Playing by Ear

21 05 2015

I’ve always admired musically talented people, especially those who seem able to hear any music and play it back without practice or written music to follow. It is as if their ear, hearing the notes, immediately translates them into a language that they know how to speak and, voila, the music flows back out of them almost magically. When I am around musicians who can play by ear, who improvise, who easily pick up a new instrument and bring forth a tuneful sound, I am often mesmerized. I feel awed by what they are able to do.

How do they first discover that they can do this?

Not being in possession of this gift myself, I don’t really know. But I imagine that, for some, the discovery comes in childhood, before they’ve been taught by life experience to doubt the possibility. But for others, there might be a moment when they decide to give it a shot. Perhaps they’ve felt the potential for a while, maybe even taken some music lessons, but haven’t had enough self-confidence to just break out and go for it. And then they do, and the whole language of music fully opens to them.

Of course, to be really good, to improve, they must practice. But what I’m interested in exploring here isn’t how a good musician hones his or her craft. Rather, I’m interested in that intersection of potential and reality, and of what it takes to cross that threshold.

We all have these thresholds in our lives. These places where we can either continue to live with our unrealized potentials or we can attempt to bring them forth into reality. How do we begin?

I discovered an Alan Alda quote that really speaks to crossing this threshold: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.” The wilderness of our intuition. For most of us, intuition remains a wilderness precisely because we choose not to explore it. In the age of Google maps and street views, we are very unused to making any move without mapping it out first. And that is in the physical world, where we operate most of the time with relative ease. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it is for most of us to move into the wilderness of intuition, where we aren’t comfortable being, where everything is unfamiliar at first.

Sure, there are those who seem to follow their intuition with ease. But just as I am not musically gifted, I am also not one of those who easily stepped into the wilderness, following the call of my intuition. Nor has it always been an easy path. Here are a few things I’ve learned on this expedition out of my own City of Comfort and into the wilderness of intuition.

Fear walks beside you.  Panache Desai, in his book Discovering Your Soul Signature, says “Life and life situations will call us out on our fear, every single time.” For me, fear comes in many forms – concern that I am not putting my attention where it needs to be; fear that something bad (illness, an accident, etc.) will happen and derail me; fears about lack (of money, of love, of time). The key, according to Desai, is to learn to allow. He reminds us that emotions are simply energy in motion. He says, “I have to learn, again and again, to catch myself…allow the fear to run through me like a river out to sea.” When I am able to breathe through my fear, then let it go, my sense of abundance and gratitude reasserts itself and I am able to keep moving forward.

Trust is essential. There are two types of trust that I have found important in the wilderness of intuition: trust in my own gut AND trust in a higher power. First, my gut. I ignored it for so many years of my life that I had to take what amounted to a remedial course in learning to heed it. I set small tests for it before making big decisions based on it. Each time – whether I listened to it or not – the lesson has been the same: my gut knows the way. And there are few feelings worse than hearing your gut say, “I told you so, but you didn’t listen.”

As for trust in a higher power, when I set my foot to this new path in the wilderness, I intellectually believed that God (the Universe, the Source of All Being) would provide. Believing that in my head is a radically different thing from living with it in my heart. It turns out that I suck at trust. Despite mounting evidence that trust is warranted, I regularly experience a crisis of faith – usually when I forget to allow fear to move through me and, instead, stop to live within it’s energy.

The wilderness is a teacher. When I was a teenager, I saw the animated film, “The Point”. In the story, the hero Oblio is the only kid in The Land of Point born without a point (his head is rounded). It is against the law to have no point, so Oblio is banished to The Pointless Forest. Where he learns, of course, that everything has a point. In many ways, leaving my City of Comfort to enter the Wilderness of My Intuition has reminded me of Oblio’s journey. Some of my lessons have been strange ones, gleaned from interacting with unusual people and experiences. Some have been emotionally difficult, while others have been truly joyful experiences. Following your intuition may lead you into odd places, but what you learn (about yourself, about your world, about your callings in life) is essential.

 

Which brings us back to the idea of practice. Just as musicians, however innately gifted, must practice to develop their skills, learning to follow your intuition requires practice. You will want to regularly return to your city of comfort, which is ok. It is your touchpoint, your safe spot where you are surrounded by support. However, to grow and develop as a person, you will need to also make regular forays into the wilderness. Seeing, then seizing, the moments when the threshold between potential and reality can be crossed is how we learn to get really good at playing our lives by ear. And that, my friends, is an incredibly gifted way to live.

 

 

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When the Dog Bites

27 03 2014

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?

 

 

 

 





A Mouse, and the Conundrum of Forgiveness

24 10 2013

I don’t hate the mouse that is running around my apartment. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, and it appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. It’s fall, and little critters (like the rest of us) are just looking for a way to survive the bitter winter. This particular bold rodent happened upon a way into my cozy space and decided to take up residence. Who could blame it – I have a nifty and warm place. I’ve forgiven the little thing for moving in, but let’s face it, a mouse is simply not wanted. Does forgiveness require that I live with the mouse? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’m going to set a trap for it, without rancor (but with some squeamishness).

Better-Mousetrap-640x260

Which gives me pause to think about forgiveness in other circumstances. If someone has harmed me or hurt me, and the harm or hurt is real (not simply a matter of pettiness), how far do I have to take this forgiveness thing? Can I forgive without forgetting? Is it forgiveness if I can’t return to former feelings of liking or respect for the individual? Have I forgiven someone if I remain unwilling to allow them close enough to hurt me again? Have I forgiven them if the experience continues to color my judgement of their words or behaviors? Can I forgive a person but still not welcome them back into my life?

These are important questions. The kind of questions for which easy answers are rarely forthcoming. But I had to give it a shot, right? I googled “quotes about forgiveness” and found the sort of wisdom you might expect:

“Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” –Mark Twain
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

These statements aren’t much good for those of us seeking some practical insight or advice about forgiving and moving on. Then I came upon this:

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” ― Anne Lamott

Perfect! A measurement I can really use. I don’t need to hit back. Does that mean I’m finished? Unfortunately, I’ve never been the type of person who hits back. I’m more the “stand-with-mouth-haning-open-and-mind-suddenly-blank” type. So lacking the urge to hit back may not be the best measure of whether I’ve forgiven someone. But it’s a good start.

“Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.” ― Rick Warren

Forgiveness does not require that I immediately trust the individual again. Trust requires a track record, and IF I continue to be in direct relationship with this individual that record needs to be established. In fairness, this idea of a track record also means that if the hurtful/harmful behavior is an anomaly in a relationship of demonstrated trust, then trust might be called for sooner rather than later. Clearly, one sign that we’ve actually forgiven someone is that we’re able to regard them with fairness.

You may already have guessed that these questions, and my search for answers, are not purely academic in nature. I’ve always believed myself to be good with the forgiveness thing – but in the past, forgiveness hasn’t posed much of a problem because I was dealing with family and dearly loved friends. These individuals forgive me, and I forgive them, easily and often. The experience of forgiveness directed toward someone who was not emotionally as close but whose ability to hurt me was still high is a new one for me. I believe that forgiveness is key for my own growth and ability to move forward in life – which is why I am spending time living with these questions. And even though there is a specific application in this case, it never hurts to revisit our beliefs about such important life questions as the nature of forgiveness.

In the meantime, I have some business to resolve with a little mouse.





The Case for Uncertainty

12 09 2013

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When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
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Have a Little Faith

4 04 2013

“Sometimes beautiful things come into our lives out of nowhere.  We can’t always understand them, but we have to trust in them.  I know you want to question everything, but sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.”  ―Lauren Kate

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Having faith is something that doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. There are things I believe, things which are pretty steady and unshakeable: that God is; that love is our most pressing action and responsibility in this life; that there is a point to our being here. Faith is different – faith is about trust, which isn’t one of my natural responses to the world, other people, or my own efficacy.

The amazing people in my life regularly encourage me to trust that the right path will reveal itself to my feet. And while I believe that it will, I struggle on a daily basis to keep the faith. To trust enough to relax and let it unfold.

But my own recent history should inform me here. This blog began with the “Hunger Challenge” and has led to uncountable gifts that were never foreseen or promised. This morning I posted my 500th post! That’s quite a milestone, given that I began with only a vague idea what I was doing!

In his “Letter to a Young Poet”, Rilke says, “Keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.” Blogging through the most difficult issues of emotional denial and repression – the things inside me that I had never brought to the light – proved to be incredibly powerful. Telling my own story in my own voice has been more healing, more central to my weight loss and current physical health, than the changes I made in diet and exercise. Rilke was on to something important which in our crazy, loud, rushed world is often overlooked. Silence and solitude allow what we carry deep inside to bubble up to the surface – if we are listening, we hear our own voices, and we learn.

Voice. I had been using my voice in journaling most of my life, and I still appreciate journaling as reflection. In posting to Jenion, though, I discovered the powerful nature of voice in dialogue with others. We live in a time when people are quick to share prurient details but slow to openly speak what is truly in their hearts. The incredibly amazing gift of this blog has come primarily from readers – both friends and strangers – who have listened to what I had to say and responded from their own deeper selves. It still feels like such a humbling grace when someone comments on a post – either sharing their experience or simply saying, “Thanks, I needed that”. I am not special or different, as I assumed in my younger years when I felt so isolated from others. I am blessedly ordinary. When our hearts are able to speak together honestly about our experiences and feelings, something extraordinary grows from that conversation.

