Imaginary vs Real (or Polyanna vs Jenion)

When you write about your own life and its emotional and spiritual peaks and valleys, you want to find ways to connect that experience to other people’s inner lives so that they will be comforted (“I’m not the only person who ever felt that way”) or maybe even inspired (“It IS possible to achieve/get past/change my perspective on that!). Barring comfort and inspiration, perhaps readers will at least be able to think, “Oh, thank God that wasn’t me!”.  These are things I hope for, anyway, when I post my weekly blog reflection. The problem is that this desire can lead to writing not about my actual life, but about my imagined one – you know, that fictional life where everything makes sense and has some ultimate form of meaning. Before I know it, every post purports to be about some lesson or insight that encapsulates the world, ties up my experiences in little yellow sunshiny bows, and makes me sound like a Pollyanna.

Which I am not.

In my real, as opposed to imaginal, life, I am “hanging in there”. Not being as proactive as I probably should be, but not doing nothing, either. It’s the dry land equivalent of treading water – I’m keeping myself afloat, but not really going anywhere. Because I am especially self-focused right now, I have a tendency to be in close-up view, the scene pulled in tight on me: surrounded by space, arms and legs working hard but staying in one place. If the scene zooms out, there is a huge body of life around me, heavily populated. Some people are moving in swift racing form, others playing around with friends and loved ones, still others battling a rip-tide that threatens to pull them under. Eventually, in this wide-view, you’ll spot me, off by myself, seemingly holding still.

In my real life, I’m lonely a lot of the time. There’s a rabbit-hole that is easy to wander down when you feel lonely. It takes you to a place where you allow yourself to think that other people are responsible for your happiness. And your inner voice becomes petulant and whiny, like the nine year old you once were, complaining that someone “stole” your friend. I hate hearing my own voice sound that way, hate this particular rabbit-hole. I do my best to avoid it, but it isn’t always easy to recognize until I’m in and suddenly tune in to the whining.

In my real life, my old friend, Generalized Fear, arrives at my doorstep most days. He barges in and sits for a spell, even when I tell him in the strictest terms to go away. People sometimes ask which I’m more afraid of – success or failure. I laugh at that question, because I fear them equally, as I fear most things. That’s what GF has taught me over a lifetime of hanging out together (even though I haven’t wanted him in my life).

But here’s another truth about my real life – and I’m not imagining it at all – every day I feel more convinced that I am in the right place.

When I picked Minneapolis, I had good, solid reasons for doing so. My awesome life coach, Charlynn Avery, gave me the assignment of researching which cities met certain criteria based on the lifestyle I hoped to establish. Minneapolis came out at or near the top of every configuration I tried. I also had a gut feeling, based on numerous visits over the past few years, that it would be a good fit for me.

When I opted to take this quirky apartment in the same building as Mike’s, I said I was doing so for expedience – it was a good deal, in a neighborhood that may not be perfect but at least I was familiar with. Mike would be easy to find if I had questions or needed anything. But my intuition also whispered that this was a good place for me to begin.

I’m not always a good one for trusting my gut feelings or intuition. And most of my family and friends don’t trust them either – so there were many concerns expressed and questions asked about my choice. I mostly responded with the facts, rather than get too caught up in a discussion of feelings. I guess I wanted people to think I had thought this through very carefully, weighed all the evidence and possibilities, and chosen the one that made the most objective sense. And I did…but the actual decision was based on my heart – my intuition and guts led my heart to be set on this place.

It is too soon to know how this will all turn out. How hard or how easy will it be to establish myself here. I don’t have any sense, yet, of how or where I will make a living, for example. I haven’t actually made new friends, though I’ve met some cool people and had some great experiences.

I remember being here a couple of years ago in mid-winter, a snow storm raging around me. I bundled up against the below-zero temps and headed to the Starbucks two blocks up. As I drank my very hot Americano surrounded by the Somali cabdrivers who hang out there between fares, I had a vision of myself living here. Walking to markets, to coffeeshops, to little organic restaurants. Feeling at home with the beat and pulse of life in this city. Not even the winter reality deterred the appeal of that vision. But it was just my imagination.

In my real life, late afternoon yesterday found me walking to The Wedge, a grocery coop not far from here. On the way, I discovered a tiny farmers market in the church parking lot across the street from Starbucks. I took a detour to check out a small florist around the corner on Nicolette. As I walked, I knew which cross streets were one way, which had stop signs or not. I watched for familiar sights along the way (particularly some lovely gardens), nodded at other people passing on the sidewalk. I had the sudden realization that I am growing to love my neighborhood – and that my definition of neighborhood is expanding as my comfort level with the area is expanding. I could envision the same walk through the changing seasons. Later, as I ate the nutritious meal I prepared from my purchases at The Wedge, I looked around my strange little apartment and felt at home.

