The Echthros In the Mirror

9 03 2017

“She tried to pull herself together. “Remember, Mr. Jenkins, you’re great on Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’ That’s how it is with human beings and mitochondria and farandolae – and our planet, too, I guess, and the solar system. We have to live together in — in harmony, or we won’t live at all. ..”             –Meg Murray in A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

The first time I read the “Wrinkle In Time” series, it was a trilogy – now it is a quintet. I began re-reading the series recently, primarily because there is a quote from the third book that has always stuck with me. In that book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Mr. Murry, an eminent physicist, tells his family that to live in a peaceful and reasonable world, they must first create a peaceful and reasonable world within themselves and their own family.

Lately, I haven’t felt that I am living in a peaceful and reasonable world.

In response, I found myself returning to these books I read decades ago. In my initial reading, I liked the middle book, A Wind In The Door, least. While I have yet to read the last two in the series, published years after the first three, I am surprised to find that this middle book is my current adult favorite. I would try to explain the plot, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I am convinced that I would make a hash of it. So, without getting into too many of the story details, here’s my attempt to explain why I love this book now, as a middle-aged adult.

The story is cosmic in it’s scope, while taking the characters into the tiniest of microcosmic space – the mitochondria within a human body’s cells. Meg Murry, the protagonist, learns that literally everything in the Universe is connected, and that while we feel separate, that is an illusion. Once inside the mitochondria, Meg can’t communicate in the same way she would normally – words and sounds. Meg learns, instead, that “communion” (intimate fellowship or rapport) can happen, though, because of the very connectedness of everything. She is able to commune with other people, other sentient beings, even with the mitochondria in her brother’s body’s cells – and it is through this communion that she saves the day.

Meg saves her brother, and by extension human existence, from the Echthroi: the enemy that threatens to X things out of existence. X-terminte them. Cause them to cease to exist. When I was a kid, I often thought that ideas in books were solely the imaginal offspring of the author. Now I know that L’Engle didn’t make up the concept of the Echthroi – in fact, Echthroi (Ἐχθροί) is a Greek plural meaning “The Enemy”. The singular form of the word is Echthros (Ἐχθρός). L’Engle’s explanation of their purpose, a quest to erase things from existence, speaks to me on a deep level.

Just last week, I heard a story on NPR about the last three remaining Northern White Rhinos: Sudan, Najin and Fatu by name. They are currently living in Kenya, guarded by armed protectors around the clock. Scientists are striving to discover ways to prevent them from finally being X-ed out of existence. These rhinos have been hunted for their horns, believed by some to have magical properties, and depleted as well by the decimation of their habitats. When they are gone, somewhere in this universe the song of nature will hit a dischordant note, and a beautiful part of the whole will cease to exist. This fills me with dread and grief, for in that moment, the Echthroi will have been successful.

I can see the handiwork of the Echthroi all over this world: in North Korea, where the quest to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the globe is progressing; in Syria and elsewhere, when we fail to prevent genocide; in the US, when we choose name calling and finger pointing over substantive dialogue.

In A Wind In The Door, one way Meg must fight the Echthroi is by seeking within and finding/summoning love for her nemesis, Mr. Jenkins. In our very real world, fighting the echthroi is often an inside job as well. I increasingly believe that we cannot change the world around us if we do not seek first to change ourselves. When I stop to think about this, I must admit that the echthroi reside in me. In fact, when I rage, when I hate, when I name-call or finger-point the echthros IS me.

It may sound strange that I would love a book that reminds me that I am responsible for the world at such a deep level; that I would love a story that bluntly suggests that the fight between good and evil in the world is real, and the battleground is my own self. But Meg Murry reads a lot like my insecure teen self – and she does, eventually, successfully embody love for Mr. Jenkins, despite the numerous ways he failed her. Meg helps me believe that I am up to finding this kind of courage in my own heart.

More important, the book gives us one imaginative interpretation of what we know in our hearts to be true and science is rapidly proving – namely, that we live in a connected universe. We are part of a vast web of life that is interdependent, born from the stardust of Creation. And our purpose is compassion.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.                                   –1 Corinthians 13:1-2

 

 

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My List

26 01 2017

“Your task is not to seek love, but to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

When a friend asked me last weekend what the Women’s March was about, I could tell she was having difficulty discerning truth from all the hyperbole gushing from every perspective. I thought she might be having a difficult time reconciling the fact that people she loves fiercely have diametrically opposed viewpoints – and nothing I said about the Women’s March would necessarily be helpful with that issue.

Her question did give me pause, though. Millions of people around the world marched that day. I could not begin to speak for such a huge group of people – anyone who feels comfortable characterizing the whole or summing them up with one or a few pithy statements or soundbites (whether pro or con) is likely to miss the mark. And since I couldn’t answer my friend’s question for the whole, I wanted to answer it in the particular – for myself, the one person whose reasons I needed to be clear on.

So, I made a list. It was a magnificent list! I listed all of the issues and ideals that I am concerned our country isn’t adequately supporting under our new administration: equal opportunity and equal rights for all, voting rights, affordable and just health care policies, immigrant rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, preventing gun violence, protecting families in need and the federal programs that support them…it was a long list and had soon filled two sides of a piece of paper.

After a while, I stopped and looked at the list. That’s when I realized that this lengthy laundry list was not really why I marched. Sure, I care about these things – I’ve cared about these things most of my life and I’ve often felt that, as a country, we weren’t doing enough or were doing something but missing the mark.

So I made a new list. At the top of the list I wrote: #WhyIMarch:  (which also happens to be a social media hashtag used by many). And the reason that came immediately to mind was: Love.

  • Love led me to march in Dubuque, Iowa where an estimated 600 people gathered, instead of marching in larger crowds in Des Moines or Chicago. Dubuque, my hometown, where I could stand side-by-side with women I love: my cousin Stephanie and my dear friend, Sue and some of the women who taught be to care about the world around me.
  • Love led me to march in solidarity with my sister, Anne, and with all the queer folk I admire and care about. Since the day she was born, Annie has been one of the great loves of my life. Annie doesn’t need to be cured of anything, thanks; but she does need and deserve legal protections and a world that accepts her innate right to exist (and thrive, and love) without fear of violence and discrimination.
  • Love for my niece, Zoe, who attends public school in Chicago, led me to march. Zoe is bright and engaged, and at eleven she can already reason better than many adults. She deserves an education that reflects the fact that we live in the greatest nation in the world. And because I love Zoe and want this for her, I also want it for all the children – even those living in lower income neighborhoods or communities without a strong tax base to support their schools.
  • Love for this Earth led me to march with deep concern for the environment and for continuing the momentum against climate change that has been gathering globally. I want my country to lead on these issues, not bring up the rear. Pope Francis admonishes us to “hear both the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor”, to practice an integral ecology – and because I love this universe we were created to be a part of, I am doing my best to heed this call.
  • Love for all of my nieces: Myka, Rachel, Hallie, Atalie, Zoe, Nikki, Emma, Elsa, Ada, Carys led me to walk. It leads me to want a world for them in which they are free to walk safely on city streets, country roads, running paths and wooded parks without fear. A world where they are protected legally if the men in their lives behave violently toward them. A world where the laws that are already on the books are actually applied. I want them to feel loved and supported as contributing members of society – whether they work in the home or outside. When/if they have babies, I want their health care to be the best available, and I don’t want them to become statistics in a United States where mortality rates for mothers are rising.
  • Love for my nephews: Ben, Tim, Ezra, and the tiniest yet-to-be-born little baby E., was part of why I marched, too. I want them to live in a world where their strengths are cherished and so are their gentler attributes. I want them to live in a country where the men around them – regardless of their income level or the color of their skin – have had the same opportunities. I hope they live in a world where, if they or their families should need help to thrive, that assistance is available without forcing the diminishment of their self-respect.
  • Love for my parents took my feet to the march. These two have always worked hard, made the best of what life dished out, and tried to leave a better world than they were born into. They deserve a retirement without constant financial worries and stress over changes to “entitlement” programs enacted by people who will always have an easier retirement than my Mom and Pop (due in significant part to the fact we taxpayers will foot the bill for their peace of mind).
  • Love for my former students led me to march for today’s young adults. In my 25 years on college campuses, I worked with: uncountable suicidal and mentally ill students who could not get mental health care because of ever-shrinking community resources; dozens of young men and women who faced discrimination and bullying for daring to explore, and to share truthfully, their own identities; enough young women who had been physically, sexually or mentally abused or assaulted to lose count – and almost invariably these young women were treated shabbily by the very people/systems ostensibly designed to protect them – as well as blamed/shamed by their peers. Each of these students deserved better than they got, and I want more resources to be made available for them and for their peers who aren’t in school instead of fewer resources for communities that are already hurting.
  • Love of self, too, added to my desire to march. I marched because my life has dignity and meaning despite the fact that many, many people have tried to tell me otherwise. Those who think I am somehow “suspect” as a woman because I am single and not a mother, those who have felt it was their right to publicly humiliate me for their own pleasure because I haven’t met their standards of beauty, those who have behaved with physical and/or sexual aggression toward me because they perceived me as “fair game”, those who have disrespected me, talked over me, paid me less and tried to silence my voice because I am a woman – those individuals have only made me more determined to speak, from love, for my own right to fairness and justice.
  • Love for the ideal of sisterhood, for the reality of sisterhood, and for the incredible history of sisterhood on this planet.

