Stand or Take a Knee…

22 09 2016

When I was in high school, I belonged to an inter-church youth group. Many Sundays saw my siblings and I attending services at the Methodist, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches in town with our youth group – and also attending mass at our own Catholic parish. Sometimes, our youth group friends would come to mass with us – not often, certainly not as often as we attended their services (I mean, we were teens – who would actually choose multiple church services on a single Sunday morning unless coerced?!). When they did come to our church, they refused to participate in the prayer ritual on the grounds that somehow doing so made them idolators or papists. They never asked me about the rituals of the mass, or why we sometimes knelt – they had learned elsewhere that it was antithetical to their religious doctrine. So they came to our church as a sign of solidarity with us (because my parents insisted on mass), but they used their presence as an opportunity to stage a silent protest against Catholicism.

I haven’t forgotten how it felt as a teenager, to watch my friends make significant eye contact with one another as they slowly, deliberately and with a clearly intentional flourish, took their seats – in the very front pew of the church where they insisted we sit – as the rest of the church dropped to their knees.

I felt shamed.

And then I felt angry. What made them think their church was better than mine? Their way of expressing prayerful reverence somehow more “right”?

Now, all that I’ve written about this experience is from my perspective – and not even my current perspective, that of my teenaged self. Today, I wouldn’t see or feel it in the same way at all! In fairness to my friends, their perceptions and perspectives of these events likely vary widely from mine. And it is so far in the past, we’re lucky to remember it at all, much less with any nuance or detail!

However, these memories of how I felt then have helped me to understand a bit about why the recent protests during the national anthem at sporting events have so enraged some folks. When someone chooses to act in a way that is deliberately different, we can’t help but pay attention. And when their action calls out something that we do or believe as a matter of course, we tend to take their actions personally. You kneeling when I stand, or remaining seated when I kneel, is not a political statement, it is a personal affront.

This initial reaction is visceral, not thoughtful.

And here’s where we get into trouble so often, I think: instead of engaging in reflection and dialogue about what is behind both the other person’s action and our emotional re-action, we stick with the visceral. Our responses are then always arguments designed to support our gut reaction, our feelings, rather than intended to bring about understanding of multiple perspectives. It keeps us in adversarial opposition to one another, rather than allowing us to truly listen, or to come to respectful disagreement – not to mention the even more desirable discovery of some middle ground.

Unfortunately, social media feeds this immature atunement to the visceral. In many ways, it has become a scourge to mature inquiry and and reflection. I say this sadly, as one who has benefited from all of the great things social media has the potential to offer. However, as both the algorithms used weed out more and more of what might be different from our own perspectives, more and more we also unfriend those whose perspectives differ. By the time both are done with “the weeding”, we’re left with a very sparse garden of ideas, indeed. One uninformed by the unique perspectives of others whose worldviews and life experiences differ from our own.

We find ourselves in a turbulent time. There are deep issues to be addressed. I do not have any answers, nor am I suggesting that I have a comprehensive theory on how to go about resolving these issues. I am, though, attempting to hold space – by listening, by checking my own gut-reactions, by seeking a broader set of opinions than my own – for what of Goodness and Truth and Peace and Justice might emerge from the turbulence of our times. Whether I stand, or kneel, or lay prostrate on the ground – I am trying to hold space for others to choose their own posture without casting them in the role of enemy or other. It is, honestly, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I am convinced that making the effort will be worth it, if only because it keeps me from a self-imposed solitary confinement of the mind and heart.

“It’s a fact—everyone is ignorant in some way or another.Ignorance is our deepest secret.

And it is one of the scariest things out there, because those of us who are most ignorant are also the ones who often don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.

Here is a quick test:

If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental tenet of your belief, if you have never questioned the basics, and if you have no wish to do so, then you are likely ignorant.

Before it is too late, go out there and find someone who, in your opinion, believes, assumes, or considers certain things very strongly and very differently from you, and just have a basic honest conversation.

It will do both of you good.”

— Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

 

 

 

 

 





Truth Arrives in Silence

21 01 2016

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

WP_20160110_16_54_40_Pro (1)

“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.

.





Truth, 2016

14 01 2016

It was New Year’s Day and I was feeling ambivalent. About pretty much everything. I wasn’t in the mood to reflect on the year just ended, nor did I feel quite up to staring down the barrel of 2016 with unblinking fortitude.

I noodled around online instead.

A post popped up on a friend’s social media feed, its flashing letters calling out to me like a carnival barker: “Find Out Your Word for 2016!” Easily distracted by shiny objects, I clicked on it. In almost exactly the same split second it took me to regret clicking, the word generator selected randomly for me:

Your word for 2016 is – Truth.

“Crap”, I thought. “That’s the last word I wanted”. Without even reading the explanation that came with the announcement, I hurriedly moved on to a different site.

But, of course, the damage was already done. Why, I wondered, had I responded so vehemently to the word “truth”?

#############################################

Two summers ago, when I worked the opening shift at Starbucks, I often spent long afternoons riding my bike. My friend, Mike, was bike commuting from our apartment building out to his office in the suburbs and I would sometimes ride out to meet him for the commute home. The trip was 17 miles each way, and offered a variety of surfaces and several hills in each direction.

I finally hit my stride with hills that summer. I can’t say that anything in particular clicked into place, other than that I had, perhaps, finally spent enough time in the saddle. Anyway, the hills on our commute back to the city were long and rolling, so we would fly down one hill and immediately begin ascending the next. Mike was always ahead of me heading into the uphill climb, but about half or two thirds of the way up, I would pass him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Mike was in great shape – lighter, stronger and faster than me. When we rode together he often needed to moderate his pace so I could keep up. But I overtook him on those hills, and it was exhilarating! Not because it activated a competitiveness in me – although I wouldn’t be human (or honest) if I didn’t admit there was a smidgeon of that. But the main reason I found it so wonderful? It was evidence to me that I had developed a kinesthetic knowledge, a way of uniting my body and the machine I was riding into one efficient, smooth, and cohesive entity. Riding those hills well was deeply satisfying in a way that had nothing to do with anyone or anything else: my body my bike.

#############################################

This past year, I barely rode. I changed jobs twice and I’ve been living in a place of transition. Consequently, I was experiencing what a colleague calls “grief resistance” – riding just hasn’t felt fun since I returned to Cedar Rapids, missing the cycling culture (and my bikey friends) in the Twin Cities. Several times a week, at the gym, I climb aboard a spin bike and ride. Sometimes, I close my eyes and pretend I’m riding outside, actually going somewhere rather than just spinning my wheels. But mostly I just make myself pedal, varying the tension and the speed to get my heart pumping and work up a sweat.

Driving home from the gym after a less-than-satisfying session, I had a depressing vision of myself living like that every day – on auto-pilot, tired, anxious, my body heavier and more lethargic than I prefer. And that is when I began to more deeply understand my aversion to the word “truth” as my word for 2016.

The truth is, I’ve been avoiding my own truth for a while now. Avoiding consciously addressing what my heart already knew: that I’ve been abdicating my responsibilities to myself and my life. I’ve been making excuses instead of making active choices.

The truth is, going through life transitions is challenging; it can be really hard to do – like riding a bike up long or steep hills. You can fight the hill, complain about the hill, whine the entire way up the hill – but eventually you’ll need to crest the hill, however you feel about it. The kicker is that there will always be another hill, whether immediately in front of you or just visible on the horizon.

The truth is, hills are a fact of life – both the literal and the metaphoric ones. You can let them depress you or you can find them exhilarating. The main difference is in your approach.

#Truth

 

 





Everyone, And No One, Is Alone

26 03 2015

Last week I went with friends to see the movie “Into The Woods” at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Afterwards, as we walked from our cars into a restaurant for dinner, one friend began making up her own silly lyrics to “No One Is Alone” a song from the musical. We laughed and sang made-up snippets for a few minutes. My contribution was “But I am alone! Regardless of your lyrics…We are ALL alone!” After we all chuckled at that, I surprised myself by launching into a bit of a tirade on the subject.

