Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Ability to Start Over

“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist, but the ability to start over.”  -F. Scott Fitzgerald

For most of my waking hours yesterday, I stared at a computer screen.  I finally headed for bed and started reading.  As I read, I felt restless.  Restless to go back to the computer screen I had already looked at for too many hours.  Restless to write again.  About?  I didn’t even know.  This is the result.

I spent the day writing a new blog post and editing several pieces to submit for a competition.  The blog was one of those posts that didn’t come easily, that took a long time to write, and that, I’m fairly certain, was not a favorite for readers.  It wasn’t one of my favorites, either.  However, because I wanted to post something new, I kept plugging away on it until I decided I was finished. 

Writing it was like having a bad workout.  I pushed through what didn’t feel easy or good, only because I knew I’d be glad to have done it after I finished.  Like a bad workout, in particular a bad long run, it took much longer than I thought it would.  Like I do after a bad long run, I tried to let my frustration go, so that it wouldn’t color my faith in myself or my abilities.  Such experiences make me more fully appreciate the good workouts and the days when words flow freely. 

On my mind as I returned to my computer last night was a comment made in response to “Failures in Reaching Out, in Community.”  It was this: “I am trying (and failing miserably) to be open to others.”  I can’t imagine that it was an easy admission to make.  Who likes admitting failure?  It is bold to make such a statement and I am grateful for the courageous honesty of the woman who made it.  My reply, one that I believe with all my heart, was that the most important thing was the attempt to be open.  Someone else commented later with a Thomas Merton quote:  “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”  This comes from one of my favorite prayers by Merton, one I had hanging by my desk at school and that I used to read to students sometimes as we began class.  I’ll include the whole prayer at the end of this post, just in case you don’t know it.   

I believe Merton’s statement is true.  God knows that we are not perfect, not one of us.  Guess what?  People who came before us weren’t either, despite the incomplete tales we may hear of heroic deeds.  I think of Biblical figures, people whose names may fill us with awe for the deeds they did.  And yet, they were regular human beings.  They were imperfect, flawed people, many of whom shrank when God asked them to do something or screwed up in colossal ways when they did act.  Ever had either of those experiences?  I know I have.

Going back to the Bible, just think of Peter.  Talk about a guy who messed up, screwing over his best friend in his greatest hour of need.  And yet the Basilica in Rome is named after him.  An imperfect, flawed being who went on to do great things.  He owned up.  He pushed forward, beyond his own flaws and his own mistakes.  He started over.    

Perhaps the key to starting over is patience.  We need to be patient with ourselves.  We need to allow ourselves to fail, maybe more than once, maybe many times, and recognize that the best stuff, the really important things, take time and effort to get close to perfection.  We may not have the right words or do the right thing all the time, but if we’re trying, we’re trying.  We could have just not tried in the first place, with no chance at either success or failure.  How sad would that life be?
Some skills come easier than others.  Some creations do, too.  Our attempts, however unsuccessful, carry us a little closer to achievement, if we keep moving.  We may have to stop temporarily and regroup.  We may have to scrap what we’ve begun and start all over again. (I’ll bet the artists among you know about this.)  But that is a natural part of life.  The fact that creation gets a yearly go at creating, dying, and starting over again should be a reminder for us to allow the same for ourselves.  It’s all a process, a beautiful cycle that gives us second, third, many chances to start over. 

I had an agonizing day trying to write yesterday.  Today feels better.  I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  Maybe it’ll be like a winter day (though certainly not in temperature!) of rest.  And then it’ll be time to sit down again and start over, with the faith that my desire to please God does in fact please God, and with the hope, though not the guarantee, that my attempt to create something meaningful will, in fact, result in something meaningful.   

“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Thomas Merton

Friday, June 29, 2012

Framing the Picture

“Sometimes it’s easier to say things to a stranger.”

I’ve thought a lot about this simple statement since someone said it to me a few months ago.  As it turns out, the someone is no longer a stranger but a friend, and when I recently brought up something from a conversation the day he made that comment, he replied that he didn’t remember saying what I brought up.  Maybe he now regrets telling me what he did; I don't know. I guess when we talk to a person we think we’ll never see again, it doesn’t much matter how much we divulge and it doesn’t much matter if we remember what we say.  A stranger won’t be around to bring it up again.  Perhaps the appeal of talking to a stranger, however, is more than the lack of accountability we have to him or her. A stranger may also provide a more objective response to our subjective story-telling.  A stranger may look into our frame and see things we’ve missed.  We sit within the frame, but a stranger looks in from outside.   A scene can look different from outside and within the frame.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  With a stranger we may tell our tale with more honesty than we might to someone with greater stakes in the story - someone who can bring it up again, call our bluff, or hold us accountable for something we’ve said.   We don’t always want to be reminded, called out, or held accountable.  Even so, maybe a stranger can help us realize a more accurate picture within our frame.   

