The Rainbow Cow

“The rainbow you see is different than the rainbow visible to all other observers, because an entirely different set of drops refracts and reflects the light in alignment for each observer’s eyes. The falling drops are only in position to perform this function for that very moment when they pass through that single ray of light. They continue to fall away, and other drops pass in place to refract and reflect light again. Falling rain suspends the rainbow in the sky for the short time that the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen and thus for this creative phenomenon to exist.  –Kyna Leski The Storm of Creativity

There are days when the whole world feels gray and close. Days when there seems to be precious little breathing space, and sunshine feels like a distant memory (even if it shone only yesterday). It was on one such day that, discouraged and disheartened, I stopped by a friend’s house for a glass of wine and a little companionship. When I arrived, sitting on the island in her kitchen was a coloring book page which had been carefully removed from the book. The pre-printed picture was the outline of a happy cow standing in a flower-strewn meadow. The cow had been colored, painstakingly, with thin-line markers in a rainbow pattern (heavy on green and orange sections).

As my friend poured me a generous helping of cabernet, I picked up the colored page and said, “Wow! Someone has been busy!”

At that moment, my friend’s five-year-old daughter Kate walked into the room, intent on some mission of her own. As she passed me she said, “I drew that for you,” and continued through the room and out the door on the other side.

“Thank you, peanut,” I called to her retreating back.

The rainbow cow picture now hangs on my refrigerator, and I thought of it immediately as I read the passage (quoted above) from Kyna Leski’s book on creativity. First, it struck me that every rainbow exists as a function of a particular observer being in that particular place at that particular moment. Leski asserts that this means every rainbow we observe is different from the same rainbow seen by someone else. I had thought that Kate’s rainbow cow was a little strange because of the preponderance of green and orange, but now I wonder if it might not be a reflection of Kate’s observational experience. Or it may be that, in translating her experience through her own artistic vision, a rainbow come alive in cowhide would naturally seem to be shaded in such a way. In any case, the one thing I am certain of is that only Kate would have produced this particular rainbow cow. We all know what rainbows look like, yet every one of us would express that collective understanding differently, due to our own alignment.

As I thought more about the passage from Leski’s book, I cast my mind back to the night Kate gave me the cow drawing. I remember sipping my wine and chatting about the day. Kate and her little sister, Anne, periodically interrupted the adult conversation with giggles or tears; there were hugs and tickles. Within me a change took place: I began to view the gray, sunless day through new eyes. From this new perspective, the hours appeared less uniform in their gray-ness. There had been bright spots and hopeful signs, which I had missed or dismissed before. I realized that a shift in perspective could completely change my view, and in turn could completely shift my experience. More importantly, I saw that such a shift was entirely within my own power. Take a step in any direction (including a mental step or shift) and it is possible to have a clearer, brighter, or simply different, view of things.

Leski goes on to say “the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen”. In the margins of my book I wrote, “relationship makes transformation possible”. Certainly, on the night I received Kate’s rainbow cow drawing, relationship offered me that possibility – the opportunity to create a new mind-set as I looked at my day from a different angle. Being with people I loved, held in their positive regard and hospitality, I was able to feel myself renewed and the day/my world view transformed toward the positive. How many times in my life has it been true that relationship has made transformation possible? There are countless examples, from small ones (transforming a momentary mood from gray to sunny) to significant and memorable ones (transforming an unengaged life into a vibrantly engaged one).

In light of these ruminations, glancing at my refrigerator has become an opportunity to check in with myself. First, I remember that I am loved – and usually even the grayest of clouds lightens with that thought. Second, Kate’s rainbow cow reminds me that, not only is my vision of the world unique to me, but it is within my power to shift that unique vision when it isn’t serving me well. Third, it reminds me that relationship (with earth, others, Creator) makes transformation possible. This last may be most important of all if it serves as an impetus to allow my energies to flow both outward and inward. That exchange of energy is where transformation becomes possible. That exchange of energy is how rainbows, and rainbow cows, are made.

Incipience: The Mystery of Becoming

Last week, I arrived back at work from a lunchtime errand to discover surfaces everywhere topped with clear plastic take-out containers. In each container was a bunch of milkweed leaves and a caterpillar. Accompanying each was a handout, introducing the creature inside as an incipient butterfly. I’ve never watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, so I was fascinated to have this opportunity placed in front of me.

The first thing I learned is that caterpillars poop a lot. Seriously, they were productive little things. For a day or so, I watched them eat away at the milkweed, filling their containers with caterpillar “mulch”. Then I got used to their presence, busy with other things, and didn’t notice when a change took place. Suddenly, there were no caterpillars, just bright green pods hanging from the tops of each plastic container – they had become chrysalises while I wasn’t looking.

Each chrysalis started out bright green with a small line of metallic-looking gold dots across it (which I will come back to later). By this point, I was determined not to miss the remaining steps of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I checked on them throughout the days, finally noticing that their color was changing. At first, it appeared that the chrysalis was turning black, but over time (and upon closer inspection) I began to see the colors of the butterfly emerge within the clear casing of the chrysalis.


And then, not too much longer and this happened:

Image 1


Many people have rhapsodized about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is an image that has been used as metaphor many times, and watching the process is endlessly fascinating. I can’t even begin to speak about it as beautifully as so many others already have. But what I loved about watching this transformation was knowing that the seeds of evolution were inside the wriggly caterpillar all along.

Science tells us that there is no structural commonality between caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillar literally dissolves into a kind of genetic goop inside the chrysalis. Cells which had remained dormant within the caterpillar, poetically called “imaginal” cells, take over:

These little groups of cells that start developing very early in the caterpillar’s life but then they stall, and so they’re just in there waiting, and they don’t start growing until the very end of the 5th instar (the last caterpillar stage). —Journey North: Monarch Butterfly

What emerges is something completely different. But those imaginal cells? They were there from the beginning. From this I take two lessons for myself:

  • Within each of us resides the seeds of what we can become – and we can literally change our form (transform) from within.
  • What we have the potential to be is radically different from who we already are.

Remember that line of metallic dots on the green chrysalis? (If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the dots in both.) They intrigued me, so I did a little research and discovered this: they are a mystery. Science has not yet explained them. I take great pleasure in knowing this. We can transform our lives, our very sense of who we are – that potential, that incipience, exists within us. But there’s mystery in us, too. The beautiful, shining mystery of creation that defies human understanding.

This past week, everyone who stopped to look at, discuss, celebrate, and set free our butterflies noted not only the incredible biology of the process, but also the deep mystery. And we all shared, if briefly, in the joy of transformation. I can’t hold on to those moments, but I want very much to remember them. Especially at those times when I begin to feel, “This is it. I am finished becoming. I’m set now in this form, in this way of being in the world and in my own body, heart, soul.”  Because those moments are the ones when I need my own imagination (my imaginal cells, if you will) to kick in. That is when I need to remember the joy – and the beauty – that is activated with the conscious choice to change and grow.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed…If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”  — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life


Renewable Energy: Tapping our Inner Resources

I continued to focus on my breath, exhaling forcefully then inhaling again without a pause. Inside, I began to feel a buzzing, humming sensation similar to standing next to an electrical generator. It began at my diaphragm and radiated upward. I could feel the energy expanding and filling my body, sending electricity through my arms and up through my chest, my neck, my head. My facial muscles began to twitch involuntarily, until suddenly there was a huge pulse of internal light and I felt as if the energy that had been building inside me had just burst forth. It leaked out through my pores, and shone in a beam of light out the the top of my head. 

At least that’s how I pictured it in my minds eye.

I felt radiant, expansive, and more than usually ALIVE. After a few minutes, I spoke quietly to my friend, Melissa, who was standing next to me. “Can you feel that?” I asked.

“Your energy field is about out to here,” she said, holding her hand roughly 16 inches in front of me. “I can see it.” Truthfully, I could feel her hand before I opened my eyes, even though it was more than a foot from my body. 

Last summer I volunteered to assist my friend, Melissa, who has been getting her certification as a facilitator in guided breath work. The experience described above was from our tenth and final session last week. What I’ve felt during these sessions has varied, but the best ones have led to similar high-voltage experiences.

It’s got me thinking a lot this week about energy: how we get it, how we make use of it, how we replenish it.

As a starting point, let’s consider that Albert Einstein said energy “cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form into another.” While Einstein’s words carry the weight of scientific genius, they remind me of another quote that I have seen attributed to various famous individuals: we can be miserable or we can be happy – the amount of work is the same. I take these statements, together, to mean that we are expending energy no matter what. Whether that energy is spent procrastinating, complaining, creating or exclaiming is up to us. It is all energy.

If energy can only be transformed, then a good place to start is with fear and love. Fear is an energy that makes us smaller, causes us to contract. It vibrates on one frequency. Love is an energy that enlarges us and our world, that helps us to expand beyond previous boundaries and expectations. Love vibrates on a different frequency than fear. It seems a fairly safe bet to say that connecting with what we love is more likely to produce positive energy, and positive results, than connecting with our fears.

In my experience, authentically engaging with others and with the world around me often leads to feelings of increased energy. Authentic engagement is a form of love energy. It calls for openness and vulnerability – you have to share some true part of yourself for this to come about. With others, this can mean lowering your defenses and/or pretenses. With the world, I believe this means being open to possibilities, allowing our guarded hearts to be cracked open by beauty or the ineffable. There is a quality of permeability that is called for. We have to be willing to let what is outside us touch us on the inside, as well as to allow our deep selves to come out of hiding.

For example, risking authenticity with others has recently led to offers of mentoring and support for my creative endeavors. It has also yielded the opportunity to brainstorm with a friend about a new business venture she is contemplating. Risking authenticity means I am now actively feeling that internal buzz that signals high energy frequencies. My creative juices are flowing and I can’t seem to find enough hours in the day to address all I want to accomplish.

Another important factor that allows our energy to be transformed into something powerful is the simple step of taking action. I would never berate wishful thinking, daydreaming, or hoping – I believe that spending time in these activities allows us to open up to new ways of seeing the world and to new possibilities. However, it can also lead to an energy build-up that, if we give way to procrastination or just move on with the mundane tasks of life rather than implement some portion of what we dream about, dissipates without transforming. Worse, habitually doing this leads to negative energy – we feel like failures who have wasted our time and our talents. Feeling this way adds to the inertia we were already fighting.

The opposite is true, though, if we begin to take action. If you’ve ever spent time dreaming or wishing you could conquer some obstacle, then taken even a small step toward resolving the problem, creating the solution, or achieving the goal you’ve seen it can lead to an incredible upsurge of positive energy. Suddenly, you find you’ve moved farther faster than you thought possible. That higher energy frequency you’ve attained is allowing you to experience what has been described as “flow”. Or, as motivational speaker Tony Robbins has said, “The higher your energy level, the more efficient your body. The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results.”

Now, I’ve been talking about the kind of energy that can be generated from within, from attuning your heart and your mind to things you love, things that you think of as positives. There is also the kid of energy that is generated by a healthy body – one that is fueled well with clean eating and good hydration, moves well due to exercise, and is rejuvenated by restful sleep. This kind of energy cannot be overrated in any way. However, that’s another post entirely!

In thinking about my expanding energy field during my last breath work session, it occurs to me that we all have energy reserves we may not be aware of – that these reserves are available for our use should we choose reach for them, and that they are inexhaustible. This doesn’t mean that if we begin to practice using them we will never feel our energies flagging (sometimes this happens for reasons beyond our control, such as illness). Instead, when we do feel our energies vibrating toward fear, procrastination, inaction, or isolation we have inner resources we can tap. All we need do is remember to engage with our love instead of our fear. That, and breathe.


The Wonder Years

Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)
Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)

Tonight I started thinking about the television show “The Wonder Years”. I loved that show, including the way it always left me feeling slightly melancholy with nostalgia for the early ’70s. I know exactly what triggered it: on my afternoon bike ride I crossed the Mississippi River by bridge twice, reminding me of how central a character the river has been in my life. I thought about the towns I’ve lived in along its banks, including Hastings, Minnesota.

I never think about Hastings without thinking about my yellow 10-speed bike. I miss it, and that makes me feel a bittersweet longing for my preteen life. Hence, “The Wonder Years” (“The series depicts the social and family life of a boy in a typical American suburb from 1968 to 1973, covering his ages of 12 through 17.” Wikipedia) Each episode was narrated by the adult that the lead character, Kevin Arnold, eventually became. In the series finale, the final narration goes:

“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”

Cue one lone tear, gently gliding down my cheek.

1968-73 were some pretty great years in my own sepia-toned memories (though at 7-12 years of age, I was a bit younger than Kevin Arnold). It is easy to look back at those years with both nostalgia and wonder. But as I started down that memory lane one more time, a thought stopped me in my tracks – “NOW – these years – are the real wonder years”.

What?! These are the wonder years? Although the thought was my own, I questioned it. Truthfully, childhood is easy to idealize in its remoteness from our adult lives. And while our teen years are, indeed, full of discovery, they are characterized more by self-consciousness than by self-awareness. Most of us only feel the wonder retroactively, as we look back later, seeing the things we learned and discovered from the vantage point of understanding. The years themselves are anxious and angst-y. We learn by trial and error, we don’t actually understand the ramifications of much of what we do – we barely comprehend that there ARE or WILL BE ramifications, which allows us to experiment. In retrospect, this process of self-discovery seems wondrous.

Compare that with the reality of adult life, when we know that there will always be costs associated with benefits, when knowledge of our limitations tempers our vision of possibilities. When caution often precludes change. Suddenly, the wonder all seems to be behind us.

Unless we get lucky. For several years, I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken root in my life as somehow unique. Unusual. A mid-life transformation that I was singled out for, gifted with. Admittedly, it began with a literal message from God (a fellow retreatant saying, “In prayer, I was given a message for Jenifer: God says he has a new path for you. Be ready.”) I am grateful, and still feel amazement at the changed life I am living and creating. But I’m also looking around me and seeing some truly incredible transformations in lives other than my own: Kathe has created a happy second marriage, moved from the suburbs into the city, and begun a career she loves, finally working for herself. Sue returned to her hometown after surviving a frightening end to her marriage and an actively malicious end to her job; she faced the demons of depression, and has created a life that includes a fierce passion for serving adult learners and the grace of time and closeness with her family. And then there’s Mike.

On Sunday, just a year after beginning his journey toward health and wholeness, Mike began the day running in a 15K with friends. The man who specifically told his trainer he wouldn’t run, voluntarily joined new friends to run further than he had ever attempted before. After the run, he changed into different spandex and we hopped on our bikes for 16 miles of riding, joining a community of friends for the afternoon. On Monday, he blew past a personal goal he was fearful he wouldn’t achieve.

I stand in awe, or as Rabbi Heschel called wonder: radical amazement. These stories and transformations (and others) have prompted me to think that perhaps that point just after the middle of our lives are the wonder years. The years when we wonder, “Is this all that I am meant to be and do?”, or, “What would it take for me to truly live a better life?” and that wondering leads to change.

Change is hard, and later in life – unlike in youth – we undertake it knowing it will be hard. Transformation requires commitment, tenacity, a willingness to follow through on actions that scare us. Transformation is work. Childhood and the years immediately after it have taught us this. So the real wonder is choosing change and transformation anyway. The real wonder years are the ones in which we keep choosing to change and grow despite having already experienced life long enough to know how it can test us.

Part of me will always wax nostalgic about my childhood. I’ll always miss that yellow ten-speed. The Mississippi River will flow through my veins no matter where I go or who I become. But I think the part of my life I will invest with the most awe and, yes, with the most wonder, is NOW.





Politics of Spirit

Saturday night I was at a party at The Chrome Horse Saloon.  I arrived looking forward to spending the evening with friends, then did something a little out of character for me. I introduced myself to a stranger who seemed interesting.  What followed was a lengthy conversation which ranged through some pretty cerebral territory: political ideologies, epistemology, scientific inquiry, and changing the world.  Granted, this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was both fascinated and energized by the discussion.

In fact, I was energized enough that the following morning I found the excerpt, below, from Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which was tickling at the back of my brain during part of our discussion at The Chrome Horse.

“We capitalists have a long and crippling history of believing in the power of external realities much more deeply than we believe in the power of the inner life. How many times have you heard or said, “Those are inspiring notions, but the hard reality is…”?  How many times have you worked in systems based on the belief that the only changes that matter are the ones you can measure or count?  How many times have you watched people kill off creativity by treating traditional policies and practices as absolute constraints on what we can do?

…But the great insight of our spiritual traditions is that we — especially those of us who enjoy political freedom and relative affluence — are not victims of that society: we are its co-creators. We live in and through a complex interaction of spirit and matter, of the powers inside of us and the stuff “out there” in the world. External reality does not impinge upon us as an ultimate constraint:  if we who are privileged find ourselves confined, it is only because we have conspired in our own imprisonment…

If our institutions are rigid, it is because our hearts fear change; if they set us in mindless competition with each other, it is because we value victory over all else; if they are heedless of human well-being, it is because something in us is heartless as well…

Consciousness precedes being: consciousness, yours and mine, can form, deform, or reform our world.  Our complicity in world making is a source of awesome and sometimes painful responsibility — and a source of profound hope for change.”

“We the privileged have conspired in our own imprisonment.” Pretty powerful stuff.  I know this is true for me, on the level of my daily choices and interactions, especially when I choose out of fear.  But I have also experienced change/transformation at the personal level, and this has been a spiritual process brought to fruition by action.  If, as the women’s movement attested, the personal is political, what we can do in our own sphere can also be achieved on a larger scale.

Therefore, I can’t help but imagine the possibilities open to us at the societal level if we were to bring the transformative power of spirit and consciousness to our political and economic constructs!  What world might we co-create then?  In a week in which we are witnessing the politics of divisiveness and hate at the national level (the shootings in Tucson, the Westboro Baptist Church) and locally (the movement to impeach the remaining members of the Iowa State Supreme Court ) it seems important to remember that we can step outside our comfort zones to create something new in the world.

What that new world might look like would make for a another great conversation at The Chrome Horse Saloon.