Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home

Image

As we were leaving church after the service, slowly processing out in single-file, my mother stopped the man in front of me.

“Mike! Mike! Is this your hat?”, she asked, handing him a straw cowboy hat.

“Yes, ma’am it is. Almost left without it!”

“Did you see my daughter taking a picture of it?,” Mom asked.

“Is that what you were doing?,” Mike asked me. “I wondered.”

“Well, you just don’t see that in Iowa,” I said, referring to the cowboy hats left resting on the adobe sills of many of the church’s stained-glass windows.

Mike frowned. “Don’t they allow hats in the churches up there?”, he asked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A brief conversation was all that was needed to explain that most midwestern churches don’t have thick adobe walls and, thereby, deep window ledges on which to rest hats. And that most men don’t have expensive Sunday hats – their feed caps are left at home or in the car during church services. However, as I departed Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, the cowboy hats sparked a train of thought. I was thinking about the phrase “Any place I hang my hat is home”.

Home. Always an evocative word, but especially so now, when I find myself both unemployed and homeless (albeit both busy and sheltered). Where is home for me now?

At mass on Sunday, I felt at home. Although I am by no stretch of the imagination a practicing Catholic, my spiritual life began in the Church. Despite years of choosing not to participate, I find that Catholicism’s rites are comforting to me in times of upheaval and change. As comforting as it may be, though, I don’t really think the Church encompasses the definition of home for me.

When, as now, I am staying with my parents, I think of myself as at home – though I’ve never actually lived in either this house or in Rio Rancho. The last actual structure I shared with my parents was on Andrew Court in Dubuque, Iowa 30 years ago. Whenever I find myself in Dubuque, I think of it as my hometown. I also feel deeply connected to the Mississippi River, and regardless of which state I am in when I see her rolling waters, I have a sensation of home.

Interestingly, I lived in Cedar Rapids for 17 years and never thought of that city as home. Instead, I thought of the people who populated my life, though they bore no blood relationship to me, as family. Since “family” is what typically populates “home”, I suppose in some sense Cedar Rapids could be considered home. Mount Mercy University probably deserves that appellation, though I’ve definitely left that home in my past.

After racking my brain to answer the question, “Where is home for me now?”, all I was able to come up with were bits and pieces. The truth is, while home may be a physical place, when we say home, we so often mean something more than mere geography. In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes, “If home is where the heart is, then by its most literal definition, my home is wherever I am.” When I read it, that statement struck me as the same level of cliché as “Wherever you go, there you are.” Obvious. Literal. True. But missing the point. My beating heart is wherever I am physically located, but my feeling heart is often elsewhere. Despite my best efforts to live in the present moment, I find that I am divided – that my emotional heart has left pieces of itself – among many homes.

In the weeks leading up to my move, I felt courageous and strong. I have rarely felt as grounded and ready for the future as I did at my going away party, surrounded by my oldest, youngest, and many of my dearest friends. Realizing this, I did a quick inventory of the recent past and discovered that, as I have developed stronger and more meaningful relationships, I have also felt less fear in new situations: sightseeing on foot alone in Philadelphia; losing my way on a detour and self-navigating out of Chicago’s Loop; a host of smaller solo adventures. It seems that having a deeply rooted sense of belonging or connectedness, of an emotional home, is key to maintaining a sense of courage and adventure – is central to holding an idea of myself as strong enough to keep venturing into unknown territory.

And having that connectedness for several years now, I was unprepared for the fearfulness I felt this week in ordinary situations I would typically take in stride.  On Monday morning, for example, I was nearly paralyzed with fearful indecision about where to ride my bike. Every choice seemed dreadfully scary.  In the Harry Potter novels, the character, Voldemort, split his soul and placed pieces of it in a variety of objects called horcruxes. These horcruxes preserved his immortality but left him vulnerable. That is how I felt, suddenly. Like I had left a piece of myself with each of the people who gave strength to my sense of self, and who were now separated from me by great distances. I felt very vulnerable. I found myself wanting to cling to my parents, the warmth of their physical presence comforting me.

Thankfully, I’ve learned that when fear and anxiety begin to ratchet up, it’s best to take a time out and practice some good mental hygiene. So I spent some time in reflection, thinking about the difficult nature of transitions. After some quiet thought, prayer, and deep breathing a couple of simple truths occurred to me. First, I’m already mid-leap. The time for fear, if there was a time, was before I quit my job, packed all my belongings and stuffed them in storage. If my life were a game of poker, I’d already be all-in.

