Puzzled

16 02 2017

“A puzzle with a solution is a game. A puzzle without a solution is a work of art.” –Marty Rubin

My friend Wendy made a passing comment to me in December about her enjoyment of online jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember the context, but it wasn’t as if we had a lengthy discussion about it – she mentioned it and we moved on to something else.

Fast forward to January. I found myself, most evenings, restless and fidgety. Too tired to go out, too wired and worried to relax. Wendy’s comment about jigsaw puzzles popped into my mind one evening, and I immediately downloaded an app for my Kindle. That first week, I not only did the daily mystery puzzle (no picture to tell me what I was putting together), I also put together three or four easier puzzles a day. I was so obsessed with these puzzles that my brain began processing normal objects all day long as if they were puzzle pieces needing to be fit together (the same thing happened, briefly, in the early 90s when I became addicted to Tetris). I realized that this was not a good sign. Gradually, I increased the difficulty level and reduced the number of puzzles, until I hit a steady groove of completing one puzzle a night.

As stressors amp up in my own life, compounded by the stress we are all experiencing on the political landscape, I feel almost a compulsion to solve the daily puzzle. When I finish it, especially if it is particularly challenging, I feel a sense of accomplishment and completion – a brief but satisfying relief of anxiety.

As my anxiety has deepened, my sleep patterns have shifted. I fall asleep for a few hours then wake, sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., for up to two hours. I’ve developed a bad habit of looking at social media in this interregnum between periods of sleep. I’ve read late-night screen-time is not good for my brainwaves and I know from my heart rate it is terrible for my emotional state.

The past couple of nights, rather than logging onto Twitter, I’ve been thinking about my sudden fixation with jigsaw puzzles. Why this particular activity at this particular time? At various points in the past, I’ve similarly questioned my Tetris addiction, my repetitive binge watching of “Felicity” and “Ally McBeal”, the weird card-counting solitaire game I invented one winter…and each time, the first answer I’ve hit upon has been a variation on the theme of control. In particular, when I feel as if I am inadequately meeting the challenges confronting me (i.e. under-prepared, under-skilled, and/or under-resourced), I have a tendency to take refuge in some meaningless activity that allows me to feel even a minimal level of mastery. I have everything I need to solve a jigsaw puzzle:

  • there are borders/boundaries; I know where they are and how to identify them;
  • I have all the necessary pieces (especially on my Kindle, where random pieces don’t end up on the floor or in the cracks between my couch cushions);
  • the variables are limited – basically, I find the right spot for each piece based on it’s immutable color and shape.

Wouldn’t it be nice if managing people or politics or my own fears and insecurities was as easy? How would it feel in other areas of my life to engage in a single activity that has shape, form, a clear goal and an easy way to assess that I’ve successfully achieved it? That might just be my definition of heaven on earth. Instead, my life is filled with complexities, from the people I interact with to the projects I engage with to the mission I try to live and serve. There are no immutables here: everything is changeable, everything shifts and forms and reforms into different shapes and very few of my tasks are of the kind that can ever be considered “finished”.

I said the first answer I hit upon was about control. Another answer for this fascination with jigsaws, which came to me in the quiet moments of wakefulness the other night, goes deeper than my control issues. This second answer is about interconnection and interdependence. Living in a “post-truth” world, where nuclear aggression is suddenly back on the table and, even in Iowa, the protests are loud and contentious, I feel the need to seek out models for a different way of being and interacting. Jigsaw puzzles are an excellent candidate. Each piece is unique, specifically both itself AND an integral part of a much larger whole. Without connection, the full picture cannot be viewed. Each piece is interdependent with every other piece in helping the whole image to coalesce into something meaningful.

If I am interdependent with all the other pieces of this jigsaw puzzle we call the universe, if we are all part of the same whole, then the very things that I am fearful of and rail against are part of that same whole; by extension they are part of me. Seen in this light, my sudden obsession with completion of puzzles becomes a quest for wholeness in a fractured world.

It appears that my commonplace problems and my deeper existential anxieties often surface and make themselves known to me through sudden behavioral anomalies. They enter my days practically unnoticed at first, disguised as simple distractions. It is only when I have (or take) the time to question what is happening, then to slow down and get quiet enough to hear the answers, that I begin to understand myself. But what do I do with this understanding?

After the election in November, Martha Beck published an article titled, “From Inside the Darkness“, in which she says:

“My job today is to feel all the parts of me that are like the darkest parts of my profoundly divided country, my profoundly divided species. It is to listen to them, to understand them until my own fear, anger, and sorrow dissolve into the light of compassion.

I can only do this inside myself–but that will be enough. It will be enough because one healed person broadcasts an energy that can pull dozens, hundreds, millions of people out of their own darkness.”

She goes on to state, “Compassion, friends, is the most revolutionary power on earth–not simpering and weak, but magical, powerful, the very force of Creation.” That compassion, according to Beck, must first be extended toward ourselves: compassion for our imperfections, our less-thans, our wish-I-weren’ts, and our hate-that-I-ams. When we extend the healing energy of compassion to ourselves, our little piece of the puzzle shines – and that shining light then radiates into the other pieces with which we connect.