I have been thinking a lot about story framing lately for a number of reasons.  I’ve been thinking about it since I sat in a courtroom a few weeks ago and listened as prosecution and defense framed their versions of the same events, trying to convince the jury that the picture they created was most accurate.  I have been thinking about framing as I have been editing some of my writing for competitions.  Looking at the stories I am telling, I am certainly trying to lead my reader to the same conclusions I have made.  I want the reader firmly residing in the frame I’ve created.  I don’t know that I want or need to do that with all of my writing, but in the pieces I chose to edit, I definitely want the reader to come sit with me in my frame.  I have been thinking about framing as I talk to different people about my travels and my upcoming plans.  My story frame changes depending on who I am talking to.  I choose to say more to some, less to others.   The basic picture I paint for everyone is the same, but in some I add details, colors, and nuances that don’t seem so important in others.  The size of the frame may expand or shrink, depending on my audience.  My stories are like Monet’s Water Lilies series, essentially the same, but also slightly different. 

Of course, the problems come when a person fills frames with drastically different pictures of the same reality, particularly when none of the pictures actually resemble reality.  It is problematic when instead of presenting Water Lilies to all, a person presents one person with a Monet and another with a Rembrandt still life, when the reality looks more like Picasso’s Guernica. There is no easy way to reconcile the images.  Several friends have recently told me stories of infidelities, lies, and deception, horrible painful stories that have destroyed marriages and friendships.   What makes the stories so awful is that those who were deceived were presented with lovely soothing images, the pastels of Monet lulling them into comfort, before they walked into the frame of Guernica.  I don’t understand how someone can carry out a Monet/Rembrandt/Picasso deception, though I know it happens.  I have certainly dealt with deception in my life.  I see how it affects both my present framing and the way I view pictures I’m shown.  Thankfully, I’ve never stepped into any frame quite so jarring as Guernica. Sure, I’ve walked into other Picasso-esque scenes or something like a tamer DalĂ­ painting, but nothing so excruciating as the stories I’ve recently heard.  I hope I never do.  And now, even though I’ve brought it up, I’m going to leave the contrasting frame idea.  Maybe that will be a theme for another day.

I am thankful that, even when the frame I’m in doesn’t encase the most beautiful or peaceful scene, I have friends who help me see the picture with an objectivity similar to what a stranger might offer.  My best friend is particularly adept at this.  When she sees the picture I am creating stray too far from reality, she helps me reframe or repaint it, while still allowing my own interpretation to come through. When I only see the dark colors, she helps me to add faint, but ever-present, flecks of light.  Though she is definitely not a stranger, she helps me to see the totality of the picture as a stranger might.  There are times I don’t necessarily want to see it that way, but ultimately I’m grateful that she does this, so I can adjust my pictures little by little like the Water Lilies series, rather than with a stark contrast that might occur if my painting strays too far from the actual scene.    

As I think about how the same scenario can be framed differently by different framers- in legal disputes, in political debates (like the recent Supreme Court health care decision), in personal conflicts - I wonder if we wouldn’t all benefit from stepping outside our frame to try to view things the way a stranger does, looking from the outside in, maybe even leaving our own frame entirely, turning our back to it, and stepping into someone else’s frame.   Might we return to our own frame with fresh eyes?  Isn’t that what we all need sometimes- a new perspective?  Would we be able to hold ourselves more accountable if we were willing to look at things the way a stranger does?  Even if we have good friends to help us interpret our world, maybe we need a conversation with a stranger every now and then to remind us that our frame isn’t the only one and doesn’t encase the whole picture. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Failures in Reaching Out, in Community

"The person you are avoiding may very well be the person God wants you to reach out to."  -Jeff Powell

It was the above quote that got me thinking today, though I'm not sure how completely I'll address it in this post.  For all my talk about community, I have to say that when it comes right down to it, I'm not so good at the nitty gritty of community.  Community is about sharing the joys and sorrows, the work and play, the laughter and tears.  It is about dealing with the wholeness of each other, the good and the bad, the complexities and contradictions.  It is about supporting each other, even when doing so isn't easy or convenient.  It's about reaching out and sticking around.

I can be pretty squeamish when people need me.  I am comfortable reaching out to someone when I make the choice to reach out to him or her, when I decide to grace him or her with my benevolent presence (please read the last phrase while rolling your eyes).  I'm not so good when someone approaches me needing help. I'm not always willing to extend a hand, even when I have one free and particularly if helping somehow messes with the plans I've made.  This is not something I am particularly proud of. 

