Jumping the Tracks

10 10 2013

“The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder

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No one tells you, when you’re young, that there are choices you make that set you on a road from which there will be no deviation. Or at least from which you will not know or feel you can deviate. A woman who counts the days (in years) until her kids graduate so she can quit the job she hates. A man who has created two lives, his public one and his private one, who always feels divided within himself. Another who randomly got a job in a lucrative field and has never been able to walk away. Me, working my ass off in a job that was fulfilling but also usurping, leaving almost no space for me in my own life.

Sometimes, I resisted change out of love – love for the mission and mercy of the institution I worked at, love for the students whose lives I was privileged to participate in, love for my colleagues whose hearts and souls were so amazing. Sometimes, I resisted change out of fear – of failing, of being too much or not enough of the “right” things. Whether out of fear or love, resistance kept me on the track I was on, moving forward as far as my eyes could see into a future that held more of the same. Resistance, when we give in to it, is  an insidious form of self-betrayal.

Resistance is self-betrayal because it manifests in these ways: it causes us to be silent when we need to speak; it  justifies dishonesty about our true selves; it effectively hoards our gifts and talents when they exist to be shared. Marianne Williamson has, famously, said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So we hide, we make ourselves small. Not to prevent us, in my opinion, from outshining others, but to prevent us from being seen when our true shining selves are revealed. What we love and what we fear cause resistance because they both carry the price of vulnerability.

So, what is it like to jump the tracks? I wondered for a very long time. Years of agonizing soul searching. Years of excuses. Years of making my friends listen to all of that soul searching and excuse-making. (Obviously, I have the most incredibly supportive friends!) And in all that time, I didn’t do any real planning. Any real preparing. I felt incapacitated until the thought of remaining on the tracks, the resistance, became more prominent and painful than either the fear or the love keeping me there – and I just jumped.

Here’s what it is like: it is like being a new soul again.

I cannot contain my curiosity. There is so much to see and read and learn, so much content and innovation, so many ideas. I read and explore on-line until I can’t see anymore.

Then I go outside and explore my city. I knew I didn’t care for the city I lived in and called home for almost two decades. I didn’t realize how stifling I found it. I don’t mean to dis Cedar Rapids – it is objectively a great place. It just wasn’t for me. This city makes me feel expansive: the diversity of people, of neighborhoods, of opportunities.

I am in love with creating. When I unpacked my boxes, I discovered fifteen unopened artist’s sketchbooks – which definitely says something about what my heart knew I should be doing (not necessarily drawing, but creating). I’ve been busy taking photographs, writing, creating recipes from delicious food. Here’s the thing about allowing your creative self the freedom to breathe after years of pushing it down inside – you’re a newbie and you suck (not so much with the recipes, they’re tasty. But with the writing…oy!) Even sucking feels pretty good right now because I am writing.

I have two primary fears: not finding a job, and conversely, taking one out of necessity that recreates the “tracked” lifestyle. Out of fear, and a whole new set of loves, I still betray myself via resistance – I hold back, I worry about acceptance rather than experience, I allow discomfort with the unknown to stop me. I am also discovering that the world in general prefers when we are on the tracks. It makes more sense to people, they know how to define us when we’re on a specific track in life. There is a subtle pressure to get back on, to resume that endless trip toward a gray horizon.

I probably could have jumped the tracks sooner. I could have chosen a different means or method of doing so. I could even, probably, be doing this trackless exploration differently right now. Perhaps in the future I’ll look back and think, “Wow, that was a dumb way to do it!” The only thing I know for sure right now is that I can breathe more deeply than I have in years. That each day seems to be so brimming with possibilities it is often difficult to choose from among them. But I’ve always been a hard worker, it’s in my DNA. So I am gradually buckling down to the work of self-discipline – which is vastly different when the things I am being disciplined about feed my soul and don’t just earn a satisfactory performance review and a heap more work.

It is a strange thing to realize that I have had these choices all along. No matter what I was told, or what I grew up believing. No matter what pressures I felt internally or externally. It is strange to know that I will continue to make some choices out of fear or love or resistance that may not be the best choices for me. It is especially strange to realize that I took comfort from the very tracks that steered my life away from being the life, and me becoming the person, that was meant to be. When you jump the tracks, that false comfort is denied to you. You have to find your own stride in the trackless wilderness.

