outward thrust of joy

21 07 2016

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.

Advertisements




This is NO Time to be Un-Iowan

19 11 2015

When I was a child, I had a recurrent nightmare in which I was on a deserted country road, at the bottom of a long hill. As I looked ahead of me, toward the top of the hill, A Very Terrible Thing would appear. As the Thing (a giant, a tornado, a car full of bad men) crested the hill, I was overcome with panic. My mind (and my pulse) raced, attempting to find some way to elude the Thing. But there was no place to hide and I could not, I knew instinctively, outrun the Terrible Thing. I would wake from this dream breathless, sweating, my heart pounding furiously in my chest.

This week, my waking hours – and I’ll wager many of yours – feel like we’re collectively in the grip of this terror. We’re frantically searching for a way to be safe from the Very Terrible Things that have appeared, not in our dreams, but on our very real horizons.

It didn’t take long for the shock and sadness at the lives lost in Paris on Friday night to morph into angry, hate- and fear- based tirades. So on Sunday, I decided to get outside, to just stop watching the news coverage and following the social media sideshow. I got on my bike and rode around a mostly deserted city. Not far from where I live, I noticed a roadside sign pointing me toward a local Cedar Rapids landmark, so I followed it.

A few minutes later I arrived at the Mother Mosque of America, the longest standing mosque in North America – right here in Cedar Rapids! Iowa welcomed its first Muslim immigrants in 1885, I learned (though the mosque was built in 1934). It is a small building, with a mediterranean-blue dome. It gave me pause to think about the many ways the state of Iowa has, throughout its history, stood for what was right over what was popular:

  • in 1851 the Iowa legislature passed a law allowing the Meskwaki tribe to purchase land, a very unusual act among states of the time;
  • also in 1851 we were the second state to legalize interracial marriage;
  • in 1857 the University of Iowa was the first state university in the nation to open its degree programs to women;
  • 1867 saw Iowa outlaw segregated schools;
  • in 1869, Iowa became the first state to allow women to join the bar;
  • in 1934 the Mother Mosque was established;
  • 2007 we became the second state to allow full marriage equality.

One of the things people outside of Iowa don’t often realize is just how progressive we can be. But even in Iowa, change is rarely accomplished without fear – without real and/or conceived negative possibilities. That afternoon, I took comfort in the number of times my home state of Iowa has managed to set aside fear in favor of people.

Only a day or so later, Governor Terry Branstad joined thirty plus other governors in stating that Iowa refuses to accept Syrian refugees. But here in Cedar Rapids, where Syrian families have successfully settled for more than a century, this strikes me as a very un-Iowan stance – I’ll leave it to the many other commentators to say whether it is unChristian and/or unAmerican.

People of good faith can disagree about the right course of action to pursue, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, I do know that refusing to help people in need because we are afraid is not the right choice. My own faith and worldview tell me that protecting myself, my family, my friends, my goods,  should never be confused with the Highest Good.

Let’s make no mistake: this is one of those historic times when the highest good lies in the balance. Our history as humans is rife with examples of both those moments when we chose to shelter and protect, to stand up for what was right, and those times when we closed ourselves to the world’s great need out of fear. (If you can’t cite examples, you haven’t been on social media this week!) There’s a reason that, when we look back, some of those choices are lauded and celebrated while others are decried as shameful.

In history class, or on memorial occasions, we vow “Never again” to the shame. We say, “How could those people have done that?”  We say, “I would never…” But here, in THIS moment, even as our hearts whisper that we should rise to the occasion, the fear is real and really hard to conquer. Very Bad Things are out there, the evidence cannot be ignored. However, even in my nightmares, the answer is never to become a Bad Thing myself in response.

So today my response is to argue for openness. To argue that the highest good is the common good – encompassing all people, not only those who share my national or geographic or racial or religious designations. I choose people over fear. I have to say, regardless of our governor’s stance, I think that’s the Iowa way.

 

Poem Of The One World – Mary Oliver
.
This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite, beautiful, myself.





Finite Math

13 08 2015

At 5:15 a.m. my neighbor begins making breakfast. A strange trick of acoustics in this building means that, in my upstairs bedroom, I hear every rattle and bang in their downstairs kitchen. I roll over and attempt a return to slumber.

Some days, that works. Some days I stretch my sleep-sore muscles and fall gracefully, gratefully back asleep. But not today. Today, I stretch and wonder about that heaviness in my leg – is it a sign? Should I see the doctor? From there, the worries and anxieties held at bay while I sleep come marching forward, a neurotic, necrotic parade.

Knowing sleep will not return at this point, I get up. In my kitchen, I begin the morning ritual of making my double shot Americano. Add hot water and the finely ground espresso becomes the rich loamy soil in which I will plant a new day. Whether it will be a good day, productive and interactive – or not- is often determined in this moment.

My friend Wendy has spent the last seventeen years telling her children that they have a choice – if you don’t like how you feel in this moment, choose to feel differently. Happiness isn’t a destination, its a choice you make in every moment of action or reaction. I watch her girls, all teenagers now, and see them apply this choice. It is like the sun emerging from clouds, that moment.

This morning, as I sip my coffee, it feels like a herculean task, that reframing of mindset. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I turn on my computer, and find Parker Palmer’s weekly “On Being” blog post, this week called “Poetry as Sacrament: Disentangling from the Darkness”, in which he meditates beautifully on Mary Oliver’s poem “Landscape”:

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.

So far, I think (using the calculator function on my phone) that is 19,726 mornings. I google the question, “How many decisions per day?” and read:

According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000.

690,410,000 decisions and counting. My first thought is “No wonder I don’t want to decide where to have dinner or what book to read for book club.” I think of texting my younger friends and letting them know they haven’t used theirs up yet, so from now on they must choose – my decider is worn out from overuse.

My next thought, “How many of those ‘remotely conscious decisions’ were good ones? How many were ‘the right’ ones?” No function on my smartphone could ever calculate that number. This I know: it falls somewhere between 1 and 690,410,000.

That’s as far as math will take me; there’s no point in attempting to calculate the incalculable. There’s no point in lingering over that parade of worries that began its march through my head while I was still in bed this morning. Of the approximately 35,000 decisions I will make today, some will be good ones. Some will not. Mistakes will happen. Anxiety in advance and obsessive second-guessing afterwards won’t change that reality.

Like Wendy’s girls, I have a choice. I can hold the doors of my heart open so that my choices can be made from the place of infinite things (like mission, like compassion, like gratitude). Or I can close those doors, out of worry or indecision or just plain inattention, and be “as good as dead”, rendering my choices lifeless as well.

When I think of it this way I say: let my inevitable mistakes be life-affirming ones; let my errors of judgment emerge from seeing the best in others; let me work to stay centered enough that my infinite humanity, rather than my finite ego, decides. Choose; then move on.

19,726 mornings. And every morning, so far, I am alive.

 

 

 





Sleepwalking Through Life

20 02 2014

Some days it’s clear
So I can see it:
What to be and how to be it
But some days I wonder
And some days I doubt it
Today I’m hopeful I can knock it off tonight
This sleepwalking through my life
–Lyrics from Kevin Devine’s “Sleepwalking Through My Life

Not too long ago, my friend Kathe and I were having coffee. We’ve met for coffee often enough, and at such a variety of locations, I don’t really remember those details. What I remember is the conversation coming around to the years in our lives that each of us consider “lost” in some ways. And Kathe said, with quiet fierceness, “I feel like I don’t want to waste a minute of the time I have left. I know people – a 20 year old who got pneumonia and is still not out of the woods after a double lung transplant, a woman dying of metastatic cancer (she named several others facing major life issues). These are people I know, not just know of. I’m not waiting for anyone else to approve, I’m going to go for what I want. I don’t want to regret how I spent my time.”

A few years ago, I made some changes in my life that led to the feeling of having awakened from a dream. Those “lost years” were truly gone, having been spent in a haze and rush of doing without any real sense of purpose. When I woke up, I felt that same sense of urgency as Kathe – this life is too precious and too short to waste any more of it sleepwalking. Since then, I’ve made a pretty good effort at living mindfully, at consciously choosing. I’ve actively said “Yes” or “No” based on a picture of my life being about more than getting through it.

Then this winter happened.

This winter has been a difficult one for many; the weather extremes have made it so. I am far from alone in feeling that meeting the daily challenges presented have required a much larger portion of my energy than usual – a few minutes on Facebook convinces me of that. And it isn’t that I stopped making choices or living as consciously as possible. It’s that it has became harder to maintain a center or core of certainty. Harder to maintain a vision of where I hope to go, how I hope to impact this world. Some days, I feel like I’m on the right track, I’m acting in ways that are moving me forward. Other days, I simply feel lost.

On Tuesday, like much of the midwest, Minneapolis experienced a truly beautiful, warm day. I decided to head outside, and walked several miles through the downtown, over to the North Loop. Along the way, I reveled in the sunshine, stopping to take photos and observe the city and its people. I stopped at a little shop I know of that carries awesome postcards. I went to a combo bike/coffee shop I’d heard of but never frequented. I stopped for a few groceries at Whole Foods market. Then I began the trek home.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook already know the story of what happened next:

I was standing on the sidewalk (about two feet back from the curb), waiting for the crossing light, when a woman came up beside me. She said, “Here in Minneapolis we don’t know what’s coming, but we try to make the best of it, right? My only hope these days is in God.” I nodded and smiled, having nothing to add. Then she said, “This light is really long, think I’ll go the other way. Good luck,” and she walked off. Not 15 seconds later, a bus cut the corner too close to the curb and splashed through a pond of melted snow and slush, completely drenching me from head to toe, like in the movies.

I freely admit that the incident was funny. I wish it had been seen by someone I know so we could laugh together about it. Or, better yet, captured on video so I could share it with you. Once I got over the initial sputtering indignity of it, I resumed my walk home. However, my mood was completely changed. Instead of the carefree, “in the moment” feeling of my meandering walk downtown, the way home became contemplative. First, I wondered about the woman who spoke to me. Was there a special message intended for me in her comment about not knowing the future, but trying to make the best of things? Was the drenching intended to wake me up? Have I been living too much in the moment, and not enough in the world of making the future happen? Have I spent the winter sleepwalking after all?

I didn’t come up with any answers on the long, wet walk home. And as I’ve wrestled with the idea of whether I’ve been “sleepwalking” through life too much this winter, I did an internet search and came across a site that said, “The nature of things is that sleeping implies waking: anything that sleeps wakes up.” I found that thought to be a comforting one. Like so much in life, perhaps there is a cyclical nature to sleeping/waking in terms of conscious living.

So, for now, I’ve decided to be as awake as I know how to be. Some days that will be easier than others. Some days, I will just enjoy “being” in the bright sunshine of the moment, others I will experience the cold drenching of a wake-up call. Mary Oliver writes  “As for life,I’m humbled, I’m without words sufficient to say how it has been hard as flint, and soft as a spring pond, both of these, and over and over…” Isn’t that the truth?





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





Reframing

2 02 2012

When my sister and I spoke for the first time about her second breast cancer diagnosis, she told me that considering her husband’s cancer, and  hers, there had been just too many times when they had to put their lives – all their plans – on hold in order to deal with a pressing health issue. She said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning from this, but I clearly haven’t learned it. Whatever it is, I need to get it this time, because I’m tired.” I heard her discouragement, couched though it was in self-deprecating sarcasm. My response to her was, “Perhaps you need to turn that around. Maybe you and Dave have learned to do it with such grace that you are asked to do it again to show others how. Maybe you’re not learning, maybe you’re teaching.”

Why is it so much easier to see different possibilities when we look at the lives, issues, concerns of those we love than it is when we look at our own? Reframing is an awesome tool I first learned while a graduate student, and I’ve used it in my work or when assisting friends and family who find themselves stuck. Often, as in the conversation with my sister, the shift in perspective immediately feels “right” – I know I’ve learned so much from watching her and, more important, others have told me they have too. Learning or teaching: I suspect she is doing both. It’s just that it’s easy to lose sight of the active/positive side of the equation when we’re staring straight into the reactive/negative side.

As you all know, I have been fighting to get my weight under 200 pounds. It is both a goal and a deep desire. But for two months now, I’ve been pushing and pushing and my body has been holding on tightly to each pound. The more tightly I grip my resolve (and track every calorie eaten, every calorie burned, turn down evenings out with friends, refuse a beer with my buddies at karaoke) the more tightly my body holds on to the weight. Today, I woke up after a restless night, thinking “It’s Thursday. God, I hope the scale is kind to me this morning.” It wasn’t until I was finished with the obligatory morning trip to the bathroom that I realized something was bothering me. The rings I wear all the time, and which in recent weeks have floated loosely on my fingers in danger of falling off, were cutting into my flesh. I could pry the one off my left hand, but the ring on my right hand wouldn’t budge. Severely. Bloated.

Clearly, I was not going to see a number on the scale that would make me happy.

What am I supposed to learn from this? More to the point, how can I reframe this to see an active/positive side to this frustrating situation? It wasn’t until this morning that I finally understood what my wiser friends have been telling me for weeks – I need to relax. I need to let my body do its thing and stop trying to manhandle it into submission. I need to stop seeing 200 pounds as the fulcrum point – above 200 and I am lacking, failing, still a fat girl; below 200 and I am replete, successful, thin. I need to let it go. (Which, by the way, I need to remember is not the same as letting myself go.)

As I often do in these moments of internal crisis, I looked for comfort from a favorite poet. So, I will end this post by sharing a poem – after nearly 350 posts, I can’t remember if I’ve shared this one before (sorry!). It reminds me that all I really need to do today is…be.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver