July 19: 1980 and 2012 (On Marriage)

1980:

It was a scorcher. I remember it being so hot that, as I stood in line, I could feel sweat trickle from my scalp down my back between my shoulder blades. My yellow dress and matching pumps clung to me uncomfortably – especially the shoes, as they tightly crossed an itchy patch of poison ivy on the arch of my foot.

While we waited for the ceremony to start, I laughed to myself about the fact that it had taken a village to help my sister into her pantyhose AFTER she had already donned her wedding dress. My younger sisters, in their matching yellow dresses, were also in line, each of us paired with a groomsman we didn’t know. When it was my turn to walk up the aisle, all I was thinking about was not making a fool of myself. I didn’t look at the people, friends and family I loved, turning in the pews to watch. I’m pretty sure I forgot to smile, I was so self-conscious.

I enjoyed all the events before and after the wedding. The rehearsal dinner ended in a gathering at the groom’s home. Guitars came out and we had a sing-along with the “old gang” from Loveland (where we used to live in Ohio) and the wedding party and guests who were already in town. Dave (the groom) and his best friend Randy, sang Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, among other crowd pleasers. The punch and cake reception, in the church, had a “shadow reception” in the parking lot, with beer dispensed out of the back of a station wagon for those old enough. Later that night all the college/graduate students headed downtown Cincinnati and the riverfront for a good time.

I was still 18, and full of whatever notions fill the mind of an 18 year old: friends, laughter, romance. I’m sure I listened to the sermon during the wedding – after all, it was Pastor Ross, our dear friend and sometimes youth group leader and I always listened to him. But my head was already full of fluff and what he said didn’t have a place to take hold. The people were lovely, the music was beautiful, and there was a particular boy there that I thought was incredibly special – that’s what I do remember.

It never occurred to me, that day, to wonder “What makes a marriage?” or “What makes a marriage last?” or “What does it truly mean to be committed to another person?” I thought I knew (because at 18 you always think you know stuff), and I didn’t think a wedding was the time for serious or thoughtful reflection.

2012:

Today, 32 years after my sister’s wedding, is another scorcher. Under 100 degrees finally, but still hot.   As I write (thankfully NOT dressed head-to-toe in buttercup yellow), I realize I know both more and less about marriage than I did that day in 1980. On the more side, I know that a wedding is exactly the time for thoughtful reflection because it is a fun but very serious occasion. What is taking place is a sacred event, not merely a whimsically romantic one. Also, on the more side, I know that the concept of “for better or worse” often contains more worse than the bride and groom have foreseen.That this worse can include things like illness, and boredom, and selfishness, and financial crisis. I’ve watched as couples I know have either found a way to absorb these blows and come through with a stronger bond, or have found themselves blasted apart. Another item on the more list: marriage is not a spectator sport. If you are married, you have to play hard, and play to win. Your head has to be in the game.

Strangely enough, the “less” I know now as compared with my 18 year old self is so much greater than the “more”. I thought I knew that love spontaneously erupts in our hearts and leads to marriage – and if the love is strong enough the marriage is too. I now know that’s not quite how it works, that love is only one factor in a complex equation that I understand about as much as I do calculus. I thought I knew that there were particular hurts or violations (sexual infidelity chief among them) that, when committed by a spouse, were marriage deal-breakers. No questions, its over. Conversely, I thought that a marriage was safe as long as these particular issues never occured. Clearly, I suck at marriage math because both assumptions have proven false as I’ve watched the marriages of my family and friends ebb and flow, strengthen and (sadly) fail due to issues and behaviors nearly impossible to comprehend from outside the relationship.

Which is likely one reason I’m fascinated by this topic today – marriage is something I’ve only had the opportunity to study from the outside. As I think on it today, on my sister’s 32nd anniversary, I stand in awe of my parents and siblings who have, apparently, figured out how to do it so well. I also stand in awe of my friends: those whose marriages are anywhere on the continuum from happy to struggling to falling apart. I am in awe of their determination, hard work, joy and sorrow and the fact that they continue to function in (reasonably) normal ways.

There is a lot said these days about people not taking marriage seriously, about couples entering into the fun of a wedding without thought to the actual work of a marriage. The Brittney Spears and Kim Kardashians, whose weddings are barely over before the marriage is, are given as examples. However, in real life (as opposed to celebrity life) I haven’t seen that. In real life, I’ve seen people struggle to make it work. I’ve seen people sacrifice, try all sorts of creative endeavors and creative thinking to keep their marriages viable. And I’ve watched as people I love try to put their lives back together after their marriage has broken, and broken their lives to pieces.

