Sleepwalking Through Life

Some days it’s clear
So I can see it:
What to be and how to be it
But some days I wonder
And some days I doubt it
Today I’m hopeful I can knock it off tonight
This sleepwalking through my life
–Lyrics from Kevin Devine’s “Sleepwalking Through My Life

Not too long ago, my friend Kathe and I were having coffee. We’ve met for coffee often enough, and at such a variety of locations, I don’t really remember those details. What I remember is the conversation coming around to the years in our lives that each of us consider “lost” in some ways. And Kathe said, with quiet fierceness, “I feel like I don’t want to waste a minute of the time I have left. I know people – a 20 year old who got pneumonia and is still not out of the woods after a double lung transplant, a woman dying of metastatic cancer (she named several others facing major life issues). These are people I know, not just know of. I’m not waiting for anyone else to approve, I’m going to go for what I want. I don’t want to regret how I spent my time.”

A few years ago, I made some changes in my life that led to the feeling of having awakened from a dream. Those “lost years” were truly gone, having been spent in a haze and rush of doing without any real sense of purpose. When I woke up, I felt that same sense of urgency as Kathe – this life is too precious and too short to waste any more of it sleepwalking. Since then, I’ve made a pretty good effort at living mindfully, at consciously choosing. I’ve actively said “Yes” or “No” based on a picture of my life being about more than getting through it.

Then this winter happened.

This winter has been a difficult one for many; the weather extremes have made it so. I am far from alone in feeling that meeting the daily challenges presented have required a much larger portion of my energy than usual – a few minutes on Facebook convinces me of that. And it isn’t that I stopped making choices or living as consciously as possible. It’s that it has became harder to maintain a center or core of certainty. Harder to maintain a vision of where I hope to go, how I hope to impact this world. Some days, I feel like I’m on the right track, I’m acting in ways that are moving me forward. Other days, I simply feel lost.

On Tuesday, like much of the midwest, Minneapolis experienced a truly beautiful, warm day. I decided to head outside, and walked several miles through the downtown, over to the North Loop. Along the way, I reveled in the sunshine, stopping to take photos and observe the city and its people. I stopped at a little shop I know of that carries awesome postcards. I went to a combo bike/coffee shop I’d heard of but never frequented. I stopped for a few groceries at Whole Foods market. Then I began the trek home.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook already know the story of what happened next:

I was standing on the sidewalk (about two feet back from the curb), waiting for the crossing light, when a woman came up beside me. She said, “Here in Minneapolis we don’t know what’s coming, but we try to make the best of it, right? My only hope these days is in God.” I nodded and smiled, having nothing to add. Then she said, “This light is really long, think I’ll go the other way. Good luck,” and she walked off. Not 15 seconds later, a bus cut the corner too close to the curb and splashed through a pond of melted snow and slush, completely drenching me from head to toe, like in the movies.

I freely admit that the incident was funny. I wish it had been seen by someone I know so we could laugh together about it. Or, better yet, captured on video so I could share it with you. Once I got over the initial sputtering indignity of it, I resumed my walk home. However, my mood was completely changed. Instead of the carefree, “in the moment” feeling of my meandering walk downtown, the way home became contemplative. First, I wondered about the woman who spoke to me. Was there a special message intended for me in her comment about not knowing the future, but trying to make the best of things? Was the drenching intended to wake me up? Have I been living too much in the moment, and not enough in the world of making the future happen? Have I spent the winter sleepwalking after all?

I didn’t come up with any answers on the long, wet walk home. And as I’ve wrestled with the idea of whether I’ve been “sleepwalking” through life too much this winter, I did an internet search and came across a site that said, “The nature of things is that sleeping implies waking: anything that sleeps wakes up.” I found that thought to be a comforting one. Like so much in life, perhaps there is a cyclical nature to sleeping/waking in terms of conscious living.

So, for now, I’ve decided to be as awake as I know how to be. Some days that will be easier than others. Some days, I will just enjoy “being” in the bright sunshine of the moment, others I will experience the cold drenching of a wake-up call. Mary Oliver writes  “As for life,I’m humbled, I’m without words sufficient to say how it has been hard as flint, and soft as a spring pond, both of these, and over and over…” Isn’t that the truth?

The Best and Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”   (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

As an English major, a lover of literature, and a fan of Charles Dickens, the line quoted above has long been familiar to me. It is one of a handful of first lines of classic literature (including the openers to Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) often cited as superlative examples of how to draw a reader in from the first word. While Dickens’ line is far from short, it is wise – capturing the idea that every age in human history can, and likely will, be described in this manner.

Not to worry, I haven’t suddenly started blogging literary criticism. I have been thinking of this line, not in the context of the larger world and global forces, but in the context of my own life right now. In some ways, this is truly the best of times: I am discovering new people, places and passions. I am realizing the depth of love and friendship in my life, which is both humbling and energizing. However, in other ways, this is also the worst of times: I feel worried and anxious about money and finding sustaining work, and I find it difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth in the face of constant flat rejection of my skills and experience.

This ping-ponging from up to down and back is wreaking havoc with my resiliency. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to keep focus on the present – to remember that this moment is the one I have to pay attention to. The more I worry about tomorrow, next week, next month, the more I fritter away today in distraction. Keeping focus, both on this moment and on remembering why I am here in the first place, takes mental discipline and emotional commitment. Some days, I find these hard to muster. Other days, well, those are the “best of times” and it is easier.

Last night, I met Kathe at the end of a long day for each of us. We were both tired, and the atmosphere of the coffee shop where we met was less than inspiring (crowded, cold, dingy lighting). As we talked, Kathe told me about the many people in her life struggling in real, consequential, “life or death” ways. She said, “These are people I actually know, not people I know of.” She went on to say that she feels a sense of urgency to live each day as fully as possible, because it has been brought home to her lately that we each have a finite number of them. It was an excellent reminder – that very urgency was a significant part of what led me here in the first place.

So, today is here. It’s an extremely cold morning again – schools cancelled for cold all over the state. But the sun is shining, and I’m alive and aware that this day is a precious one. It may seem like we’re smack dab in the middle of the winter of despair…but I think I’ll declare it day one of my personal “spring of hope” and take my cue from that.

Taking a Flying Leap

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“You remember the old Roadrunner cartoons, where the coyote would run off a cliff and keep going, until he looked down and happened to notice he was running on nothing but thin air?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” he says. “I always used to wonder what would have happened if he’d never looked down. Would the air have stayed solid under his feet until he reached the other side? I think it would have, and I think we’re all like that. We start heading out across this canyon, looking straight ahead at the thing that matters, but something, some fear or insecurity, makes us look down. And we see we’re walking on air, and we panic, and turn around and scramble like hell to get back to solid ground. And if we just wouldn’t look down, we could make it to the other side…”

–Jonathan Tropper,The Book of Joe

I was sitting at my dining room table, trying to decide what to share in today’s post. My recent reflections have been, indeed, reflections of my state of mind – serious, heavy, full of the weighty feel of winter. I was attempting to think of something to say today that would lighten the mood a bit, but I was coming up empty-handed.

Then, I happened to look up and see the little painting (in the photo above) that my sister, Gwen, gave me for Christmas. When I got home from the holidays in New Mexico, I put the painting in the little niche in my dining room, where it resides with angels and saints, a diminutive ceramic creche, a glass charm against the evil eye. And I promptly stopped noticing it until now.

The woman silhouetted in the painting is leaping – with abandon and joy, it seems — across a chasm. She is looking ahead, at her goal, not down at what is or is not currently beneath her feet. Does she know, I wonder, what lies ahead? I doubt it – it seems clear that this is a leap of faith. Faith that she’ll land safely on the other side. Faith that the choice to leap was the right one. Faith that the time for leaping had arrived. And faith that, whatever awaits on the far side of the chasm, will be worth facing and taking the leap.

Faith is what I’ve been forgetting to cultivate in this dark winter. And in so doing, a joyful spirit is what I’ve imprisoned in anxiety and fear. The overwhelming to-do list I’ve written with my obsessive thinking lacks both faith and joy – I have been thinking of everything as something I have to do (even time with loved ones has been relegated to the status of “onerous chores”) rather than as something I choose to do – or better, as something I am privileged to do.

I am reminded of what Brene Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection about resilience: “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we’re all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.” (my emphasis)

So here’s to cultivating resilience: to leaping forward without looking down, to releasing a joyful spirit from the gloom of winter, to celebrating connection, and to actively practicing faith.

Preparing for Winter

In the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which begins with Game of Thrones, the northern Stark clan has a saying: winter is coming. In the series, summers can be short or decades-long. But the Starks know that winter will surely follow, no matter the duration of milder weather. Their mantra, “Winter is coming”, serves as a sobering reminder to be prepared.

Here in the midwest, a rash of perfect weather has brought the happy realization that fall is almost upon us. Deep blue skies, fresh apples, pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks…early autumn is celebrated for many reasons. But this year, and not only because I have just started reading the George R.R. Martin series, I can’t help but say softly to myself, “Winter is coming.”  And I am feeling ambivalent about it.

Last Thanksgiving, I spent the long weekend in Minneapolis with my friend Mike. An ice storm was coming, so I left earlier than anticipated and arrived in the city only 30 minutes before the storm. Mike’s studio apartment, in an old home in a neighborhood that has seen better days, was without heat. We kept warm wearing layers and blankets, leaving the gas oven lit with the door open. And I cooked, the first night making a pot of chicken noodle soup.

On Friday, Mike worked. I prepared dinner in the crockpot, then I wrapped myself up in a soft, knit infinity scarf (a beautiful shade of teal). I put on my new winter activity boots, and hiked a couple of blocks to the nearest coffeeshop. It was packed with Somali men, and I only stood out a little as I sat in the back reading a book of essays about winter. The cold, the snow, the steamy coffeeshop resounding with animated discussions in a language I didn’t speak- these all converged into a sensory experience I can’t describe. That moment, though, planted a romantic’s view of winter in my psyche which held on for most of the season. I couldn’t get enough of ice crystals and deep cold and shoveling.

That was then. This is now. Perhaps my current ambivalence about winter comes from having just had the second almost-perfect summer of my adult life. I used to think that summer in Iowa was the best recruitment tool other states could use to lure people away from here. Now, I’ve discovered that weighing less and doing more actually counteracts the effects of corn-sweat-induced humidity. Summer in Iowa isn’t so bad.

Maybe I am on the fence about winter because I can’t even remember what I own in the line of closed-toe shoes. Or is it that secretly, I am afraid I’ve lost that romanticism that carried me through last winter? The sense that each day contained an incipience, that things were on the cusp of happening. That the cold and hard wind were scouring away extraneous stuff in order to give me a clear path to the life and person I was becoming. I liked feeling that way.

But years and moods pass. If I am unable to recreate the epic fantasy tale in my head and heart that carried me through last winter, how will I keep moving forward? By preparing. I need to use this time to winterize myself – not just my car and my house. Get back into the routine of morning workouts now, before it is so cold I give in to that as an excuse not to leave my bed. Stock up on reading material full of interesting ideas to engage myself on cold, dark December nights. Plan and execute the annual clearing of my craft room, so I can access the materials to create. Reacquaint myself with the many delicious, hearty soup recipes I’ve collected over the years. And remind myself of this simple truth: a life fully lived requires more than hunkering down in a warm corner and hoping the season passes over. It requires choosing to act, to laugh, to love and to seize the moment we’re given – rather than pine for the one we’re not.

Recently, I have learned to love summer. All my life, I’ve eagerly awaited fall. I have (and I will) enjoy them as fully as possible each year. But winter is coming, and I plan to be ready for it.