Meinrad Craighead and The Magic of Synchronicity

11 09 2014

“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”   — Charles De Lint

“Memory”, Meinrad Craighead

I read a statement by a cyclist somewhere, recently, that claimed one of the best reasons for riding was that while doing so the mind has free range to wander where it will. And sometimes, in that wandering, it takes one someplace wholly unexpected. One beautiful afternoon last week, as I rode along the bike lane on Portland Avenue, just as I crossed the heavily trafficked Lake Street, I became aware of my own wandering thoughts. Aware that I had been in an almost meditative state, allowing thoughts and images to float into and back out of my mind without comment, without judgement.

Oftentimes, once you become aware of that semi-meditative or flow state, it’s over. Your very attention to it brings you out of that moment, carries you back into self-consciousness. Occasionally, though, something different happens and you, instead, find yourself in a state of heightened awareness. I felt myself entering that state of hyper-awareness – I felt my tires connecting with the road, the warmth of sun on shoulders, the scent of freshly mown grass in my nostrils. The traffic noises receded, and I could hear only the blood in my veins and my own breath.

That’s when Meinrad Craighead popped into my thoughts.

At a time in my life when I was open to new ways of thinking, I happened to pick up a book called “Seekers of Wisdom: Women Mystics of the 20th Century” by Anne Bancroft. The book profiled a number of spiritual seekers; their lives and words had a profound effect on my own thinking and worldview. The chapter about Meinrad Craighead struck me as particularly powerful. In it, Craighead shared a story about experiencing (as a child) something very like what I felt that afternoon on my bike. ” I held the dog’s head, stroking her into sleep. But she held my gaze. As I looked into her eyes I realized that I would never travel further than into this animal’s eyes. At this particular moment I was allowed to see infinity through my dog’s eyes, and I was old enough to know that.”

As I read Craighead’s story, punctuated with long quotations from her own writings, I found myself drawn to her discussion of the feminine face of God, to her view of our lives. “Life,” she said, “is radically more than the experiences of a lifetime, it is an invitation to a journey back to our origin in God, and our own personal memories form the unique stuff of that quest.” An artist, Craighead became known for her dreamlike imagery and mystical themes of the Divine Feminine. At one point in the chapter, it was mentioned that she had attended an all-women’s Catholic college. I had attended a previously all-women’s Catholic college and remember having the passing thought that it would be cool if we shared an alma mater. It was a fleeting thought, and it soon passed out of my consciousness, though Craighead’s words remained with me.

A few weeks later, I received an invitation to a special series of events on my college’s campus celebrating the anniversary of its founding. Headline billing was given to world-renown artist and alumna, Meinrad Craighead. I was stunned – I’d never even heard of this woman until that spring. And once I had, I certainly did not expect the possibility of meeting her to arise. I was beyond excited, and I made plans to attend her guest lecture and the opening of her retrospective art exhibit on the campus in my hometown. I had never seen any of her paintings – this all took place early in the development of the internet, and a great deal of information was simply not yet available to the world. Meinrad Craighead’s lecture – part explication of her theological and mystical beliefs and part treatise on how these informed her work as an artist, was truly mind-blowing. Slides of her work appeared on huge screens as she discussed each piece. Each one was beautiful, deeply symbolic, and epic in scale.

My head swimming with the ideas she presented, I left the lecture hall and went immediately to the gallery where her work was on display. There I discovered, much to my surprise, that most of Craighead’s paintings were quite small. Their amazing use of color and the degree of detail took on new significance as I realized the discipline exercised in working on such a diminutive scale when the subject matter was infinity itself.

That there was more than mere chance involved in the timing of these events I have never doubted. The encounter with Craighead, through her words, her work and her presence, has continued to inform my own beliefs and perspectives. This was synchronicity in its truest sense – meaningful coincidence, rather than random happenstance.

As I rode my bike, I looked in front of my tire and saw the white painted lines which delineated the bike lane stretching straight ahead of me to the horizon. And in that moment, I realized that I was riding not only toward the Minnehaha Creek path but also into my own future. Every experience I’ve had has propelled me toward this moment – just as this moment adds strength to the forward momentum of my life. I haven’t yet become the person I am meant to be precisely because that person is the culmination of a life’s activities and experiences. As surely as Craighead saw infinity in the eyes of her dog, I saw it stretching before me in the bike lane.