Love. It’s why I marched – for the love, the people, and the reasons listed above and for more on my list at home. I know that other marchers had different lists – some shared concerns and some disparate. I understand that there are those who are critical of the Women’s March – and that is their right, too. To be clear, though: I wasn’t duped into marching for something I didn’t support regardless of what anyone else’s reasons were and, despite ludicrous assertions to the contrary, George Soros did NOT pay me to walk on Saturday.

It would have been easier and more comfortable to stay at home, but I felt called to go. I didn’t carry a sign. All I took with me were my sisters and my heart full of love.

 





Love Is

14 07 2016

“Love and say it with your life.” 

–Augustine of Hippo

Saturday afternoon found me driving through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. You’ll know you’ve arrived where I was going when you’re almost to South Dakota and not quite in Minnesota.

Early in the drive, I talked on the phone (using the bluetooth feature in my car, in case you were worried about my safety). But there’s virtually no cell service west of Waterloo, so my preferred recourse for entertainment was Iowa Public Radio. A podcast called Snap Judgment began airing, and I found myself transported to Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011 – the day an EF-5 multiple vortex tornado tore the town apart.

Like me, you may recall news stories about a group of people who survived the storm huddled together in a gas station beer cooler. All told, 24 people survived in that small space, while everything around them was destroyed. People sheltered in beer coolers in other gas stations and didn’t survive. But for some reason, these folks did.

The podcast revisited that day, talking to several individuals who had been present. I listened to a mix of their reminiscences and audio taken at the time of the tornado. One young man spoke of getting to the gas station with his best friend, moments before the tornado hit, and pounding on the locked doors to be let in. He told about lying in the dark cooler as the storm raged outside, fearing for his life. Into that chaos, his buddy whispered “Hey man, I love you.”

That’s when they cut back to the audio recorded that day in the beer cooler. You hear a youthful male voice say, “I love you. I love all you all.” He’s answered by other voices, calling out to the strangers sheltering beside them in the dark, in the storm: “I love you.”

Listening, alone in my car and hurtling down the highway with nothing in my sights but blue sky and green, green cornfields, I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. Tears came easily to my eyes, rolling down my cheeks unchecked. Love. It is the natural state and impulse of the human soul, I thought. We get busy, we get distracted, and we lose sight of this truth amongst all the static modern life throws our way. But love comes back to us in moments of extremity: its the impulse that made so many on a plane over Pennsylvania or in the twin towers on 9/11 call their loved ones; the urge that made people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando text love to their mothers and partners; it is in the reflex that makes brave souls run toward a burning building or a car crash to help – or causes a Dallas police officer to shield a mother and her sons from a sniper’s bullets.

Love is our highest calling and our most natural state.

Love is the only house, as the song says, big enough for all the pain in this world.

Love makes us human. And yet, being human, we constantly lose sight of it.

Thinking this, isolated and alone in the bubble of my car, I wept. I allowed everything within me to mourn a week in which all of America seemed to have forgotten about love; to have forgotten that we are made to love one another. I cried for Philando Castile; for Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Laquan McDonald. My tears fell for Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol; for Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. I cried for their families, friends, communities and for all of us gripped by the overwhelming grief of their deaths. I cried for my own inability to know how to help or change things, and I cried because I am complicit in all these deaths through my own privilege and inaction. I cried because the impulse to love is not enough if it doesn’t lead to some expression: I love you. I love all of you.

In the aftermath of my crying jag (seriously, it was an ugly cry with snot and everything), I remembered a conversation I had once with my Dad. I had been recalling my grandfather telling me about the gun he kept in his glovebox “because of the niggers”. I told my father, who had just been named the local NAACP Chapter’s Man of the Year, that I was proud of him for overcoming the racist attitudes he was raised with. He said, “That’s your mom’s doing. I fell in love with her and she taught me to be a better person.”

There it was again: love. That powerful force that calms fear in chaos and can teach us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, it shelters and it nudges. And it is what will get us through these dark days if we allow our truest selves, our deepest humanity, to be our first and best impulse. After last week, after the recent months of anger and discontent and violence, it must be clear that choosing love is not the easy route; nor am I advocating some fluffy Pollyanna-ish wish-upon-a-star. Love in action is often hard. It calls upon us to stand up and speak up and lead up. It calls us to be our best selves and to look for the best selves not just in others but in “The Others” – whomever that is in our lives. When it gets particularly difficult to do, take this sage advice from C. S. Lewis, ““Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Acting from a place of love will always take us somewhere better than acting from fear, disillusionment, anger, blame or finger-pointing ever will.

Whatever darkness we are in: a beer cooler in a tornado, or caught up in a wicked storm of discontent, violence, divisive politics – love is the light that will illuminate it. Move toward that light; choose love.

I love you.

I love all of you,

Jenion

 





Not Finite

3 03 2016

How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? Workers need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire. –Rumi

When we were in graduate school, my friend Cathann mentioned something in conversation that I’ll never forget – we don’t have a finite amount of love; therefore, giving love to one person does not mean we have less to give another. There is always more available.

I’ve not forgotten these words, though sometimes their truth sneaks up on me. It sneaks up on me when I’m not looking for new friends but they appear anyway. It catches me by surprise when I’ve been avoiding connecting with loved ones because “I’m too busy” but we somehow connect anyway – and I find that lightens, rather than adds to, my burdens. Unfortunately, this truth also catches up with me in moments of sadness and regret, when I realize I felt love that remained unexpressed.

I don’t know how anyone else experiences this, but for me, once I’ve loved someone I apparently carry love for that person inside – even if it is buried in the debris of broken promises or hurt feelings. Even if it was a love that I experienced in my childhood but has been left at the bottom of my heart, like a favorite teddy bear forgotten in a box in the attic. I suspect this is true for most of us, if the heartwarming stories we hear of people who have reconnected with past friends, lovers and lost family members are to be believed.

All that love just being hoarded somewhere in the over-stuffed storage-units of our hearts.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. A few weeks ago, I happened to see a comment on a Facebook feed, placed there by my ninth grade boyfriend. Now, I haven’t been connected with this man in so many years, I literally gave up trying to count them. Seeing his name, I felt a small rush of warmth and a sudden desire to reach out to him. I didn’t, though. (Honest admission: I did do a small amount of cyber-stalking, but it was just a few clicks on some internet links.) It left me wondering what stopped me – not from rekindling a relationship of some kind, but from simply saying, “Hello! I still think fondly of you from time to time.” The answer that comes back to me, in my most truthful moments, is that I didn’t want to be burdened with any messy-ness (what if he’s weird? what if he’s dangerous? what if he’s awesome and I don’t have time for another long-distance friend?) that could conceivably come from connecting.

And this week, I’ve been grieving the sudden death of my cousin, Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We spent a lot of time together as kids – he was a few years older than me and, exotically, lived on a farm. Tom was always kind and gentle and protective of me, even when he was teasing me for my “city” ways, or calling me Angie Palucci* – a nickname I hated from everyone else but didn’t mind from him. He’s the one who told me the truth about Santa Claus, because I was upset that the other kids were calling me a baby when their nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments went over my head. Tom’s the one whose crooked smile started with a downturning of the mouth before it lit up his face. Now that he’s gone, I feel the space he has been holding in my heart.

I’ve been regretting that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.  Wondering why I never took the turn toward the farm when I drove past on the nearby highway – I know I thought about it every time. I suspect it goes back to that idea of somehow being “burdened” – by people and their inevitable imperfections and needs? by love and its inevitable imperfections and needs?

Or is it the fear of finite inner resources? Fear of my own inevitable imperfections and needs?

I’ve said this before (and it won’t surprise anyone, especially those who know me), but I am a slow learner; I am someone who needs to relearn the same concepts over and over before they stick. Just thinking about that teddy bear in the attic is enough to remind me that I still feel love for it. All this time, I thought I was putting it away in order to make room to love something else, when what I was really doing was protecting myself. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in his button eyes as the limited, flawed person I am.

The reality, the truth I keep losing track of is this: My perfection is finite, love’s is not. There might not be room enough in my daily life to be connected to everyone in a perfect and non-needy way. In fact, I’m sure there isn’t – I will sometimes be the cause of hurt, sometimes let people down, sometimes be so focused on my own needs that I run right over you/your needs. But that’s about my human limitations, and not about love.

The sneaky truth, the one I keep losing sight of, is that love isn’t about me, created by me, or controlled by me; it has it’s own perfection that doesn’t flow from me. Unlike my time, my patience, and my impulse toward altruism, love is NOT finite – there is always more available.

Love itself describes its own perfection.
Be speechless and listen.

~ Rumi.

*(the name of a character on the Doris Day show that played in after-school reruns at the time)

 

 





The Christmas Curse

24 12 2015

Ever since the Wise Men, there has been a “rule of three” associated with Christmas. Three ships a’sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning. Three ghosts to visit Ebenezer Scrooge. And in my family, the three disasters Christmas Curse.

The Curse isn’t in effect every year. Most Christmases for my family are filled with the normal holiday joys and mishaps that accompany large group gatherings. There are heirloom recipes that fail unexpectedly, or disastrous spills of red wine on something white. We forget to take family photos until the day after the big celebration, as people are leaving – exhausted and unshowered. You get the idea. Like most families, mine may be momentarily flummoxed by these occurrences, but we are able (eventually) to take them in stride with good will and humor.

Now and then, though, The Curse kicks in and all bets are off. My brother, for example, experienced the Curse as days before Christmas the furnace went out in his house, then a second furnace died in the apartment he rents to an older tenant, then his wife had an accident with the family car. Service and repairman sightings in Chicago the day before Christmas are more rare (and more precious) than sightings of Santa emerging from the fireplace with a bag of goodies. Boom. Best-laid plans for a relaxed family Christmas derailed.

I could regale you with stories of the various manifestations of The Christmas Curse over the last fifty years. But I won’t. Suffice it to say, despite these events, we’ve always somehow survived and lived to tell the tales. Usually, with enough distance, we are able to laugh about them. They become part of the cannon of family lore, told and retold as evidence of both the existence of The Curse and our family’s resilience.

This year turns out to be a Curse year. The three events happened to my parents, and all three were financially impactful. More heart-rending than the money (and this is saying a lot, because my folks are on a fixed income) was that the Curse necessitated moving the holiday celebration from their home to my sister’s. When you’ve planned every detail of the perfect Christmas, needing to renegotiate every one of those details can be overwhelming.

Yesterday, I woke in the guest room at my parents’ home and stumbled out to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee. My parents had been up for hours, making lists of things that needed to be done – people to be called, stuff to be packed for transport to my sister’s, items to be replaced as aftereffects of the three curse events. As I sat listening and huddling into the warmth of my cup of joe, I heard the following exchange:

Dad: Listen. The thing to remember is I love you and you love me.

Mom: Yes. Let’s cling to that.

Then they both erupted into gales of laughter.

And that, my friends, is the thing to remember whenever The Christmas Curse strikes: love and good will always carry the day. Fifty-plus years of experience should have taught us that The Curse has an answer in The Christmas Blessing – as the old carol says, “love came down at Christmas”.

Regardless of the cares and worries wearing on our hearts, let’s cling to that.

Merry Christmas.

 





Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

13 02 2014
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM





Jumping the Tracks

10 10 2013

“The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder

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No one tells you, when you’re young, that there are choices you make that set you on a road from which there will be no deviation. Or at least from which you will not know or feel you can deviate. A woman who counts the days (in years) until her kids graduate so she can quit the job she hates. A man who has created two lives, his public one and his private one, who always feels divided within himself. Another who randomly got a job in a lucrative field and has never been able to walk away. Me, working my ass off in a job that was fulfilling but also usurping, leaving almost no space for me in my own life.

Sometimes, I resisted change out of love – love for the mission and mercy of the institution I worked at, love for the students whose lives I was privileged to participate in, love for my colleagues whose hearts and souls were so amazing. Sometimes, I resisted change out of fear – of failing, of being too much or not enough of the “right” things. Whether out of fear or love, resistance kept me on the track I was on, moving forward as far as my eyes could see into a future that held more of the same. Resistance, when we give in to it, is  an insidious form of self-betrayal.

Resistance is self-betrayal because it manifests in these ways: it causes us to be silent when we need to speak; it  justifies dishonesty about our true selves; it effectively hoards our gifts and talents when they exist to be shared. Marianne Williamson has, famously, said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So we hide, we make ourselves small. Not to prevent us, in my opinion, from outshining others, but to prevent us from being seen when our true shining selves are revealed. What we love and what we fear cause resistance because they both carry the price of vulnerability.

So, what is it like to jump the tracks? I wondered for a very long time. Years of agonizing soul searching. Years of excuses. Years of making my friends listen to all of that soul searching and excuse-making. (Obviously, I have the most incredibly supportive friends!) And in all that time, I didn’t do any real planning. Any real preparing. I felt incapacitated until the thought of remaining on the tracks, the resistance, became more prominent and painful than either the fear or the love keeping me there – and I just jumped.

Here’s what it is like: it is like being a new soul again.

I cannot contain my curiosity. There is so much to see and read and learn, so much content and innovation, so many ideas. I read and explore on-line until I can’t see anymore.

Then I go outside and explore my city. I knew I didn’t care for the city I lived in and called home for almost two decades. I didn’t realize how stifling I found it. I don’t mean to dis Cedar Rapids – it is objectively a great place. It just wasn’t for me. This city makes me feel expansive: the diversity of people, of neighborhoods, of opportunities.

I am in love with creating. When I unpacked my boxes, I discovered fifteen unopened artist’s sketchbooks – which definitely says something about what my heart knew I should be doing (not necessarily drawing, but creating). I’ve been busy taking photographs, writing, creating recipes from delicious food. Here’s the thing about allowing your creative self the freedom to breathe after years of pushing it down inside – you’re a newbie and you suck (not so much with the recipes, they’re tasty. But with the writing…oy!) Even sucking feels pretty good right now because I am writing.

I have two primary fears: not finding a job, and conversely, taking one out of necessity that recreates the “tracked” lifestyle. Out of fear, and a whole new set of loves, I still betray myself via resistance – I hold back, I worry about acceptance rather than experience, I allow discomfort with the unknown to stop me. I am also discovering that the world in general prefers when we are on the tracks. It makes more sense to people, they know how to define us when we’re on a specific track in life. There is a subtle pressure to get back on, to resume that endless trip toward a gray horizon.

I probably could have jumped the tracks sooner. I could have chosen a different means or method of doing so. I could even, probably, be doing this trackless exploration differently right now. Perhaps in the future I’ll look back and think, “Wow, that was a dumb way to do it!” The only thing I know for sure right now is that I can breathe more deeply than I have in years. That each day seems to be so brimming with possibilities it is often difficult to choose from among them. But I’ve always been a hard worker, it’s in my DNA. So I am gradually buckling down to the work of self-discipline – which is vastly different when the things I am being disciplined about feed my soul and don’t just earn a satisfactory performance review and a heap more work.

It is a strange thing to realize that I have had these choices all along. No matter what I was told, or what I grew up believing. No matter what pressures I felt internally or externally. It is strange to know that I will continue to make some choices out of fear or love or resistance that may not be the best choices for me. It is especially strange to realize that I took comfort from the very tracks that steered my life away from being the life, and me becoming the person, that was meant to be. When you jump the tracks, that false comfort is denied to you. You have to find your own stride in the trackless wilderness.

And that seems a fitting way to describe where I am today: I jumped the tracks, and now I’m finding my own stride. I can’t quite see the features of the horizon, but it isn’t gray. And my tracks won’t end up going nowhere at all – they’re heading somewhere of my own creation.

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