Second, the horcrux analogy is flawed. I haven’t left pieces of myself behind with the people I love. We’ve spent years building those relationships, binding our hearts to one another’s with cords that are flexible (and stretchy), but incredibly strong. And while I am vulnerable because of these relationships, it is the ordinary vulnerability that we all risk when we open our hearts to another person, not a fatal flaw like Achilles’ heel. This kind of vulnerability is, paradoxically, necessary to the development of strong relationships – and to the development, at least for me, of a strong sense of self-efficacy.

After I realized these things, I could once again think about the concept of home without panic. So what if I don’t have a physical location to designate as “Home” at this very moment? Maybe it is cliché to think that if home is where my heart is, wherever I am is home. What’s so wrong with being cliché sometimes? I’ve brought the strength that I receive from the love and support of friends and family with me, as surely as I arrived in New Mexico with a framed photo of the extraordinary women who make up my book club. Their smiles remind me that, while I may be required to face my fears alone sometimes, I will be loved whether I meet with success or failure. And isn’t that part of home, too? They’ll take you in, at home, no matter whether you succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

After all of these musings about the nature of home, and its meaning for me during this moment of transition in my life, I had to smile when I received a text from Minneapolis, a city I’ve never lived in. It contained a photo of kites and the line, “We are so doing this when you get home.”  Still smiling, I grabbed my bike helmet (the closest thing I have to a hat) and headed out the door to face my “scary” biking options.

I guess, after all, it’s true what they say: “Any place I hang my hat is home.”

A Valentine from Me to You: You’re Not Alone

Think about it, there must be higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine…

—Steve Winwood and Will Jennings

When I was a child, then a teenager… even into the decades of my twenties and thirties…I never questioned that my life would be like most everyone else’s. I would meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family. As I got older and it wasn’t happening, I told everyone that was a-okay with me. I didn’t want it. So what if it was a lie? I shrugged it off and didn’t dwell on it.

By my early forties, I’d told the lie enough times that I was comfortable with it. Besides, at that point I’d gained enough weight that mostly people didn’t ask me about it anymore – whether I was seeing anyone, or wished I was, became a moot point. We all knew no one wanted someone like me. We didn’t talk about it. Ever.

Later in that decade, when I decided to change my life, to come out of my lie-induced trance, amid all of the incredibly beautiful, powerful and positive experiences came this realization: my supposed “okay-ness” with being alone was the biggest crock I’d ever sold myself.

Around that time, at a wedding, one of the bible readings opened up a pit of anger so vast I almost couldn’t contain my ire and join in the celebration. The reading didn’t beat around the bush – I thought they were the most cruel verses I’d ever heard. From Ecclesiastes 4:9:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

I stayed in that pit of anger for a long time, unable to claw my way out. At or to whom could I direct my wrath? I was just learning not to despise myself and that felt good enough that I didn’t want to turn my rage inward. So I directed it at the only other entity I could think of: God. And let me tell you, I am certain it was no coincidence that, during this time period, everywhere I turned people in my life were vociferously thanking God for the amazing partners He gifted them with. How that pissed me off, and fueled the fire I was burning up in!

At some indefinable moment, my angry defiance gave way to angry tears. I cried until the pit I was in filled with my own salty water. Suddenly, instead of being trapped in a pit I found myself swimming in an ocean of grief. After literal decades of choosing not to feel anything deeply, I felt every second of my mourning over what had never come to be. It wasn’t merely that I had no significant other at that moment, lots of people share that predicament. It was the fact that I have never had that. Never been cherished, wanted in a mature romantic relationship. Its a bit harder to find people who share that life experience – in part because who wants to admit that out loud? It feels defective. Deficient. I astonished myself with the number of tears I was capable of crying. I surprised (and frightened) my friends; seriously, we would look at one another in astonishment when yet another crying jag would take me in the middle of a seemingly innocuous moment. I was SAD. SAD. SAD.

One day, my feet touched bottom. On an emotional level, I was still doing that sniffly, hiccupy thing you do after a long hard cry, but I had come to the shore of that particular ocean. I wasn’t laughing it off, by any means, but I wasn’t in danger of flooding the midwest any longer.

Here’s the thing: even in the middle of my deepest anger and my soggiest grief, I was happy in a way I had never been before as an adult. Some days were downright joyful. Let me say that again so we all can feel the magnitude of what I’m saying here: some days, when I was angry beyond my ability to articulate it, or when I was so sorrowful I sat through dull work meetings trying not to cry, I was AT THE SAME MOMENT happy and sure of my own well-being.

How was that possible?

How is the reason I am rehashing all of this in a post on Valentine’s Day. In the three+ years I’ve been posting to this blog, I’ve discovered that the more honestly I share my true experiences, the more likely it is that someone – reading what I’ve written – will recognize him- or her- self in my story. So I feel confident that you’re out there. You know who you are – the person feeling so desperately alone. Unworthy. Defective. I want you, whoever you are, to know you don’t have to feel that way. Or at least, that isn’t the whole picture of who you are, or what your life can be.

First, it was possible to be both enraged and joyful because the more I opened myself to others, sharing my triumphs, failures, angers, and even my grief…the more others were willing to offer me love, friendship, and support. Incredible, amazing people in my life were able to understand that I was experiencing something profound. They couldn’t experience it themselves, not being me, but they could walk through it with me – and they did.

Second, it was possible to be both deeply sad and happy at the same time because the sadness was residual – left over from the past. Oprah (and therapists everywhere) always says that if you don’t let yourself feel it now, you’ll feel it later. With interest. So whatever you’re feeling, let it be felt. I ate to cover up my feelings, and while it seemed comforting at the time, it made things infinitely worse. I’ll take angry, crying, healthy and happy Jenion over my old dangerously overweight and sleepwalking self any day.

I came, eventually, to the shore of my ocean of grief with this realization: when you focus on what you don’t have, you will always feel deprived – even if you are surrounded by riches. And I am surrounded by blessings. When you focus on what you don’t have, you devalue not only the gifts you do have, but the givers of those gifts: the people who do care, who are there. And that includes my nemesis, God. This realization has recently allowed me to make my first, tentative, overtures of friendship toward God again. Don’t get me wrong. I still blame God. I am just learning to grudgingly accept that I don’t know everything God knows (including the big picture of my life).

In all of this I see the workings of a higher love, and it fills me with gratitude. That it would be possible to change my life never occurred to me until it started happening. That I could discover it possible to be happy with myself – even though I might wish some parts of my life were different – was a revelation to me. I know that since it was possible for me, it is possible for others, too. Possible for you.

There must be higher love, as the song says. Without it, life is wasted time. Look inside your heart and…stop wasting time. You may have to do work with yourself that is truly hard. And you may have to deal with feelings you buried in the past. But while romantic love, married love, is a beautiful thing – it isn’t the only thing. You are more than your relationship status, so much more! And you are not alone, no matter how utterly single you are this Valentine’s Day. In fact, you are loved.

The mightiest word

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
 
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
 
–from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Last week I wrote a post (Playing the Death Card) in which I related an experience I had with tarot cards back in the early 1990s. I knew as I wrote the post that there were members of my family, and likely some friends, who would be concerned on religious and/or spiritual grounds about my use of these cards. Sure enough, later that morning I received an email from one of my sisters. She was resisting the urge to comment, she said. She went on: “Instead, if you would like to know what I think, let me know and we can discuss it.  If not, no problem, and I won’t bring it up again.” She signed off with love.

Contrast that experience with the one recounted in this deeply sad post I read earlier this week, To Forgive. The author, Justine Graykin, tries to come to terms with the death of her only sister, whose terminal illness was kept a secret from her – at the sister’s request – because of Justine’s atheism. The sister refused to have a relationship with someone whose beliefs did not include God. And so she died, denying both sisters the opportunity to forgive or to choose love over implacability.

Two tales of sisters, one in which love fosters understanding and another in which love fosters alienation. So, as I’ve thought about these (among other things in an emotionally eventful week), I find myself asking:

Is love really hard, or do we just make it that way?

The only answer I can find is that we make love hard by our unending need to be in control. To have the people and events in our lives conform to our conception of what and who they should be.

What if we could let go of all that?

I have been trying to do this in my life and relationships, and I’m learning a few things:

  • There is a difference between not controlling and not showing up. Me being who I am and letting others see that, see my preferences, my feelings, my responses is important. When I don’t do that I am just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) for their projections. Like Julia Roberts’ character in “The Runaway Bride”, my favorite style of eggs are whatever style the person I am with likes. People may enjoy having themselves mirrored back, but it doesn’t allow for much depth of relationship.
  • Love and respect require honesty. And I don’t mean bluntness. Or “I just call it as I see it” approaches. These are typically masks for allowing oneself to steamroll over another person. I mean the kind of honesty that requires courage – sharing your true feelings, showing your insecurities and hurts, putting words to the fears that make you want to control the other person. 
  • Honesty is a two-way street. If love and respect require you to be honest with others, they also require that you ask for and seek honesty from the other person. Listen carefully. Ask questions, even if you are afraid of the answers. In fact, ask specifically the questions you are afraid to know the answers to – because all that secret fear is toxic to relationships and makes you want to grasp for control.
  • Definitions are not required. Our love for defining and quantifying things is deeply ingrained. But, except in a few specific instances (such as “spouse” “parent” “sibling”), we don’t have to check a box beside each of our relationships. This is why I have never been a fan of the term “best friend”. Best implies a hierarchy. At different moments, different people may fulfill the role of being the best person for me to be with or interact with. Relationships, even those defined by a title, are not static. They ebb and flow.

There are people in our lives who are not willing or able to meet us in exactly the spot where we stand on the path. Some are further ahead than we are, others are behind us with regard to maturity, confidence, ability to engage authentically with others. Instead of seeing these differences as problems and trying to force our steps to be in synch, what if we rejoiced in each other’s unique perspectives? What if our hopes and dreams for the others in our lives were not that they become who we think they should be, but rather that they become the best version of themselves – and allow them to define who that person would be?

Maybe love could stop being so hard. Maybe love could become free flowing and easy. Maybe love could cast a “widening pool of light” as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem suggests.

In the end, the question isn’t really, “What if the mightiest word is love?” Because it is. The question, I think, is: “What if we managed to let love be mighty?” How would our lives and the world around us change?

July 19: 1980 and 2012 (On Marriage)

1980:

It was a scorcher. I remember it being so hot that, as I stood in line, I could feel sweat trickle from my scalp down my back between my shoulder blades. My yellow dress and matching pumps clung to me uncomfortably – especially the shoes, as they tightly crossed an itchy patch of poison ivy on the arch of my foot.

While we waited for the ceremony to start, I laughed to myself about the fact that it had taken a village to help my sister into her pantyhose AFTER she had already donned her wedding dress. My younger sisters, in their matching yellow dresses, were also in line, each of us paired with a groomsman we didn’t know. When it was my turn to walk up the aisle, all I was thinking about was not making a fool of myself. I didn’t look at the people, friends and family I loved, turning in the pews to watch. I’m pretty sure I forgot to smile, I was so self-conscious.

I enjoyed all the events before and after the wedding. The rehearsal dinner ended in a gathering at the groom’s home. Guitars came out and we had a sing-along with the “old gang” from Loveland (where we used to live in Ohio) and the wedding party and guests who were already in town. Dave (the groom) and his best friend Randy, sang Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, among other crowd pleasers. The punch and cake reception, in the church, had a “shadow reception” in the parking lot, with beer dispensed out of the back of a station wagon for those old enough. Later that night all the college/graduate students headed downtown Cincinnati and the riverfront for a good time.

I was still 18, and full of whatever notions fill the mind of an 18 year old: friends, laughter, romance. I’m sure I listened to the sermon during the wedding – after all, it was Pastor Ross, our dear friend and sometimes youth group leader and I always listened to him. But my head was already full of fluff and what he said didn’t have a place to take hold. The people were lovely, the music was beautiful, and there was a particular boy there that I thought was incredibly special – that’s what I do remember.

It never occurred to me, that day, to wonder “What makes a marriage?” or “What makes a marriage last?” or “What does it truly mean to be committed to another person?” I thought I knew (because at 18 you always think you know stuff), and I didn’t think a wedding was the time for serious or thoughtful reflection.

2012:

Today, 32 years after my sister’s wedding, is another scorcher. Under 100 degrees finally, but still hot.   As I write (thankfully NOT dressed head-to-toe in buttercup yellow), I realize I know both more and less about marriage than I did that day in 1980. On the more side, I know that a wedding is exactly the time for thoughtful reflection because it is a fun but very serious occasion. What is taking place is a sacred event, not merely a whimsically romantic one. Also, on the more side, I know that the concept of “for better or worse” often contains more worse than the bride and groom have foreseen.That this worse can include things like illness, and boredom, and selfishness, and financial crisis. I’ve watched as couples I know have either found a way to absorb these blows and come through with a stronger bond, or have found themselves blasted apart. Another item on the more list: marriage is not a spectator sport. If you are married, you have to play hard, and play to win. Your head has to be in the game.

Strangely enough, the “less” I know now as compared with my 18 year old self is so much greater than the “more”. I thought I knew that love spontaneously erupts in our hearts and leads to marriage – and if the love is strong enough the marriage is too. I now know that’s not quite how it works, that love is only one factor in a complex equation that I understand about as much as I do calculus. I thought I knew that there were particular hurts or violations (sexual infidelity chief among them) that, when committed by a spouse, were marriage deal-breakers. No questions, its over. Conversely, I thought that a marriage was safe as long as these particular issues never occured. Clearly, I suck at marriage math because both assumptions have proven false as I’ve watched the marriages of my family and friends ebb and flow, strengthen and (sadly) fail due to issues and behaviors nearly impossible to comprehend from outside the relationship.