As a teenager, I often looked for the perfect quote to share as my favorite with my senior portrait in the yearbook. (Never mind that, as it turned out, I didn’t take a senior portrait and was certainly not asked for a quote!) I thought I would probably use, as had countless others, the famous proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I believed this to be true. But I hadn’t the life experience to have faith in it. Jenion has taught me the visceral truth of it – along with the unexpected knowledge that you may not know that you are taking an important first step. A step that will lead you someplace you didn’t know you wanted to go…but which is exactly where you need to be.

And with that experience and knowing, perhaps it is time for me to become a person of faith, not just a person of beliefs. Time to close my eyes and take a step, trusting that I will put my foot down in the very place I need to be.

Friends, family, readers: thank you for coming with me on this Jenion adventure! Hopefully, we have many more experiences and exploits to share!





I Will Never Homestead in Alaska

7 06 2012

You may not know this about me, but at one point in my life I had a plan. It was a simple plan: with my friends, Pam and Steve, I would move to Alaska after college. We would claim a tract of free land and establish our homestead. We’d live in a tent while we built our cabin by hand. Steve was strong; we were certain he could wield an axe and fell the giant trees needed for our roofbeams. Our friend Todd, a.k.a. “Mole”, horned in on our plan by offering to design our dream log cabin (he did, in fact, go on to become an architect).

Once the cabin was built, Todd would put his drafting table in a sunny spot in the great room and Steve would hunt and wrestle bears while Pam and I would garden, can, cook and bake bread. We would live a simple life, self-sufficient, in constant communion with nature. Never mind the fact that Pam and I both envisioned ourselves in long-term monogamous relationships with Steve (poor Mole). The vision was an idyllic one. We spent months daydreaming about it on the huge hammock in Pam’s yard.

Life intervened, and like many other ideas and plans, this one fell to the wayside. A year or so later, I was convinced I would become a speech pathologist. Even later, I applied to graduate school in English and wasn’t accepted, my fledgling hope of becoming a professor of literature denied before it fully took root in my psyche.

I have thought about this quite a bit since I read the blog post written by my friend Cindy Petersen (here), in which she shared her story of believing that restaurant ownership would be her best path to an autonomous career. She did a lot of work toward that dream, and it still didn’t come true. She could have stopped there, but the resonant part of Cindy’s story is that the work was all preparation for a better dream to unfold in her life.

In my homesteading dream, I lived in a snug little home and ate locally grown organic food. To some extent, that is a picture of my current life, minus the Alaskan wilderness. In my early career thoughts, I wanted to help people who needed my skills, perhaps college students. And that has turned out to be my vocation for twenty years – I’m an educator without being either a speech pathologist or a professor. And I believe my students do need what I have to offer.

It is part of our nature as human beings to dream big dreams. When we’re young, it never occurs to us to dream of being ordinary. And these days, we are all constantly harangued to dream big, live with passion, don’t settle for anything less than the whole enchilada. However, most of us live what, on the surface, appear to be very ordinary lives. As I have gotten older, I have begun to realize that the best lesson to take from this is: Trust. Trust that my inner self will guide me in the directions I need to go. For example, I have always wanted to be a writer. In my dreams, I have imagined “writer” to be synonymous with “author of great literature”. I have written about this dream ad nauseum in a lifetime of journals. It is only now that I see an inner wisdom has guided me – I am a writer: of reflections, personal essays and memoir. And I am finding deep satisfaction and fulfilment in that.

In the midst of these thoughts, I was reminded of the lyrics from a Don McLean song, “Crossroads” (apparently my Alaska homesteading plans aren’t the only high school reminiscences coming to mind this week!):

You know I’ve heard about people like me,
But I never made the connection.
They walk one road to set them free
And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.
But there’s no need for turning back
‘Cause all roads lead to where I stand.
And I believe I’ll walk them all
No matter what I may have planned.
 

By all means, dream big dreams. I will continue to myself. But while I am dreaming, I plan to remind myself: “Don’t stop and simply gawk at the shiny dream. Instead, keep walking down your road, trusting that you’ll end up in the right place. No need for turning back.”

 
 




Triple Word Tuesday

25 01 2011

(Note: My sister Anne made these “angel cards” for me many years ago. I still use them for focus and reflection.  Thanks, Annie!)