It would be silly to suggest that I will heal the world by putting puzzles together on my Kindle. That said, thinking about why those puzzles have been occupying so much of my time has proven fruitful, and has led me to think differently about the divisions in my heart, my life and our world. It has reminded me that the way forward is one of healing and compassion. As the old song goes, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.” Let it begin in me.





Stand or Take a Knee…

22 09 2016

When I was in high school, I belonged to an inter-church youth group. Many Sundays saw my siblings and I attending services at the Methodist, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches in town with our youth group – and also attending mass at our own Catholic parish. Sometimes, our youth group friends would come to mass with us – not often, certainly not as often as we attended their services (I mean, we were teens – who would actually choose multiple church services on a single Sunday morning unless coerced?!). When they did come to our church, they refused to participate in the prayer ritual on the grounds that somehow doing so made them idolators or papists. They never asked me about the rituals of the mass, or why we sometimes knelt – they had learned elsewhere that it was antithetical to their religious doctrine. So they came to our church as a sign of solidarity with us (because my parents insisted on mass), but they used their presence as an opportunity to stage a silent protest against Catholicism.

I haven’t forgotten how it felt as a teenager, to watch my friends make significant eye contact with one another as they slowly, deliberately and with a clearly intentional flourish, took their seats – in the very front pew of the church where they insisted we sit – as the rest of the church dropped to their knees.

I felt shamed.

And then I felt angry. What made them think their church was better than mine? Their way of expressing prayerful reverence somehow more “right”?

Now, all that I’ve written about this experience is from my perspective – and not even my current perspective, that of my teenaged self. Today, I wouldn’t see or feel it in the same way at all! In fairness to my friends, their perceptions and perspectives of these events likely vary widely from mine. And it is so far in the past, we’re lucky to remember it at all, much less with any nuance or detail!

However, these memories of how I felt then have helped me to understand a bit about why the recent protests during the national anthem at sporting events have so enraged some folks. When someone chooses to act in a way that is deliberately different, we can’t help but pay attention. And when their action calls out something that we do or believe as a matter of course, we tend to take their actions personally. You kneeling when I stand, or remaining seated when I kneel, is not a political statement, it is a personal affront.

This initial reaction is visceral, not thoughtful.

And here’s where we get into trouble so often, I think: instead of engaging in reflection and dialogue about what is behind both the other person’s action and our emotional re-action, we stick with the visceral. Our responses are then always arguments designed to support our gut reaction, our feelings, rather than intended to bring about understanding of multiple perspectives. It keeps us in adversarial opposition to one another, rather than allowing us to truly listen, or to come to respectful disagreement – not to mention the even more desirable discovery of some middle ground.

Unfortunately, social media feeds this immature atunement to the visceral. In many ways, it has become a scourge to mature inquiry and and reflection. I say this sadly, as one who has benefited from all of the great things social media has the potential to offer. However, as both the algorithms used weed out more and more of what might be different from our own perspectives, more and more we also unfriend those whose perspectives differ. By the time both are done with “the weeding”, we’re left with a very sparse garden of ideas, indeed. One uninformed by the unique perspectives of others whose worldviews and life experiences differ from our own.

We find ourselves in a turbulent time. There are deep issues to be addressed. I do not have any answers, nor am I suggesting that I have a comprehensive theory on how to go about resolving these issues. I am, though, attempting to hold space – by listening, by checking my own gut-reactions, by seeking a broader set of opinions than my own – for what of Goodness and Truth and Peace and Justice might emerge from the turbulence of our times. Whether I stand, or kneel, or lay prostrate on the ground – I am trying to hold space for others to choose their own posture without casting them in the role of enemy or other. It is, honestly, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I am convinced that making the effort will be worth it, if only because it keeps me from a self-imposed solitary confinement of the mind and heart.

“It’s a fact—everyone is ignorant in some way or another.Ignorance is our deepest secret.

And it is one of the scariest things out there, because those of us who are most ignorant are also the ones who often don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.

Here is a quick test:

If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental tenet of your belief, if you have never questioned the basics, and if you have no wish to do so, then you are likely ignorant.

Before it is too late, go out there and find someone who, in your opinion, believes, assumes, or considers certain things very strongly and very differently from you, and just have a basic honest conversation.

It will do both of you good.”

— Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

 

 

 

 

 





Changing Climates

5 05 2016

“The world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” —Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I don’t remember when I first read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. As with so many of the books that have stayed with me, what I can remember is the feeling of my mind expanding as I flew through the pages. So much happens in the story line that I wouldn’t attempt a synopsis of the book here. However, in the story the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In this tense and terrifying moment, Meg (our heroine) learns that everything is connected. Everything is connected. Therefore, it matters what she does – even if it is something so seemingly insignificant as what she allows to live within her own heart.

I copied down the quote, above, and have kept it easily to hand for many years. It is said by Meg’s father to remind his family that, in the fateful hour in which they find themselves, they each have something to contribute to the good. I have used the quote, over the years, to remind myself that creating peace and reason in my own heart is crucial to finding it in the world beyond me.

Peaceful and reasonable. These are qualities I strive for, values (peace and reason) I hold deeply. But we humans don’t start there – we get there through intention and effort. And not by overvaluing our intellectual selves at the expense of our emotional selves. We have emotions; we feel things deeply because if we did not, we would always maintain the status quo. Growth – whether on a personal or global scale – only happens with the emotional impetus to change.

However, if we operate only at the feeling stage, we spend our energies expressing but not creating. Don’t misunderstand me: expression of our emotions is a powerful thing – and when we’re coming to terms with hurtful experiences or attempting to find/use our voices despite repression, suppression, or oppression it is an absolutely necessary thing.

And then what?

I’ve watched the news throughout this political season with interest and horror. All my life, I’ve believed many of the things Bernie Sanders stands for, and found abhorrent most of what Donald Trump espouses. But as I see shouting matches devolving into violence and entrenchment, I am reminded that we are living in an abnormal climate. How am I, one person, supposed to have an effect on that?

And then I remember that I do and I can have an effect on it – because everything is connected. Madeleine L’Engle was the first to introduce me to quantum theory, but she certainly wasn’t the last. In college theology courses, I studied Teilhard de Chardin and first learned about the concept of the noosphere. And in recent decades, science has been proving, with break-through after break-through, that what I think and feel does, indeed, have an impact that reaches far beyond my own self.

With that in mind, you will not see me throwing my hands up in an act of surrender. You will not hear me declaring that I give up – or that if things don’t go the way I want them to I will wash my hands of responsibility and leave it for others to take the blame. But neither will you see me engaging in shouting or shoving matches. My most intense struggles will be internal – attempting to quiet my agitation long enough to experience a peaceful heart and a reasonable mind. Whenever I can reach that place internally, I will do my best to project it outward. Because of all the things I think I know, the one I believe with every fiber of my being is that everything is connected. EveryONE is connected.





Unfolding: Rilke, a paper crane, and me

5 09 2013

Image 2I don’t know the official name of the garden. I had seen it from my bike as I rode past. It looked like a quiet place to sit and think, across the street from its showier cousin, the Rose Garden. It wasn’t until after I had admired the little waterfall that I thought to notice the copper statue of a stylized crane, green patina-ed from the weather, or the boulders surrounding it. Each boulder contains a plaque, also weathered, with instructions for folding an origami crane. The first plaque begins, “Spirit of Peace: Fold Your Desire for Peace into a Paper Crane…”

I had come to the garden to contemplate a poem which came to me through circuitous routes, and which I knew upon my first cursory reading would require quiet and space. Here it is:

“I Want to Unfold” by Ranier Maria Rilke
 
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m to small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones —
or alone.
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 

In the art of origami, a simple square of paper is folded in such a manner as to be transformed into something else, something other than itself. These days, I feel tightly folded, holding myself erect with the artificial strength of reinforcement from bent and pleated layers. I may appear to have wings, like the crane. But that is an illusion: I am earthbound, folded tightly in upon myself as a protection from all my self-doubt and fear.

I want to know my own will, and to move with it. That was, after all, the whole point of the changes which led me here. I felt I had a firm idea of it in April and May, but as the summer passed it slipped more and more from my grasp. August and it seemed to disappear altogether. My days are peaceful on the exterior, but inside they are a turmoil. I have folded my desire for peace, let alone to know my own will, so deep I can’t quite get my fingers on it.

I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. Closed equals hidden, equals secret. Why choose folded, to remain closed? Fear, shame, guilt. Fear of my own inadequacies; shame that after all of the grace and the love I am still much afraid; guilt for the ways (large and small) that I know I am failing the gift of this time.

Unfolding. Unfolding equals exposing, unearthing, truth-telling. Exposing my vulnerabilities (the snivelling coward that lurks in my heart); unearthing through careful toil my hopes and dreams; telling the truth about my uncertainties and shortcomings, but also my talents and courage (which share space with that coward).

I want to unfold. Because, unfolded, I am myself: a plain square of paper, open to the sunlight. Able to breathe because I am no longer tightly crimped. My pride wants me to “be among the wise ones — or alone”, but truthfully, I am content to be alone and small enough for this world. It’s only on my bad days I think, “Any smaller or more alone, and I would disappear.”

As I sat in the Peace Garden, contemplating the Rilke poem through the oddly curved lens of my current life-in-limbo, I wasn’t thinking about the Divine, or Rilke’s obvious desire for deeper connection and relationship with God. I wan’t thinking of peace. I was thinking about the falseness of being closed – of pretending to be less needy or more sure than I am. Of the artiface, not the art, of origami.

Image 4

And then I saw it: one tiny white paper crane among the plantings. Fragile and pure, untouched by the dirt it rested upon. One wish, not the famous one-thousand, for peace. One tiny, fledgeling hope for something better. And I laughed, realizing that while a person should take care to remain unfolded, it is fine for paper. The paper crane was made more by folding, while I was less. Yet both of us yearn for peace – the peace that comes with understanding and compassion.

That peace must find a beginning in my own heart.

Image 3

 





Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

13 12 2012
Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
 
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“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”
 

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!





…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







Triple Word Tuesday

15 03 2011

WE WANT PEACE!