Which is likely one reason I’m fascinated by this topic today – marriage is something I’ve only had the opportunity to study from the outside. As I think on it today, on my sister’s 32nd anniversary, I stand in awe of my parents and siblings who have, apparently, figured out how to do it so well. I also stand in awe of my friends: those whose marriages are anywhere on the continuum from happy to struggling to falling apart. I am in awe of their determination, hard work, joy and sorrow and the fact that they continue to function in (reasonably) normal ways.

There is a lot said these days about people not taking marriage seriously, about couples entering into the fun of a wedding without thought to the actual work of a marriage. The Brittney Spears and Kim Kardashians, whose weddings are barely over before the marriage is, are given as examples. However, in real life (as opposed to celebrity life) I haven’t seen that. In real life, I’ve seen people struggle to make it work. I’ve seen people sacrifice, try all sorts of creative endeavors and creative thinking to keep their marriages viable. And I’ve watched as people I love try to put their lives back together after their marriage has broken, and broken their lives to pieces.

So, what’s my point? Simply this: at 18, a wedding appears to be the most important part of a marriage.  At 50, even those of us who’ve never been married know the wedding, though a serious event, is a jumping-off point. No matter what one thinks they know, the marriage will be an epic journey through the unknown. My role as family member or friend is to witness and support and uplift, regardless of my opinion – because if marriage is not a spectator sport, it is also not one where anyone needs or welcomes Monday morning quarterbacking from me. In closing: Happy Anniversary, Chris and Dave! And to the rest of you brave souls (married, divorced or someplace in between) – bon voyage! I’ll be here  if you need me!

What Shapes Us

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

On our recent road trip to New Mexico, my family took Mike and I to Kasha-Katuwe, better known as Tent Rocks. The unique landscape was originally formed by massive eruptions in the Jemez volcanic field, which “spewed pyroclasts (rock fragments), while searing hot gases blasted down slopes in an incandescent avalanche called a ‘pyroclastic flow’.”  The resulting formations are spectacular.

We climbed a little over 1100 feet (from an altitude of 5570 to one of 6760), taking in the most amazing views of both the tent rock formations and the surrounding New Mexican landscape.

Tent Rock formations
Tent rocks in foreground, mountainous New Mexico in background

One of my favorite parts of the hike, both on the way in/up and on the way back/down, was the trail leading through the slot canyons. Over time, wind and rain have carved canyons and arroyos into the rock, creating passages (like the one pictured at the top of this post) of surpassing beauty. For most of the morning, we hiked through 100 degree temperatures, thin air and a burning sun. These canyons of layered rock were hushed and cool by comparison.

The stillness of the canyons gave rise to contemplation. Like the rock, which was shaped by the forces of nature, we too, are shaped by the vissicitudes of life. Our choices, our experiences, who we love and how we learn – all have a role in shaping us. Therefore, it seemed especially poignant to share this experience, and these thoughts, in companionable silence with Mike.

We met when I was 18, Mike 19. We were still fresh, unmarked clay. Our faces shone with, as J.D. Salinger put it when speaking of college students, “the misinformation of the ages”. Over the next few years, we shared some powerful experiences as each of us attempted to discover the direction of our lives. Eventually, though, we found that we were bound in different directions, and we parted ways.

The weathers of life – births, disappointments, marriages, jobs, successes – had their way with us over the next thirty years. Molding and shaping us into mature adults, careworn and wiser (we hope). And then, surprisingly, bringing us back onto each others’ paths. Under the extra pounds, the gray hair, the wrinkles, the familiar past could be glimpsed. Only now, the layers and textures add depth and surprise. They offer possibilities that didn’t exist in our earlier friendship: wisdom and generosity of spirit, compassion and forgiveness. Human capacities with which youth is often barely acquainted.

So tonight, back home in my little house in Iowa, I am thinking of Kasha-Katuwe and the lessons it taught me. Time makes shape-shifters of us all. I am grateful for this learning. I am grateful for this earth which teaches me. And yes, Mike, lest you think I left out the most important part (again), I am grateful for your company on this path.

Mike and I, at the top!

The Sunday Roast: Guest Post by Emily Muhlbach

Emily Muhlbach is a kindred spirit, lover of words, and believer in bone-crushing hugs. She is also a talented writer, communications, marketing and social media specialist. If you want to read more of her work, you’ll need to encourage her to start a public blog – or check out her professional work at magazine.mtmercy.edu. Enjoy this Sunday Roast!

