Treading Water: A Zoo Story

16 10 2014

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The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.

 

 

 





Lessons from The Valentine’s Day Box.

13 02 2014
Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Heart-shaped stone, found at Peace Garden

Remember when you were a kid and required to give valentines to everyone in your class, even kids you didn’t like? That was never particularly hard for me because I always felt sorry for kids I didn’t like. If I didn’t like them, no one did, right? They deserved my pity, obviously. Besides, the first person I remember seriously disliking was in sixth grade, the last year we handed out valentines in the classroom. I disliked her because she was mean to me and publicly named me a loser. But I survived placing a valentine in the decorated box on her desk just fine.

I also didn’t mind that the pile of valentines I brought home each year were given to me under duress. I was pretty sure that, left to consult their own feelings, most of my classmates would choose to bestow their valentines elsewhere. On the whole, I thought it was better to feel included – even if it was a sham.

All these years later, I am thinking about the lessons inherent in those classroom valentines. I know there are people who likely disagree with such practices, thinking children shouldn’t be taught to expect a world in which everything is fair and everyone gets the same number of valentines as everyone else: all grownups know this to be patently untrue. Better that we don’t set children up for later disillusionment.

However, that perspective only takes into account what it means to be on the receiving end. The greater lessons reside within the giving part of the transaction. And they are lessons, I believe, it would be good for us to regularly revisit as adults.

1. Kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion are easy to bestow upon people we already love. Stretching ourselves to share these qualities beyond our own small circle is much harder – yet it is what best allows us to express these qualities. It is also what allows us to expand our capacity to bring them to a wider world so very much in need of them. It is important for each of us to pay attention to the things that activate these impulses in our hearts: things we see in our neighborhoods, hear on the news, observe in the lives around us. Then take some action, big or small . In The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope writes, “Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.” The point is to act, to respond from your generosity or compassion – not to wait until you figure out an action that is guaranteed to change the world. That you bring light into someone else’s darkness is enough.

2. Be willing to speak of love, and open your heart to it, even when the situation involves people you don’t care for or don’t really know. Even, as in the case of my 6th grade nemesis, when the situation involves anger and hurt.

Just over a week ago, a young bicyclist named Marcus Nalls was struck and killed by a drunk driver down the street from my house. (The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide). Marcus had just moved to Minneapolis in January, transferring from Atlanta for his job. Very few people in this city knew him. But on Saturday, the cycling community held a memorial ride for him. Over 200 cyclists rode most of the route that Marcus would have ridden heading home from work the night he was killed. We rode in silence on the city streets. We dismounted and walked our bikes past the ghost bike memorial that has been placed at the site of his death. His coworkers wept unabashedly as we filed past, as did many of us. Were we angry? Absolutely. But I believe this memorial ride touched us all so deeply because we agreed to make it about solidarity and community, not about anger. We embraced Marcus as part of us, even though we hadn’t had the chance to know him – and we allowed ourselves to publicly mourn the lost opportunity of that. In the months to come, as the man who killed Marcus is brought to trial, my hope is that we will continue to place community and love at the center of our response, working toward increased safety for all.

3. Just as we were required to give everyone a valentine, regardless of our feelings about them, we must learn to feel gratitude for what life brings us – regardless. You might ask why – as I often do – should we be grateful for the bad or crappy or even the boring and mundane? The easy answer is that to be alive is to experience these things as well as the good, happy, peak moments. Bottom line: being alive is better than the alternative.

There is a certain complexity concealed within that “bottom line”, however. Life is a process of becoming, of refining our gifts and discovering meaning and purpose. A process of becoming the person we were created to be. We know the milestone markers for development in babies, toddlers, children. But in adults, these milestones are unique to the individual because they take place on an interior emotional and psychological level. When we reject or disown aspects of our experience, we disown pieces of the self we are meant to be. Am I happy, for example, to be a 52 year old woman who has never once had a “significant other” on Valentine’s Day? Not really. Is that fact an intrinsic part of the woman I have become? Absolutely. And I refuse to reject that part of myself, even though embracing it means embracing the sadness and loneliness I sometimes feel because of it. Embracing that part of me activates my compassion in many ways – both toward myself and toward others. For that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.