I recently communicated with someone I met along my journey whom I feel like I failed in all sorts of ways.   Thankfully, she doesn't seem to think so, as she continues to say all sorts of, in my opinion, far-too-kind and glowing things about me.  For all my talk about sharing other people's burdens, I feel like in her case, I pretty much looked at her, saw the huge pack weighing her down, one I could have offered to carry, and said, "Hey, how about I carry your water bottle?"  Not too many people struggle under the weight of a water bottle.  Later I didn't even offer that.  This friend, I'll call her a friend since she was a friend to me, despite my poor efforts at reciprocating the friendship, was going through a rough time when I met her.  She felt like she didn't belong where she was, but at the time there was no way for her to get out of her situation.  For awhile I listened to her when she needed me to, but I had nothing, no sage advice or words of comfort, to offer her.  As time went on I found ways to avoid her so that I wouldn't be asked to carry part of her load.  She continued to be a good friend to me, despite my lack of reciprocation. Now she has moved on and is in a better place, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  We have communicated a few times.  Fair-weather friend.  I've always thought I was better than that, but in her case, I think the term fits me well.  

She is not the first person I have failed.  I could make a long list of people who I have hurt by making selfish choices, whose friendships I have let slip away for no good reason, whose cries for help I have pretended not to hear.  Certainly, I have done good in the world, but I tend to be better at the short-term commitments- day-long service projects, a semester class, 3 months in India, 2 months in Palestine.  And then I leave.

Since I have been home, I have tried to be a better friend, a better community member, a more committed person in general, though what that means for a person who is planning on leaving again, I'm not sure.  I've tried to repair fractured places in some relationships.  I'm trying to maintain friendships across oceans, both physical and cultural.  I'm trying to engage myself in community, in several, really.  I'm not sure if I'm succeeding.  But I'm trying.

Over the weekend I was with my high school girlfriends, women who know me well, who've known me through many of my most formative years (though I'm still ever-in-process of formation).  We don't see each other often, but the ties between us remain strong.  During our time together, we talked a lot and laughed a lot.  There were a few tears, but not many, even as we shared some of the heartbreak of our lives.  For that short time we had together, we were community, a community formed 20+ years ago, one that has survived some pretty rough patches, both from external and internal forces.  We've had many moments of succeeding and failing to reach out to each other.  We've stuck with each other, even if imperfectly.

I guess that's what it's all about really.  My friend from my travels has graced me with understanding and forgiveness (as have many other people).  I've failed her in the past, but maybe I'll do better the next time.  Recognizing my failure, maybe I won't avoid the next person who reaches out to me for help.  I am imperfect, but I am trying.  You can probably say the same.  It's the best we can do, right?  This is all we can ask in community.

I will close with one of my favorite descriptions of community from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow.  I've posted it before, but it's worth a re-post, since maybe you didn't see it the first time:

"What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on... It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership... My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace."


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Learning...and re-learning...

It was about 2 years ago that I created my blog.  I didn't tell a soul, because though I was ready to write, I wasn't ready for you to read what I had to say.  Thinking about yesterday's post on vulnerability, I guess I've made at least a little progress in putting myself "out there," whatever that means.  Does cyberspace count?

It took me a year after creating the blog to tell anyone I had created it.  I didn't write too much during that year, but I did write and post for... no one to read.  There have been a few times lately as I've been writing that I've thought , "Gee, I think I've written about this before..." without knowing exactly when.  I then wonder if you all get bored reading about the same thing. Then I realize that you may not have read the other posts before or maybe I (or you!) have a tad more insight than the last time I wrote about it, so it doesn't get old.  I don't know.  

In India I led several teacher trainings.  It was something I'd never done before.  I had a blast and it seems the teachers did, too. More importantly, I think they left with some knowledge and some skills they didn't arrive with.  The bonus for me was that I got to take a critical look at my own teaching and see both my strengths and the places I could use some work.  I realized I'd learned a lot over 14 years of teaching...with a lot more still to learn.

The teachers I worked with in my first training came from villages.  They teach small mixed-age/level classes in settings I cannot imagine trying to conduct classes- sometimes outside, often without much parent support, often without resources beyond the brain in their head.  The goal of such teachers is to give the kids the most basic skills- basic reading, basic math- but the teachers themselves are often poorly-equipped to teach effectively, even if they go in with great motivation and enthusiasm.  They simply haven't had much training.  After my first training with this group, I was asked to do a second one with a different group of village teachers.

When I arrived for the second training, I saw that most of the teachers in the room were, in fact, the same teachers I'd worked with the first time.  This was disconcerting for me, since I planned to do essentially the same workshop as I'd done the first time.  I expressed my concern to the sister in charge and she said to just do what I'd planned to do since there were a few new people there.

We went through the day as planned.  When we got to a section on using math manipulatives (yes, the Spanish/theology teacher gave a lesson on using math manipulatives, go figure), I asked if any of the second-timers were willing to demonstrate how they would do the lesson.  One woman, having already tried it out with her students, was brave enough to volunteer.  When she got up in front of us, she modeled the lesson better than I would have.  It was a proud moment for me, because I saw that something "stuck" from the last training.  She took what I gave her and ran with it.  She made the lesson even better than I'd imagined it could be!  When she finished it was fun to point out all the things she'd done right.  It was gratifying to see the pride on her face. 

At the end of the second training, I asked for feedback from the day.  Many of the second-timers said they were so glad to have had an opportunity to hear and see everything again.  Much of what I'd introduced to them was completely new (the first time I taught them): nothing like their experience as students, nothing like what they'd learned at other workshops.

Duh.  I should not have been worried when I saw the same faces at the second training.  I had given them a lot to process during the first training, far too much to integrate and implement all at once.  My hope had been that by exposing them to a variety of skills and concepts, I'd guarantee that everyone left with something useful.  I hoped that from it all they'd leave with at least one thing really resonating. I think they did leave with something the first time.  The second time a little more sank in...

Just like the teacher trainings, life lessons, the ones that shift us from one way of thinking or one way of living to another, take some time to sink in.  They take a first exposure, a second, a third, and maybe many more times before we really learn the lessons we need to learn.  Sometimes we only catch one or two drops of knowledge as a bucketful is poured on us.  That's OK.  If the lessons are important enough, the drops will come at us again, maybe in another bucket, maybe in a rainstorm, maybe in the sea.  The learning process can be exhilarating when we feel the lessons seeping into our pores and frustrating when we feel them pelting us like hail and falling around us without result.  

I guess that's why I keep writing and I keep coming back to certain topics.  I've got to visit them over and over again, so I don't forget what I've already learned, so I can master some of the skills and ideas I'm trying out, sometimes for the first time, more often for the it's-too-high-to-keep-counting-th time.  Now that you are a part of the journey with me, your reading and your presence in my life help keep me honest, help me take another step forward, help me learn the lessons.  Thanks.  I hope I can reciprocate your generosity.   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


As I sit here trying to write, I have a cat sitting on my lap, wedged in between my body and the table in front of me (he's a pretty big boy), purring furiously, occasionally rubbing his face against whatever body part of mine is nearest to his face. This is the cat my parents were reluctant to take when I left, the one whose permanent home is now with my parents.  He jumped on my lap because I wasn't paying him enough attention.  I think he's been a bit lonely, since my parents are out of town and the dogs are kenneled at the vet.

Earlier I was reading someone else's blog about how we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable if we want to be a part of community (  We need each other and have to be willing to admit that, or we can never get the help we need to become better versions of ourselves.  As I read, I was thinking about my own willingness to be vulnerable...or not.  More specifically, I was thinking about how I'm not always so good at expressing when I need help.  Why?  Because I don't want to appear weak or needy or...vulnerable.

I know I've written some posts about the many times I asked for help from strangers as I traveled.  It's true that I had no qualms about going up to complete strangers and asking directions.  I was also willing to ask for help from some of my Couchsurfing hosts.  However, my needs were the "normal" kind of traveling needs, you know, the socially acceptable kind (at least in my mind).  I also allowed my softness to show when I said good-byes.  It was OK to cry.  It was acceptable to express my love and care for those I was leaving.  

But there are other vulnerabilities I wasn't and am not so comfortable sharing.  If we were having a face to face conversation, I probably wouldn't say these things to you.  Funny how I can put this out to the world, to anyone who happens upon this post,  when I don't have to look you in the eye.  It's easy to confess a few of my vulnerabilities when I know we won't have to discuss them.  Or I hope we won't.  And if we ever do, let me apologize ahead of time if I back away from the conversation and pretend I'm doing just fine on my own.   

The truth is I am...and I'm not.  Certainly there are many things that I'm doing on my own.  I am capable and willing to do them.  I am enjoying getting my garden in order...on my own.  I've put my house in order...sort of... and enjoyed doing it solo.  But there are boxes of stuff, papers mostly, that I haven't managed to organize (and didn't before I left), so they remain full and closed with me pretty helplessly looking at them. Have I asked for help?  No.  My mom has offered, but I haven't taken her up on the offer. I think I need someone with a little more neutrality towards me and my stuff (thanks and sorry, Mom).  I have a number of friends who are organizational gurus, but I haven't (ever) asked them for help.  What if they walked into my house and saw how I really live?  Well, the friends I'd ask know I'm messy (though I haven't ever allowed them into the worst of my messiness) and they're still my friends.  I'm certain they'd still be my friends even if I allowed them into the full-on hurricane-like chaos that sometimes exists in my house.  And I know they'd be kind to me (even if a "tough love" kindness) if I ever asked them for help.  But I haven't...and probably won't.  I'm still pretending I'll magically be able to do something I've never been able to do without help. 

While traveling I didn't let anyone carry my big backpack, something I prided myself on, but the truth of the matter is that I would've loved for someone to carry my burden from time to time...but I rarely allowed it, even when people offered.  A few times people insisted on carrying the pack and I apologized for the weight of it.  I'm much more willing to be the strong one carrying someone else's load (literally and figuratively) than I am to shift my burden to someone else.   But here's the thing: we all have a heavy load sometimes and we don't need to apologize for needing some help to carry it.  We are not meant to bear it alone.  That's the beautiful thing about community...  

I didn't admit when I felt desperately lonely on Christmas.  I was in a Sikh home with a lot of people I didn't know very well.  I cried (well, tried to keep myself from crying) alone, wishing I was with my family.  I felt guilty for feeling lonely, since I'd been welcomed into this Indian family's home with open arms and hearts.  Thinking back on it, I know they would have understood my feeling lonely on Christmas, but I didn't give them the chance to understand or to comfort me.  I missed an opportunity to be more a part of their community during a time when I really needed community.  

Those are just a few examples.  I also think about my writing.  At various points some of you have commented on what I've written, sometimes pushing me to think a little harder about what I've said.  Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.  Unfortunately, sometimes my immediate reaction has been to get defensive.  I think that in some of my comments back, I've cut off what could have become a valuable dialogue.  I was too scared to show that I'm not perfect and don't have it all figured out.  That may seem strange since I write about how I'm not perfect and don't have it all figured out and even ask for your feedback.  But somehow when you acknowledge the above truths and try to help me to get closer to perfection and closer to figuring it out, the insecurity sets in. "Shit!"  I think.  "They've got my number.  They know that all this is just pretty talk and that in reality I'm sort of a disaster." Sort of like my messy house.  Maybe someday I'll let you into the mess and not apologize for doing so. I'm not at that point yet. 

I wish I were more like the cat on my lap, willing to push my way towards you when I need some TLC, wedging myself into your care, expressing my needs and asking you to fill them, and then contentedly thanking you by showing you that I am well thanks to your attention.  Vulnerability, care, and gratitude:  essential elements of community. I guess I'll work on the first step: being OK with being vulnerable... 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Planted seeds/Gut

Several of you have told me I should make a book about my recent journey.  It's certainly something I've thought about and, thankfully, I'd have a good start with what I've written here.  The idea is one of many that has been planted in me.  Whether I am fertile soil for the idea remains to be seen...  Usually when I talk or write about planting seeds, I do so in reference to the seeds I try to plant in the world, not the ones that are planted in me.  It's a little uncomfortable to think that I, the soil, may be the determiner of a seed's viability, but I guess I am.

Maybe a root for this book idea is beginning to grow because on my 8-hour drive home from Atlanta yesterday, I was thinking about an introduction to the book.  Actually I was thinking about it because I am now part of a writing group and we are sharing a piece of our writing to get feedback from the group.  I don't have writing, or at least anything I'd share publicly, beyond what you see here.  Sure, I could bring something from my blog, but I know I won't do a lot of editing to the writing I've already posted publicly, so I want to bring something else to the group, something that I can really work on.  Then I thought, "The book!"  Maybe my new writing group can help me begin my book.  (Wow.  Using the word "my" gives me an ownership I'm not sure I'm ready to have.)

So I asked myself:  How could I introduce my most recent journey of following my gut, of trusting it absolutely?  At what point did I start living that way?  I thought back to when I took the job at Trinity.  "Oh, that was the first time I really followed my gut."  But wait, how about months before when I knew in my gut that a house I walked into would soon be my house?  Or years before when I knew an apartment I walked into would soon be my apartment?  Or years before that when I knew I needed to go to Guatemala, more than once...or before that, El Salvador...?  No logic led me to those places.  It was all about my gut, though I wasn't conscious of it then the way I am now.  Or wait, maybe it was when I decided to attend Sacred Heart for high school.  I finally realized that that was the first time I made a decision based on my gut. It was probably my real "grown-up" decision.

I went to public school through middle school and was told that, like my older brother and sister, I would be attending Catholic high school.  I didn't want to...until I was given the choice myself.  Now, I didn't ever shadow or do any of the things kids do nowadays when they are choosing a high school.  But when I was finally told I could choose between a public and Catholic high school, I went with the Catholic school.  I know it was the right choice.  I met my best friend there and in a few days we'll be traveling to Dallas to meet up with 4 of our other friends we made during our years at Sacred Heart.  We graduated 21 years ago.  If for nothing else but those 5 friends, I am so glad I followed my gut.  Luckily, I also got a good education out of my time there.

That story will not be the starting point of my book, but it amazes me to think I've been working like this, doing the whole gut thing, for a pretty long time, during much of which I wasn't even aware I was doing it.  Maybe my gut is providing fertile soil for the seeds that land in my being... It's a comforting thought.

While traveling I had a conversation with a woman about how I "decided" to take my journey.  I talked about following the pull, something that never exactly feels like a decision.  Her response intrigued me.  She said something like, "That's so cool, because I've never followed my gut except for when I married my husband."  (Incidentally, romantic relationships seem to be the one area of life that I am not so attuned to my gut.)  Luckily, she has a pretty cool husband and their relationship was a joy to witness.  It seems her one gut-following experience has turned out well.  But I wondered what it feels like to have an awareness of what your gut says and not follow it.  OK, I know I've done it, too, and in those cases, the results have been somewhere between not great and disastrous.  But I wonder what it's like to consistently not listen to the inner voice, the inner pull, the gut, whatever you want to call it.  The planted seeds never germinate.  New growth doesn't happen.  It must feel miserable.  Having had the fortune of resources- intellectual, financial, spiritual, emotional- I have also had the fortune of possibilities.  I haven't figured out if those who consistently don't follow the pull (even though they are aware of it), who don't nurture the seeds, do so because they don't feel they have the resources or they simply don't have the guts.  Seeing the last phrase, I wonder what it takes not to have the guts to follow the gut.  Where does the limiting of possibilities happen, within or without? 

