Taking a Flying Leap

24 01 2013

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“You remember the old Roadrunner cartoons, where the coyote would run off a cliff and keep going, until he looked down and happened to notice he was running on nothing but thin air?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” he says. “I always used to wonder what would have happened if he’d never looked down. Would the air have stayed solid under his feet until he reached the other side? I think it would have, and I think we’re all like that. We start heading out across this canyon, looking straight ahead at the thing that matters, but something, some fear or insecurity, makes us look down. And we see we’re walking on air, and we panic, and turn around and scramble like hell to get back to solid ground. And if we just wouldn’t look down, we could make it to the other side…”

–Jonathan Tropper,The Book of Joe

I was sitting at my dining room table, trying to decide what to share in today’s post. My recent reflections have been, indeed, reflections of my state of mind – serious, heavy, full of the weighty feel of winter. I was attempting to think of something to say today that would lighten the mood a bit, but I was coming up empty-handed.

Then, I happened to look up and see the little painting (in the photo above) that my sister, Gwen, gave me for Christmas. When I got home from the holidays in New Mexico, I put the painting in the little niche in my dining room, where it resides with angels and saints, a diminutive ceramic creche, a glass charm against the evil eye. And I promptly stopped noticing it until now.

The woman silhouetted in the painting is leaping – with abandon and joy, it seems — across a chasm. She is looking ahead, at her goal, not down at what is or is not currently beneath her feet. Does she know, I wonder, what lies ahead? I doubt it – it seems clear that this is a leap of faith. Faith that she’ll land safely on the other side. Faith that the choice to leap was the right one. Faith that the time for leaping had arrived. And faith that, whatever awaits on the far side of the chasm, will be worth facing and taking the leap.

Faith is what I’ve been forgetting to cultivate in this dark winter. And in so doing, a joyful spirit is what I’ve imprisoned in anxiety and fear. The overwhelming to-do list I’ve written with my obsessive thinking lacks both faith and joy – I have been thinking of everything as something I have to do (even time with loved ones has been relegated to the status of “onerous chores”) rather than as something I choose to do – or better, as something I am privileged to do.

I am reminded of what Brene Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection about resilience: “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we’re all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.” (my emphasis)

So here’s to cultivating resilience: to leaping forward without looking down, to releasing a joyful spirit from the gloom of winter, to celebrating connection, and to actively practicing faith.





Pulling a Forrest Gump

15 11 2012
Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I’ve lived my life, in some ways, a lot like Forrest Gump – at least during his running phase. In the movie, Forrest claims he just felt like it, so took off running and kept going. Until he didn’t feel like it anymore. Plain and simple, just like the character of Forrest Gump himself.

Those of you who have known me for any length of time are likely wondering in what possible way I have been like this image of Forrest – I rarely run, after all. And I am hardly considered simple (recent descriptions have included cantankerous, introspective, difficult and an overthinker – not one simple in the bunch).

As I look at my life and ask, “What next?”, I can’t help but look back and wonder – what the??? How did I get here? It is as if I just jogged along the path of my life, for no particular reason continuing on the same trajectory. When I came to a roadblock or a turning point, I made a minute course correction and kept jogging. I figured that since I’d gone this far, I might as well just keep going. This is how Forrest crisscrossed the continent, and it is how I passed a lot of my days. I just kept going.

Aside from the obvious oversimplification – there were, after all, moments of soul-searching, difficult decision-points, days when striking out in a different direction was a near possibility – this is a fairly accurate description of my adult life. It is only relatively recently that I’ve learned to recognize the truth – the downside of over-identification with your career, your social milieu, your physical condition or your whatever is not that others define you by it. The downside is that you define and limit yourself. You are so far “in”, you can’t even see that there is an “out”.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for “staying the course”, for commitment. But Forrest just ran. He thought he “might as well”, which is hardly the same as commitment. And while he ran, a series of events and adventures happened around him. But they didn’t actually happen to him. They happened because other people were seeking meaning, looking for answers, trying to discover a purpose or a passion. (In the movie, others mistakenly assume that these things will be found by running with or after Forrest. We are meant to see these others as pathetic, but I think that’s open for interpretation. At least they are searching for something.)