It has been a lot of years since I last decorated a box for my classmates to stuff with their valentines. Valentines Days have come and gone, each one different, each one finding me different. This year I have a plan – get up and live my life keeping in mind the lessons above. And one more lesson, a simple, eloquent one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM

Box of milagro-covered hearts, Santa Fe, NM





And we’re walking…

5 12 2013

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. -Steven Wright

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In late summer I hurt my knee in what some might call a misguided attempt to take up running. They might call it that because I have made such attempts before, always ending in injury to one knee or the other.

I experienced pain and difficulty walking for weeks, though bike riding seemed to help and didn’t exacerbate the injury. But I reached a point at which my knee wasn’t improving and it was hampering my mobility to a degree that I found frustrating. And, truth be told, I still harbor a desire to take up running – perhaps not marathoning, but I’d love to be able, one day, to say I’ve run a 5k. So, I decided that cycling needed to share time with weight-bearing exercise, and I started walking. On my first walk (around Lake Calhoun, a perfect 3.1 mile – or 5k – circuit) I clocked in at around 1.5 hours and could barely self-ambulate to my bike, much less pedal, for the ride home.

I’m not going to lie: after a summer of cycling, walking seemed tedious. Plus, let’s face it, “I went for a walk” doesn’t have the same cachet as “I just got back from a run”. At first, I stuck with walking because it was the only thing I could think to do that would, eventually, lead to normal functioning AND the opportunity to try running again (after all, my friend and award-winning running coach Ryan Scheckel has assured me that running is, in fact, possible for me).

But a funny thing happened as I committed to walking daily. I discovered that the act of walking opened me up in ways I never anticipated.

First, it opened my eyes. I began to understand the layout of the city, especially my neighborhood (Whittier) and those surrounding it. The pieces of this urban puzzle began to come together for me. Then, I found myself noticing details I had missed in riding or driving through the neighborhoods. Occasionally, I would take a picture with my phone and show it to Mike. He’d say, “Where is that? How come I’ve never seen it?!” This led to the Instagram project in which I post a daily photo of Minneapolis. While it may seem like a silly thing, the daily photo project has been a way of connecting, albeit tenuously, with like-minded people in this vast city. And the sheer fun of discovering new things each day has added to the measure of joy in my life. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors… disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” This is especially true for city dwellers, and I love occupying these “in-between” spaces.

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A second thing that walking daily has done is opened my heart to the strangers around me. It isn’t unusual to have short, pleasant and quite interesting interactions and conversations with people on the street – when I stop to take a photo or we’re waiting at the crosswalk. On the next block is a center for the blind, and I often meet folks coming or going on the sidewalk, using their walking sticks expertly. We exchange greetings and shy smiles. As I walk, I try not to avert my eyes from signs of suffering, or to look past the individuals who ask me for a handout. I agreed to buy breakfast for one young man, who then surprised me by asking the server what the least expensive item on the menu was, and ordering that. I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk crying and in obvious misery. We made eye contact, and she shook her head slightly as she passed, as if to say, “No, you can’t help this.” I like to think she knew I wanted to. As in any city, the mix of affluence and poverty, of hope and despair, of insiders and outsiders is apparent daily. As I walk, my heart tries to embrace them all.

Perhaps the most important kind of opening walking has brought to my days is a spiritual one. It doesn’t matter how worried or anxious I am when I step out the door, walking brings me calm. With that calmness comes the ability to to relax into a prayerful state that I find difficult to achieve in other circumstances. Praise, gratitude, supplication, even a kind of meditative trance all flow with ease. “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility”, says the poet Gary Snyder. Finding the balance between spirit and humility is, I find, a necessary prerequisite for open communication with God. It is too often the case that my daily worries loom overly large in my mind. There is no perspective available when your sense of self is overinflated to the point of panic – instead of communion, what occurs is melodramatic monologue. And really, who among us wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in that?!

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard

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New Year’s Day in Cedar Rapids, IA

1 01 2013

Two new photos posted on http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/.

Just a couple of homey Cedar Rapids shots for the new year!





Two Weekly Photo Challenges: Changing Seasons and Delicate

17 12 2012

I got behind in posting the photo challenges, so published two today.

Changing Seasons can be found at http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/weekly-photo-challenge-changing-seasons-jenifer/

Delicate can be found at http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/weekly-photo-challenge-delicate-jenifer/





Weekly Photo Challenge: Thankful

27 11 2012

You can find my entry in this week’s photo challenge on the photography blog I share with Michael R. Beck, at http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/weekly-photo-challenge-thankful-jenifer/.  Hope you enjoy!





Berries (not pearls) of Wisdom

25 10 2012
“…autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels . . .” – Charles Dickens
 

On a photo excursion with Mike this past weekend, I discovered that nature has more lessons to teach me than I realized. This particular day, the lessons were about how we view the world, the filters and perspectives through which we look at our lives or the events that comprise our days. And my teachers? The bright autumn berries that abound in the woods through which our path rambled.

Shortly after hitting the trail at Prairie Park Fishery, both Mike and I noticed luscious red berries. They were lit by the sun and glowing red amid yellow and green flora. I wanted desperately to photograph them, but they were on the wrong side of a chain link fence. So, I attempted to photograph them through the fence. The result? The fence got in the way, giving the berries second billing.

Berry Lesson #1:  In order to see things clearly it is important to clear your field of vision.

Remove or get past extraneous stuff that clutters up your thinking. This is so much easier to say than do, even when taking a simple photo on a Saturday afternoon. But when you are contemplating decisions about big things – your relationships, your livelihood – it is easy to pile nonessential pieces into the picture. Suddenly you’re focusing on something tangential, and you’ve distracted yourself from the central issue. Clear out the psychological and emotional clutter, and your vision will clear as well. Trust me, the end result is worth it.

A bit further along on our walk, I noticed a tree with vines curling around its trunk. I loved the look and the texture of the bark, the  symbiosis between tree and vine. So I took a photo…

…and continued on my way. Eventually, Mike and I turned around and began to retrace our steps at a leisurely pace. Mike moved ahead when I stopped to get a closer look at something on the ground. When I caught up with him, I noticed Mike was avidly shooting pictures. As I moved up next to him, I saw that he had in his viewfinder a profusion of bright yellow berries which contrasted beautifully against the brilliant blue sky. As I admired his find, I suddenly recognized what I was looking at – the tree I had already photographed. I had been so focused on the textures and the winding vine, I had completely missed the presence of the berries!

Berry Lesson #2:  There IS such a thing as being too focused.

While focus and single-mindedness can be great, we’ve all heard cautionary tales of people who were so focused on achieving a particular goal that they missed out on some beautiful opportunities in their lives. When I was originally photographing the tree, I would have sworn there were no berries in the  vicinity – yet, take another look at the tree photo and you’ll see yellow berries. They are clearly visible to all (except to me as I honed in on the trunk and winding vine).

On our photo excursions, Mike is forever reminding me “Don’t forget to look up!”. It’s a great reminder to change my perspective, to switch up the view from which I am looking at things. Too much focus keeps our eyes locked straight ahead, causing us to miss important things in the periphery.  When I finally did look up, thanks to Mike’s example and exhortation, I saw this:

After a while, I began to think I had already snapped photos of every possible view or item on the Fishery trail. Then the low battery light started flashing on my camera, and suddenly I was in a frenzy to grab a last few pictures before the camera shut itself off. This led to some hurried and/or random shots, such as this one:

What’s it a picture of? Its just nothing – no interest, no composition, no focal point. When we are in too big a hurry, momentum takes over. Sometimes, momentum carries us forward, sometimes it just keeps us moving. I often think that our culture, obsessed as it is with multitasking and speed and noise, mistakes all this activity for meaningfulness. As I was racing along, hurriedly snapping, I didn’t take one worthwhile shot.

Berry Lesson #3:  In daily life, and photo excursions, you’ve got to slow down and breathe deeply in order for the best things to happen – and to recognize them when they do.

After I snapped the shot above, I looked up to see Mike standing still. His camera, however, was clicking rapidly as he tried to capture a moving target. He said that several blue birds were chasing each other around a particular thicket. I joined him, but I was no match for those little birds – I couldn’t find them with my lens no matter what I did. I trotted back and forth across the trail for a minute, in an unproductive attempt to outrun the winged critters.

Then I stopped, laughing at myself. I let my shoulders relax into the warmth of the sun shining down on them. I smelled the crisp and slightly decaying scent of the leaves piled on the ground. I thought, briefly, “I am happy”. I could see some movement in one tree, so I lifted my camera until I could just barely glimpse something that didn’t look like a leaf. I didn’t care about the end product; I cared about the fact that I was – that second – where and with whom I wanted to be, engaging with my surroundings in a fully conscious manner. And in that moment – CLICK!  – one of the best things happened: