Notes from the Middle Ground

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.




Passion Flows…

“I believe we’re still at the beginning of this thing called the human experience.”
–Dustin Lance Black

Opening sessions of professional conferences tend toward the self-congratulatory, even for earnest and well-meaning professions like mine. We cheer for ourselves, we talk about our highest mission and values, we acknowledge our shared successes. And occasionally, we invite a keynote speaker whose values we expect to mirror our own but whose words challenge us in ways we didn’t anticipate. This was my experience on Sunday evening at the opening session of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference, when filmmaker and activist Dustin Lance Black walked on stage to talk about our conference theme, “Bold Without Boundaries”.

If you don’t know who Black is, please take a moment and watch this video clip of his Academy Awards acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay for the film, “Milk” (and read more about him here.)

NASPA, as is true of all professional student affairs organizations of which I am a member, is supportive of all kinds of diversity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students find our professionals to be, by and large, their campus allies. And yet, the work of understanding, listening to and valuing others is unending. Our students grow and move on, a fresh crop with their fresh experiences and fresh ignorances arrive every year. In addition, some of us work for institutions where there are barriers to being effective allies – whether they are real or perceived barriers, they affect our work in concrete ways. It is sometimes difficult to maintain passion for the day-in-day-out nature of advocacy and support.

But that’s my profession. This blog is about me, and this piece is about how I reacted and am responding to Dustin Lance Black’s keynote address. My incomparable parents, Jack and Shirley, raised me and my siblings to be accepting and affirming toward all people – and I have striven to act accordingly throughout my life, though certainly I haven’t perfectly achieved this. Since the day (in the late 1980s) that my beloved sister came out to me, I have been aware that belief, in the abstract, is very different from living what one believes. In the end, as so many wise people have observed, it isn’t what you say that people remember, its what you do.

This is all context for the truth of where I was on Sunday as I prepared to head to the opening session – which was burnt-out, blase, and jaded.  I figured it would be another speech about truths with which I am already too conversant (suicide rates among teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual; the bullying of transgendered persons). And while he did talk about these things, what Black actually shared, through the unique lens of his experience, were his thoughts on leadership. And what he said spoke to me in a direct and impactful manner.

Black shared that his first experiences of leaders taught him that leadership has something to do with fear. Luckily, his life was later informed by leaders, like Harvey Milk, who understood that leadership derives from passion rather than fear. “Without passion, you can be in charge,” Black said, “but you can’t lead.”  His passion, he told us, flows from everything that he is. He strongly encouraged us to give of our own unique selves, and told us, “You don’t even have to be very good at whatever it is you do if you do it with passion.” Examples abound of people who are not especially gifted but who make a difference and have an impact by building on that foundation.

If you paused to watch his Oscar speech, you may have noted the promise he made to young gays and lesbians: that – soon – their rights would be federally protected. Black received a lot of flack from established gay and lesbian advocacy organizations about that – he was told not to rush things, that “they had a 25-year plan”. In the midst of working for a faster timeline, Black had the opportunity to meet the great Julian Bond, who told him, “Good things do not come to those who wait, they come to those who agitate.” Black went on to say that, in his mind, the great tragedy of the gay rights movement has been not being bold soon enough; asking for crumbs and trying to be satisfied with that.

So, what were the takeaways that made me want, all week, to write about this address? First, the power of telling our personal stories. If passion flows from everything that we are, as Black attests, then that “everything” is contained in my story. The key is that I have to be willing to craft my own story AND to share it, honestly and simply, with others. This is how we connect, how we learn to be open to individual and group difference. It is how we, if we wish to lead, generate passion in others for whatever our vision may be.

Second, that in spite of all the ways I’ve worked to change and grow in my life, I am still too willing to let my own life’s path be dictated by others. I remain too willing to accept crumbs, when I should demand the whole delicious slice of cake. Whether professionally or personally, I still fail too many times to be the driver of my own life. This is a learned behavior (albeit a tenacious one) that I need to unlearn. Black said, “Hope is just delayed disappointment.” In that context, I need to stop hoping and start agitating!

Third, that I need to be less afraid of breaking fragile eggshells and more conversant with making omelets. Or, stated more directly: I need to start speaking my damn mind. Instead of worrying about whom I will offend by saying what I think, I need to be worrying about whom I harm by keeping silent – even if the only person harmed is me. So fair warning, friends and foes alike – I plan to uncork this bottle! My purpose won’t be to break things; rather, it will be to stir things up and create something delicious in the process.

Hopefully, it is apparent that I was moved by Dustin Lance Black’s address. His story was beautifully told, with compassion and humor. I felt myself responding to his admonitions in a very personal and profound way which I hope will have an enduring affect on me. And I am grateful to know that even a burnt and cynical old bird can be exhorted to stretch her wings again.

Note: The Supreme Court will hear the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 next week. It has been a major effort of many, including Dustin Black, to fight Prop 8 and to work toward federal civil rights protections for ALL citizens – namely for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I support gay marriage rights, as part of an overall civil rights agenda, and have been a proud defender of them in my home state of Iowa, where gay marriage has been legal since April 3, 2009.

Discovering A Passion

One summer, between my 5th and 6th grade years, my parents bought me a bike: a bright yellow 10-speed with racing handlebars and thin tires that flew over the pavement. I rode that bike to the pool, to the soda bottler’s little convenience store, and as a getaway bike when my friends and I decided to run off with Suzie-Q’s without paying for them. The faster I went, the better. I had little to no fear. Until the day a kid who was making a career out of annoying me ran out into the street just as I was picking up speed going downhill. He pushed me from the side, and I went down. Hard. Some older boys in the neighborhood saw it happen. I never found out what they did to that poor kid, but one of the older boys came by my house later to assure me the pest wouldn’t be bothering me again.

