked back to our car one night in Cincinnati after attending an England Dan and John Ford Coley concert. This was just a couple of weeks prior to my family’s move from Ohio back to Iowa at the end of my junior year in high school. “The Goodbye Girl” lyrics were our promise to each other – “Goodbye doesn’t mean we’ll never be together again” – and it was our theme song from the day I told them of the impending move until the day I left town. I wanted it to be true, a promise I wouldn’t break. But in my heart, I suspected otherwise.

After returning to Iowa, I lived in Dubuque for seven years. Then Iowa City for nine. But even though there was continuity in the towns, I changed locations/homes and occupations frequently- college, graduate school and my first few professional positions meant a continuation of the goodbye theme. People were always coming and going in my life. I thought I was pretty good at goodbyes, and I maintained a certain stoicism through “goodbye” moments which I took as evidence of my skill.

What I didn’t understand until much later was that I wasn’t good at goodbye, I was actually good at never saying a truly open “hello”. After not letting anyone get too far under my skin, too close, when it came time to say goodbye, I could just let go. And I was really good at that.

Then I came here. Two years, the duration I originally signed on for, somehow became nineteen. And while there have been plenty of goodbyes – it is a college campus, after all: a fresh crop in each fall and a mature crop out each spring – there has been a great deal of stability, as well. Facebook, twitter, texting have all exploded during this time, impacting the ease and affordability of staying connected. I’ve changed in important ways, including intentionally opening myself to close relationships, even bringing some of those people I “just let go” of in the past back into my life.

All of which begs the question, as I prepare to leave, am I still The Goodbye Girl?

Of course, the first and most true answer is no. I never really have been. I’ve gotten it wrong in the past – refusing to get too close so goodbye won’t hurt isn’t a good or life-affirming coping skill. Burrowing in and creating a warm cocoon that I refuse to leave despite every part of me – head, heart, soul – urging me to move on isn’t a great approach either. And the truth is, I’ve been stuck in this warm, loving, cocoon for a long time: an incipient butterfly afraid to test my wings. Afraid that goodbye really does mean forever.

In the movie, Richard Dreyfuss’ character gets an acting job that requires him to leave to do a film on location. Marsha Mason’s character believes he is leaving her forever, and she tries, fiercely, to accept that and to stave off hurt. Then she discovers that he has left his prized possession (a guitar) behind – a sure sign that he will indeed return to her. Two weeks from today I expect to be on the road. I will have said my goodbyes to the campus, to the  women at Sister’s Health Club, to my colleagues and acquaintances. To my friends, to the families I am part of here, I will have made promises: to stay in touch, to come visit, to not be afraid to ask for help if I need it. I will be taking my prized possession with me though – this open, trusting, healthy, whole Jenion that you have all helped me to become. So it comes down to this: I know I’m not the girl I used to be. I trust that I will be able to stay centered within myself even when I am no longer anchored to this place. And I trust that the people, who make this place so important to me, will not disappear from my life like a puff of smoke – I have different, better, coping skills now. One of these is the knowledge that my home is right here in my heart, and it comes with me wherever I go. And those of you who populate my home do too. So I take courage and comfort from the words of the incomparable David Gates:

“Though we may be so far apart, you still would have my heart. So forget your past, my goodbye girl, cause now you’re home at last.”

(Note: for those of you who don’t know the song, here’s a link. It is way too sappy to actually include in the post! The movie is a classic, if you haven’t seen it.)