A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

26 11 2015

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 





What Do Adventurous Women Know…and how do I learn it?

9 05 2013

I am a devourer of true life adventure stories by the women who lived them. It started casually, with travel anthologies. Then I discovered Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman and I had a new hero and a new secret passion. Of course Eat.Pray.Love.  More recently, Wild.  And it hasn’t just been books. My friend Wendy and I obsessively watched the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” the summer it came out on DVD (based, if loosely, on a true life adventure story). I’m a sucker for blogs by women on adventures – Travel Destination Bucket List, for example. I began following this blog while its author, Anita Mac, was chronicling her solo trans-Canadian bike journey and have since travelled to Croatia and on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella with her. My latest avidly followed blog is My Meandering Trail, where I am following Jordana on her solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each of these women have great stories to tell, and they tell them well. And while each gives space in her storytelling to moments of fear or self-doubt, by and large the overriding impression I come away with is of admirable courage, self-efficacy, and joie de vivre. They have moxie, pluck…and whatever other old-fashioned words are reserved for women who have a little something out of the ordinary in their make-up. With my life in transition, my jumping-off point only three weeks away and no firm plan in place yet, I find myself looking to these women and wondering if it might be possible to channel the skills and qualities they embody and which I so desperately need. With that in mind, I’ve identified some things adventurous women seem to know that I’d like to get more conversant with:

Adventurous women know how to manage their stuff

I’m mostly talking actual, as opposed to figurative or emotional, stuff here. These women know how to organize, manage and corral the daily items that fill our lives: furniture, linens, shoes, and tchotchkes. They ruthlessly purge, pack, or otherwise pare down much of what they own in order to begin their adventures unencumbered. So far, I have managed to recycle three small cardboard boxes and shred a pile of old credit card bills. To say “I haven’t hit my stride yet” is to make a prize-winning understatement. Here’s an example: I have a decorative item which was given to me as a gift. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d look at, much less choose to purchase, in a gift-shop. But the person who gave it to me is beloved, and it was given to commemorate a special occasion in my life. In an effort to decide if it is worth packing and hauling to storage, I’ve carted the darn thing into every room multiple times this week. It has surely travelled more miles within my house than the paltry few between here and my storage unit. (Which, by the way, I haven’t actually reserved yet.) And I still can’t decide whether to keep it or put it in the “donate” or “regift” pile. Thankfully, my adventurous friend, Sue, came to visit one evening this week. She walked me through the best ways (and which containers to use) to pack my house. Her advice about what to keep and what to divest myself of: “Be ruthless”. Ruthlessness in the management of stuff – the first thing I need to learn to become an adventurous woman!

Adventurous women don’t hesitate to ask

In the past nineteen years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “I could NEVER do what you do!” Often they follow this comment with something about how they hate conflict. And it’s true – my career has been full of high-conflict, high-stress moments when the issues at hand have been incredibly difficult to navigate. And I am proud of how I’ve handled these difficult situations. But I have a secret to share. In spite of a reputation for direct and honest communication, I cannot make a cold-call to a business to ask questions. Additionally, I am terrible at asking people for help if what I need help with carries an emotional component. Adventurous women are curious, and ask questions because it is part of their nature. Part of how they successfully navigate their courageous lives is their willingness to ask for what they need. How can I plan a whole new more adventurous life when it takes me three days to work myself up to contact storage companies? I think of Jordana, contacting companies to ask for sponsorship of her trip – and getting some awesome support and swag as a result. I definitely need to get me some of those questioning cajones! (Hey, has anyone heard of companies willing to sponsor a middle-aged woman’s career/life change?)

Adventurous women have a specific plan

Well, I’m just plain screwed on this one. I can’t seem to think past vacation, which is the first step of my journey to a new life. I have a vague plan. No specific dates, no specific locations. Just a gut sense that I have to take most of the summer to feel my way – unless right livelihood presents itself. In which case, I’ll know it and change my trajectory.

At this point, my parents and many of my friends are reading this post and beginning to hyperventilate. Please don’t. I am holding enough fear, panic, and fear- and panic-induced motivation at bay to satisfy all of us. But it is back there, behind the voice telling me to take my time. Cheryl Strayed had never tried to lift her backpack until the morning she planned to set off hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Foolhardy? Probably. But did she survive? Hell, yes – even thrived. Sometimes, adventurous women know what they need, and they move toward it even if they haven’t got all the answers in advance. My whole life, I’ve been an answers (and fool-proof assurances) in advance girl. This feels like my opportunity to step forward with trust instead of surety. Eek!

Adventurous women don’t sweat the “solo” part

When I’ve lamented being alone in life, my friend Layne has tried to comfort me by asserting that everyone is just as alone. Her approach is unique; most of my friends try to convince me that I’m not alone because of the large number of people who love me. The truth is, when it comes to making decisions and living the consequences of those decisions, I’m on my own. I have no idea whether it would be easier if I was part of a couple, or if it would be harder. I look at the women whose adventures have inspired me, and I see that they have struggled with the same things – and yet, they’ve found ways to be empowered by the solo nature of their adventures. Empowered because they’ve remained open to meeting new people, to having new experiences, to learning about themselves and the world around them. I’ve lived “smaller” out of fear in the past. One of the things I want to learn from adventurous women is how to live “larger” in spite of the fear. As one blogger says, “I will never be fearless, but I can choose to fear less.”

Adventurous women dare to go “all in”

In every one of the true-life adventure stories I’ve come across, women have let go and jumped in with both feet. For some, this has meant the start of a completely new life. For others, it has been a shining experience which stands out from the ordinary life lived both before and after the adventure. Perhaps my coming adventures are on a smaller scale than selling my home and all my belongings and living the rest of my days as a world-travelling nomad – but they are still a stunning departure from my previous life-choices. My friend, Sara, put it this way for me, “You’re not really the ‘leap of faith’ type, are you? But you’ve been risk-averse for so long, you’ve probably stored up some really good risk karma, so why not use it now?” Not exactly an “all in” mentality – but close enough to get me started!

So, I have my work cut out for me – both with the actual activities associated with leaving my job and my house and with the mental and emotional preparedness for leaving. I’ll figure out the stuff, develop the plan as I go, and remind myself to cultivate curiosity so that asking for things (even if it is only information) gets easier. I’ll continue to be inspired by other women who’ve taken courageous and adventurous paths, hoping that the reality of living with less fear of the “what ifs” will translate into living more completely, more fully. Maybe someday other women will be reading my “true life adventure story” and deciding they can choose differently too. That would be an amazing end to this story, wouldn’t it?! I guess we’ll all have to wait and see what happens with each turn of the page.





Revision and Connection

14 03 2013

Recently, I have been scouring the internet for photocopies of famous writer’s handwritten and edited manuscripts and notebooks. I am fascinated by the look of them – the humanity of crooked handwriting, misspellings, ink blotches and smears. More, though, I love seeing the layers of thought they reveal as writers edit, scratch out, write over the top of their original words. As they perfect their sentences and their articulation of an inner vision. (Click here to see a few images.)

Some writers grouse about revising and editing their work. Not me.

Not only do I enjoy editing my work, I love the feeling that, as I do, I come closer and closer to touching what I meant to say. In this way, the written word allows for something that my direct, spoken communication rarely does: removing the awkwardness from my expression. On the one hand, the carefully crafted written word is the ultimate in self-conscious communication – after all, it is finished on the far side of time and space to think and feel and reconsider and restate. On the other hand, the stuttering self-consciousness of face-to-face speech is utterly missing.

While I love having the opportunity to revise and edit my writing, I am also aware there are dangers inherent in this activity of revising. First, there is the danger of overcomplicating what should be simple (or at least simply stated). Any one of the few individuals who has ever received a card or letter from me in which I’ve tried to express my romantic feelings for them can attest to this – I don’t know how to write simply about my feelings. Of course, I can’t express them at all in person; complicated statements may be preferable to silence.

Another danger of editing and revision is the temptation to raise every thought or concept to the level of High Art or Philosophy (capital letters intended!). It’s easy to begin with a true, small story and end with an epic of mythic proportions. Just keep elevating the language. I have written a number of versions of a story about “Crazy Hats Day” at my Girl Scouts day camp when I was a child. They all start out as a little story about how thoughtless children can be…and all end up as missives on the great themes of Motherly Love, Shame/Guilt and Forgiveness.

A third, and probably the most insidious danger in revision is the temptation to blur the truth: to gloss over the parts where we behave badly, to obscure our own warts. In short, to fudge a little. C’mon, admit it, we all like to do some of this with the stories we tell. I know people in my line of work who, charged with addressing student behaviors through college judicial processes, will tell you everyone lies in their disciplinary hearings. I prefer to think of it as a natural human tendency to construct our stories in such a manner that we show in the best possible light. Few of us wish to be the villains of our own stories.We want to be the heroes.

For our own self-esteem, we may need to revise some of our stories to place ourselves in the hero role. As Tony Robbins has famously said,  “We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves… Is your story empowering you… or is your story causing you to fall short?” However, this commentary is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, rather than those we are sharing with others.

When the point of telling our stories is to connect with others, this form of revision can hurt, rather than help, us. What if, as I believe, our connection with others depends on our ability to reveal both our breathtaking brilliance AND our deepest darknesses? What if the world wants and needs our flawed humanness to shine through, instead of the wart-free perfection of an airbrushed picture? Perhaps human connection requires our rough or broken pieces to find compatibly rough and broken spots in another before we can not only touch, but also hold on.

When using certain adhesives, we are directed to take sandpaper to the surface to rough it up a bit before applying the epoxy. This helps form a tighter bond. I’m not, we’re not, required to share anything – not required to expose our unedited selves or stories. But if we want better, tighter bonds with other people, we need to be willing to expose the rough patches. In the process of revising and editing our life stories, we would do well to remember this and leave a few of the honest imperfections and mistakes in clear view.





Dare to be powerful.

9 08 2012

When I dare to be powerful…

Mostly, I forget that I have power. I forget or stop believing that I have volition, choice. What I remember is what we were all taught to remember: to follow the rules, to play nice, to do what I’m supposed to do or have been told to do. I don’t take issue with having been taught these things – they are one part of the equation of being a person with character and integrity. But there is another piece we should all have been taught – that part of being an adult of character is knowing when and how to break rules that are inappropriate, to play hard when it is called for, to say “It is MY responsibility to decide what I’m supposed to do”. The rare occasions when I dare to be powerful truly require every ounce of emotional strength I can muster, to go against the programming of my youth. However, I’m beginning to learn something important – like all muscles, it gets stronger when used. The more I exercise my power, my choice, my voice, the more powerful I become.

To use my strength in the service of my vision…

My vision? To use anything in service to my vision, I need to have a vision. Friends, for so many years I confused “vision” with “fuzzy daydream about the future”. They are, unsurprisingly, NOT the same! What differentiates a vision, for your life and/or the world you hope to live in, from a daydream? One, steadfastness. You have it and are able to hold it in front of you. Two, actions. You are able to identify – and TAKE – steps necessary to achieve the vision you steadfastly hold before you. Three, a convicted heart. Each step you take convinces your inner being that you are moving in the right direction, no matter how hard or how much it requires you to exercise your power.

Then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

Because I AM afraid. Afraid I’ve made the wrong choice, chosen a vision that wasn’t my highest calling. When I exercise my power in service to my vision, I stand alone to bear responsibility for the consequences of my choosing. I’d rather blame someone or something else if it doesn’t turn out well. (But she told me to do it! I was only following orders. That’s what we were instructed to do in training. Its in the policy manual.) I like having someone or something else to blame, it feels more secure, less exposed. Really? Accepting responsibility for my own life is what makes me afraid? (Until I wrote that, I didn’t know I felt that way. Now I have a mental picture of myself, the “cheese” standing alone, quaking in my boots.)

However, as Cheryl Strayed says in Wild, fear is a story we tell ourselves. We can tell ourselves a different story – one in which fear is less significant because we are using our power in service to something important. We can tell ourselves an empowering story. We can tell ourselves, “I’m not THAT afraid.” (True story: I once talked myself out of a panic attack while driving cross-country alone by telling myself this story over and over – ‘The sun is shining. I am well. I didn’t run over the turtle. I will be safe.’ The only parts I knew for sure were true were the shining sun and the lucky, still alive, turtle.)

What is so important that we should practice using our power in service to it? What is important enough to teach ourselves the contours of courage (which, contrary to some inspirational quotes, doesn’t come naturally to most of us). Simply this: to be who we were meant to be. To live the life we were born to live. That is the ultimate personal responsibility we bear – to be fully the unique and sacred persons we were created to be. When we dare to be powerful, to use our strength in service to our vision, fear becomes irrelevant – still painful, still hard – but irrelevant. Because what is relevant is the vision we are bringing to life in our lives and in our world.





50 about 50: Books

21 07 2011
“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!





In Recovery

12 05 2011

On university campuses, May is a time of dinners, receptions, celebrations of many stripes. It is also the time when colleagues, holed up in offices all winter, emerge blinking in the sun, and greet one another with exclamations of “I haven’t seen you in so long!” At one such occasion the other night, I was happy to see the wife of one of our Deans, whom I hadn’t seen in, well, so long. She said, “You look fabulous! How have you done it?”

Normally, when people ask me that question, I assume they are interested in a short answer – diet and exercise OR bariatric surgery. So I generally respond, “The old-fashioned way.” For some reason, on this particular occasion, I launched into a longer and less clear explanation. I found myself telling her that I had refused for many years to take a real look at WHY I was fat. That, in fact, I preferred to believe that the only plausible reason was that I was engineered that way. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who was overweight for psychological or emotional reasons. I told her that I finally had to take a hard look at myself and evaluate my irrational thinking.

Last night, I attended a presentation being offered as part of our pre-finals “Stress Buster Week”, in which a panel of guests shared their personal stories of alcoholism and recovery. As I listened, for the first time it struck me just how much my relationship with food mirrored their relationships with alcohol. One panelist stated, “For most people, a few drinks quenches their desire or need for more. For an alcoholic, a few drinks just makes you more thirsty.” Substitute “food” for the word “drinks” in those sentences, and they will be true for me. In the same session, I heard the panelists say:

  • I knew I wasn’t normal. When I was drinking was the only time I felt normal.
  • Teachers and speakers told us alcohol was evil. But alcohol comforted me, so I wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
  • I drank in secret whenever I could get away with it. As long a no one saw me drink, I didn’t have a problem.
  • I was so ashamed.

Wow. These statements were all eerily familiar to me as well. I know there is a group called Overeaters’ Anonymous, patterned after A.A. I never considered joining, and when it was suggested to me periodically, I always said, “I’m just not a joiner.” Denial much?! And, if I am completely honest with myself, I wanted to distance myself from all those fat people. After all, I wasn’t one of them. I may have been fat, but that didn’t make me like those other people – I was smart and educated and never bought more than one value meal for myself at McDonalds. The fact that I looked upon others who struggled with the same issues as me with such repugnance is a testament to the irrationality of my thinking, and to the power of my addiction. I didn’t want to give it up, and if I admitted to having problems, I would be forced to face that food was just my drug of choice.

Another thing the panelists said last night that made me nod in agreement:  “The whole forever thing really tripped me up. To get better, I would have to stop drinking for the rest of my life. No way I was going to do that!” In order to truly face my addiction to food, I knew that the lifestyle changes I  needed to make would have to be lifelong. I read in one article that overweight women my age would need to work out 60-90 minutes a day, every day, for the rest of their lives to lose the weight and keep it off. Talk about a daunting prospect. Plus, I would need to maintain a change in my relationship to food – no more whole pizzas or whole bags of cheddar goldfish in a single sitting. In fact, I may have to forego some foods altogether if I couldn’t learn to control the portions. Yes, I definitely saw myself in the panelists’ struggle to come to terms with their addictions.

But here’s the really amazing thing: each member of the panel HAS faced his or her addiction, with incredibly positive and powerful results. Listening to their stories of living in recovery, and the positive changes that have taken place across all facets of their lives I started nodding along. I recognized myself in this part of the story as well. As I sat there, I was suffused with an overpowering sense of gratitude for each of our stories. I almost said, “for the happy endings to each of our stories”, but if I’ve learned anything (either in the last couple of years or from last night’s speakers), there is no happy ending to our stories. Our lives continue as stories being told one sentence at a time. One of the panelists summed it up, perfectly, “I take it one day at a time. Because I know that if I succeed today, tomorrow will be better.”





Conference – Day 2: Activism

15 03 2011

I began the day with an early morning trek to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was too early to enter the museum and see the exhibits, but that is not what I was there for, anyway. Like millions of others over the years, I visited the museum to see the Rocky steps. You know, the ones Rocky tackled as part of his training for the big fight in the original Rocky film. One of the reasons that movie has inspired so many is the whole idea of one regular guy taking on a corrupt system and, through application of hard work and heart, overcoming the odds that are stacked so high against him.

Turns out, this was a fitting way to begin the second day at the NASPA Conference. The morning’s featured speaker was Emmanuel Jal, whose autobiography War Child tells the story of his turbulent youth in Sudan, where he witnessed many atrocities, at the age of eight became a child soldier, then a refugee and one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. But Jal’s path was destined to cross that of Emma McCune who saved him (along with 149 other Sudanese children). Jal now works for peace and to better the lives of those in his home country living in poverty. His goal is to change the world. I know he managed to take a bunch of college administrators and turn us into dancing fools this morning, so maybe he will succeed.

The afternoon featured speakers were Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the documentary filmmakers who brought us King Corn the story of how hidden corn in our diets has literally changed us. They also took on a project of farming out of the bed of an old pickup, leading to their high-profile Truck Farm.  Advocates for sustainable practices in food production, they have also started an activism project modeled on Americorps, called Food Corps. Their aim is to send young adults into communities to teach about whole foods, grow school gardens, and get communities really thinking about the startling effects of our current food consumption patterns in the United States. This is a public health crisis (1 in 3 children is on track to develop Type II Diabetes), it is a social justice concern (our poorest communities have the least access to fresh foods), and it touches everyone. After the session, I spoke briefly with Curt Ellis, who is spearheading the activism side of their ventures. He indicated that Iowa (my home state) is one of the first 10 states to which Food Corps workers will be sent. We spoke about some of the challenges in Iowa of speaking directly and truthfully to farmers and to powerful business interests about these concerns. He said he’s met with higher level management at businesses such as Cargill (to name one major industry in my community) – and he believes that by and large they want the same things he does, among them food that makes people healthy rather than sick. The ten states they’re starting Food Corps in were selected because they already have statewide organizations which will support Food Corps’ mission and purpose. In Iowa, there are a couple of campuses with strong Americorps programs, and they will also be working with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

In addition to the two featured presentations, I went to two additional sessions. One of these also fit todays theme. The presenters, from Marquette University, discussed the development of a social justice living-learning community based on the life and work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day, an activist whose example has inspired many to enter fully into lives of those who have little.

In all, I walked away from today’s formal events ready to take action in both my work and my own life. Inspiration is a great thing, but today’s speakers reminded me that without action, great ideas remain just that. As Emmanuel Jal, Ian Cheney, and Curt Ellis know, inspiration must lead to action in order to spark real change.  And this brings me back to Rocky. As we all know, sometimes the road to change is difficult and requires hard work. We love what Rocky stands for because he succeeded through sheer perseverance. Emmanuel Jal fasted for over 600 days to raise money to build a school in Africa because he promised the children he would do it. I don’t know about you, but I definitely call that perseverance! I’m happy to have both the fictional hero and a real life one to learn my lessons from. And the lesson I learned today is that it isn’t really a question of CAN I do it (am I good enough, strong enough, talented enough to change the world). Its more a question of WILL I do it? And the only way to answer yes to that question is…to get busy!