So, what’s my point? Simply this: at 18, a wedding appears to be the most important part of a marriage.  At 50, even those of us who’ve never been married know the wedding, though a serious event, is a jumping-off point. No matter what one thinks they know, the marriage will be an epic journey through the unknown. My role as family member or friend is to witness and support and uplift, regardless of my opinion – because if marriage is not a spectator sport, it is also not one where anyone needs or welcomes Monday morning quarterbacking from me. In closing: Happy Anniversary, Chris and Dave! And to the rest of you brave souls (married, divorced or someplace in between) – bon voyage! I’ll be here  if you need me!

The Way of Love

When I was in high school I belonged to an inter-faith youth group. It was a special experience, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will just say that we used to sing. A lot. One of our favorite songs, often requested by churches when we sang at their services, was based on 1st Corinthians, the chorus saying, “If I have not charity, if love does not flow from me, I am nothing…Jesus reduce me to love.”

In the intervening years, I’ve heard and read these verses from 1 Corinthians many times. When I was in youth group, they were new to me, but even then they held a kind of deep call which has never disappeared. Although they are most frequently read at weddings, I have never associated them primarily with romantic love. Rather, the definition of love, the clarity provided about what love is and what love isn’t, has always seemed (and I believe was intended) to encompass a way of being in the world and an ideal to strive for in all relationships.

In college, I read the book, Unconditional Love by John Powell, who says “Unconditional Love means that I cannot always predict my reaction or guarantee my strength, but one thing is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will always accept you. I will always love you.”  And the idea of unconditional love became coupled with the verses from 1 Corinthians in my heart.

In graduate school counseling classes I became familiar with the phrase “unconditional positive regard“, which refers to a manner of being in the therapeutic relationship. But David G. Meyers, in his book Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules, describes it beautifully and fully as something that can, it seems to me, be practiced in any relationship.  “This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.”

We live in a world that encourages us to disengage from our truest selves. Whether that is because we have been victimized or traumatized, or whether we have been led to believe that who or what we are is “not normal”. In such a world, we are taught that the safest thing to do is keep our true selves hidden, covered over in tough, protective layers. In such a world, how is a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship even possible?

The only available course I see is the way of love, as outlined in 1 Corinthians, or John Powell or one of dozens of other thinkers and spiritual leaders over the years.

In recent years, I have learned to open those closed chambers within myself and let the daylight in. It is never easy, even now that I’ve had practice. But I have discovered that there are others in my life who have committed to me unconditionally, who are willing to see me in the light of truth and still choose love. In spite of what this world we live in led me to expect, these people have chosen to love odd, imperfect, quirky, neurotic me in spite of seeing my darkness.

To the friends whose recent life events and revelations have led to this reflection, I promise to give as good as I’ve gotten. I can’t guarantee my strength or my ability to help you through your own protective layers. But this much is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will endeavor to be a safe place where you can drop your defenses, confess your worst feelings, and still find acceptance.

I cannot promise to approach perfect in any way. But I can strive to practice the way of love in my daily interactions. As Tom Cruise’s famous character Jerry Maguire says, “We live in a cynical world.” However, the way of love has no room for such cynicism. Love, after all,  “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Flashback Friday – Nice Ride, Brother!

It was 1970-something. Back row: Dave, Debbie Ross, Stephanie Beller, Marla St. Clair; Front Row: Jeff Hanson, Susannah Ross, me.

The car belonged to my friend and youth-group leader, Dave Finnegan. From the first night we met, at a Tuesday night Inter-Church Youth (ICY) meeting, I thought he was awesome. Gentle of spirit, kind, and incredibly smart. Not a bad volleyball player. Or too shabby with that guitar.

In the ensuing 35 or so years since we met, Dave has been an important influence on my life AND a member of my family – he and my sister Chris were married a couple of years after this photo. They raised two amazing sons, my nephews Ben and Tim, together. And they have weathered more than their share of serious illness – Dave faced several bouts of cancer, culminating in a Stage IV diagnosis and a grueling experimental treatment program at M.D. Anderson in Houston (he has been cancer free since then, approximately twenty years). My sister, Chris, will have surgery on Tuesday for her second round with breast cancer.

What I want to say about Dave in this Flashback is that I couldn’t have chosen anyone better for my sister’s life companion. You know how it is with in-laws: they marry into a family like ours (big, loud, opinionated) and can spend years figuring out how not to be chewed up and spit out. Dave maintains his calm, faithful and principled presence – occasionally making us groan at his terrible puns. In the coming weeks, he will be the gentle rock upon which my sister will lean – and by virtue of his presence where we can’t be, we will all lean on him to an extent (poor guy). After more than three decades, I can  say with complete trust that he’s up to the task. I thank God, and my brother Dave, for that!

A RAGBRAI Story – Part 2

(When we left the story at the end of Part I, the Mustangs were living it up at the beer tent in Homestead, Amanas: sweat-drenched but smiling, and just a little cocky about being “almost done” with the day’s ride)

And so the Mustangs mounted up and began what can arguably be called the most important part of the experience. Tricia and I decided to ride together, and this was the pivotal decision of the day for me. The ride from Homestead to Oxford, a 5.8 mile stretch, was a little hilly, but do-able. Tricia and I commented on the beautiful scenery. It must not have been too difficult a ride if we were still noticing something other than our burning quads and gasping lungs.