“At the source of our deepest self is a mysterious unknown ever eluding our grasp. We can never possess it except as that mystery which keeps at a distance. The heart’s quest is toward this unknown. There is no respite in the task of getting beyond the point we have already reached because the Spirit stands further on. She stands at the end of every road we may wish to travel by…We never ‘catch up with’ who we fundamentally are.” — Meinrad Craighead

 

NOTE: Please check out Craighead’s website http://www.meinradcraighead.com so you can see her work. Adding to the touch points between us, I learned that Craighead is a resident of the bosque in Albuquerque, New Mexico – one of my favorite places and certainly influential to her work and both our lives!

 

 

 





Expectancy

12 12 2013

December always carries a sense of expectancy, of waiting with bated breath, for something magical or wondrous to occur.

For me, of course, the season of Advent and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus is the traditional source of this sense of something about to happen. Some years, however, it is amplified by the anticipated arrival of new life – in 1987 my godson Nile was born on Christmas Eve, and this year my dear friends Sara and Molly are both due any minute.

The stories of my friendships with these three mothers, in some ways, tell the story of my life. Nile’s mom, C., was my comrade throughout graduate school; Sara was my student during the amazing first years of my career in Residence Life; and Molly was my peer, colleague, and collaborator in the time of hectic institutional change at the college. All three of them have impacted the person I am today in ways too numerous to list. And each has approached motherhood and childbirth differently. For someone who has never been a parent, the privilege to wait beside women I love and respect has been a gift.

C. told me the story of Nile’s conception, shared poems she wrote throughout her pregnancy (“I waited like an egg, already feeling the first inner stirrings”), read snippets of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” aloud as we sat in her trailer home, shivering in the cold of early winter. For C., pregnancy and birth were mystical and sacred processes, albeit natural. When Nile was born, he and I shared an immediate and profound adoration for one another. I learned second-hand the trials and tribulations of breast feeding while a Ph.D. candidate, the anguish of a baby suffering from a difficult to diagnose health problem; eventually, the horrible experience of a baby having surgery and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. There were many, many moments of inexplicable joy, and some of sorrow, shared between us throughout Nile’s early years. Sadly, C. and I drifted apart, both of us caught up in careers and lives that left very little free time or leisure to visit.

When Sara was a student, we often stayed up late talking on the purple couch in my apartment – or on a midnight run to Perkins (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?). Sara was a student of amazing promise, yet always claimed she wasn’t. She said, often, “I just want to get married and have a passel of kids!” or “I know I’m meant to be a mom.” Sara was a Resident Assistant, probably the best one that ever worked for me. Sara was and is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met. After she graduated, Sara refused to let go of me. She taught me, by example, what it means to be a steadfast and loyal friend. The child we are so happily awaiting this week is number four for Sara – and she was so right – she was meant to be a mom! Pregnancy appears to strengthen Sara’s aura of competence and self-assurance. She has often told me that two days in the hospital are like a mini-resort vacation.

As an only child, Molly worried that being a mom wouldn’t come naturally to her. All of her women friends, including me, tried to reassure her that she would be great. Still, she doubted. Her first child, my goddaughter Kate, is adorable and smart and observant – just like her mom. Molly presents herself as pragmatic and analytical and a realist. And she is all of these. But her hidden trait, the thing you don’t realize until you know her well, is that Molly is all heart. A trait Kate also inherited (for a while, taking Kate out in public was an exercise in empathy – she saw/heard every child in tears wherever we were, and it distressed her terribly. “Baby crying”, she would say, with a tremble in her voice and a furrowed brow.)  “Sister Baby” as Kate calls her, has some pretty spectacular women in her life, eagerly awaiting her appearance.

Me, with Abby (Sara's) and holding Kate (Molly's), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Me, with Abby (Sara’s) and holding Kate (Molly’s), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Each of these friends has offered me different gifts: tough love, gentle support, unwavering loyalty. The women and mothers they are have been mirrors in which I have been able to view myself clearly, helping me to grow in so many ways. As each has accorded me the honor of being part of her children’s lives, I have had to strive to learn how to be my best self.

Approaching Christmas, we are often told to focus on the “reason for the season”. This year, in particular, I find myself thinking of Mary. Mary’s life and pregnancy, like those of the mothers I know, wasn’t easy. Nor was her childbirth guaranteed to be painless. Yet, she not only accepted but embraced motherhood, opening her life and the life of her child to be shared by us all, through many generations. I am trying not to focus on the material accoutrements of the holiday and, instead, to train my gaze upon a humble birth. I hope to keep my attitude toward this humble birth – toward all humble births – one of wonder, of gratitude and of joy.

Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning…

—Sofia Lyon Fahs

(Notes: An excerpt from this poem was used in Nile’s birth announcement. There are many other parents, mothers and fathers, to whom I am grateful for the incredible privilege of sharing their children’s lives – you, too, are in my heart this Advent season!)





Learning Not to Kill the Magic

11 07 2013

On my recent visit to New Mexico, my parents and I drove to the Jemez State Monument. The drive from their home in Rio Rancho to the monument is gorgeous. As we passed one of several pueblos my father recalled stopping there once. He told the following story about that brief visit:

“We stopped at the visitor center, and there was this kid working there. He asked us where we were from, and I told him, ‘Rio Rancho now, but originally from Iowa.’ He said he hadn’t been many places, but he’d had the chance to visit Iowa the previous summer. Then he said, ‘And I saw something magical there. Something I thought only existed in books or movies – I honestly didn’t believe they were real.’ And you know what he was talking about? Fireflies! Course, it’s too dry down here for lightening bugs. Just imagine what that would be like – dusk on a June night in Iowa – if you’d never seen them before. No wonder he thought it was magic!”

A couple of weeks later, I was enjoying an incredible June dusk on the back patio of my friends, the Dennis’, in Iowa. As the fireflies began to light up the yard, I was remembering that conversation just as I heard a loud SMACK and the words, “Got it!” from one of the Dennis girls. In dismay, I asked why she killed the firefly, and her answer was, “I don’t like them.” A few minutes later, her sister joined us and the entire process was repeated – another lightning bug dispatched to a violent, early grave. At that point, I couldn’t refrain from sharing with them the whole story about the pueblo kid who saw something special in the insect’s beauty. I concluded my morality tale with the line, “Don’t you see? When you killed those creatures, you were killing the magic. Is that really what you want to do?” Two pairs of shoulders lifted in identical shrugs.

Heavy sigh.

Fast forward another week, to the Fourth of July. Minneapolis, MN. To celebrate my first holiday as a Minneapolitan, my friend Mike and I spent the entire day on our bikes exploring the city: Lake of the Isles, Sculpture Garden, Loring Park and Greenway, Nicolett Mall, St. Anthony Main, Gold Medal Park, the Guthrie, Boom Island, University of Minnesota campus.

Strange mirrored reflections in window, on the Endless Bridge, The Guthrie Theater

Strange mirrored reflections in window, on the Endless Bridge, The Guthrie Theater

Late afternoon found us back on St. Anthony Main, thirsty and just a tad hungry. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant, with perfect seats to watch the crowd already gathering to stake out their fireworks-watching spots, though it was just striking 5:00 p.m. The server brought our menus, including the daily specials sheet, and Mike remarked that the flatbread on the normal menu looked good. I mentioned that there was another flatbread on the specials menu, to which Mike replied, “I saw it. Not interested, too complicated, too many ingredients.”

Now, I didn’t really care or have a stake in what Mike ordered for dinner. So there was no point in my follow-up to him, in which I pointed out that there were the same number of ingredients in both flatbreads. What I was trying to say, but not managing to spit out, was that the description of the special was more complicated and flowery, but that the actual ingredients were pretty basic. It completely came across as argumentative. Truly, it didn’t matter, yet I couldn’t seem to drop the subject, which quickly became (justifiably so) irritating to my companion. When I finally did stop talking, Mike and I sat in silence for a few minutes.

And that’s when I realized that there are lots of ways to kill magic. If our fun and easy 4th of July companionship had been a little bug with a phosphorescent butt, I would have just smashed it – but good! And while this moment was a very minor example (Mike was gracious enough to let it go and we were both able to enjoy our fish tacos), it is indicative of something I believe we all do, namely: failing to appreciate wonder when it occurs, so that we end up squashing it.

Sometimes it’s an issue of perspective. Like the Dennis girls, for whom fireflies have always been around, familiarity breeds contempt, or indifference. Someone for whom that thing, be it an insect, an experience, an emotion, is unusual or extraordinary is often more open to the wonder or magic of it. This is also true in relationships. Think about being a teenager and hearing someone say something complimentary about your parent(s) – shocking! Or when a new friend reminds you of a special quality in an old friend whom you’ve “gotten used to” and you suddenly realize you’ve taken that friend’s amazing quality for granted. The trick is to find ways to see things with new eyes, to keep refreshing your perspective. I never want to forget the wonder of bicycling, for example – how much I love that feeling of riding, of moving fast under my own steam, my body keeping a stick of metal attached to two wheels upright in an act that completely defies gravity. But training for endurance events, like RAGBRAI, can make the experience feel like a chore, rather than a joy. So I do my best to change things up, take new routes and trails – or like last night, jump on the chance to head out for a night ride (which is a completely different animal than daytime rides). Obviously, this would be impossible to do with everything in our lives. Keeping perspective fresh on household chores, or grocery shopping, may not be possible or even worth the effort. But something as amazing as little insects twinkling and sparkling in your backyard on a perfect June night – definitely worth a little effort to keep the magic alive.

IMG_3140

While biking across the Stone Arch Bridge, I stopped for a fresh perspective.

At other times, though, it isn’t an issue of perspective, it’s one of awareness. It seems so often in life that I am caught up in my own inner dialogue instead of the moment in which I am living. I think of it as PMAD: Present Moment Awareness Deficit. Last week, I went to my first Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. I stubbed my toe tripping up the stairs and fell forward (luckily, not spilling much of my cold beer). By the time we had found and climbed to our seats, I was no longer in the stadium, I was in “Jenland” and my stream of consciousness went something like this:  “I’m bleeding! I can’t believe I am bleeding. All over my sandal. The night is ruined. I’m bleeding, I smell like beer, I’m sweating, the kid behind me better stop kicking my seat, I wish I had worn something else, I hate my hair…” You get the picture – my body was sitting in an amazing location, with the Minneapolis skyline spread before me, but my head was literally not in the game. And social media contributes greatly to PMAD – it’s hard to notice the moment you’re having when you’re conversing via text and checking facebook statuses with/of people who aren’t in that same moment. Wonder and magic could be exploding like fireworks all around you, and you might miss it completely.

Great view, from Target Field

Great view, from Target Field

Looking back, this is what I regret most – the times I realized, too late, that marvelous, mystical, enchanting things were happening all around me and I was too busy being mentally snarky to notice or fully engage with them. Over time, I’ve been learning to recognize the signs of PMAD in myself and I’ve picked up a great technique to counteract it. I tell my muscles to relax, tell my lungs to breathe deeply, and tell my inner chatterbox to shut the hell up at least until I’ve relaxed and breathed. Usually, that gets me back into the moment – as long as I recognize that I’m experiencing a PMAD episode to begin with. (This technique worked beautifully at the Twins game, by the way! What a great night that turned out to be – including actual fireworks!)

One of my favorite Roald Dahl, a man who understood how to appreciate the magic in life (or at least how to get it down on paper), quotes says “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whether I’m experiencing a stale, “blasé, blasé” perspective, or having a PMAD incident, I always hope to find my way back to watching with glittering eyes as the magic of this one, precious life unfolds around me. Unless I see it, I can’t fully experience it. And I think I’ve killed enough magic for one lifetime.

Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013

Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013





Wish it. Will it. Do it.

28 02 2013
“…you will sooner or later experience something almost magical: the moment when your mind, led by your sense of yearning, embraces the next step toward the best life you are capable of living. This is the moment when desire stops being just a story about what might happen and becomes a template of what will happen; the moment when “I wish” becomes “I will.”
          — Martha Beck “The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life”
 

Earlier this week, I read a post over at “-200”, which made me cry. The post, titled “A life for my birthday”, shares Ben’s story of living in the depths of despair before deciding that instead of taking his own life, he would take action in his own life. I was moved by Ben’s honesty and depth of feeling, and by the fact that I recognized  Ben’s story as my own: different in particulars (of course), but very similar in essentials. (Thanks to April Hageman for sharing Ben’s blog with me!)

I can’t point to one moment. But I can point to a series of moments – and some very powerful experiences of intervention and grace – which led me to that magical point where “I wish” became “I will”…

…I will lose weight…

…I will make exercise a habit…

…I will learn how to eat healthy, whole, nourishing food…

…I will LIVE my life, not just wait it out.

The thing I didn’t realize, that I am still striving to learn in a visceral way every day, is that this particular magic will spur a person on to wishes they didn’t dare allow themselves before. And you’ll want to take these new desires and turn them into action too.

Wishful thinking. I know only too well the ways it can be a trap – it kept me sedentary and daydreaming my way through life for decades.

But wishful thinking can also be a catalyst once you’ve learned the trick of turning that desire into intention, and intention into action. Like all tricks worth knowing, you will have to talk yourself through it again and again (because practice is the only thing that perfects the technique). There are three simple steps:

1. Wish it.

2. Will it.

3. Do it.

Simple, I say. But not usually easy.

Joyful, but sometimes also painful.

Magic — as in “unfolding in wonder and awe”, not as in wand-waving incantations and instantaneous transfiguration. Practical, hard-won, life-changing magic. If Ben and I can do it, so can you.

Let your desire become intention.





Repository of Memory

1 03 2012

I sometimes astound my friends with stories about my childhood – their surprise generally surrounds either the fact that my five siblings and I never killed anyone or the concept that I was allowed to go places without my parents. Yes, friends, I am that old – I grew up in a time when no one was worried about children being snatched.

We lived, back then, in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River and the flat valley it had carved into the landscape. The downtown, and many places of significance in my childhood, were located in those flats. Most forays both within and outside of my neighborhood involved negotiating either steep streets or flights of endless stairs carved into the bluffside.

Two blocks from my house, at a point where the street turned a corner and opened into a spectacular view of the city and river below, there stood a curious handrail. In the street itself, surrounding a hole in the pavement. As one approached closer to the hole, stairs could be seen, disappearing under a graceful arch of carved limestone blocks. At the bottom of those stairs, a walker was forced to navigate about half a block of very steep sidewalk, often broken and littered with glass, before reaching flat land. Positioned exactly there, an immense and imposing edifice became one of the happiest locations of my childhood.

The Carnegie-Stout Public Library. (click to see an old postcard of the edifice)

I can remember my mom coaching me the first time I was allowed to go to the library by myself. I was never very confident doing things on my own, so it is a measure of my desire that I was unwilling to wait for a parent or siblings to make the trip. Down through the hole in the street I went, taking my time on the stairs and the steep sidewalk (if I remember correctly, mom was watching from the street above, and I wanted to prove my maturity by not running and, inevitably, falling.)

I always chose the grand main entrance, though the side door led directly to my final destination. However, I loved those broad stairs, colonnades, and the stone lions guarding the massive wood doors. Inside, the reading rooms flanking the main hall, beckoned. One had comfy, overstuffed leather furniture, the other library tables with reading lamps. But I was afraid of the serious old men in these rooms, perusing their big city newpapers, so I generally passed through quickly. I always visited the adult literature section, not because I wanted to check out the books, but because of the winding iron staircase leading to the glass-floored loft in that section. I loved the surprise of the glass floor, the tall black stacks full of books, the iron railings which allowed a view of the open main floor and its lofty ceilings from a higher vantage point.

The second floor was not officially off-limits, but it was filled with offices and meeting rooms. Adults I didn’t know always asked if they could help me, and I got the impression from their tones that children weren’t completely welcome on that level. Typically, I scampered back down the marble stairs fairly quickly. Straight down to the basement where, as far as I was concerned, the real magic happened: the children’s room.

The room was bright, if shabby, and full of stories waiting for me to discover them. The librarians knew me, and knew what would interest me: at first, stories about pixies and fairies; then chapter books about families like “The Five Little Peppers”. Eventually, books and authors I could sink my teeth into. Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. Any- and every- thing ever written by Louisa May Alcott.

As a child, I had many fancies about my world: our yard, our neighborhood, our town. This helped to make the world feel intimate and comfortable. As I grew older, I realized that the world was huge and not particularly cozy. Its vastness began to frighten me. When I discovered reading, particularly novels, I found that there was another, equally vast, world inside my own imagination. In this vastness, whether the setting was familiar or alien, I was always safe – if sometimes challenged to be more or think more deeply and broadly than before.

Sometime after I left home, the library built and addition and moved all the public spaces into it, closing off the original grand library (turning it into offices and storage rooms). I was incensed by this. Recently, though, the library underwent a renovation. I had an opportunity to visit, and was pleased to see that, in the renovation, someone had cared enough to upgrade while paying homage to the original detail. It isn’t the same, but it evokes similar feeling. The children’s room, in its traditional space in the basement, is bright and interactive. Perhaps today’s children will find magic there, just as I once did. I hope so.

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

Friends: I would like to invite any of you who may be interested to submit a guest post to Jenion. Guest posts are a great way to test the blogging waters (for those who’ve wanted to blog but are unsure of the commitment) or, if you already have a blog, to share something that doesn’t fit your own blog’s theme. Here at Jenion, its all about aha moments, personal transformation and/or growth, weight loss, emotional development. Honesty and humor are both welcome! If you have a story along these lines you’d like to share, please email or write a reply to this post and we’ll “talk”!





50 about 50: Books

21 07 2011
“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!





…Changing the Dream (part 2 of 2)

13 04 2011

“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