“That song’s a crock, anyway!”, I exclaimed. “The truth is, everyone is alone. Everyone. We are all alone. That’s the reality of the human condition.” But we were in happy moods, and my outburst came across as humorous and less bitter than it might under other circumstances.

We ate dinner, talking and laughing – just enjoying the company of good friends. Later, when our waitress sensed we were finished with our meals and preparing to leave, she stopped at our table to ask how we would like the bill. I indicated that it should be split, my friends’ charges were together, while mine were separate. As she walked away from our table, I sang softly, “I will pay separately because…I am alone!”  We erupted into laughter again.

After dinner, my friends and I parted, returning to our own homes. I felt full of the good fortune that comes with friendship and laughter, fueled by tasty food and energizing conversation. But as I prepared for bed, my thoughts turned to more sober reflections on aloneness. Underneath the evening’s laughter, I rediscovered a core paradox:

We are, each of us alone…

…we are on our own when it comes to making the daily choices and decisions that define who we are – no matter how connected to others, only we can choose whether to be true to our deepest selves as we go about living each day; we can never truly know another person’s heart or mind, housed as we are in the solitude or our own, seeing with our own eyes through very personal filters; and (as I learned in existential philosophy courses in college) facing the end of our days – the great transformation known as death – is the ultimate solitary endeavor.

Yet we are, none of us, alone…

…we humans are built with a need for connection and community; we reach out in love and friendship toward others – we have families and tribes and neighbors; even when we are without direct interaction we have writers, artists, musicians whose work speaks to our hearts, whispering that we are understood; in moments of fear or despair, we often find unlooked-for hands reaching out to help or to soothe; and we have an internal urge to seek out an enlivening Spirit, sometimes known as God (which I learned in existential philosophy courses in college is a fallacious crutch, but which I have experienced as very real) a presence in our universe that accounts for countless moments of grace and giftedness is our lives.

That night, I dreamed a recurring dream I sometimes have.

In my dream, I have somehow come to be at the foot of a rocky wall of boulders and sheer cliff faces. On the plain atop the wall, is a place – and people – I need desperately to reach. The only way to get there, without miles of detouring on foot, is to climb. Even in my dreams, I have a healthy fear of heights. But there are many good hand- and foot-holds, my dreaming mind reasons, and I should be quite able to reach the top. And so I begin the arduous climb. As I pick my way upward, the climb seems to grow longer, becoming an endless upward path. Now that I am fully engaged, and more than partway up the scree, I have no choice but to continue climbing. My muscles fatigue, my body becomes weary and drenched with sweat. Just as my spirits flag and I begin to despair of reaching the top, I look up to see that I have finally progressed past the halfway point. This renews my energy, reminding me of the urgency of my quest. I climb with vigor, and feel myself equal to the task. However, in the first flush of self-congratulation, I look up a final time and see, to my sudden dismay, that the lip of the wall has extended out over the rocks I’m climbing.

I stop moving, clinging to my spot on the rocky slope, so close to my destination that I could touch the flat plain, except for the barrier that now extends over my head. I am flooded with disappointment, which quickly turns to despair. When I have dreamed this dream in the past, I have had to face the choice of climbing back down or of attempting a feat of physical prowess and strength that even my dreaming self knows is beyond me. Often, I wake at this point, my heart beating erratically and my breath labored.

But this night, something different transpires. As I cling there, scanning the rocky lip of the canyon, I notice a spot off to my right where the lip of smooth rock is broken. Under this spot are a couple of jagged rocks that, if I wedge my foot against them just right, might afford me the ability to reach the lip and haul myself up. Suddenly (and miraculously, as things sometimes happen in dreams) I remember that I have a bar towel in my back pocket. I remember a friend handing it to me in a flash of dream memory that hadn’t existed until that moment. I might, I reason, be able to fling the towel around some purchase at the top and use it to pull myself up the last bit. Though moving across the rock face is daunting, I now have a plan and my towel – so I face down my fears and scrabble sideways. Watching myself in the dream, I know it isn’t pretty as climbing goes. But it works, and I make it to the spot I have zeroed in on. Taking the towel from my back pocket, I look for some bit of rock or vegetation on the edge of the plain. Seeing none, I decide to blindly cast it up, an end in each hand like a very short jump rope. To my surprise, it catches! Relief sweeping through me, I lean away from the wall, my weight held by the towel, and pull myself up and onto the plain. The last thing I see before I wake from the dream is what the towel has caught on: not a rock or a stunted tree, as I had envisioned. But a human hand.

 

Lying in bed, the emotional residue of the dream floating in the atmosphere of my dark room, I  realize the Truth embedded in my dream: we are all alone in our climb, but none of us makes it successfully to the top without grasping the hand of another. Looking back at my own darkest moments, the light that appears and offers both help and hope is always shining from the face of someone else. Whether that light comes in the form of a helping hand, an unlooked-for gift, or a simple card reminding me that I am loved, it shines with enough power to illuminate a way forward or, at the very least, a way to regroup before the next push.

And because it is true that I have needed the help of others to survive and thrive, that I have relied on the hands that have stretched out toward me, it is vitally important that I strive to sometimes be that hand for someone else. I may not be able to fix their problems. I may not think I have applicable skills to offer “real” (or concrete) help. But I can offer something, even if only a friendly presence, encouragement, emotional support. Or more simply stated: love.

And this paradox, I see, is the truth of the human condition (though I doubt anyone will ever learn it in an existential philosophy course in college): we may be alone, but no one need be alone. A simple, but powerful, truth.

 

 

 





I Am #YesAllWomen

29 05 2014

On a beautiful spring day in 1972, I was walking home from Pinecrest Elementary School (Hastings, MN), enjoying the sun on my face and what ee cummings called the “true blue dream of sky”. I was the kind of kid who, even in 6th grade, wasn’t very aware of my surroundings – always lost inside my own head. Eventually, though, the fact that someone was following me, and speaking to me, impinged on my awareness. I half turned, though I spun back around immediately once I realized that the kid talking to me was Randy – the guy I had a crush on.

“You better walk faster ,” he said. “Cuz if I catch up to you, I’m gonna rape you.”

I had only a vague sense of the threat in those words, but I sped up.

Randy and I lived in adjacent neighborhoods, so his group of boys and my group of girls had a tendency to circle one another, occasionally intersecting in a game of horse or some version of “kill the man with the ball”. My friends said his following me and taunting me were signs that he liked me. After that, I became aware of his presence and gaze on me during these neighborhood kids free-for-alls.

One day, a few weeks later, my friend Cheryl and I were walking the circumference of our subdivision, following the streets that bordered the cornfields that hadn’t been plowed under for houses yet. Randy and his friend, Shannon, were in Shannon’s front yard and called us to come over. We stood talking for a couple of brief minutes, “What are you doing?” “Nothing really. You?” Suddenly, Randy shouted “NOW!” and he and Shannon each grabbed one of my arms and began dragging me into the back yard. Cheryl followed, neither of us sure what was happening.

At first, we were all laughing and it seemed like just another, more intimate, version of “kill the man”. Then Shannon said, “Randy told you he was gonna rape you.” Suddenly, real fear replaced my uncertainty and I began truly struggling to get away. As I was dragged into the cornfield behind Shannon’s house, I managed to free one arm, then pull away by almost slipping out of my shirt (I remember it was my favorite t-shirt, the one with the peace sign on the front that I had taken from my dad’s closet). Randy let go as we heard the fabric rip and I took off running toward home.

At the time, I wasn’t sure what would have happened had I not broken away. I felt serious ambivalence about whether I had been in danger or if this was typical behavior when a boy liked you. What I was clear on, however, was that this episode was one to keep to myself. So I did.

####

In seventh grade Math class, we were often given time to complete homework problems at the end of the class period. At least once a week, sometimes more often, I would be diligently attempting to figure out the difficult story problems when one of the boys (my assigned seat was surrounded by them) would use something – a pencil, a ruler, even one time the point of a protractor – to reach around my arm and poke my breasts. Then they’d all laugh. Once or twice, the male teacher asked what was going on, but how could I have spoken up in that situation? In front of the whole class? No way.

####

Flash forward a few years, and I’m in high school in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Randy (another Randy – the names have not been changed for the purposes of this post) lived across the street and I thought he was the hottest boy ev-ah! His parents were never around, and I killed a lot of afternoons hanging out at his house with Randy, his older sister Lisa and their kid brother. One afternoon, just Randy and I were in the house when Lisa came home. She appeared to be in a bad mood, and almost immediately picked a fight with Randy.

After a brief but intense shouting match between the two of them, Randy grew quite calm and told me to follow him to the kitchen. When we got there, he opened a drawer containing several large and clearly sharp knives and began fooling around with them. I said, “Hey, you’re gonna cut yourself! You should put those away.”

Randy flew into a rage, grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, holding one of the knives against my throat. “Do NOT tell me what to do,” he yelled at me. I tried talking him into letting me go, but before I got very far, Lisa came into the room and started yelling at him to “stop being such a fucking asshole”. Instead of letting me go, Randy applied more pressure to my arm, torquing it so painfully that I was required to bend at the waist to avoid it being ripped from its socket. Randy pressed the point of the knife into the middle of my back and said, “You’d better stay put. If this knife stabs you in the back, it’ll be your own fault.”

I was terrified. I can remember my breath coming fast and shallow, the feel of my heartbeat pounding in my chest. The utter and complete belief that he was capable of carrying through on his threat – both because of his superior physical strength and because of his rage.

He and Lisa yelled at each other while I kept still, focused almost entirely on the point of the knife and the degree of pressure with which it was pushed into my back. Eventually, Randy threw me to the floor and said, “Get the fuck out of here.” I didn’t need any other incentive to run.

Lisa stopped me halfway across the street and begged me not to tell my parents. She said, “You’ve seen what our life is like, he wouldn’t really have hurt you he’s just got problems that aren’t his fault.” Later that evening, Randy came to the door with Lisa. She said, “Randy has something to say,” and nudged him in the shoulder. He said, “I wouldn’t have cut you.” When my parents asked, “What was that all about?”, my reply was, “Nothing.”

####

At a dance in the student union, my senior year of college, a man I didn’t know grabbed me and gave me a huge hickey on my neck. Although I shouted at him to get off me, and beat at him with my hands, my friends looked on, laughing. When he ran off, I turned to my friends and angrily asked why they had done nothing. Their response was, “We just assumed you knew him.” I was speechless.

####

Like most women I know, I have a litany of such stories: from the almost mundane (inappropriately spoken to by strangers) to the truly dangerous (a naked man with a shotgun). These experiences have made my life smaller in many ways. They are the reason I am afraid to be alone in the woods – no Cheryl Strayed odysseys for me. They are the reason that I’ve never worn a bustier in public. They are the reason that, even though I don’t have air conditioning, I close and lock my ground floor windows when I go to bed. They are the reason I don’t go out alone at night. They are the reason I evaluate my safety at all times, why I can’t bring myself to sit with my back to the room or the door; why I sometimes feel like a coward who has given away my freedom in order to feel safe.

Many of these stories went untold when they occurred, due to my own immaturity or conflicted emotions about them. I thought that a boy threatening to rape me was unusual – until I saw almost the exact scene played out in a movie called, “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. As I got older and learned more about other women’s’ lives, I realized my experiences were hardly beyond the pale.

In fact, by comparison, they’d hardly register a blip on the misogyny scale. I’m one of the lucky ones – the men in my family, the men I’ve dated, hell even the men I’ve been shit-faced drunk with – have been kind, generous, respectful. They’ve been the type of men who don’t abuse women.  The men I’ve trusted have not beaten, raped, or commodified me.

Even so, I HAVE been dissed: disrespected, disenfranchised, disregarded.*

Even so, I HAVE felt fear my whole life – and been made to feel that fear was my own fault. I was overreacting. I was dreaming things up. I had an overactive imagination. Reading the #YesEveryWoman tweets has been a moving experience, reminding me that I am first and foremost not dreaming, overreacting, or imagining. Second, that I am not alone – though it is hard to take comfort in that thought.

Hard to take comfort…because tonight I stopped by the coffee shop down the street. The young barrista who makes my order before I place it limped as she walked from the credit card reader to the espresso machine.

“What did you do to yourself?”, I asked, genuinely concerned to see her legs scraped and bruised.

“I didn’t do it to myself,” she said. “Be careful if you go out alone after dark around here. It’s not the best neighborhood. I mean I knew that, but then I thought, heck, its my own block. The police haven’t caught the guys. Seriously, be careful.”

So there is no comfort in #YesAllWomen. There is only (finally) giving voice to the truth of our experiences. If you are one of the people backlashing against the hashtag, that’s your right. I would just say that it is also our right to give voice to our shared experience; our right to say “enough”.

If that makes you uncomfortable, welcome to our world.

#YesAllWomen

 

*Note: While this post focuses on the ways women are, from a young age, routinely physically and psychologically assaulted, the daily kinds of sexism we face – in school, relationships, on the job – are an important part of the #YesAllWomen experience and hashtag. Had I focused on these experiences, my post would have been beyond lengthy.

 

 





Unfolding: Rilke, a paper crane, and me

5 09 2013

Image 2I don’t know the official name of the garden. I had seen it from my bike as I rode past. It looked like a quiet place to sit and think, across the street from its showier cousin, the Rose Garden. It wasn’t until after I had admired the little waterfall that I thought to notice the copper statue of a stylized crane, green patina-ed from the weather, or the boulders surrounding it. Each boulder contains a plaque, also weathered, with instructions for folding an origami crane. The first plaque begins, “Spirit of Peace: Fold Your Desire for Peace into a Paper Crane…”

I had come to the garden to contemplate a poem which came to me through circuitous routes, and which I knew upon my first cursory reading would require quiet and space. Here it is:

“I Want to Unfold” by Ranier Maria Rilke
 
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m to small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones —
or alone.
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 

In the art of origami, a simple square of paper is folded in such a manner as to be transformed into something else, something other than itself. These days, I feel tightly folded, holding myself erect with the artificial strength of reinforcement from bent and pleated layers. I may appear to have wings, like the crane. But that is an illusion: I am earthbound, folded tightly in upon myself as a protection from all my self-doubt and fear.

I want to know my own will, and to move with it. That was, after all, the whole point of the changes which led me here. I felt I had a firm idea of it in April and May, but as the summer passed it slipped more and more from my grasp. August and it seemed to disappear altogether. My days are peaceful on the exterior, but inside they are a turmoil. I have folded my desire for peace, let alone to know my own will, so deep I can’t quite get my fingers on it.

I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. Closed equals hidden, equals secret. Why choose folded, to remain closed? Fear, shame, guilt. Fear of my own inadequacies; shame that after all of the grace and the love I am still much afraid; guilt for the ways (large and small) that I know I am failing the gift of this time.

Unfolding. Unfolding equals exposing, unearthing, truth-telling. Exposing my vulnerabilities (the snivelling coward that lurks in my heart); unearthing through careful toil my hopes and dreams; telling the truth about my uncertainties and shortcomings, but also my talents and courage (which share space with that coward).

I want to unfold. Because, unfolded, I am myself: a plain square of paper, open to the sunlight. Able to breathe because I am no longer tightly crimped. My pride wants me to “be among the wise ones — or alone”, but truthfully, I am content to be alone and small enough for this world. It’s only on my bad days I think, “Any smaller or more alone, and I would disappear.”

As I sat in the Peace Garden, contemplating the Rilke poem through the oddly curved lens of my current life-in-limbo, I wasn’t thinking about the Divine, or Rilke’s obvious desire for deeper connection and relationship with God. I wan’t thinking of peace. I was thinking about the falseness of being closed – of pretending to be less needy or more sure than I am. Of the artiface, not the art, of origami.

Image 4

And then I saw it: one tiny white paper crane among the plantings. Fragile and pure, untouched by the dirt it rested upon. One wish, not the famous one-thousand, for peace. One tiny, fledgeling hope for something better. And I laughed, realizing that while a person should take care to remain unfolded, it is fine for paper. The paper crane was made more by folding, while I was less. Yet both of us yearn for peace – the peace that comes with understanding and compassion.

That peace must find a beginning in my own heart.

Image 3