As we pulled into Oxford, the party was in full swing. It certainly appeared that many riders were already celebrating the completion of a successful ride. I was flagging, but surrounded by that happy, upbeat atmosphere, I felt reasonably confident I would finish. I not only wanted to finish the 75 miles, I also wanted to be able to say I rode every foot of it. I understood that there is no shame in walking up difficult hills, and that many riders do so. But I wanted to stay on my bike.

Within minutes of leaving Oxford for the last (17.7 mile) leg of the ride, I was questioning my determination. The ride from that point forward was one long, steep hill after another. After another. After another. As we approached the crest of another hill, I could hear the riders in front of me cursing, as they caught sight of yet another hill in front of them. Groaning and cursing. But I also heard a paraplegic rider pedaling with his arms, saying to another cyclist, “We’re gonna do it!”. An older gentleman, passing me by and saying, “That’s it, take your time!”. I heard Tricia, waiting for me at the top of the hill saying, “You’re doing great!”

Hill after bloody hill. I thought I was in hell. A rider passed me, carrying a passenger who was playing the guitar. An ADULT passenger, whose only contribution to the effort was music!  A guy in a cape rode by, as did a bride and groom whose helmets were embellished to look like a top hat and veil. Ok, maybe not hell exactly. More like rural Iowa on an acid trip.

Hill. After. Bloody. Hill. Partners and team members were practically pulling each other up the hills with their words of encouragement. One young girl apologized, “I’m sorry, I have no legs.” But her teammates wouldn’t hear of her stopping, and I saw her three hills later, still riding.  Solo riders were cared for, as well, though. One woman, stopped at the side of the road tinkering with her bike was asked multiple times, “Do you have what you need?”  Strangers looked on us with compassion, including a lovely family with hoses who sat at the crest of a particularly difficult hill. I begged them to spray me with the cool water. At several consecutive driveways, families were shouting, “You’re almost there! Only six miles to go!” I’ll never be able to thank any of them for helping me get through.

Riding up those hills, mostly I was just thinking, “Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling.” But it was impossible not to marvel at the people around me who were pushing through. Every shape, size, fitness level. Every age. Bike riding is adaptable to all kinds of ability levels, and people with more to overcome than weight and an inactive past were continuing on. Riders whose whole purpose was other-centered (raising money for HIV-AIDS, for a cure for Diabetes or Breast Cancer) were pushing themselves up and down those hills, too. It reminded me that the zeitgeist of RAGBRAI is part rolling folk festival and part pilgrimage. And in this reminder was the realization that I was participating in the kind of experience that, most of my life, I would only have watched from the sidelines. This wave of committed, possibly crazy, humanity helped to carry me forward when I began thinking I couldn’t keep going.

And then, unbelievably, we crested and in front of us was Melrose Avenue! I couldn’t believe it – Iowa City, about to turn the corner into Coralville, our destination. There was jubilance all around us. Waiting for the State Patrol to give us the right of way, another rider’s radio was blaring Vanilla Ice – and Tricia and I broke into spontaneous dancing astride our bikes. Someone in the crowd yelled, “You go girls!”. The State Patrol officer danced with us.

We turned into a lovely downhill run, the road lined with welcome signs from the colleges and universities with officially registered teams. And then, in the midst of celebration, the final test. One more long-ass hill. I almost cried. Other riders were giving up, dismounting in larger numbers than at any other point on the ride. If Tricia hadn’t been there, I might have been one of them. It took every last reserve to ride that hill. And it was slow going. But Tricia and I rode it together, and when I pulled ahead as we coasted down the other side, I waited for her to catch up. She called, “You don’t have to wait”, but I told her, “The hell I don’t! There’s no way I’m crossing the finish line without you.” How could I, when her encouragement and friendship had just pulled me through the last 17 miles?

The finish line was designed to look like the arched entrances to Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, with the road painted like a football field. Layne and Kristen, the most awesome and patient road crew ever, were waiting and watching. When they caught sight of us, they jumped up and yelled and cheered, Layne filming us coming in.

I’d like to say that I was overcome with joy, but the truth is, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, dehydrated, hungry and I hadn’t peed in nine hours. I was incapable of joy in that moment. We stopped, and waited for Layne to join us with directions for where we were meeting up with the team. When she arrived, she pointed up the hill in front of us and said, “Go up there to the second stop sign and turn right.” I looked in that direction, and to my shame, burst into tears of frustration. I said, “I cannot ride up another f-ing hill. In fact, I can’t get back on my bike.” Layne hugged me and said, “Its ok. We’ll walk together, and I’ll push your bike.”

I owe a debt of gratitude to a huge community who made my RAGBRAI experience a day I will never forget: The people of Iowa who opened their homes, hometowns, and hearts to the massive river of riders. The cyclists, themselves, who were compassionate comrades on the quest to achieve personal goals. My fellow Mustang riders (especially my girls: Sarah, Colette, Wendy, and Tricia) without whom I would surely have failed – whose love and support held me up throughout the long day. Layne (and her parents for the loan of their truck) and Kristen, the road crew who loved us enough to spend a day waiting, cheering, manoevering through traffic and congestion. They didn’t have the payoff of endorphin highs or self-congratulations at the end – just thankless jobs and a long, sweaty day. The Lange Family, who hosted a reception/party for all the Mustang riders in Coralville, welcoming stinky sweaty strangers into their lovely home.

Each person in a long list vital to the success of the whole. Vital to my success.

The community story is not a story I was expecting, because until I was there, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. There is a lot of hype and mythology surrounding RAGBRAI. Turns out, a lot of it is true. But the magic of it, in my opinion, comes down to love.

I know, some of you just groaned, reading that! Here she goes again, you’re thinking, reading too much into every little experience. I’ll accept that criticism. But I will also say that I am no Pollyanna – ask Tricia, who saw me at my absolute snarliest at the end, after successfully completing the day. Ask Layne, who saw me tensely coiled at 5:20 a.m. when I was worried about the derailers on our bikes being  smashed as we loaded the truck. No Pollyanna visible in those moments, I assure you.

However, throughout the ride, there were moments when I was able to be outside my own fear and self-doubt enough to really see the events and people around me. Those moments were emotional – and more true than the fears. At one point in the day, a rider towing a boom box passed Tricia and I, blasting Martina McBride’s “Love’s The Only House”, one of my all-time favorites. That day, I swear, love was a big enough house to shelter all 10,000 bicyclists.

50 About 50: Caring Less and Caring More

Today is a good day to post two of the 50 About 50 lists I started last week. As you will recall, these posts are leading up to my 50th birthday on Thursday, July 28. Because of the double list, today’s post runs a bit long. I hope you enjoy it anyway. As always, please feel free to respond with comments or your own items for the lists!

10 Things I Find Myself Caring Less About

1. What Others Think

Its a little strange to immediately contradict myself, but I DO care what others think. I will always be interested in how people think, why they’ve reached the conclusions they have. I am happy to reflect on the ways their thinking might illuminate mine. That said, in my younger years I tended to be unduly influenced by others. My own thoughts were like feathers easily blown in a new direction by another’s, more forcefully, declaimed idea. Now, I find I am able to continue in my own direction while remaining open to course corrections based on new information.

2. What Others Think About Me

Finally, I have reached the point in life where I am no longer incapacitated by concerns about what others think about me. Do I care? Yes, sometimes about some things. Mostly, though, I am happy to be the person I am.

3. So-called “Rules”

For most of my life, I have been an inveterate rule-follower. Breaking a rule, even one which might arguably exist only inside my own head,  just felt wrong. Often, even contemplating breaking the rule would induce hyperventilation. Social conventions and mores (such as waiting for an explicit invitation, saying the polite if untrue thing, etc.) still have a certain hold on me. More and more, though, I find that part of living and maturing is learning when to break out – and break a few rules.

4. Weeds, among other “unsightly” things

People say not to compare apples to oranges, because they are two different things.  Well, I was listening to a scientist on NPR one day, who said we needed to change that idiom. At the cellular level, he said, apples and oranges are the same thing! Weeds, flowers, hostas…at the cellular level aren’t they really all the same? I put my energy into the things that matter to me. I don’t waste a lot of energy on the “weeds” in life (or my flower beds) anymore.

5. Cognitive Structure

Things need to make sense, have order, structure, be inherently fair. Or so I once thought. I’m (mostly) through with trying to tidy up all of my beliefs, my thoughts, my emotions into a neat package. The world is wide and full of wondrous things. Its not my brain’s job to rearrange the furniture of the universe. See, accept, wonder, be in awe –  this may be enough responsibility for one human brain.

6. Being in Fashion

Fashions come and go. What looks good on me mostly remains the same.

7. Noise

Dear Mom: on this point, as on so many others, I concede that you were right all along. Sometimes I go whole days without voluntarily creating extra noise (radio, Pandora, television, etc.) in my house. Sometimes, silence is too precious to squander.

8. Television

Like most of America, I enjoyed The Voice when it began airing this spring. But I could miss it if something better – a social event, a good book, a workout, or a quiet summer evening – came along. I refuse to miss more life because “my show” is on television.

9. Body Hair

I don’t understand the current obsession with hairlessness. Yes, I pluck the stray black wires that periodically grow out of my chin. I have my hair stylist wax both my eyebrows and upper lip. But if I forget these things, I don’t run screaming from the mirror yelling words like, “Gross!”  Body hair is just body hair – it IS nature, not an affront to nature.

10. What Ifs/Fear-Based Scenarios

I’d like to say I’m over these completely, but that would be a lie. However, I no longer frighten myself at night wondering what I would do if a rapist crashed through my window in the wee hours. I don’t tell myself a lot of scary stories that begin with the words, “What if…”, just as I am about to embark on a new activity or adventure. What I’ve discovered is that these thoughts act like a prophylactic, preventing a life pregnant with possibilities. In order to live fully, I’ve needed to cut way back on scaring myself with stories of doom.

10 Things I Find Myself Caring More About

1. Beauty

The experience of beauty opens the heart: to perception, clarity, healing. The human heart craves beauty, though we don’t often credit it as a need. In a poem published in 1911, James Oppenheim wrote of women seeking justice, crying out for bread but also for roses – and it is such an appropriate juxtaposition. The staff of life (bread) and the stuff of life (beauty=roses).

2. Health and Vigor

Things you take for granted in your youth, for $200, Alex!

3. Other People’s Children

My nephews, neices, godchildren and the many other children who feel like my neices and nephews. But also, the young adults I have had the pleasure to know and work with in my career in Student Affairs. When I was a young adult myself, I thought I would be “the fun aunt”, that I would have a lot of good advice to impart to my students. Time has shown that the reverse is true – other people’s children have enriched my life, have taught me so many lessons about life, love, and the importance of not taking the teachable moment too far. Thank you to the parents for sharing their children’s lives with me. And to the OPCs themselves: each of you remains in my heart.

4. Animals (and other species)

I am not a pet person. But I am learning to love and appreciate what animals and other species bring to the world around us, and I am learning to care deeply about their continued existence on our planet.

5. Wisdom

I used to pray for wisdom, as a teen. I always felt so stupid, I thought that if I was gifted with wisdom, I would suddenly feel more confident. What I am discovering as I age is that wisdom isn’t about feeling self-confident. It is about caring enough to self-reflect as a means of continuing to develop and grow into the person I was meant to be.

6. Trying New Things

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, that’s only true if the dog doesn’t want to do anything new. And I DO!

7. Honesty/Truth

Its probably not a good thing to admit, in writing, that I am a really good liar. Further, if I am being truly honest, I must admit that I have lied purposefully and often, and not only to myself. But here’s the rub: every time I deny the truth, or “pretty it up” in some way, I deny my own self. This cuts to the heart of why honesty is a virtue and so closely aligned with the concept of integrity. No integrated whole can wantonly deny its own parts. The older I get, the more life experience I accummulate, the more important honesty becomes as a personal value.

8. Compassion/Mercy

I am, and have always been, a really good reader. I can put myself square into a character’s psyche and emotional make-up with little effort. I used to think this was a sign that I excelled at compassion and empathy. Really, that was just fiction. True compassion, true mercy, requires a willingness to enter fully, as myself, into another person’s messy life.  I am just learning the depth of character true compassion requires. I hope, someday, to embody it myself.

9. Unconditional Love

“Human beings, like plants, grow in the soil of acceptance, not in the atmosphere of rejection” said John Powell, in his book titled Unconditional Love. I read the book my freshman year of college, as did many of my friends, and we bandied around the concept quite a lot. I can remember saying to people (wince), “I love you. Unconditionally.”  What a crock! At 19, I hadn’t the vaguest clue what that meant, and no pop-psych book was going to enlighten me. I had to learn what it means the old fashioned way – by torturing myself and others, by saying hurtful things and tearfully rescinding them, by seeing the worst in myself or another and then – joyfully – discovering that I still felt love. This loving unconditionally is no easy thing. I believe it is worth the effort to practice, though, in the hope of someday being really and truly good at it.

10. This Moment

I not only care more about this one, I am in love with this one! I used to live in the past or the future, anywhere but the here and now. When and how that changed is the story I’ve been telling in this blog. One of the best things about my life now is that I am living it right here, in this moment – and I am so grateful for the present.

50 about 50: On Food

If you have been reading this blog, or following me on Facebook, you have to know that I will be turning 50 at the end of this month. While I have made it a point to celebrate and enjoy my birthdays the past few years, I am not typically one to navel-gaze about each passing year (oh, I navel-gaze with the best of them, just not about that, generally speaking!). However, 50 feels different, in many ways. I can’t help thinking it is still too young to be the gateway to old age, but there is no denying that it is likely to be the metaphorical entrance into the second act of my life. In plays, the first act is usually longer than the second, and youth seems endless. Act I is followed by an intermission, kind of a rest period, which might be an apt description for your late 40s. Not quite your youth, but also not quite your elder years. Then: curtains up, Act II.

As I approach my birthday, I am taking-stock, thinking carefully about my life thus far and about the life I hope to live in the coming years. As a result, each Thursday blog post in July will be part of my “50 about 50” list. It won’t be a continuous list, but several lists. I have given thought as to how to organize these lists, how to share the discoveries I have made along the way, the seredipitous moments and the surprises that have contributed to who I am and what I value today. There are only 4 Thursdays in July, so one post will include a bonus list! To get started:

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Food

1.  Your tastes change over the course of a lifetime.

Ok, I’ve never been a picky eater, ask anyone. However, for many years of my life I lived without the joy of avocados. I tried them as a youngster, and did not care for them. By the time I got around to trying them again, they tasted like ambrosia. And that’s just the tip of the asparagus spear – there are many other foods that I have come to enjoy over time that I did not care for earlier in my life. It pays to be open to trying again. And sometimes again.

2.  What we know about foods and their nutritional value and physiological effects changes periodically.

So don’t completely give up anything you enjoy based on a current news report. Moderation in everything, as my former roommate Michelle Fouts was fond of saying.

3.  Food is a social justice issue.

For most of my life, I never thought about this. But even a few statistics can change your view on this if you really take them in. For example, in the U.S. in 2009, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (21.3 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (36.6 percent) or single men (27.8 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (24.9 percent) and Hispanic households (26.9 percent). In 2009, 7.8 percent of seniors living alone (884,000 households) were food insecure. (Statistics courtesy of Feeding America) And it goes deeper than the number of people who experience hunger. The social justice issues surrounding food also include issues related to obesity, alarming increases in diabetes, the unequal access to healthy, fresh food experienced by those in economically disadvantaged communities.

4. “Food addiction” as a term is an oxymoron.

We are all addicted to food. Can’t live without it. Figuring out how to live WITH it is the important thing!

5. Oatmeal is my delicious friend.

My folks weren’t oatmeal eaters. The first time I was served oatmeal was at Camp Little Cloud when I was approximately 9. It was a gelatinous pile of what tasted like salty paste. No way! This morning, I had instant oatmeal, maple flavored, with one tablespoon of creamy, all natural peanut butter. The first spoonful elicited an audible sound of delight from deep in my throat. Almost a purr really. In the past four years, I’ve made up for the dearth of oatmeal in my early life by eating it multiple times each week. It never lets me down. When Starbucks started selling oatmeal, and fittingly named theirs “Perfect Oatmeal”, it was a happy day in Jen-land.

5. Food is a sustainability concern.

Locavore. Organic. Community Supported Agriculture. Slow Food Movement. We’ve all heard these words. It is impossible to maintain a laissez-faire stance once one begins to educate oneself about the issues. Read Michael Pollan, watch a couple of the excellent documentary films that have been produced, attend your local farmer’s market. It isn’t even difficult anymore (for those of us lucky enough to have the resources) to become aware of and begin to change our choices in accordance with a more loving stance toward our earth. I have only taken a few tentative steps, but hope to continue further down this path.

6. Not enough poetry has been written about kale.

Or really, about any of the lesser greens, root vegetables, or legumes that middle-America gave up on in favor of Chef Boyardee and Hot Pockets. Discovering these oldies but goodies has totally enriched my diet. They may not be the most beautiful, but they are arguably some of the most soulful foods going.

8. Food can, and in my opinion should, be a total sensual experience.

Mike and I made dinner one night over the Memorial Day weekend. He asked me how I managed, with such delicious leftovers in the house, to avoid bingeing on them until they were gone. I took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh scents of ginger,thyme, hand-grated nutmeg and toasted coconut flakes. I looked at the profusion of bright colors in the salad bowl and on our plates. I thought about the variety of textures in the food we were about to eat. And the answer was easy – when your food satisfies all your senses, it also satifies your hunger at a very deep level. Whenever possible, meals should be sensually fulfilling experiences. There’s no need to overeat or binge when every sense is replete.

9. Cooking for (or with) and feeding loved ones is one of life’s greatest joys.

Unless you have to do it every day. In which case it is a drudgery. I discovered the joy part back in the late 80s when I first learned to bake bread. My two roommates, the Michelles, would come home and immediately devour the first loaf while I enjoyed their delight. It continues to be one of my favorite ways to express my love for others. The drudgery part, I’ve heard from nearly every mother/wife I know.

10. I like food. Food’s my favorite.

Enough said.

The Big Lonely

Avoidance and denial, my old friends. Back in the day, we hung together pretty tightly – in fact, we were what you might have called inseparable. I fed them all the emotions I preferred not to feel, and they shielded me from facing the harsher realities of my life. We made quite a team, living together inside the 352 pound flesh shell we built – soft, warm, protective.

