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?!

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Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home

13 06 2013

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As we were leaving church after the service, slowly processing out in single-file, my mother stopped the man in front of me.

“Mike! Mike! Is this your hat?”, she asked, handing him a straw cowboy hat.

“Yes, ma’am it is. Almost left without it!”

“Did you see my daughter taking a picture of it?,” Mom asked.

“Is that what you were doing?,” Mike asked me. “I wondered.”

“Well, you just don’t see that in Iowa,” I said, referring to the cowboy hats left resting on the adobe sills of many of the church’s stained-glass windows.

Mike frowned. “Don’t they allow hats in the churches up there?”, he asked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A brief conversation was all that was needed to explain that most midwestern churches don’t have thick adobe walls and, thereby, deep window ledges on which to rest hats. And that most men don’t have expensive Sunday hats – their feed caps are left at home or in the car during church services. However, as I departed Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, the cowboy hats sparked a train of thought. I was thinking about the phrase “Any place I hang my hat is home”.

Home. Always an evocative word, but especially so now, when I find myself both unemployed and homeless (albeit both busy and sheltered). Where is home for me now?

At mass on Sunday, I felt at home. Although I am by no stretch of the imagination a practicing Catholic, my spiritual life began in the Church. Despite years of choosing not to participate, I find that Catholicism’s rites are comforting to me in times of upheaval and change. As comforting as it may be, though, I don’t really think the Church encompasses the definition of home for me.

When, as now, I am staying with my parents, I think of myself as at home – though I’ve never actually lived in either this house or in Rio Rancho. The last actual structure I shared with my parents was on Andrew Court in Dubuque, Iowa 30 years ago. Whenever I find myself in Dubuque, I think of it as my hometown. I also feel deeply connected to the Mississippi River, and regardless of which state I am in when I see her rolling waters, I have a sensation of home.

Interestingly, I lived in Cedar Rapids for 17 years and never thought of that city as home. Instead, I thought of the people who populated my life, though they bore no blood relationship to me, as family. Since “family” is what typically populates “home”, I suppose in some sense Cedar Rapids could be considered home. Mount Mercy University probably deserves that appellation, though I’ve definitely left that home in my past.

After racking my brain to answer the question, “Where is home for me now?”, all I was able to come up with were bits and pieces. The truth is, while home may be a physical place, when we say home, we so often mean something more than mere geography. In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes, “If home is where the heart is, then by its most literal definition, my home is wherever I am.” When I read it, that statement struck me as the same level of cliché as “Wherever you go, there you are.” Obvious. Literal. True. But missing the point. My beating heart is wherever I am physically located, but my feeling heart is often elsewhere. Despite my best efforts to live in the present moment, I find that I am divided – that my emotional heart has left pieces of itself – among many homes.

In the weeks leading up to my move, I felt courageous and strong. I have rarely felt as grounded and ready for the future as I did at my going away party, surrounded by my oldest, youngest, and many of my dearest friends. Realizing this, I did a quick inventory of the recent past and discovered that, as I have developed stronger and more meaningful relationships, I have also felt less fear in new situations: sightseeing on foot alone in Philadelphia; losing my way on a detour and self-navigating out of Chicago’s Loop; a host of smaller solo adventures. It seems that having a deeply rooted sense of belonging or connectedness, of an emotional home, is key to maintaining a sense of courage and adventure – is central to holding an idea of myself as strong enough to keep venturing into unknown territory.

And having that connectedness for several years now, I was unprepared for the fearfulness I felt this week in ordinary situations I would typically take in stride.  On Monday morning, for example, I was nearly paralyzed with fearful indecision about where to ride my bike. Every choice seemed dreadfully scary.  In the Harry Potter novels, the character, Voldemort, split his soul and placed pieces of it in a variety of objects called horcruxes. These horcruxes preserved his immortality but left him vulnerable. That is how I felt, suddenly. Like I had left a piece of myself with each of the people who gave strength to my sense of self, and who were now separated from me by great distances. I felt very vulnerable. I found myself wanting to cling to my parents, the warmth of their physical presence comforting me.

Thankfully, I’ve learned that when fear and anxiety begin to ratchet up, it’s best to take a time out and practice some good mental hygiene. So I spent some time in reflection, thinking about the difficult nature of transitions. After some quiet thought, prayer, and deep breathing a couple of simple truths occurred to me. First, I’m already mid-leap. The time for fear, if there was a time, was before I quit my job, packed all my belongings and stuffed them in storage. If my life were a game of poker, I’d already be all-in.

Second, the horcrux analogy is flawed. I haven’t left pieces of myself behind with the people I love. We’ve spent years building those relationships, binding our hearts to one another’s with cords that are flexible (and stretchy), but incredibly strong. And while I am vulnerable because of these relationships, it is the ordinary vulnerability that we all risk when we open our hearts to another person, not a fatal flaw like Achilles’ heel. This kind of vulnerability is, paradoxically, necessary to the development of strong relationships – and to the development, at least for me, of a strong sense of self-efficacy.

After I realized these things, I could once again think about the concept of home without panic. So what if I don’t have a physical location to designate as “Home” at this very moment? Maybe it is cliché to think that if home is where my heart is, wherever I am is home. What’s so wrong with being cliché sometimes? I’ve brought the strength that I receive from the love and support of friends and family with me, as surely as I arrived in New Mexico with a framed photo of the extraordinary women who make up my book club. Their smiles remind me that, while I may be required to face my fears alone sometimes, I will be loved whether I meet with success or failure. And isn’t that part of home, too? They’ll take you in, at home, no matter whether you succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

After all of these musings about the nature of home, and its meaning for me during this moment of transition in my life, I had to smile when I received a text from Minneapolis, a city I’ve never lived in. It contained a photo of kites and the line, “We are so doing this when you get home.”  Still smiling, I grabbed my bike helmet (the closest thing I have to a hat) and headed out the door to face my “scary” biking options.

I guess, after all, it’s true what they say: “Any place I hang my hat is home.”





Defining Moments

14 06 2012

I have a friend from college who is on an extended vacation in Berlin. His Facebook posts paint little scenes for us, snippets of his experiences. He writes of many ghosts: in the apartment where he is staying; in the old graveyard where half the plots are tended and the other half are (mysteriously) overgrown and wild; the whispering voices of history on the Reichstag lawn at 2 a.m.

Tonight, I have my own voices from the past whispering in my ears.

Today is the anniversary of the 2008 floods which swept through Cedar Rapids, the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history. I’ll never forget it. For more than a year beforehand, my colleagues and I had worked to put together a campus crisis/disaster plan. That planning team, and our many meetings, is where some of my best friends and most valued colleagues were cultivated. And when the flood hit our town, and the plan we had created was enacted…I was hiking in the desert southwest.

That day my parents and I were in the mountains visiting a chain of remote national monuments, old Spanish missions. At each stop, the ranger at the information desk would ask, “Where you folks from?”, and my Dad would say, “Albuquerque. But our daughter is visiting from Cedar Rapids.” And every single person asked, “Isn’t that where they’re having that terrible flood?” Each time, I felt my sense of panic ratchet up a notch. I was not where I needed to be.

It’s interesting to look back at your own life and find those moments just before something big changes. Just before your perspective shifts, creating a new way of looking at the world around you.

There were many changes to Cedar Rapids, to the lives of people who live here, brought about by the flood. I would never want to minimize the difficulties and ways people suffered. For me, though, the flood changed something deep inside: for the first time, after living here for years, I thought of Cedar Rapids as my home town. And myself as part of this community.

I’ve written about perspective before (here): how hard it is to keep, how it can be regained in a moment of stunned reaction to a major life event. It is especially difficult to maintain perspective when we live cocooned in the false notion of self-reliance. When we think we are in “it” by ourselves, whether “it” is our job, raising our children, living through a serious illness, or simply trying to get through the day. The truth, hard as it is to hang on to when we feel alone, is that we are not alone.

This sense of being part of a community has only grown in me over the years since the flood. I didn’t suddenly start seeing Cedar Rapids as my dream city, or the only place I could ever live. However, I’ve come to understand that community transcends place, while it is also grounded in a place. We call that place “home”.