One day, Forrest stops running and begins a new phase of his life. Who can say why, for sure? The same thing happened to me. One day I realized that I was just mindlessly running on a treadmill and calling it “my life”. I decided to stop doing that. Many people have asked, primarily wondering about my weight loss. “What was different? Why did it ‘take’ this time?” I don’t have a ready or easy answer for that. The day I stepped on the scale and decided 352 was a really high number felt, otherwise, like any other day. So did the day I started working out. I refused to begin with a solid statement of commitment, “This is the day I change my life!”, because I’d done that before and it hadn’t been true. I began with more of a “Meh. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.” I might as well.

If that’s how it began, very much in the vein of Forrest’s running phase, that’s not how it continued. Stepping off the treadmill I’d been running on took daily effort, and continues to take daily effort. I wake up in the morning and decide to exercise. Decide to eat more veggies and less dessert. Decide that I can go one more day without pizza. And in the other areas of my life, my emotional and professional and spiritual selves also have to make active choices, set goals, decide. There is no room for “I might as well” or “for no particular reason”. Because that old treadmill (or hamster wheel if you prefer) is still in working order and, even after several years of wakefulness, it is easy to step onto it and forget to choose. To just jog along with the status quo, to somnambulate at pace.

Steve Jobs famously stated that you can never connect the dots moving forward in your life. You can only connect the dots looking back. We still have to move forward, trusting that the dots WILL connect. There are periods when living consciously is exciting – we feel our own forward momentum and it is exhilarating. And there are periods when making deliberate choices day in and day out feels really hard. Sorry, Forrest, but as endearing a character as you are, I don’t want to be like you anymore. I would rather choose the hard way and stay awake, live with purpose, than look back at my life and say, “I did it for no particular reason.”





Peeling

4 10 2012
 
“The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” — Simone Weil
 

When I named my blog Jenion, I thought it was a clever play on words – a combination of my name (Jen) with onion. My tag line: peeling away the layers. Like the onion, I had physical layers that needed to be peeled away. The peeling of those layers has slowed considerably, but the process has uniformly felt good. Like pulling off the dead skin after a sunburn, this physical peeling (a.k.a. weight loss) revealed softer, healthier, more glowing layers beneath.

At the beginning, I didn’t fully grasp that there were psychic and emotional layers that also needed to be pulled back in order to reveal both the person I hoped to become and the life I wanted to live. In part, I didn’t understand this because I had denied my own hunger, to borrow Simone Weil’s metaphor from the quote above. After all, I had eaten my way to more than 350 pounds – how could I possibly be hungry?

The soul, my friends, can be a powerful liar and deceiver in the name of self-preservation.

Not understanding what that process would involve, I began pulling away at the top, papery layers of the onion that is my emotional self. Some of it was easy – self-revelations seemed to come with each pound shed. Occasionally, though, the peeling skin wasn’t completely ready to detach, and there was a wince of pain. But with the support of others and the motivation provided by ongoing success, I persevered. And I discovered happiness in my life. True friendship. Joy.

That would have been a nice, happy ending, eh?

However, there was a deeper truth about this process of peeling away the layers that I didn’t understand, in fact am only now beginning to grasp fully. This truth has three parts: the layers never end; once you begin peeling them away to uncover your soul’s hidden truths, you have embarked on a journey that calls for your continued commitment; the deeper the layers you uncover, the greater the emotional pain you feel upon peeling them away. The pain, the emotion, comes from exposing hidden places to air and light. And even though you know that is good for healing and the process of growth, it still results in discomfort.

There may be those who think I’m being either pessimistic or melodramatic here. Why should life, why should being happy, be so hard? they might ask. I don’t know the answer to that. Why are things that come easily to some, so elusive for me? Why are things that are obvious and clear to me so opaque for others? Why is the sky blue?!

I am particularly short on answers as I busy myself with the questions that my life asks me to consider. I do think those elusive answers are bound up in the aftermath of having lied to myself, of convincing myself that I wasn’t hungry, that I wasn’t angry, and that I had nothing to feel sad about nor any right to feel lonely. All that hunger, anger, sadness and loneliness were part of a life-giving river of emotion which my self-deception damned up, creating a huge reservoir. Now, each layer I peel away from my inner-onion, creates a chink in the damn. The emotions start to leak out, and threaten to become a torrent. Onions, I should have realized, call forth tears.

After all that, there is still a happy ending here. Happiness, true friendship, joy – all these are part of the same river of emotion I once damned up through self-deceit. Un-damned, the river flows with all of the emotions: the good, the difficult, and the life-affirming ones. With tears and laughter, anger and love, hunger and peace.

I keep peeling with that vision in mind.





Get Your Bloom On!

2 08 2012
Springville, Iowa, July 27, 2012.
 
 I am standing in the middle of the main street of town, with my good friend Tricia Borelli and thousands of others, and I am suddenly overcome with emotion. I tell Tricia, “This is what I want for everyone!”

Let me explain what I meant – and it wasn’t for everyone to stand in the streets of Springville, Iowa-though I believe there could be worse fates. We had just finished what proved to be the hardest 10 miles of a 208-mile bicycling adventure (three consecutive days of RAGBRAI). With a sore body operating on little sleep, the 10 mile leg just completed, consisting of lots of climb against a strong headwind, called upon every reserve I had. This middle day of the ride was “supposed” to be the easy one, too. What a betrayal of my expectations!

As Tricia and I pulled into town, the members of our team who had arrived ahead of us flagged us down. We explored the town, grateful for the food and beverage options and for the hospitality of the local Methodist church which allowed us to used their indoor bathrooms. Take it from me: porta-potties used by thousands of bicyclists are not the preferred option. We had some time to kill before our last two teammates arrived, which meant real leisure to soak up the ambience.

People of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds swelled the small town’s usual population of around one thousand to nearly ten times that. Banners flapped in the stiff breeze, music came at us from every direction, colorful costumes and jerseys caught our attention. The sun beat down on us and sweat caused our spandex-laden clothing to stick to our bodies. I downed a bottle of blue Gatorade with relish – something I would normally avoid as exuberantly as I avoid eating liver.

As I watched the spectacle and felt myself just one more colorful piece of it, I experienced one of those rare moments of clarity in life. This exact moment that I was living in with such joy, I would once have shunned. The July heat. The crowds. The physical exertion. The athletic, ebullient, friendly, happy individuals surrounding me.

Until the recent past, I eschewed entering fully into my own life. I stayed away from situations that called upon either my inner resources or the direct experience of strangers. In that way, I kept my world small and my life manageable. I felt safe but I rarely felt joy. I felt “in control” but never expansive.

All of that has changed, and my life is so much richer for it. Suddenly, standing in the middle of the street in Springville, my heart paradoxically wholly open and completely full, I realized:  it isn’t enough to want these things for myself. It isn’t enough to continue to work on my own growth and development. To know and experience my own “before and after” is to want that for anyone else holding back from fully living their own lives.

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

You may feel like a bedraggled weed, but you’re really a beautiful flower. You may not, just yet, believe in yourself or in your ability to change your life. But I already believe in you. After all, I’m just another slow-blossoming flower on the midwestern prairie – if I found a way to fully open my petals and bask in the sun, so can you.





Learning to Shift

12 07 2012

I wheeled it into the shop before work on Monday morning, July 2nd. I remained stoic as the guy enumerated the items that needed to be repaired or replaced. As the cost rose I interrupted him to ask, “Bottom-line it for me – will it cost less to repair this one or buy a new one?” He laughed, assuring me the repairs would fall well short of the price of a new bicycle. I was still holding my own as he consulted a calendar on the wall and said, “I can give you a guaranteed pick-up date of the 13th.”  And that is what brought the tears to my eyes.

Two weeks without a bike in early July when one is training for RAGBRAI is an eternity. At least it is for me – I’m still trying to make up for forty years of inactivity, carrying 50 pounds I should have shed by now. And it was just one more crappy thing on top of a bunch of other difficult things that have made this summer one of stress and anxiety. The one thing that hadn’t, till then, been stressful (except for the two crashes that led to the extensive repairs) was cycling. I was finally getting the hang of shifting to maximize the usefulness of 21 gears. Hills were no longer daunting. Well, not completely daunting. Even crashing had added to my confidence – I got right back on and rode 18 miles, didn’t I?

Anyway, later on Monday I lamented to a friend that I would have to cancel plans for a 4th of July ride out to Ely, and she promptly offered to lend me her bike. I gratefully accepted the offer, and later that night, she dropped it off at my place: bright blue, low, wide handlebars and the fattest tires I’d ever seen. The bike turned out to be specifically engineered for beach riding. I recognized the brand, a nice bike. But not intended for the type of riding I do. Six gears, the lowest of which required the level of exertion I usually used for riding along straight, flat land. Hills were only possible if I stood to pedal, a skill I had hardly used, much less perfected. I shifted gears, and they shifted again on their own, often slipping out of gear randomly. Occasionally, the chain fell off. I learned to enjoy the feel of riding closer to the ground, of the easy manueverability of the wide handlebars, and, yes, even the burning in my quads and hammies.

And then the unthinkable happened. The loaner bike broke and was unrideable. That day’s ride ended in a two-mile walk, pushing the bike along beside me. In 105 degree weather, midday. But the loan and riding of the beach bike had done more for me than build up some new muscles and develop my hill-climbing skills. It had reminded me that I had resources, support, people to help me. So, even before I showered after the long walk home, I was on the phone to another friend, asking if I could borrow a bike from her family.

I picked the big chrome men’s Huffy. Taller than my bike, with a strangely tilted saddle, six speeds but the lowest speed was more like the “granny gear” on my bike. I expected a less difficult transition than I had experienced with the beach bike. But, no, it was not meant to be. At the beginning of a 40-mile ride, I put the new loaner through its paces, and immediately discovered it was incredibly difficult to shift gears. In fact, I wrestled with the handlebar shifting mechanism for a full 30 seconds before I could get it to shift out of 4th gear. First gear, granny. Second, super-easy-almost-granny. Third gear, a grinding clicking sound that did not inspire much confidence. 4th gear, where it had been stuck, wouldn’t work and now ground until it automatically found 5th gear. It was clear to me that 4th was where I wanted to be, but 5th was where I would do my riding. By the tenth mile, I was aware that my knees were not enjoying the added strain. However, it was easy to take the hills, and I figured I could tough it out. And I did, including the two miles I rode without glasses when I lost the lens of my prescription sunglasses.

I’ve learned a lot in these two weeks of my bike being in the shop. Valuable lessons, not the least of which is to take care of my bike and keep it in good repair. More important, though, I’ve learned:

  • We all have plenty of gears, but most of us discover a sweet spot and pretty much stay there. Sometimes, it becomes so ingrained, it’s difficult to shift into a new or different gear. We feel stuck when we try. If we shifted more frequently, and not just when it was forced upon us, we’d find the whole process would go more smoothly and comfortably.
  • And about that “sweet spot”. If we stay in it, rather than try the other gears available to us, we don’t develop skills or new muscle. We just get more efficient at what we already know how to do. Sometimes, stasis is what we’re after; however, growth is both more challenging and more fun.
  • Hills. Every life, every ride, has some. How we handle the climb – not the equipment we use – is what reveals our character. Its easy to psych ourselves out before we start the uphill, to think ourselves into failure. It’s even easier to let ourselves off the hook when we have something outside ourselves to blame (Really? A beach bike is NOT intended to do this…) The truth is, hills are conquered by perseverence and discipline applied with a dash of positude – by internal qualities, not equipment.
  • Equipment may not be what conquers the hills in life. But it does help to have the right stuff in good working order. Take care of what you have, pay attention to what it needs, lube it and wipe it down when necessary. Treat your equipment with loving care and attention, people!
  • Even a small adjustment can bring big changes. Just ask my quads. Shift your perspective and you work differently – you will feel and see different things.
  • Wide handlebars = open arms.This can make you feel vulnerable until you get used to them. And then you just feel open. Open and ready to embrace new experiences.




The Sunday Roast: Guest blog by Cindy Petersen

3 06 2012

Today is our second post in “The Sunday Roast” Series. Cindy Petersen is a May graduate of Mount Mercy University, and her story is truly an inspiring one. Cindy is currently the owner/publisher of Iowa’s newest community newspaper, The Hiawatha Advocate (click here to check it out). The newspaper industry is a struggling one, but Cindy is living her dream right now. If you have a business and/or the financial wherewithal to help support her dream, please check out the advertising and subscriptions page – a full year subscription is a mere $30. Cindy also publishes regularly on her blog, “Write to the Point” if you are interested in reading more of her work!

Cynthia Petersen, graduated May 20, 2012 from Mount Mercy University
in Cedar Rapids, IA with a BA in Journalism

Graduating from college at 49 is nothing spectacular. People much older than I have done it. But changing the course of my life is. And that is what I believe I have done.

Some people talk about fate, and destiny, and believe that ”everything happens for a reason.” I, for one, believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and that life is what we make it. But I didn’t always think that way.

Seven years ago, I looked at where I was and I made up my mind that I wanted to make my mark in this world. I wanted to do more than just exist. I wanted to do something spectacular.

I spent years taking life as it came, raising 4 children, and dealing with life’s little tragedies.  But I learned how to remain calm in a crisis, and I became a problem-solver. I learned how to manage my money and how to make ends meet. I was a mediator, a counselor, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and everything else that a mother does.

Now I realize that I was preparing for something spectacular.

I wanted to be my own boss and so I thought opening a restaurant was the way to go. I spent hours upon hours on the computer researching how to write a business plan, and why a marketing plan was so important. I chose all the plans for my restaurant; what I would name it, where it would be located, who my customers would be, what my menu would entail, how much everything would cost. I did everything I needed to do to make my restaurant a success. But in the end, it came down to a lack of funds.

And though it hurt me to have to give up that particular dream, I can see now that I was still only preparing for something even more spectacular.

As I got on my knees and prayed to God for chance to see my dream come true, I included that if this didn’t work out, I would go back to school and get a degree. (My father had said to me one day after reading an article I wrote, ‘Forget the restaurant, go back to school, become a writer.’)

And the rest is history. I graduated Sunday with a BA in Journalism. But not only did I graduate, I also received the President’s Award from Mount Mercy University’s president, Dr. Christopher Blake, one of the top three awards given to graduating seniors. I was also nominated for two other awards; Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy Award.

Getting the award itself was nice, but the satisfaction that I had done something to change the course of my life was what I really received that day. This was what I had been working for the past four years; that I had done something spectacular.

And I’m not done.

Most of you know that I started my own business last year and began publishing a community newspaper in February this year. Every lesson I have ever learned has prepared me to take on this huge undertaking.  But I still couldn’t have done it without going back to college. It was the last piece to my puzzle.

Something spectacular? You bet it is.

But it doesn’t stop there. It has only given me more reasons to find out what else life has in store for me and what I have in store for life.





The Way of Love

5 04 2012

When I was in high school I belonged to an inter-faith youth group. It was a special experience, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will just say that we used to sing. A lot. One of our favorite songs, often requested by churches when we sang at their services, was based on 1st Corinthians, the chorus saying, “If I have not charity, if love does not flow from me, I am nothing…Jesus reduce me to love.”

In the intervening years, I’ve heard and read these verses from 1 Corinthians many times. When I was in youth group, they were new to me, but even then they held a kind of deep call which has never disappeared. Although they are most frequently read at weddings, I have never associated them primarily with romantic love. Rather, the definition of love, the clarity provided about what love is and what love isn’t, has always seemed (and I believe was intended) to encompass a way of being in the world and an ideal to strive for in all relationships.

In college, I read the book, Unconditional Love by John Powell, who says “Unconditional Love means that I cannot always predict my reaction or guarantee my strength, but one thing is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will always accept you. I will always love you.”  And the idea of unconditional love became coupled with the verses from 1 Corinthians in my heart.

In graduate school counseling classes I became familiar with the phrase “unconditional positive regard“, which refers to a manner of being in the therapeutic relationship. But David G. Meyers, in his book Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules, describes it beautifully and fully as something that can, it seems to me, be practiced in any relationship.  “This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.”

We live in a world that encourages us to disengage from our truest selves. Whether that is because we have been victimized or traumatized, or whether we have been led to believe that who or what we are is “not normal”. In such a world, we are taught that the safest thing to do is keep our true selves hidden, covered over in tough, protective layers. In such a world, how is a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship even possible?

The only available course I see is the way of love, as outlined in 1 Corinthians, or John Powell or one of dozens of other thinkers and spiritual leaders over the years.

In recent years, I have learned to open those closed chambers within myself and let the daylight in. It is never easy, even now that I’ve had practice. But I have discovered that there are others in my life who have committed to me unconditionally, who are willing to see me in the light of truth and still choose love. In spite of what this world we live in led me to expect, these people have chosen to love odd, imperfect, quirky, neurotic me in spite of seeing my darkness.

To the friends whose recent life events and revelations have led to this reflection, I promise to give as good as I’ve gotten. I can’t guarantee my strength or my ability to help you through your own protective layers. But this much is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will endeavor to be a safe place where you can drop your defenses, confess your worst feelings, and still find acceptance.

I cannot promise to approach perfect in any way. But I can strive to practice the way of love in my daily interactions. As Tom Cruise’s famous character Jerry Maguire says, “We live in a cynical world.” However, the way of love has no room for such cynicism. Love, after all,  “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”