Double Nickels

28 07 2016
 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements




The Rainbow Cow

19 05 2016

“The rainbow you see is different than the rainbow visible to all other observers, because an entirely different set of drops refracts and reflects the light in alignment for each observer’s eyes. The falling drops are only in position to perform this function for that very moment when they pass through that single ray of light. They continue to fall away, and other drops pass in place to refract and reflect light again. Falling rain suspends the rainbow in the sky for the short time that the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen and thus for this creative phenomenon to exist.  –Kyna Leski The Storm of Creativity

There are days when the whole world feels gray and close. Days when there seems to be precious little breathing space, and sunshine feels like a distant memory (even if it shone only yesterday). It was on one such day that, discouraged and disheartened, I stopped by a friend’s house for a glass of wine and a little companionship. When I arrived, sitting on the island in her kitchen was a coloring book page which had been carefully removed from the book. The pre-printed picture was the outline of a happy cow standing in a flower-strewn meadow. The cow had been colored, painstakingly, with thin-line markers in a rainbow pattern (heavy on green and orange sections).

As my friend poured me a generous helping of cabernet, I picked up the colored page and said, “Wow! Someone has been busy!”

At that moment, my friend’s five-year-old daughter Kate walked into the room, intent on some mission of her own. As she passed me she said, “I drew that for you,” and continued through the room and out the door on the other side.

“Thank you, peanut,” I called to her retreating back.

The rainbow cow picture now hangs on my refrigerator, and I thought of it immediately as I read the passage (quoted above) from Kyna Leski’s book on creativity. First, it struck me that every rainbow exists as a function of a particular observer being in that particular place at that particular moment. Leski asserts that this means every rainbow we observe is different from the same rainbow seen by someone else. I had thought that Kate’s rainbow cow was a little strange because of the preponderance of green and orange, but now I wonder if it might not be a reflection of Kate’s observational experience. Or it may be that, in translating her experience through her own artistic vision, a rainbow come alive in cowhide would naturally seem to be shaded in such a way. In any case, the one thing I am certain of is that only Kate would have produced this particular rainbow cow. We all know what rainbows look like, yet every one of us would express that collective understanding differently, due to our own alignment.

As I thought more about the passage from Leski’s book, I cast my mind back to the night Kate gave me the cow drawing. I remember sipping my wine and chatting about the day. Kate and her little sister, Anne, periodically interrupted the adult conversation with giggles or tears; there were hugs and tickles. Within me a change took place: I began to view the gray, sunless day through new eyes. From this new perspective, the hours appeared less uniform in their gray-ness. There had been bright spots and hopeful signs, which I had missed or dismissed before. I realized that a shift in perspective could completely change my view, and in turn could completely shift my experience. More importantly, I saw that such a shift was entirely within my own power. Take a step in any direction (including a mental step or shift) and it is possible to have a clearer, brighter, or simply different, view of things.

Leski goes on to say “the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen”. In the margins of my book I wrote, “relationship makes transformation possible”. Certainly, on the night I received Kate’s rainbow cow drawing, relationship offered me that possibility – the opportunity to create a new mind-set as I looked at my day from a different angle. Being with people I loved, held in their positive regard and hospitality, I was able to feel myself renewed and the day/my world view transformed toward the positive. How many times in my life has it been true that relationship has made transformation possible? There are countless examples, from small ones (transforming a momentary mood from gray to sunny) to significant and memorable ones (transforming an unengaged life into a vibrantly engaged one).

In light of these ruminations, glancing at my refrigerator has become an opportunity to check in with myself. First, I remember that I am loved – and usually even the grayest of clouds lightens with that thought. Second, Kate’s rainbow cow reminds me that, not only is my vision of the world unique to me, but it is within my power to shift that unique vision when it isn’t serving me well. Third, it reminds me that relationship (with earth, others, Creator) makes transformation possible. This last may be most important of all if it serves as an impetus to allow my energies to flow both outward and inward. That exchange of energy is where transformation becomes possible. That exchange of energy is how rainbows, and rainbow cows, are made.





Learning Not to Kill the Magic

11 07 2013

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

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

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

Heavy sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3140

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

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

Great view, from Target Field

Great view, from Target Field

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

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

Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013

Fireworks Finale, Twins Game, July 3, 2013





Defining Moments

14 06 2012

I have a friend from college who is on an extended vacation in Berlin. His Facebook posts paint little scenes for us, snippets of his experiences. He writes of many ghosts: in the apartment where he is staying; in the old graveyard where half the plots are tended and the other half are (mysteriously) overgrown and wild; the whispering voices of history on the Reichstag lawn at 2 a.m.

Tonight, I have my own voices from the past whispering in my ears.

Today is the anniversary of the 2008 floods which swept through Cedar Rapids, the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history. I’ll never forget it. For more than a year beforehand, my colleagues and I had worked to put together a campus crisis/disaster plan. That planning team, and our many meetings, is where some of my best friends and most valued colleagues were cultivated. And when the flood hit our town, and the plan we had created was enacted…I was hiking in the desert southwest.

That day my parents and I were in the mountains visiting a chain of remote national monuments, old Spanish missions. At each stop, the ranger at the information desk would ask, “Where you folks from?”, and my Dad would say, “Albuquerque. But our daughter is visiting from Cedar Rapids.” And every single person asked, “Isn’t that where they’re having that terrible flood?” Each time, I felt my sense of panic ratchet up a notch. I was not where I needed to be.

It’s interesting to look back at your own life and find those moments just before something big changes. Just before your perspective shifts, creating a new way of looking at the world around you.

There were many changes to Cedar Rapids, to the lives of people who live here, brought about by the flood. I would never want to minimize the difficulties and ways people suffered. For me, though, the flood changed something deep inside: for the first time, after living here for years, I thought of Cedar Rapids as my home town. And myself as part of this community.

I’ve written about perspective before (here): how hard it is to keep, how it can be regained in a moment of stunned reaction to a major life event. It is especially difficult to maintain perspective when we live cocooned in the false notion of self-reliance. When we think we are in “it” by ourselves, whether “it” is our job, raising our children, living through a serious illness, or simply trying to get through the day. The truth, hard as it is to hang on to when we feel alone, is that we are not alone.

This sense of being part of a community has only grown in me over the years since the flood. I didn’t suddenly start seeing Cedar Rapids as my dream city, or the only place I could ever live. However, I’ve come to understand that community transcends place, while it is also grounded in a place. We call that place “home”.





Perspective

22 09 2011

I remember an art teacher trying to explain the concept of perspective in drawing class. Intellectually, I got the concept, but when I put pencil to paper, I could never quite make it come out right. Those long railroad tracks disappearing into oblivion always curved in a strange way that would have derailed a train had one ever ventured down them.

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective. In art, perspective allows us to see objects in three dimensions, although they are on a two-dimensional surface, in a way that looks realistic. In life, perspective is also about seeing things realistically. It can only be achieved when we allow the plane of our own understanding to intersect with that of another (or others), thereby bringing depth and dimension to our vision of the world. And richness to our experience.

When I was a kid, I often faulted my mother for things. On Crazy Hats Day at girl scout day camp, my mother produced two crazy hats she had made – one for me, one for my sister. I thought my sister’s was cute and mine was embarrassingly ugly. It occurred to me too late that it might hurt my mother’s feelings if I told her so. I had been thinking about it in only one dimension – never considering that my mother might view it differently. I was a kid, though – and kids aren’t supposed to understand perspective. You’re supposed to gain perspective as you learn things like empathy, or the adage, “Walk a mile in my shoes.”

As an adult, it can be surprisingly easy to lose perspective though you’re not supposed to. To revert back to the kind of thinking that only considers me: my experiences, my feelings, my hurts. It is frighteningly easy to devolve into “poor me-ism”. This past weekend, I was so there. It was my on-call weekend, and things refused to go right. Saturday night/early Sunday morning, I was called to go to campus and untangle a series of events which took the entire night to sort through, and which included deeply emotional students and concerned parents, and a complex series of life events and issues. I returned home around 7 a.m., exhausted after a completely sleepless night. It was easy to say poor me. Nothing ever goes right for me. Yadda yadda yadda. Blech.

And then something really sad happened.

I learned of the death Sunday of a former student, one who graduated just a couple of years ago. I remember meeting Hannah, her freshman year. She was positive, bright and upbeat. She wanted to be a nurse, because she had a chronic illness and was so grateful for the amazing nurses who had cared for her throughout her life. But shortly after her arrival on campus, her condition worsened and she needed to leave school. Eventually, she became a candidate for an organ transplant, and returned to school after her surgery. It wasn’t long before another medical setback for Hannah: an opportunistic cancer, a result of the immunosuppressants she was required to take. She fought the cancer, and returned to school again. For the remainder of her college career, she participated in campus activities, majored in social work, and shared her story with many.

Hannah was an extraordinary person masquerading as an ordinary college student.  The notice of her death in the newspaper says, “Hannah’s life embodied her middle name, Joy, with a smile and spirit that would brighten up the room. She was sincere and caring toward all people. Her courage and drive were an inspiration to all she met. Her strong faith and love for the Lord Jesus Christ supported her through all her medical problems. Hannah will be deeply missed by her family and many friends.” All of it true.

Which brings me back to perspective. So many students I work with are reckless with the lives they take for granted. Or worse, purposely try to end them. Yet Hannah fought for hers every single day – and not just to keep it, but to fill it. Many of us waste the gift of time sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, while others find their time to be precious and short.

Today, I will begin the day with a workout class at my gym, then head to work and a schedule jam-packed with meetings. At the same time, Hannah’s family and close friends will gather to share their joy in her life and their grief at her passing, Her life intersected with and impacted so many, offering depth and dimension. Perspective. It is what allows us to live life in 3D, rather than in the one monotonous dimension of self-centeredness. Today will be a good day to remember that.