Looking back, I know we weren’t exactly happy. But most days we felt like we could face whatever came our way. Or deflect it without much emotional impact. My friends would say, “I’m lonely,” or “I just wish I could meet someone”, and we would respond, “Why dwell on it? You can’t change it, and it only makes you unhappy.”

Man, have times changed. I kicked Avoidance out somewhere around 280 pounds, and Denial, while more tenacious, left shortly thereafter. For the most part, I haven’t missed them. My life has, in virtually every way, been so much lighter (brighter, less weighty, happier) without them. Oh, they visit briefly, from time to time, but its much easier to say goodbye each time. We just don’t have that much in common anymore. Breaking up was hard to do, but I don’t miss them as my BFFs.

Well, except in one way. These days, I’m feeling my feelings. Something that I never really had to do before if I chose not to – Avoidance and Denial (and the protective layer of 138 pounds I don’t carry now) took care of that for me. I’ve alluded to this in previous blog posts, mostly as one item in a list, or as something that I was acknowledging but didn’t want to get into. But here’s the honest truth: I have never felt this lonely.

How strange to say that at this point in my life. After all, I am – truly – happier than I have ever been. I have better, more fulfilling, relationships than I ever expected. My family and friends are with me, daily, enriching every experience and showering me with love and blessings. From the midst of this embarrassment of riches, I feel like an ungrateful or spoiled child to admit that I am still lonely. And yet, there it is.

Many times, I have refrained from talking about this, because I don’t want to appear pathetic, or upset my friends, or worst of all become a broken record on this point. Talking about my loneliness makes those who love me uncomfortable, because they can’t fix it. Instead, they try to cheer me up with stories about those who found a soulmate when they least expected, or by sharing their belief that one is waiting just around the bend for me, or by urging me to turn my eyes and heart to God.

Let me tell you this, so I can get it off my chest once and for all: I will be 50 years old this summer. I have never been part of a couple (not in the sense of two people who live together and make decisions together). Certainly I have given and received love, but never at the level of true intimacy which requires full participation and commitment from both people. And I have wanted this. Even when Avoidance and Denial helped me to hold the longing in check, and hide the depth of my loneliness from others (and, to a certain extent, from myself). So there is a reservoir of emotion which grew wide and deep all those years I had it dammed up. Without my old BFFs, I am swimming in it.  And for crying out loud, don’t bring up God right now, because the anger I’m not directing at myself is being quite forcefully directed at him. Right or wrong, that’s how I feel.

And there you have it. Once you stop denying that you have feelings, and start feeling your emotions, you feel them all. You don’t get to pick and choose. And the truth is, its really ok, even experiencing “The Big Lonely”, or deep anger. In one song, Lady Antebellum sings, “I guess I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” I would amend that to “I guess I’d rather feel it all than feel nothing.”  And feeling my own anger or loneliness is a small price to pay for also feeling the joy that I sometimes experience with those I love – or for the contentment that mostly suffuses my days.

Joy and Contentment – way better BFFs than Avoidance and Denial, at any price.

64,288 (give or take)

Wednesday. May 18, 2011. 5:34 a.m. My alarm had been ringing for four minutes before I woke at its insistence. I got up, feeling like a tub of something 72 hours past its use-by date. I was too tired to pee, so I got dressed first, then went in search of the bathroom. After vainly attempting to locate the light switch, I decided I could brush my teeth without looking at them. By 5:54 I was out the door, in my car, pencilled street directions in hand.

Trying to follow detour signs through the Loop in Chicago is an exercise in futility. There is one sign, telling you of the detour. Once you’ve followed that one instruction, the detour pretty much becomes DIY. Luckily, 6 a.m. downtown is not a heavy traffic time. Also, I have a pretty good sense of direction. I eventually found I-290 W and headed home in earnest.

It was raining. Morning rush hour was in full swing on the expressway. My brain was alert and fully occupied through the bottleneck that begins at Austin and ends just past Harlem (every/any day, every/any time, including Sunday afternoons). Eventually, though, the traffic thinned. I paid my first tolls, and I was out of the city. Another 3 hours of driving with the monotonous swish swish swish of the wipers. Unrelenting gray. And eyes that burned with the desire to close.

To keep myself awake, I began replaying the previous night in my head, attempting to reconstruct it from the moment Oprah drove past in the back seat of a taxi (filming the 25,000 people, mostly women, waiting to enter the United Center for her tribute show). In order. There were so many stars, so many video clips, so many images. I couldn’t timeline it. And that’s when the number at the title of this post came to me. It may not be the exact number -though I think it is at least very close. (I was not taking notes.)

64,288. This is the number of people who have received an education because of Oprah. (They didn’t have footnotes explaining how they determined this number, so for once, let’s agree to take it on faith that the number is accurate.)

64,288. I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people that is. How can one person have made such an important difference in so many lives? During one segment of the show, Oprah Winfrey Scholarship winners from Morehouse College filled, and overflowed, the stage. When Oprah joined them, they mobbed her, with hugs and thank you’s. That might have been my favorite moment of the night.