Is it simply fear?  Or is lack of resources (whatever kind are needed) a legitimate reason not to follow one's gut?  Are fear and a stated lack of resources really the same thing?  I don't currently have the resources to do what I know I am called to do.  But I am watering the seeds as well as I can, trusting that there will be sunshine and enough in me, the soil, to bring forth new growth. My gut hasn't let me down yet.  Are there people who recognize new seeds planted, who try to nurture them, only to find those planted seeds rotting, or perhaps starting to grow and then dying?  I don't know, but I know people face disappointments all the time.  Are the disappointments about what the seeds encounter (or don't encounter) in the soil or what comes from the outside world?  I don't know.  If you are a gut-follower...or a conscious non-gut-follower, I'd love to hear what you have to say.  If you're not aware of your gut, well, I hope you're able to tune into it.  You might find that you have some pretty fascinating seeds inside you just waiting for a little attention so they can bloom.           

Sunday, June 17, 2012

In a few words... a lighter sort of post...

Having been home for a month, it seems a good time to look back on my time away (not that I haven't been doing it every day)...  The following are lists that point to the diversity of my personal experiences, and in some cases, the diversity of day-to-day experiences in this world...

I've revised and included a theme for the lists (6/25/12). However, you are welcome to come up with alternate themes (your theories/list themes ideas are welcomed).

1: India, Finland, Spain, Morocco, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey, Italy, Netherlands, France, Montenegro...countries I spent at least one night

2: feet, hot air balloon, camel, bus, rickshaw, auto rickshaw, motorcycle, airplane, train, metro, tram, ferry, water bus, canoe, elephant, bike, taxi, canter, shared taxi, minibus, shared van, kettuvallam, car, hitchhiking... modes of transportation I used

3: India, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, U.S., Germany, Nepal, England, Belize, Turkey,
Netherlands, Finland, Morocco, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Palestine, Israel, Russia, Canada... countries from which I met some fabulous people

4: Taj Mahal, India-Pakistan border... the two places Finn and Lightning (the cars I carried for my nephews) did not accompany, once by force, once by suggestion

5: Serbia, Germany, Greece... places where I only spent time in the airport

6: Mom, Dad, Joetta, Natascha, Brandy, Jim, Katelyn, Lauren, Betsy, Carol, Ben, Brendan, Bridget, Anthony, Michael, Chrissy, John, Chris, Grant, Sr. Margaret, Michael, Luke, Chris, Nick, Graham... people from home I got to see along the way

7: street theater, arrests, children's march, tear gas, sound bombs, road blocks, processions, demonstrations, protests, street musicians, living statues, prayer, injuries, stations of the cross, checkpoints, parades, fights, passion play, laughter yoga... spectacles encountered in the streets

8: cows, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, elephants, monkeys, camels, water buffalo... animals encountered in the streets

9: apartment, house, convent, hotel, hostel, cave hotel, train, bus, car, airplane, ashram, beach... places I slept

10: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish... religions I encountered

11: Tarun, Shilpaa, Vidya, Shri, Paula, Ruchira, Laura, Nivedita, Huda, Monolita, Mathew, Sana, Hannah, Candan, Nizar, Bustami, Ed, Jude, Mary, Yeliz, Rae, Mo, Cecilia, Camilia, Andrea, Taniei... Couchsurfers I met

12: Spanish, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Turkish, Catalan, Italian, French, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew, Montenegrin... languages that were spoken around me (there are more whose names I don't know)

13: Onam, Teachers Day, Queens Day, SCN Bicentennial Kick-off, birthdays, Thanksgiving (Indian-style), Ganapati, weddings, engagement party, border closing, baptism, Three Kings Day, Feast of St. George, Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, Halloween (Indian-style), Sports day, Annual Day, Diwali, Durga Puja, jubilee celebrations... festivities I witnessed/participated in

I've probably left things off the lists, but I've done my best to be comprehensive...

Friday, June 15, 2012


"I look where it is good.  I know about the bad, but I look at the good thing."

One hundred eight years is a long time to live.  At 108 years old Alice Herz-Sommer, the woman I've just quoted, is the oldest Holocaust survivor alive.  A few weeks ago I watched a short video about her and was left, am still left, with a sense of awe, and also, to be quite honest, some confusion.