Even though I wasn’t seriously hurt, that incident took some of the joy out of my riding. I was suddenly, viscerally, aware of how easy it was to get hurt at fast speeds. The spill, coupled with the fact that it was a time when teenaged girls were encouraged to give up such active pursuits, caused my bike riding days to dwindle to a close. The yellow ten speed was around for years after I stopped riding it – I’m not sure when my parents finally got rid of it.

A couple of years ago, my friend Sue and I decided we were in need of a real vacation, and picked a resort in Michigan right on the lake hoping for long hours on the beach. But the gnats and biting flies were so bad we could only take short bursts of time on the lounge chairs. The resort had bicycles available for check out, and even though it had been 25 or more years since either of us rode, we decided to take a couple bikes for a spin. We were wobbly and easily winded, but both had so much fun we returned to our respective homes and bought bikes.

The rest, as they say, is history. Last summer I upgraded to a better bike, a Trek hybrid, and trained for something I’d always wanted to do: ride a portion of RAGBRAI. I spent every spare moment all summer riding. I travelled hardly at all, in favor of getting more time “in the saddle”. You can read my two-part post about my RAGBRAI experience, if interested, here and here. It was amazing.

But after RAGBRAI, I found myself making excuses not to ride so much. Fall came and went, with barely an additional 75 miles on my bike’s odometer. In December, we had such mild weather that I was able to ride twice the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Now, our early spring has provided a couple of weeks of sunshine and warm weather perfect for cycling. At first, I had to negotiate with myself to get out by promising  myself a reward. I wondered if I had not really enjoyed biking as much as I told myself – I mean, this reluctance to get the bike out must mean something. Perhaps I had just liked the idea of liking an activity that well, or I enjoyed talking as if I was an enthusiast. Or maybe I just liked the challenge of RAGBRAI, and once that was checked off my bucket list I stopped needing to ride.

Then I rode.

To say that I enjoyed that first 28 miles is a true understatement. Here’s a partial list of the things I’ve discovered since getting back on my bike this spring:

  • I love the fluidity of cycling, the grace you begin to display as you grow more attuned with being on the bike.
  • On a bike, I am fiercely competetive – but only with myself. The other cyclists can do what they can do. Some are stronger and faster than me, others aren’t. But with the aid of attention to my body and my on-board “computer”, I can gauge how I am doing from one ride to the next. I can up my effort to see different results, I can privately crow with delight when my MPHs are up by an average of two miles. I can see my technical competence improving (I now know a lot more about using my gears than I ever thought I would, for example). On a bike, I am an athlete.
  • Bicycling has helped restore my love of the outdoors. The other day a snake crossed the path right in front of me. Trees that were budding on that ride were in bloom on my next ride a week later. The nature trail I primarily ride takes me along the river, and through woods. Yesterday, I felt something alive inside my helmet and reached up to brush it off me. That’s when I discovered it was a bee…even being stung didn’t dim my enjoyment of riding an easy 18 mph with a strong wind at my back.

I never expected to find a physical activity which is at once both challenging and deeply spiritual. I know many people feel this about running, or about yoga. In my adult life, exercise and physicality has usually been work, occasionally accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment. Never joy, until now.

This morning at the gym, just as class was beginning, one of the women said, “Jen, you’ve convinced me: I’m buying a bike!” I was touched, because I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to convince anyone to do anything – but I have spoken about what cycling has brought into my life. When we discover passion in our own lives, it has a way of igniting excitement, and sometimes igniting a kindred passion in someone else. My hope, today, is that each of you has the opportunity to feel and share a similar passion in your life, especially you fellow late-bloomers out there. Because a life on fire with delight is a wonderful thing at any age.

Jump On Life Today!

Several years ago, after attending another boring but educational lecture, I had an idea.  What if we sponsored a breakfast speakers series that would be inspirational in nature — people could come for breakfast and leave ready to try new things, step outside their comfort zones.  I even had a name for the series, JOLT (Jump on Life Today).  I shared the idea with some colleagues, to lukewarm response.  So, I dropped the idea.

Flash forward to earlier this academic year, when I brought out the JOLT idea and shared it with my friend Tricia, our campus counseling center director, and Layne, an amazing young professional in my department.  They met, without me I might add, and decided that it was time this idea became a reality.  The three of us collaborated, brainstormed, and began the series in February.  Yesterday, we held our third JOLT event and it was amazing!

Our speaker, Dr. Deann Fitzgerald (check out her website blew us away.  Dr. Fitzgerald and her team have changed lives in a big way both here in Cedar Rapids, and in Kenya (their latest project will bring clean water to 32,000 people).  She talked about failures (“they’re all outcomes…you just like some outcomes better than others”) and she talked about inspiration and passion being things that you have to go looking for…they don’t just appear.  They come when you take a step forward — in any direction — and decide to take another step.  She also says this is the way each person can change the world:  one step at a time.

After Dr. Fitzgerald finished speaking, she gave her email address and encouraged everyone to write if they had questions, ideas, or wanted to create change in the world.  I listened to people saying they want to go on medical mission trips, that they were moved and inspired to act by being in Dr. Fitzgerald’s presence…and that is when it hit me that JOLT was serving as a vehicle for inspiration — just what I imagined it could be when I first had the idea.

One thing that stands out for me today as I have spent some time reflecting on this experience is that I let naysayers prevent me from jumping on life, from taking a step forward in a direction I was inspired to go.  Thank God for Tricia and Layne, who talked back to the negative voices (those of my colleagues, and those in my head which suggested that others knew better than I).  They gave me a true gift when they joined hands with me to take that first step.  I am thinking it is about time for me to trust my own inspiration and creative energy.  Next time, I take the step forward on my own.