When my good friend Jen asked me to consider writing a blog on Tolkien, I hesitated. I worried it would come out wrong. And let’s face it, people actually read Jen’s blog. I got stage fright. But as I reflected on the subject matter, the words started to come.

So here it is: Why I Love Tolkien’s Writing

Most of my favorite elements are wrapped in Tolkien’s work. The messages are true and noble. The heroes are relatable; the danger is powerful and allusive. Each character is blessed with special giftings that only they can offer the cause, giving everyone a destiny and rich role to play in the events that shape their futures.

I love destinies and fighting for a cause. I love the greater good that is worth all else to save. You can see it in the characters of those fighting that they would willingly, gladly give all for the chance to see that greater good still live. And I believe, deep down, we all love these things. They speak to us in ways other messages do not; they make our spirits come alive.

We all want to take that moment and decide the better cause, the truer true…to chase the noble arch. As Gandalf would say, “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

I love these books and movies for the sheer weight in them. The evil the Fellowship fights is the battle I wish to fight. I want to be on that field, for how meaningful for your role to hold such depth of purpose; for your actions and allegiances to carry such significance?

There is a wisdom and light the characters exude; giving off passages and quotes that resonate with me on a spiritual level. As whispered in the third movie, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair…” that promise echoes core beliefs of my own. The books and movies are mystic and lovely, and yet wholly familiar, reflecting something deep within me.

For all these reasons and more, Tolkien’s writing will forever be dear to me. But there is something else that keeps it close to my heart. My brother.

When those movies first came out, my brother and I were not friends. We were not close and did not know each other in ways that stick with you past adolescence and young adulthood. Then The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and every wound was healed. Both of us instantly fell in love with it – the lands, the swordsmanship, the quotes, the score, the gallantry, the battle.

And suddenly the two of us were whole. We found ourselves with a shared cause and a shared love. We fell under the same banner, rode under the same flag. We saw the movies over and over again, quoted them, researched them, unearthed our Elvish names. It was as if we finally came to know each other. In recognizing the things we were both drawn to, we saw each other in new ways, reflected off each other.

The last movie came out in 2003, which seems like a lifetime ago. My brother died in 2008, after we had grown close. In that time I learned he loved to write, and was working on a novel. He wrote poetry and song lyrics, and had a wisdom about him that his friends sought him out for. And I learned all this because those movies brought us together.

When I saw the trailer for The Hobbit my heart jumped, and the thought entered my mind before I could identify and stop it, “I can’t wait to tell Henry.”

But I can’t. And I won’t be going to see it with him, to visit the lands again that we love and the characters that we identify with. But when I sit in that theatre and see our old friends on the screen, he will be in my mind and on my heart the entire time, and I will wish dearly and desperately that he was traveling to those worlds with me once again.

So you see, I cannot undo those movies and how they have impacted me, nor would I ever wish to. For they represent ideals, treasures and resolve that I hold dear – and they represent a piece of my brother’s heart. And for that, they will always remain in mine.

Though here at journey’s end I lie

In darkness buried deep,

Beyond all towers strong and high,

Beyond all mountains steep,

Above all shadows rides the Sun

And Stars for ever dwell.

I will not say the Day is done,

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Flashback Friday – Nice Ride, Brother!

It was 1970-something. Back row: Dave, Debbie Ross, Stephanie Beller, Marla St. Clair; Front Row: Jeff Hanson, Susannah Ross, me.

The car belonged to my friend and youth-group leader, Dave Finnegan. From the first night we met, at a Tuesday night Inter-Church Youth (ICY) meeting, I thought he was awesome. Gentle of spirit, kind, and incredibly smart. Not a bad volleyball player. Or too shabby with that guitar.

In the ensuing 35 or so years since we met, Dave has been an important influence on my life AND a member of my family – he and my sister Chris were married a couple of years after this photo. They raised two amazing sons, my nephews Ben and Tim, together. And they have weathered more than their share of serious illness – Dave faced several bouts of cancer, culminating in a Stage IV diagnosis and a grueling experimental treatment program at M.D. Anderson in Houston (he has been cancer free since then, approximately twenty years). My sister, Chris, will have surgery on Tuesday for her second round with breast cancer.

What I want to say about Dave in this Flashback is that I couldn’t have chosen anyone better for my sister’s life companion. You know how it is with in-laws: they marry into a family like ours (big, loud, opinionated) and can spend years figuring out how not to be chewed up and spit out. Dave maintains his calm, faithful and principled presence – occasionally making us groan at his terrible puns. In the coming weeks, he will be the gentle rock upon which my sister will lean – and by virtue of his presence where we can’t be, we will all lean on him to an extent (poor guy). After more than three decades, I can  say with complete trust that he’s up to the task. I thank God, and my brother Dave, for that!