As I drove, I was thinking that these 64,288 people could change everything. I could see the assistance that came from Oprah as the catalyst, like a stone dropped in the middle of a still pond. The first ripple, the lives directly affected by her generosity. The second, the way those lives changed course and affected their families, friends, communities. The ripples, and the number of people affected, could grow exponentially, moving outward into larger and larger circles of influence.

And then I started mentally following the ripples back inward, toward the center. From 64,288 back to one. The still point at the center: one person. OK, so it was Oprah, not exactly your ordinary individual.

Still. I am one person, too. I can be that point from which change ripples outward into the world, if I choose. What would that look like, coming from very ordinary me? One thing I know for sure, to borrow Oprah’s phrase, is that it wouldn’t happen accidentally. Creating real change in the world – whether it is generating a greater atmosphere of kindness, educating the masses, building wells so that whole communities have clean water, or ending hunger – real change doesn’t happen without both intent and action. It isn’t accidental.

And this, my friends, is what kept me awake on the drive home, the morning following the Oprah tribute show. Not remembering the amazing celebrities or their incredible performances, though that was truly an unforgettable experience. Instead, remembering the 64,288.

I am one person. What will I do to change the world for the better?

(note: Thanks to my sister Anne for giving me the ticket to the show! It was a wonderful experience, sis! I love you!)

…Changing the Dream (part 2 of 2)

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

–MLK Jr.

 

When I was in graduate school, we used a visualization activity called “The Perfect Future Day Fantasy”, in which we were to imagine ourselves waking up on a “perfect” weekday 10 years into our future. I specifically remember processing this activity with a group of fellow students, when one friend said that, in his perfect day, he was presiding over negotiations to reunify Germany. We all laughed at him, saying “As if…that will never happen.” That was 1987. By the end of 1990, German reunification was a reality.

In the “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream” symposium, the module which discusses “What is possible for the future”, asks us to shift our perspective from what is probable to what is possible. We live in a cynical world (did I really just quote Jerry McGuire?!). A world in which many of us look at the enormous issues confronting us and decide they are so over-arching, so all-encompassing, that we can do nothing…and we therefore continue in our comfortable dream world.

And yet. Apartheid ended. Change is sweeping through the Middle East. Millions of people the world over are participating in organizations and movements to make justice, sustainability, spiritual fulfillment real in the world in new and creative ways. Just a few who have inspired me: Emmanuel Jal, Curt Ellis and Food Corps, Annie Leonard, and so many others. Each of these individuals has taken their unique talents and skills and employed them in service to justice and creating a different dream for the world. And I am heartened to know there are millions of others, whose names and faces I may never know, but whose voices are represented by an activist in the symposium video module who says, “We didn’t believe we could change anything, but we did it anyway.”

Inspiration is important. It needs to translate into action in order for me to be part of co-creating a new dream for our world (a universal Perfect Future Day Fantasy!). But what can I do? I’ve thought about this long and hard in the week since attending the symposium. First, I can talk – that’s something I’m good at! – and write about what is in my heart. Second, I can start with the environments I am already a part of. For example, on Thursday, the symposium attendees from my university met for lunch to discuss an action plan to bring the symposium, and active outgrowths from it, to our campus community. I can evaluate the corporations with which I do business, and make a conscious effort to support those who use a “triple bottom line – people, planet, profit”. Because food and hunger are issues which are already important to me, I can recommit myself to work on these with my time, talents, and treasure.

It would be overwhelming if we looked at all that needs to be done and thought that we, personally, needed to do it all. Heck, even thinking that we need to do something big, make one grand gesture, is an overwhelming idea. What I am discovering, though, is that each of us has within us the ability to make a difference. If we stop thinking it needs to be a difference that the whole world will see and recognize, and instead think of it as a difference that changes our hearts and touches at least one other, it becomes much less daunting. Do I really think that will change where the earth is headed? You bet I do. And I am far from alone in that:

“It is a moral universe despite all appearances to the contrary.”

–Desmond Tutu

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit.”

–Wilma Rudolph



Flashback Friday

In this photo:  Jeff and Gwen

There were a couple of times each year all six children were dressed up and forced to pose for photos: Christmas and, as above, Easter.  Both Jeff and Wendy are dressed in their Easter finery (I am certain Wendy’s dress was made by my mother, Shirley). I know it is a holiday because, in addition to the clothes, Wendy’s hair has been pin-curled.  These details are all part of the charm of this photo for me. However, it must be clear to everyone looking at the picture, that the real reason I love it is the look of mutual adoration being shared between these two. Jeff is the protective and loving big brother to Wendy’s trusting little sister. Regardless of any changes their relationship may have undergone as the years passed, there can be no doubt that they loved each other!