I am in awe that someone who survived the Holocaust could be such a happy, forgiving person.  If you watch the video, you'll see what I mean.  As I think about it, I know a lot of people who have survived horrific experiences and are joyful and generous people.  I've met them in El Salvador and Guatemala.  I've met them in Palestine.  I've met them in Louisville, KY.  I've met them many places. Their resilient spirits inspire me to be as kind and generous with others as they are.

But I'm still confused by the quote that begins this blog.  Yes, I firmly believe we must look at the good things, seek them out, especially in those places where they seem least obvious. I think the more we recognize the good, the more able we are to amplify it, to spread it beyond its original scope.  I try to do this with students, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  I try to do it as I look at situations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  I could talk about other ways I've tried, but the sentences would look a lot like the previous two.

Here's where I get confused:  There is a lot of evil in our world.  I am not convinced that looking only at the good is going to eliminate the bad.  I think we need to shed light on the dark places just as we need to magnify the light that already exists, so it can shine brighter.  When I say shed light on the dark places, I mean recognize that they are there, because ignoring them won't make them go away.  It might make life feel a little more pleasant, maybe a little easier.  My fear, however, is that ignoring the bad may make us feel less responsible for doing anything about it.  We need only look at history, and given the heroine of this post, let's say something like the Holocaust, to see what happens when good people ignore the bad things happening around them.  More bad...

"We are all sometimes good, sometimes bad" (Herz-Sommer again).  Of course, I believe this to be true.  I tried to teach my students this very thing.  I'd say things like, "The SS guys who worked in the camps probably went home and hugged their kids and kissed their wives.  They weren't 100% bad," or "People in prison are not 100% bad; they did bad things, but who of us would want one horrible thing we've done to be the definition of who we are?"   These were not popular statements.  Luckily, they weren't meant to be; I threw them out to get some thinking going on...Some great discussions resulted.  At times I, too, need the reminder that we're not 100% good or bad or whatever.  When I am ready to completely write off a person...or an entity made up of lots of people...I need the reminder.  My Love Thy Neighbor poster I talked about a few posts ago helps me not to write people or entities off, but sometimes it's hard not to and sometimes it takes me time and work to get to that point.

So where does the balance come in?  How do we know when focusing on the good is going to amplify it to the point of eliminating (or at least greatly diminishing) the bad and when we truly need to turn our attention to the bad, because if we don't it will grow out of control?  I don't have an answer.  Sometimes when I write these posts, I really really wish I were talking to you (though my spoken words often come out much more of a jumbled mess than my written words do), so I could get your thoughts right now on whatever it is I'm pondering.  Writing about brokenness was one of those times.  This is another.  I know there are a lot of wise people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do.

Maybe it's a matter of catching the bad early on...seeing it when it's a few grains of bad surrounded by a beach of good.  Then maybe focusing on that good can transform the little bit of bad.  Those few bad grains might just work a little harder to be good ones, if the good ones are getting the attention, right?  (Ha, did you see how I just made each grain 100% good or bad?  Oops.)  Positive reinforcement.  Of course, that's easier said than done.  We humans seem to be drawn to the bad.  Just look at the newspaper.  I'm sure there are just as many good things going on, but they're not often part of the daily news.  And, of course, with so much evil that's already at the exponential growth point now, we missed our chance to catch it early on anyway.  Now what?  Am I saying our world is hopeless?  No, I'd never say that.  I don't believe it.

I recently met a woman who is a laughter yogi.  I met her at a Couchsurfing meetup (that she happened to organized) and she is definitely all about spreading laughter and love.  Cool woman.  It's hard not to be joyful when you are around her.  She's brimming with ideas about how she can spread laughter yoga and how we can engage the creative spirit that is within each of us.  Her enthusiasm is contagious, definitely good kind of contagious.  Let me go back, though, because you may be thinking, "I don't have a creative bone in my body."  If you're thinking that, let me respectfully disagree.  We're all creative beings; it's just a matter of figuring out where our creative energy flows best.  For some of us it's in the arts (where creativity is easily recognized).  For others it may be in the way we interact with people, knowing anyone wherever he or she happens to be in life.  That is a beautiful use of creative energy.  For others it may be in fixing things or growing things.  There are so many ways we create...

Can bringing our bright creative energy into the dark places transform them, simply by having our light there?  Maybe that's the answer.  Maybe it is the simple (ok, perhaps not simple) act of bringing our light to the dark places that transforms them.  Maybe it is our bright presence that is transformative.  Maybe the problem comes when we fear that nearing the darkness with our light will consume us rather than our light consuming the darkness...and so we try to escape the darkness rather than meeting it and embracing it.  Yes, I just wrote that we should embrace darkness.  Candles do it, right?  Alice Herz-Sommer did it by refusing to give into the darkness of the concentration camp.  She didn't let that darkness consume her.  And here she is at 108 years old, still burning bright.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Finding money and the roads ahead

Three times since I've been home, I've found money.  Last week I found $8 in the street and twice as I've been unpacking, I've found $20ish.  Nice little surprises.  I don't expect I'll continue to find money, but I do take these little gifts as signs that things will work out.  By "things" I mean the plans that are forming in my head, or more importantly and more accurately, the ones tugging at my heart.