50 about 50: Friends

On Sunday, I returned home from a 60 mile bike ride, tired, but pleased with the beginning of my birthday week. Wedged between the screen and wood doors at the side of my house, was what could only be a present! I could not imagine who had left it. It was a lovely surprise when I discovered it came from friends I would never have guessed. The card brought tears to my eyes which spilled over when I unwrapped the present – a lovely, decorative plate with these words:

“We all let people into our lives, but you will find that really good friends let you into your own.”

These words are among the most true I’ve heard. My life, and the people who have helped me to live in it, are proof. So today’s final 50 About 50 list of ten: the friends who have brought me joy, helped to mold me as a person, shown me through their examples what it means to be generous and kind.

1. First Friends

My parents, Jack and Shirley, believe in being parents, not friends, to their children. Among the milk, manners, and morals they fed me as a child were nuggets that continue to inform my daily choices. They will always be my parents, but they are, finally, also the friends in whom I see myself.

2. Siblings who are Friends

Growing up, my five siblings were my best friends and my arch enemies. No one comes out of a large family unscathed! We fought. We hid things from each other in an attempt to have some measure of privacy in a household of eight people and assorted strange pets. We relied on each other through multiple moves to new neighborhoods and towns. And over the years, these people became my hoarcruxes (to borrow from Harry Potter). Pieces of me reside within them, and would be lost without them.

3. Friends who are siblings

While I would never trade my family of origin for another, I have been blessed to be adopted into a couple of special families. First came deep friendships that have the feel of sibling relationships, then their generous families took me in as well (and I’m not just talking about a Scheckel Brothers group hug, though that was pretty great, too!). These friends make sure that I have family to spend holidays with, to celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s losses with, to feel connected with as a singleton in a family-oriented city. The Smiths/Kohls and the Dennis’ – they are my family as surely as the Hansons/Finnegans/Browns.

4. Teacher Friends

Some people are put in our lives to teach us how to be human, how to be good, how to push ourselves forward in compassion and truth. In my life, a few of these friends have actually been teachers, while a score of others have, in fact, been students! Some friends have simply demonstrated ways of thinking and being that I strive to emulate. Its been said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teachers almost invariably show up before this student is ready – hopefully, I am learning to be open and fertile ground. I know I have already learned from these teachers to be a better me.

5. Friends and Colleagues

I came to my current university for a two-year grant-funded position. In 1994. What kept me here, when a decision-point came in 1996, was the strength of relationships with colleagues who share my vocation and my values. My sense of humor, and my vision for what we hope to accomplish. At each decision-point along the way, my colleagues and the genuine sense of respect and love between us is what has kept me rooted to this spot.

6. Children Friends

“Are you my aunt?” You might be surprised how often I’ve been asked this question by small children to whom I am, in fact, unrelated. I LOVE this question! I would have liked to have children of my own, but since I did not, I feel truly blessed to have been so connected to children, be they my actual nephews and nieces or the other wonderful children who aslo bring joy and laughter to my life.

7. Fleeting Friends

We have all had the experience of friends who are part of our lives for varying periods of time, then slip away. The fact that they are not actively part of our days forever does not mean they have not been important, or have not been loved. In fact, it is to some of these individuals that I owe great debts of gratitude for the gifts they’ve brought to me, the lessons I’ve learned from them. I will always think fondly of them, always be glad for good things to enter their lives, as they entered mine.

8. Beloved Friends

I do not fall in love easily or often. This is, therefore, a very small (though important) category. I know people who have begun their relationships with significant others as dating relationships. Not me. Significant feelings have only ever been the outgrowth of what have been significant friendships first. Amazingly, each of these individuals can currently be called, “Friend”, and each may actually read this post. You know who you are. All I can say is this: you have taken up residence in my heart, and there you will always have a home.

9. Friends who “let you into your own life”

Unlike the previous category, this group is big, and has grown exponentially the past couple of years. Lots of self-help and personal growth books will tell you to surround yourself with people who bring forth your best, people who challenge you to be more than you currently are. I can’t say I followed this advice, because I can’t say that the fact I’m surrounded by incredible people was something I did. Instead, each of these precious friends arrived in my life as a gift. They have surrounded me with love, support, generosity and trust. They have tested me, challenged me, called me on my crap. They have knocked at my door when I was hiding out, they have braved snarky comments when they got too close to some truth I was denying. Most importantly, they have loved me. At my best AND at my worst.

10. The friend who is my self

Strange to be so far into one’s life before deciding to befriend, rather than sabotage, oneself. Now that I’m here, its pretty clear that this is how it is supposed to work.

You may wonder why I didn’t mention very many names as I described my list of friends. Most practically, I was afraid of leaving people out. More importantly, most of the people in my life who would make this list cross over from one type of friend to another as circumstances and need require – the categories are not mutually exclusive. The name calling (name dropping? naming?) would have gotten repetitive. Rest assured, though: from my friend Carol, who has been loyal and steadfast since fifth grade, to little Femto Finnegan, who has yet to be born, the names and faces of many loved ones have been before me as I type this entry. Standing on the 50 year line, looking back at the past, forward at the future, I see one thread inextricably connecting the two – the thread of relationship. Friends, you are with me now, and will be as we move forward on this crazy trip of life. For that, I am humbly grateful.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing…
e e cummings

In My Tribe

Back in the ’80s, the phrase “In My Tribe” was most closely associated with the band 10,000 Maniacs, fronted by Natalie Merchant. The album of this name contained songs I can sing along with, word for word, today – many of them “issue” songs: child abuse, military conditioning of young men, depression, domestic violence.  I loved this album for many reasons, not the least of which is that its songs mirrored my political leanings as well as the issues I was in graduate school preparing to address. I had joined the 10,000 Maniacs’ tribe, for sure.

Today, I watched a TED talk by Seth Godin, here, in which he posits that tribes are what matter now, groups of people connecting and coming together over shared ideas. He says each of us has the ability to find something worth changing in the world, then assemble a group of people who share that vision. This group will, in turn, assemble another group and pretty soon, we have an agglomeration of groups affiliated with one another via this shared idea. And this new tribe of like-minded souls can change anything. Godin gives a nifty 3-step process on “How to Change Everything”: 1. Challenge the status quo. 2. Build a culture (connect people, develop a language that allows members to recognize each other, etc.) 3. Commit. At the end of his talk, he challenges the audience to take 24-hours (what Godin claims is all the time needed) and create a movement. If you have a few minutes, watch him, its definitely engaging whether you find yourself agreeing with him or not.

This week I am in an introspective space personally, and I find myself especially drawn to this concept of tribe. Particularly, the idea that one person might belong to several such groups, since they are idea or issue based.  I belong, for example, to the tribe of people who are concerned about where our food comes from, how it is processed and engineered, how it nourishes us or harms us. I am a new member of the tribe of bike-riding enthusiasts. More particularly, over the past couple of years, I feel like I have been working with a few committed others to build a tribe in our workspace. While it has taken us much longer than the suggested 24-hour time table proposed by Seth G., I like to think that our tribe is, in fact, changing the world (albeit slowly and one person at a time).

This tribe began as a group of strangers who happened to be hired to work together. I had been here for more than a decade, while the others were new to this environment. You always hope that you will connect with coworkers, and we did. However, something a little different than the usual work-related friendships began to develop. We began to challenge one another to reach for and embody what we value and what gives meaning and purpose to our work. We offered one another support, but we also challenged each other to live our best professional lives. One woman put it succinctly: holding up one hand at waist height, she said, “Most of us and the people around us are living here.” Then putting her other hand up at forehead height, she said, “We want, and need, to remember to live here.” High energy, high intent, high sense of values and purpose. As a result, we’ve created some amazing relationships, opportunities, programs. We have challenged and encouraged not only one another, but also our students and our institution, to strive for that higher plane. Has our work been perfect? No. Are there other tribes accomplishing good things here as well? Absolutely.

Ultimately, what makes this, or any tribe, special is the quality of the people and the vibrancy of their shared vision or cause. On the bike trail, I find a tribe of friendly, enthusiastic and welcoming others moving 10-30 mph. In the sustainable food tribe, I find others who put their food dollars where their mouths are (farmers’ markets, CSAs, organic, local) and who work tirelessly to educate themselves and others about their concerns. But in my tribe of colleagues, I have found people who sustain me, who push me, who comfort and mentor me. And I know they find those things in me, as well. And as we engender passion and compassion in one another, we pass it on to others with whom we come in contact. I have to believe that this is how we, in our small way, are changing our world.

(NOTE: This week, today in fact, my dear friend and valued colleague, Tricia moves on to the next phase in her life and the life of her family. She has been pivotal in creating an environment in which our tribe has flourished. We are all sad to see her go – Tricia may be most sad of all – but that is one of the great things about the idea of a tribe. Our connection is about the ideas and passions we share, not about our physical location.)