Maybe there IS a lesson here, an insight about trusting our intuition. Real life isn’t always easy, it is sometimes messy and frustrating and lonely. We don’t always like the person we see in the mirror (or hear in our heads). But there are bigger pictures and deeper truths that exist at the same time, within the same space, as all the flawed realities.

And if that ties things up too neatly, or makes me sound like a Pollyanna…then so be it.

Learning Not to Kill the Magic

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.

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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

Good Omens

“Factual information alone isn’t sufficient to guide you through life’s labyrinthine tests.  You need and deserve regular deliveries of uncanny revelation.  One of your inalienable rights as a human being should therefore be to receive a mysteriously useful omen every day of your life.”  —Rob Brezsny

“There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”  — Oscar Wilde

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

On the day I arrived in Minneapolis, two small things occurred which seemed to be signs that I had made the right decision to come here.

At 5:00 p.m. on Monday, I exited I35W into downtown Minneapolis, four lanes of busy traffic surrounding me as people began the mad rush home from their workdays. I was listening to local radio Cities 97 and, as my tires literally crossed from the freeway to the exit ramp, Sara Barielles“Brave” – my unofficial theme song for the summer – came blaring through my car’s speakers. I was singing along, buoyed by the lyrics, “…Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live, maybe one of these days you can let the light in, Show me how big your brave is…”, when the car in front of me in the left turn lane died. The light ahead turned red. I looked in my rearview mirror, to my right, and felt the claustrophobia of being hemmed in by hundreds of vehicles along with the certainty that I’d be stuck there all night. My car was loaded down with stuff from my storage unit, my bicycle dangling off the back end, and I made a split second decision — before the light changed, I was going to signal my intent. I cranked the wheel, flipped on the turn signal and nosed slightly into the next lane. And when we got the green, I was able to smoothly pull around the disabled vehicle without eliciting a single honk or appearance of road rage from the other drivers. Good omen number one – check.

My new landlady, C., is friendly and kind and fairly conscientious. Also quite a talker. It took well over an hour to go over the apartment, the lease, and the Minnesota tenant/landlord requirements. By then, we both forgot the exchange of keys that was to take place! Luckily, once outside the house, C. put a hand in her pocket looking for her car keys and discovered mine. When she came back, there was a tutorial about the keys – I didn’t want to seem impatient, but seriously, folks: after a long career in residence life on a college campus, I am a flipping key expert and can easily handle the four new ones (garage for bike storage, mailbox, security door, apartment) she gave me!

In the middle of my time with C., Mike arrived home. Mike – who went from long-distance friend to upstairs neighbor and lifeline with my signature on C.’s lease – helped me finish unloading my car. We separated to shower, then met up again for dinner to celebrate my first night as a Minneapolitan. We went to a wine bar/restaurant I had never been to before and, as it was an incredibly beautiful evening, snagged the last outdoor table. As we sat there, sipping our fruit water and waiting for our healthy “small plates” orders (which, as is our habit, we intended to share so we would both enjoy the collard greens, arugula, pancetta and Spanish cheese) we lapsed into a companionable silence.

My mind began to range back over the previous two months – from submitting my resignation through to that entire Monday – and I was completely overwhelmed by the number of seriously, profoundly, joyful moments encompassed within that time span. Heartfelt and sincere exchanges of love and respect with colleagues and friends; the most deeply soul-satisfying farewell celebration with friends at Molly’s; the safe travels and great times with my family in New Mexico; the quick visit back to Cedar Rapids and quality time with the Dennis’ and several friends (none of which felt crammed or cramped into the four days I was there); coffee and lunch with my brother Jeff’s family in Cedar Falls on my way to Minneapolis. The past two months have, quite literally, been the most amazing and beautiful time of my entire life. I feel almost greedy in, looking forward, hoping that this wonderful streak will continue through the move this coming weekend and RAGBRAI at the end of the month, and on to finding a job so I can really settle into my new home.

Obviously, people can debate forever whether omens and portents truly exist. If you know me, or have been reading Jenion for a while, you know I am an inveterate reader of signs. I believe that our intuition often knows better what is right for us than our thinking brains. Our egos and personas, filled with the “shoulds” and “oughts” we’ve internalized over the years, can often be just so much static, preventing clear signals from penetrating to our core. Intuition can sometimes help by taking us beyond the fear and paralysis that our “practical” brain (and its tendency toward circuitous thinking) leads us into. Which isn’t to say I believe in jumping into things based on a hunch and no careful thinking or planning. Only that both pieces are important in putting together the puzzle of our choices to make a full picture of our lives.

When I came back to the present after these recollections and musings, our al fresco dinner was finished. We hadn’t actually licked the plates clean, but it was close! Mike and I both felt like ambulating, so we drove over to Lake of the Isles for a walk. At the lake, the lovely hush of summer dusk was in full swing. As we got out of his car, Mike said, “Jeni, look up!”  When I did, the late evening sky was a breathtaking and deep violet-blue. And there, right in the middle of the sky, framed by the trees ringing the lake, was an X formed by criss-crossing jet contrails. I couldn’t help it, I immediately cried out, “X marks the spot!”

To me, those vapory white lines of water crystals in the sky appeared to be exactly that – the destination on a global-sized pirate map. A giant X marking the exact spot where my treasure will be found: Minneapolis, Minnesota. Good omen number two – check.

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Standing in the doorway of my new apartment on Monday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Mike, who wanted to reshoot it once he learned I planned to use it today! But I like this authentic, first day, commemoration!

Unexpected Warmth in the Season of Ice

I spent last weekend in Minneapolis, visiting my friend Mike. Friday night and Saturday were very nice. I truly enjoyed the time spent in low-key activities such as attending a high school girl’s basketball game, shopping with Mike’s sons for their winter formal fashions, and a delicious dinner at primebar in Uptown (if you go there, definitely get the steak flatbread; we had ours without the bechamel sauce).

It was great. But…

…I couldn’t relax. I received calls and texts from work throughout the evening on Friday, and again both Saturday morning and afternoon – it was difficult to disconnect from the stress of the work week when it followed me to another state! In addition, I was concerned about my Dad, fighting double pneumonia in Albuquerque. To top things off, I worried obsessively about the impending weather. When I left town on Friday, all weather reports were for some mixed precipitation on Sunday, but the forecast wasn’t particularly alarming. However, by Saturday, it became clear that ice was likely to be a major issue.

I needed to get back to Cedar Rapids on Sunday! I had so much to do! This couldn’t be happening! (Insert frantic hair pulling and frown-y face here)

Sunday morning, I was up by 7:15, disappointed to see the Iowa DOT website covered with the pink dots denoting 100% ice covered roadways. As I continued to check the Iowa and Minnesota DOT sites every fifteen minutes for the next two hours, the news got worse. Dark purple sections of road (travel not advised), tow bans (for those unlucky souls who were on the road and ended up in a ditch), and hazard triangles showing the locations of crashes proliferated. By 10:30 the weather radar and road maps had finally convinced me – the drive home simply was not going to happen until Monday.

And then the most amazing thing happened: within minutes of accepting that the situation was out of my hands, every part of me relaxed. I don’t mean I sat a little more comfortably on Mike’s white IKEA loveseat. I mean, deeply relaxed. Muscles let go of tension, blood slowed to a normal pace in my veins, breathing became deep and regular.

The rest of the day, we took our time. Mike scoured his kitchen sink, I scoured my blog reader for interesting posts. I showered. Mike showered longer. When we left his apartment for lunch, the morning rain was just switching over to ice pellets. By the time we reached our destination, Turtle Bread, the ice was visibly accumulating. Inside the warm bakery/deli, we were cozy, surrounded by fresh-from-the-oven loaves and inhaling warm, humid, yeast-scented air. We talked and laughed as we leisurely ate our salads and homemade chicken pot pies. Facing the windows all along the front of the cafe, I saw the ice turn to big, fat snowflakes which quickly blanketed everything in quiet white. I watched as passersby exhibited varying reactions to the snow, some hunched up inside their winter parkas looking grim and others displaying childlike exuberance and joy.

The remainder of our lazy Sunday flowed from there: browsing the shops in Uptown, Kowalski’s for pizza toppings (we bought fresh pizza dough at Turtle Bread), back to Mike’s for an evening of public television (of course, Downton Abbey!) and fresh food, topped off by a viewing of “The Mexican.” Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt – how can you go wrong?

Honestly, not one minute was “productive” (well, Mike did some laundry), and not one moment was spent worrying about what was not getting done. I had let it all go. As a result, I have rarely passed a day that more perfectly resonated with what I needed from it.

Normally, at this point in one of my posts I would get all academic, sharing the insights I’ve received from a variety of sources addressing exactly this instance. How to let go, how to relax, why I can’t let go, decision-fatigue, blah-dee-blah-blah. But this time, just this once, I want to let the experience speak for itself: the paradox of how an ice storm could suffuse me with so much calm warmth.

Mysteries, Yes
 
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.~ Mary Oliver ~(Evidence)