What I Allow

“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”  –Robyn Davidson

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  • In 1975, Robyn Davidson moved to Alice Springs, in Australia, to work with camels in order to prepare for a trek across the desert.
  • In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean agreed to be the spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate named Elmo Patrick Sonnier.
  • On December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 180-foot-tall, 1500-year-old California redwood tree in order to prevent it from being cut down.

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Recently, I came across something called the five second rule. No, this is not about dropped food. This rule is used to help get you unstuck and moving forward. The basic concept is this: you have an idea about something you could/should/wish to/want to do (ask a question in a public forum, clean your bathroom, take dinner to a friend convalescing from surgery). Such ideas come to us all the time, but often we don’t act on them. The longer we take to act, the less likely it is that we will take the action at all. The five second rule suggests counting backwards from five, challenging yourself to act on your thought or idea within that five seconds – thereby short-circuiting the tendency to (through procrastination or fear of failure, etc.) forego action.

Since reading of this concept, I keep noticing how many times I think of something to do yet do nothing. It is not only astounding – it is deeply disturbing. It is disturbing because part of the noticing process has been paying attention to the self-talk that keeps me from action. How humbling is it to really hear myself rationalize laziness, excuse sloth, forgive weakness, and cave in to fear.

At the same time as this heightened self-awareness, I have been reading Tracks, Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her trek across the Australian desert accompanied by four camels and a dog. In the final paragraph of her memoir, Davidson shares the thought I quoted, above, about what she learned. Two important takeaways in that one short sentence:

  1. You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be.
  2. The most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step.

Davidson goes on to say that, like all important life lessons, these two need to be re-learned, over and over throughout our lives.

After finishing the book, I set it down and thought, “I should go for a walk.” Unbidden, my brain began the process of counting backwards from five…four…three…

“Alright!”, I told myself, grabbing my tennies. After changing my shoes, I headed outside, and spent about an hour walking around my neighborhood. Thoughts of Davidson’s trek – the fact that she had an idea but zero skills or experience to back it up, yet did it anyway, blew my mind. And it led me to think of other people I’ve admired who said yes to a thought or idea, not sure where it would lead or how it might turn out.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Julia Butterfly Hill, both social justice heroes of mine, came to mind. Neither of them knew, when they first took action on an idea, that it would become a life-altering choice. The idea came – in the form of an invitation or a creative solution to a problem – and the first step was taken. The path revealed itself over time, just as Davidson’s trek wound its unexpected way through the Outback. For Sr. Helen, next steps took her into the international spotlight as an advocate for those sentenced to death. For Julia, that first choice led to 738 days living in the tree which became known to people everywhere as Luna.

It is easy to think of these women, and others like them, as extraordinary; to think of them as possessing something special with which the rest of us were not gifted. But I’ve had the good fortune to break bread with both Sr. Helen and Julia, and I’ve discovered that this kind of thinking is, mainly, a cop-out. They are lovely, wonderful, fiercely loving individuals – but they are not some special subspecies of homo sapiens. They are not that different from me or you.

If, as Robyn Davidson suggests, we are as strong and powerful as we allow ourselves to be, then these women have opted to allow strength, resilience, individual personal power – love – to flow through them. If Davidson is correct, the biggest difference between them and me is this issue of “allowing” myself to be powerful.

I’m not off on any quests through hostile landscapes, nor will Susan Sarandon be portraying me in a movie any time soon. Still, isn’t it time to seriously consider life’s most important question? Will I continue to sit on my couch making excuses, or will I allow myself to be as strong, as powerful, as I am capable of being?

“The question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can one person make a difference?”  Each and every one of us does make a difference.  It is actually impossible to not make a difference.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”  http://www.juliabutterfly.com/

 

Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home

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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.

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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.”

The Sunday Roast: Guest Post by Susan Stork

When Sue and I met, in graduate school at The University of Iowa, we kept trying to figure out how we knew one another. Eventually, we came to accept that while we had never met before, we were clearly meant to know one another in this life. We have been friends and professional colleagues for 26 years now, and the things we could share about each other…well, I’ll leave it at that! Trust is a huge part of this enduring friendship! I am truly excited to introduce you to my friend, Susan Stork!

Growing up, I didn’t have much confidence in myself or my body.  The reasons are immaterial at this point, but suffice it to say that I was awkward, and seemed only to reinforce that when I tried to do things that others did very naturally.  As a result, I tried to avoid doing anything remotely challenging – like throwing a ball, doing a sommersault, playing dodgeball or dancing.  It’s a wonder I ever learned to ride a bike!

Once when I was 8 or 9 years old I was rollerskating on the sidewalk in front of our house when I hit a crack where the sidewalk had heaved up.  I hit the pavement so hard it knocked the wind out of me.  My dad saw it happen and ran over to pick me up.  I can still remember the panic of being breathless and the shame I felt about not having seen the sidewalk crack.   That lack of confidence only increased throughout my childhood.  I was the uncoordinated kid who was picked last for team games at recess, and while I learned to swim, I was anything but smooth in the water.  At school dances I don’t know which I feared most – not being asked to dance or being asked to dance!

There were brief hints of the physical gifts I would later discover I possessed.  After high school graduation, I took a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with a friend and climbed Long’s Peak.  We started in the dark of early morning (so we could be down before afternoon thunderstorms were a risk) with little more than some advice from hikers we’d met the day before, a flashlight and some water.  We didn’t “summit” – altitude sickness leveled us “flatlanders” – but before we turned around we knew we had done something physically challenging in getting to around 13,000 feet in elevation.  The peak is 14-something.  Not bad for a couple of out-of-shape Midwestern girls whose only prep for the trip had been hours of dreaming during breaks in band practice our final semester of school!  What we lacked in skill, we made up for in endurance.

Miraculously, I had learned to ski in high school P.E. class at our local ski hill, and it was skiing that provided the enticement to go to college in Montana. I loved the active, outdoorsy, and athletic vibe in my environment. Maybe I hoped some of the athleticism would rub off on me…?  I became a good skier during those years, but surprisingly, that didn’t bolster my confidence in my body.  I continued to think of myself as clumsy, soft and weak.

A few years later while in graduate school, my advisor asked me to be on the staff at a summer leadership camp.  Her confidence in my academic and social skills was encouraging, but I was worried about embarrassing myself if I had to do anything too physical.  When I arrived at the camp, I was asked to fill in for a last-minute staff resignation to team-teach a group of about 40 high school freshmen and sophomores for the two-week session.

One of the lessons on teamwork was to be conducted on the camp’s challenge course or ropes course.  This activity presents small groups of people with controlled physical challenges at a series of stations, each with a different goal and many potential solutions.  The learning comes as group members identify potential solutions to the “problem”, recognize and utilize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and encourage each other to trust that the group will respectfully support each individual’s effort and contribution to the task, regardless of the nature of that effort.

Ropes course day was anticipated by campers and staff with both trepidation and excitement. I was so nervous I was unable to eat breakfast that morning.  A lifetime of angst, shame, and fear about my body and its shortcomings was about to be laid bare to a group of kids, a co-teacher and the ropes course staff.  I considered not going, but only briefly.  I felt obligated as a leader to demonstrate my faith in the power of teams, so I went.  What I learned about teams and about myself that day altered my confidence in ways from which I am still reaping the benefits.

I don’t remember much about that morning, except the station that required us all to cross an imaginary river full of piranhas using nothing more than a series of tires hung by ropes and suspended from a cable.  The first step was to launch yourself from a platform on a knotted swinging rope, and grasp the first tire.  I immediately slipped off the rope and into the “river”.  The entire team goes back to the beginning when one person falls off the course.  But somehow, my team supported me emotionally, got me back on that platform, and when I launched the second time, one of my teammates was there to hoist me up by the back of my pants onto my tire, while another person held his tire steady.

I don’t remember getting across the “river”, but I do remember talking about what that support had felt like as we de-briefed.  For the remainder of camp, whenever I was free, I was at the ropes course helping other groups through their adventures and encouraging the kids in whose eyes I recognized that familiar mix of fear and shame.  By the end of the week I had shimmied through a web of ropes, balanced on a log see-saw, climbed telephone poles and fallen backwards off a platform into the arms of a bunch of kids below.  On purpose.  More than once.

Now let me assure you, I was not a latent athlete waiting to come alive.  I was, and still am, kind of awkward at a lot of physical things.  I still hate dancing.  I still have a rotten throw.  I’m still not coordinated well for things like team sports.  But I am strong and I don’t quit.  I rarely back away from a physical task.  I can push wheelbarrows loaded with rock, carry heavy boxes and furniture up flights of stairs, grow things, stack hay bales and step safely from a dock into a boat.  I can assemble IKEA furniture, kayak two miles across a lake and back again, climb up and down a ladder all day to paint, nail shingles to a roof, and dig out old tree roots.  I like to ride my bike.  I like to train with weights.  I am proud of what I can do with this body.

I will not likely run a marathon, or dance gracefully, or golf.  But that’s ok because I can help the marathon runner unpack boxes and be completely settled in her new home in one day.  I can plant and grow a flowering landscape that the ballroom dancer with a brown thumb needs only to water to enjoy.  And I can skillfully drive a cart so the golfer can play 18 holes despite painful arthritis.  Yes, I am proud of this body.

My ropes course experience happened 26 years ago.   In the years since, I have led countless groups of students through challenge course activities in the name of teambuilding.  I am always conscious that on that day, in that group, there is someone who feels about his or her body the way I did about mine.   And I hope to catch his or her eye at some point and silently, confidently, offer the strength in my body to help them swing to that tire and grasp the power, as yet undiscovered, in her own body and mind.