The Best and Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”   (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

As an English major, a lover of literature, and a fan of Charles Dickens, the line quoted above has long been familiar to me. It is one of a handful of first lines of classic literature (including the openers to Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) often cited as superlative examples of how to draw a reader in from the first word. While Dickens’ line is far from short, it is wise – capturing the idea that every age in human history can, and likely will, be described in this manner.

Not to worry, I haven’t suddenly started blogging literary criticism. I have been thinking of this line, not in the context of the larger world and global forces, but in the context of my own life right now. In some ways, this is truly the best of times: I am discovering new people, places and passions. I am realizing the depth of love and friendship in my life, which is both humbling and energizing. However, in other ways, this is also the worst of times: I feel worried and anxious about money and finding sustaining work, and I find it difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth in the face of constant flat rejection of my skills and experience.

This ping-ponging from up to down and back is wreaking havoc with my resiliency. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to keep focus on the present – to remember that this moment is the one I have to pay attention to. The more I worry about tomorrow, next week, next month, the more I fritter away today in distraction. Keeping focus, both on this moment and on remembering why I am here in the first place, takes mental discipline and emotional commitment. Some days, I find these hard to muster. Other days, well, those are the “best of times” and it is easier.

Last night, I met Kathe at the end of a long day for each of us. We were both tired, and the atmosphere of the coffee shop where we met was less than inspiring (crowded, cold, dingy lighting). As we talked, Kathe told me about the many people in her life struggling in real, consequential, “life or death” ways. She said, “These are people I actually know, not people I know of.” She went on to say that she feels a sense of urgency to live each day as fully as possible, because it has been brought home to her lately that we each have a finite number of them. It was an excellent reminder – that very urgency was a significant part of what led me here in the first place.

So, today is here. It’s an extremely cold morning again – schools cancelled for cold all over the state. But the sun is shining, and I’m alive and aware that this day is a precious one. It may seem like we’re smack dab in the middle of the winter of despair…but I think I’ll declare it day one of my personal “spring of hope” and take my cue from that.

Learning to Love Rain

“She enjoys rain for its wetness, winter for its cold, summer for its heat. She loves rainbows as much for fading as for their brilliance. It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”
                          –Morgan Llewelyn

I used to be very selective about which seasons I enjoyed. Spring was too wet and muddy, summer too hot and humid. Fall was perfect and Winter was endurable. When I got active and lost weight, suddenly my experience of the seasons opened up. I began to love summer and winter, as well as autumn. I discovered that I love being outside, that my body can do a lot to regulate its internal temperature so I don’t need to be inside a climate controlled environment to feel comfortable anymore. Turns out, I don’t mind sweating that much, and braving the cold presents a challenge and a gift.

But Spring is still a difficult season, primarily because of that pesky weather condition known as RAIN. Springs in Iowa are characterized by one of two possibilities: no rain or too much rain. Last year was a spring with no rain. We moved from winter almost directly to summer, skipping the renewing season of spring. Springs with no rain are characterized by anxiety about crops (or gardens and lawns, if you live in town). And drought weighs heavily on the psyche of a state known primarily for its corn and soybean production. I remember feeling a dismay akin to loss when, on RAGBRAI last year, we rode on highways bordered on both sides by dead or stunted fields, parched and thirsty.

The dry weather continued, right through most of this winter, leading to drought forecasts for another year, with cities and counties rolling out their drought plans – water conservation being a less common concern in Iowa than in California or New Mexico, where my family have routinely practiced water austerity measures. In Iowa we are, sometimes shamefully, profligate with water.

And then the rain started. And now, instead of drought forecasts, we are listening to flood warnings (and believe me, since 2008, flood is the “F” word in these parts). In the past 24 hours, rain totals have been high, 3-5″ throughout eastern Iowa. Many people love thunderstorms, but last night when I calculated that it had been thundering and lightening for the better part of 18 hours, I was pretty much over it. As I listened to my house, dripping water from a leaky roof and down the chimney onto the hardwood floor in my living room, I couldn’t bring myself to have cheerful thoughts about the rain. I’m tired of gray skies, tired of the hemmed-in feeling of fog and clouds.

I share all of the above to make the point that, like most people, I experience weather at the practical (if selfish) level of “How does it affect me today?” I like days when the weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans. It has been a lovely gift that, in recent years, the number of days when weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans has been broadened because my tolerance has broadened. But in regard to this earth we inhabit, it is my goal to become like the woman described in the quote opening this post: “It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”

As another Earth Day approaches, I am taking stock of my openness to the natural world and finding pockets of resistance, like my aversion to spring and intolerance for more than incidental rain. This is important, because our cultural movement away from direct experience of the natural world, away from stewardship, has led us to a place which is dangerous for the earth itself. It is also dangerous for our spiritual survival, as well. When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t realize that what it would take was healing the emotional separations I had fostered – between my head and heart, between my body and my soul, between myself and others. And as I reflect on what it will take from me, personally, to participate in the healing of our planet, I realize that I have to heal this unnatural separation between myself and the planet we all call home.

I often go out and troll the internet for information or quotes to support the theme I’m writing about in a post. This morning, I thought I’d look for a Joanna Macy quote to end this post. Macy, an environmental activist and scholar, has been thinking deeply about these issues for a very long time. Serendipitously, I came across the paragraphs below on the first Macy-related page I clicked on. She says what I mean in a much more eloquent and complete way, and I’d like to close with her words (apologies to my friend, Martin, who hates it when I use long quotations):

“In the first movement, our infancy as a species, we felt no separation from the natural world around us. Trees, rocks, and plants surrounded us with a living presence as intimate and pulsing as our own bodies. In that primal intimacy, which anthropologists call “participation mystique,” we were as one with our world as a child in the mother’s womb.Then self-consciousness arose and gave us distance on our world. We needed that distance in order to make decisions and strategies, in order to measure, judge and to monitor our judgments. With the emergence of free-will, the fall out of the Garden of Eden, the second movement began — the lonely and heroic journey of the ego. Nowadays, yearning to reclaim a sense of wholeness, some of us tend to disparage that movement of separation from nature, but it brought us great gains for which we can be grateful. The distanced and observing eye brought us tools of science, and a priceless view of the vast, orderly intricacy of our world. The recognition of our individuality brought us trial by jury and the Bill of Rights.Now, harvesting these gains, we are ready to return. The third movement begins. Having gained distance and sophistication of perception, we can turn and recognize who we have been all along. Now it can dawn on us: we are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before, in our infancy.”

Spring Cleaning

I hate to begin with a complaint. But this winter was truly underwhelming, as winters go. Not much snow, hardly any truly cold temps, no frightening winter storms. While I never wish for weather that brings harm to people, I do kind of rely on winter’s weather-induced reminder of my own smallness within this large universe. It forces allows me to spend winter days reflectively, journaling and reading and planning. A mild winter creates too much opportunity for activity, thus, I haven’t had the fallow time I generally need in my calendar year. And now, it’s almost time to spring forward, as if I’m not too exhausted to embody such an active verb!

As you may recall from previous posts, I have been working with a life coach. Our past couple of sessions have focused on the ideas of less and more. Specifically, what do I want less of in my life, and what do I want more of. How do I create the right balance of less/more in order to live my best life?

Some of what I want is, more or less, straightforward – for example, less clutter. Turns out, the way to less clutter is paved with less stuff. Sounds simple enough, but the stuff I cleared out of my bedroom is still riding around in plastic bags in the trunk of my car, waiting for me to pull into the Goodwill dropoff lane. Moving the stuff isn’t enough, apparently. It needs to actually go bye-bye for me to feel the benefit of less. Right now, it is just another bunch of junk in my trunk.

As I think about this more/less idea, the metaphor of spring cleaning seems apt. The idea of a true spring cleaning is not simply the removal of dirt, dust, detritus collected over the winter months of being shut in. It is also about creating an inner space that is fresh and clean, reflecting the shining sun and moderate temperatures outdoors, opening up room for growth.

So, here’s my spring cleaning list for 2012:

  • Less from Von Maur. More from Target and Walmart.
  • More walking, less treadmill.
  • Less from Michael’s. More from my craft room stash.
  • More doing, less meaning-to-do.
  • Less falling asleep in my recliner, more established bedtime routine.
  • More miles on my bike, less wishing I was riding.
  • More creativity, more adventure, more community
  • Less debt, less restlessness, less internal pressure.

I’m planning on a great spring, leading into another wonderful summer. More AND less!

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A couple of you have asked: Yes! I WAS and AM serious about my invitation for guest bloggers. If you have a personal story about your own growth journey (humorous, serious, strange or beautiful) and you’d like a place to share it, please contact me!