And that seems a fitting way to describe where I am today: I jumped the tracks, and now I’m finding my own stride. I can’t quite see the features of the horizon, but it isn’t gray. And my tracks won’t end up going nowhere at all – they’re heading somewhere of my own creation.

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Authentic Personas?

27 09 2012

I read this piece on The Living Notebook blog about artists creating personas in their work. He discusses a number of reasons artists might work with a persona – from exploring a new voice to gaining some distance from their subject matter. We all know of famous, successful, uses of personas in literature, art and music (John Berryman’s Henry in The Dream Songs, or Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolansky). There have been a few quite public backfires: Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines? Anyone?

Reading the article made me wonder: have I ever used a persona in work I’ve created or on this blog? Since I am on a quest for authenticity in my life, one part of me says a resounding no to this idea. If I speak in the voice of a created character, how can I also be authentic?

Then another part of me remembers picking Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” as my 50th year theme song. The reason I loved that song was that it allowed me to express a side of myself that usually doesn’t see the light of day – audacious, self-confident, desirable. I would generally not be able to express these qualities in my own voice as I would be both too self-conscious and too doubtful of their reality. But when I sang along with Flo Rida, I became the part of myself that felt those things. I wasn’t Flo (or is it Rida?) – I was me.

Just for fun, I’ve been thinking about the various personas it might be possible for me to explore while remaining authentically true to myself – not overlaying an imaginary person on my frame, but drawing forth a piece of my personality not usually expressed openly. Below, I’ve dreamed up three candidates for my own persona, along with a little of what they might have to say…

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“Cheeks”: an athletic and geared-up woman. Outdoorsy. Her enthusiasm for life results in those who listen to her speak imagining lots of exclamation points and air quotes.

Dude! I woke up to the worst leg cramps EVER! I’ve been sore before but nothing like this! My first official endurance trail race totally took everything I had and then some!!! I can only say “WOW‘! My new motto: “If something doesn’t hurt, you’re not giving it enough!” I just didn’t expect “everything” to hurt this much. I thought I understood “discipline” and “hard work” before, right?! But now I know I’m capable of so much more. Man! I have to hold myself to even more stringent standards to reach my “athletic potential”. As for actually competing – Holy crap – what a rush!!!!!

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Sasquatch: Imposingly tall and muscled, S. is clad only in long, matted hair. She makes little to no eye contact when speaking. Her voice and demeanor are both disconcertingly soft and gentle.

I am here today to share my real-life experience of being a yeti among humans.

The first thing you need to know to understand the yeti experience in common society is this: yeti’s like people, but you scare us. We will do anything to maintain the safety of our solitude and to stay separate from those around us. We hide out. We keep to the shadows. Why? Because you people have great potential to hurt us. You get close and then you blab about us, exploit our vulnerability. And yetis do not like being hurt. We strike out in response – and we are powerful enough to really hurt you in return, which frightens us immensely. Hurt or be hurt – its a terrible choice. So, for the sake of all, let’s just stay apart, keep a safe distance between us. Let’s preserve our aloneness and separateness.

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Shirley: A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair. She speaks only after taking a sip from the cup of black coffee seemingly welded to her hand.

I know what you’re thinking. I have the same name as Jenion’s mother. Well, too bad for me – that’s life. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t really matter what I say, I will end up being blamed for everything anyway. See? Life isn’t fair.

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Hmmm. Perhaps it takes a more skilled writer than me to actually pull off this persona thing. Jenion/Cheeks does not equal Hemingway/Nick Adams! On the other hand, as I said last week (here), we need to reclaim the parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, the parts we’ve disowned. That includes both the parts we are happy to reclaim (an idea of ourselves as capable of things we didn’t realize, a la Cheeks) and the darker parts we don’t like looking closely at (the inner yeti whose fear and shame makes us want to hide from others). Imagining these pieces of ourselves as various personas, we can learn so much about who/what they are. Who and what we are. My inner Shirley may be a bit cantankerous at times, but she is also realistic and practical – two qualities I’ve tended to shun in favor of projecting a more creative and airy self-image. Is that a trade-off I want to continue making?

Allowing these inner selves  to speak can be a very powerful means of working towards authenticity and congruence – a way of bringing the scattered parts of ourselves back together so that we see their gifts as well as whatever liabilities caused us to disown them in the first place.

For now, though, I think I’ll stick to a strictly internal dialogue with my personas!

P.S. Thanks for being a good sport, Mom!




Talking to Myself

13 09 2012

At age 16:

May 22, 1977 
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write. I guess it all started when I became old enough to read. Books seem to bring something in the imagination alive that didn’t really exist before. Reading used to be my only haven, for a while you can forget everything else and beome a new person. Books have brought so much to my life and mind that if I could write and make my characters live in the minds of the readers, I’d be happy.
 
Today has been a very thoughtful day for me. I’ve been remembering books that I’ve read, like “The Camerons” and just thinking about them again brings a tear to my eye. Then I think that I’d love to be a writer.
 
I saw the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. “Jane Eyre” was on too. I loved it. But as I was watching it, I thought that all I wanted from life would be to be loved. Later was a special on Grace Kelly – Princess Grace of Monaco. She was elegant, graceful, and tasteful – not to mention rich enough to support these habits. I thought I’d love to have elegance, beauty and poise – not to mention enough money to support these habits!
 
I suppose, then that this is an outline of what I want my future to be:
  • Slender and graceful – always showing exquisite taste in the clothes that I wear and in everything connected with life.
  • I want to be a rich, well-known novelist and journalist.
  • And I want to love and be loved like in the movies and in books. 
Not necessarily in that order.
Do you think it is too much to ask?
***********************************************************************************************

At age 25

December 27, 1986
The sun is shining down on the woods and streaming through the glass doors. I am sitting at an old wood table, dappled with the sun. I am smoking and drinking whatever they call that concoction of instant tea and Tang and listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash. I have just had a long, hot shower – my hair is wet and I smell like the wonderful carnation-scented lotion Jeff and Marsha brought me from London. It is 1:15 on a Satuday afternoon and at 3:00 my friend Cathann is coming over. I have just finished reading the Prydain Chronicles (the Black Cauldron books) and I really loved them. What more could I ask from any day?
 
And yet, I am not as happy as I feel one should be on a fine day in a fine setting. I am worried about the future and money — all the things that can dampen spirits. Why can’t I put them aside for even a short while? It was easy to forget them back when I could have saved myself from this trouble. Will I ever have control of myself?
 
Also, the books I’ve just finished make me long to be a truly wise and good person. I know I am not – but how does one get there? Or are any as good as characters in novels? Probably not. But why not?
 
So here I am, in my annual year-end anxiety-ridden existential dilemma. Some year I’ll have only hope and eagerness for the future instead of mainly regret for what the past year was not. And on that day, will I have attained wisdom?
 *************************************************************************************************

At age 38

December 30, 1999
I remember in grade school being asked to calculate how old I would be in the year 2000. Wow – 38! I didn’t think of it as elderly, I just thought of it as being so old that in Sister Irma Mary’s third grade classroom it was impossible to extend my imagination that far.
 
And yet, here it is. No longer something to imagine – now something to be lived. On the one hand, I know intellectually that the calendar is a human construct with arbitrary origins and therefore has no intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, I’m swayed. We humans have given it meaning through the force of custom, history, even invention. The whole Y2K issue has forced this particular turning of the years to have meaning in a way that even the all-seeing Sister Irma Mary could never have expected…
 
…Despite my self-admonishments, I have felt a prickle of fearful anticipation upon hearing these reports. I can’t forget my recurrent nightmare of panic and holocaust and my attempts to reach my parents…this seems like the time if ever such a horrible vision were to come to pass.
 
And yet, there’s so much more going on – there’s the positive excitement, also. On the winter solstice last week, the moon was the brightest it has been in 133 years, an auspicious sign. And it was so beautiful in the sky that night. I was out for dinner with Joe R. and we drove around a little afterwards. But Joe didn’t seem very interested in the concept, so I cherished the experience quietly in my heart, just as I did with the comet a couple of years ago. The people I know who might also feel the romance and sense of personal significance that I do on such occasions are always far away from me.
 
And in my personal life I have felt myself approaching a new crossroads and know I will be taking a turn from my current path – like the moon I’m at a rare point in my circumambulation of the universe.
 *************************************************************************************************

I have kept a journal, off and on, for most of my life. I was inspired to share these excerpts with you upon reading a poem by Pamela Alexander, “Talking to Myself at 34” from her book Navigable Waterways. Reading the poem, I was truly struck by the idea of my journals as a form of talking to myself, of telling myself what it is I know. I grabbed three of the many notebooks that have served as my journals and selected these excerpts randomly. (Well, the December 30, 1999 entry was the first in that notebook and seemed like too good a date to pass up!)

Alexander’s poem speaks of two women, the real one and the imagined one. As I sat in a cozy chair in this house I love, reading bits and pieces of my journals, it came to me that there has been purpose (as well as meaning) in this never-ending conversation I’ve had with myself. The purpose has been to bring these two versions of myself, real and aspirational, closer together inside my skin. I’m not the woman I dream of being – not yet, anyway. But I grow incrementally closer.

The end of Alexander’s poem reads:

Hey, you,

in an old house

with tools that want to be used.

A few cracked windows. Outside them,

cars and radios and shouting people

make a city.

Inside, I discover the door’s duplicity

by looking at wood carefully for the first time

in years. Real wood

made into imagined wood.

.

So the you I’m calling to,

the you that is me,

the one who wants to tell me

everything I know

is both real and invented,

the woman whose name is on the front door

and the imagined person, the one

made with small strokes

on this paper

that used to be trees.

 




The Sunday Roast: Guest blog by Cindy Petersen

3 06 2012

Today is our second post in “The Sunday Roast” Series. Cindy Petersen is a May graduate of Mount Mercy University, and her story is truly an inspiring one. Cindy is currently the owner/publisher of Iowa’s newest community newspaper, The Hiawatha Advocate (click here to check it out). The newspaper industry is a struggling one, but Cindy is living her dream right now. If you have a business and/or the financial wherewithal to help support her dream, please check out the advertising and subscriptions page – a full year subscription is a mere $30. Cindy also publishes regularly on her blog, “Write to the Point” if you are interested in reading more of her work!

Cynthia Petersen, graduated May 20, 2012 from Mount Mercy University
in Cedar Rapids, IA with a BA in Journalism

Graduating from college at 49 is nothing spectacular. People much older than I have done it. But changing the course of my life is. And that is what I believe I have done.

Some people talk about fate, and destiny, and believe that ”everything happens for a reason.” I, for one, believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and that life is what we make it. But I didn’t always think that way.

Seven years ago, I looked at where I was and I made up my mind that I wanted to make my mark in this world. I wanted to do more than just exist. I wanted to do something spectacular.

I spent years taking life as it came, raising 4 children, and dealing with life’s little tragedies.  But I learned how to remain calm in a crisis, and I became a problem-solver. I learned how to manage my money and how to make ends meet. I was a mediator, a counselor, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and everything else that a mother does.

Now I realize that I was preparing for something spectacular.

I wanted to be my own boss and so I thought opening a restaurant was the way to go. I spent hours upon hours on the computer researching how to write a business plan, and why a marketing plan was so important. I chose all the plans for my restaurant; what I would name it, where it would be located, who my customers would be, what my menu would entail, how much everything would cost. I did everything I needed to do to make my restaurant a success. But in the end, it came down to a lack of funds.

And though it hurt me to have to give up that particular dream, I can see now that I was still only preparing for something even more spectacular.

As I got on my knees and prayed to God for chance to see my dream come true, I included that if this didn’t work out, I would go back to school and get a degree. (My father had said to me one day after reading an article I wrote, ‘Forget the restaurant, go back to school, become a writer.’)

And the rest is history. I graduated Sunday with a BA in Journalism. But not only did I graduate, I also received the President’s Award from Mount Mercy University’s president, Dr. Christopher Blake, one of the top three awards given to graduating seniors. I was also nominated for two other awards; Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy Award.

Getting the award itself was nice, but the satisfaction that I had done something to change the course of my life was what I really received that day. This was what I had been working for the past four years; that I had done something spectacular.

And I’m not done.

Most of you know that I started my own business last year and began publishing a community newspaper in February this year. Every lesson I have ever learned has prepared me to take on this huge undertaking.  But I still couldn’t have done it without going back to college. It was the last piece to my puzzle.

Something spectacular? You bet it is.

But it doesn’t stop there. It has only given me more reasons to find out what else life has in store for me and what I have in store for life.





Contemplating 300

13 10 2011

One of the great things WordPress does is keeps stats for its users. I can always click on my stats page to see how many people have visited Jenion on any given day (or ever), how many comments have been shared, etc. When I posted Flashback Friday last week, I happened to note another statistic that really got me thinking: it was post #299 since the inception of this blog. Which means that this very post you are reading is #300.

Three hundred posts later, what thoughts can I share about this blog or the experience of blogging? To say that it has been a life-altering experience may, on the face of it, seem dramatic. However, it is no more than the truth. So, below, are my reflections on what I have learned from maintaining Jenion.

What I’ve learned about form:

  • There are many ways bloggers try to appeal to their readers: photos, catchy catchphrases, polls, weekly/daily features. When I (briefly) experimented with daily blogs, I tried some of these. What I discovered was that sometimes they were just too gimmicky. I attempted a Triple Word Tuesday – but let’s face it, I’m not good with brief and pithy. What works best for me are posts that reflect my personality – which isn’t stylish or trendy, or the blogging equivalent of cheerleading.
  • That said, it doesn’t pay to be too rigid in style. You end up boring yourself, not to mention anyone kind enough to regularly read what you post.
  • It is way more difficult to write funny than to be funny. In life, being funny just happens sometimes. In writing, it rarely ever happens without forethought and rewrites.

What I’ve learned about content:

  • I used to think that people weren’t interested in what I had to say. That no one ever listened to me carefully enough to understand me. The unexpected truth I’ve learned over the course of 300 blog posts is that people can’t listen to what you’re not saying. As an introvert, I wanted others to intuit what I was feeling, based on my minimalist approach to conversation. That doesn’t work interpersonally, and it definitely isn’t a successful blogging technique. However, when you speak up, and what you share is authentic, other people will connect with it. They will want to talk about it, offer support and encouragement. They will respond in big ways and small, and in so doing enrich your life.
  • Saying what you mean isn’t as easy as you expect it to be. Sometimes, this is caused by a lack of skill or facility with the language. Other times, your self-censor prohibits direct expression. In either case, it can be frustrating to have something unique and nuanced to say, only to find yourself mired in trite platitudes. (True, Molly?!)
  • Despite my best efforts, I’ve learned that, no matter how “transparent” I hope to be,  I always hold some things back. Even those of us who have a propensity to shout publicly what others would, with difficulty, only whisper to themselves have our limits. Even we have our secrets and hidden places into which we prefer not to invite the light of blogger’s day. The extent to which I am willing to uncover these in my writing, though, determines the extent to which others connect with what I say. Apparently, the things we don’t talk about are the things we have most in common with others.

What I’ve learned about myself:

  • I love writing. Ok, I actually knew this before I created Jenion. But I had mostly forgotten how much. I’d forgotten the joy of crafting a sentence or paragraph. Of finding just the right word to express a moment or sensation. I love editing and paring back and even, on occasion, scrapping the whole thing and going back to a blank page.
  • What I didn’t know before this blog was that I also love readers. The format of a blog makes it less nerve-wracking, in some ways, to put what you’ve written in front of others. You just press a little button that says “Publish”. Not scary at all. But then the most amazing thing happens: someone reads what you’ve written and comments. Or not – but a year later sees you in line at the grocery store and says, “I love your blog, I can’t wait for Thursday every week!”. Or cuts your hair and says, “What the hell happened to Flashback Friday?” Every now and then, someone says, “I didn’t know anyone else ever felt that way.” And suddenly, the writing that you’ve always loved becomes something that brings you into dialogue with the world and people around you. It is no longer an endeavor by and for yourself.
  • For perhaps the first time in my life I truly understand the concept of humility. Yes, I am proud of my blog. Yes, I have enough ego to hope others like to read what I’ve written. But I have never felt so acutely that something bigger than myself is at work. In writing about my own experiences, feelings, journey I sometimes receive the gift of touching someone else’s hurts or struggles in a helpful or healing way. And while that makes me happy, I am completely conscious that it isn’t my doing.
Three hundred posts. When I began, I was engaging in a challenge which had me committed to the blog from Thanksgiving to Easter. 18 weeks. I wasn’t sure how I would fill the pages for that length of time. It wasn’t long before I realized that something unlooked for was happening. I had found a way to open up my closed life and let in some fresh air. Seems like a contradiction, like writing these reflections is a way to let things out rather than bring things in. But that paradox is at the heart of why blogging has been life-altering: as soon as you let something out in words, you create room for new things to rush in. New people, new experiences, new words and many new observations to share.
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(Note: Do not be concerned: I will publish Sisterhood, Part II next time. I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to celebrate my 300th post!)




50 about 50: Books

21 07 2011
“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!





A Poem by May Sarton

27 02 2011

Now I Become Myself

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

May Sarton