Yesterday as I was unpacking some things, I came across a daily African proverb calendar my best friend gave me a few years ago.  It amazes me how often I've looked at a quote and realized it was exactly the message I needed on that particular day.  Today's message is this: "The one who wants to do something finds a way; the one who doesn't, finds an excuse."  Where there's a will there's a way.  Last week I met a friend for dinner at an Asian restaurant. My fortune was this: "The real secret to success is enthusiasm."  Well, I can tell you, I am excited to consider the new paths I may be walking.  Maybe they're not exactly new paths for me, but I certainly haven't walked too far down them, so I look forward to seeing what lies ahead.  I am particularly enthusiastic about two ideas tugging at my heart, beckoning me to take some steps forward.  I know that along the way I may have some hills to climb and some obstacles to face, ones that might stop other people in their tracks.  However, I've run a few marathons and I know the reward of pushing through, of huffing and puffing up hills, and after making it to the top, having an easier run down.  I also have no intention of letting some roadblocks get in my way.  In Palestine, I helped rehabilitate some blocked roads.  I can do it again.  Maybe my marathons and Palestinian experiences have been training me for new challenges, in particular, the two pulling at me now.

I am excited to explore how I can make writing a more constant part of my life.  I want to dedicate more time to this thing I've been doing, this thing that has been nurturing me and, much to my delight, seems to be feeding some of you, too.  I've had some conversations with people who know a lot more than I do about writing and the writing world.  I imagine I have many conversations, lots more writing, and a fair bit of research ahead of me before I figure out what it will mean to dedicate myself more fully to writing.  Thanks for the encouragement you have given me directly or indirectly to move forward.  Your enthusiasm feeds my own.

In the physical world, Palestine continues to pull me.  I plan to return and dedicate myself in a deeper way to peace and justice.  This could mean standing at a checkpoint between Israel and Palestine and monitoring what goes on there; walking with a Palestinian child to school so that s/he doesn't get harassed by Israeli settlers; or accompanying and documenting Palestinian and Israeli peace activists in their actions, particularly when the actions lead to confrontations with the Israeli military (such confrontations are the norm).  I know who I want to work with in Palestine.  Now I need to apply to the program, and hope that the organization is as excited as I am about working together.  Thank you to those who want to know the reality, hear the stories, and struggle with Palestinians and Israelis for a more peaceful future.  Your dedication to justice inspires me.

Like I believed I could run 26.2 miles and did...more than once...I believe that I can integrate writing into my life.  I believe I will return to Palestine.  I believe I will succeed in these pursuits because when I talk about them, I can feel myself getting more animated; I am enthusiastic.  Both feel right in my body, all the way down to my bones.  I believe that, like the money that seems to be coming from nowhere, the means to accomplish what I know I must do will appear before me.  I don't know how many steps I need to take before I come across them, how many hills or barriers I may encounter, but I know I'll find what I need.  I have a feeling the joy and contentment from these discoveries will be far greater than finding a few dollars in the street.

Friday, June 8, 2012


I spent the last two days sitting in a courtroom, something I’ve never done before.  Being there, observing the proceedings and all the people involved in or (like me) observing them gave me a lot to think about.  I have a feeling more than one post will come just from sitting in that room for that brief time. 

One thing the courtroom got me thinking about is brokenness.  OK, this is actually a topic that crosses my mind often.  One of the big questions I've always had about brokenness is why some broken people go through the world, constantly working to repair it while others seem to crash through the world, either deliberately or accidentally wreaking havoc with every stride.  Now let me say that when I refer to broken people, I'm referring to all of us, because there's not one of us (except maybe the very sweet and very young babies who haven't lived in the world long enough to be damaged by it) who isn't at least a little bit broken.  

Over the last few days a distinction has been forming in my mind, one that may help to answer my question.  I'm going to offer it to you, with no real idea as to its validity.  It's a theory.  I'd love to know your thoughts on the matter. 

I think broken people can fall into a couple categories. First, there are those who are merely fractured, meaning that all the pieces are still connected and still mostly in place.  Then there are those who are so broken that pieces are have fallen away, perhaps within range of being put back into place, perhaps so damaged as to be irreparable, leaving a gaping hole in the whole.  Certainly, our own brokenness varies at different times in our lives.  The superficial cracks are easy to recover from.  The deep gaping holes take much longer to repair, especially if the state of the missing pieces is also dire.  Maybe there is no way to fill the holes, but I hope there is.  I don't think God would leave us without the possibility of wholeness.  Maybe we just need to be creative (creating) in our work.  An image of a Gaudi mosaic comes to mind.  Who knew broken pieces could be formed into something so beautiful? Maybe we're meant to fill the holes with mosaics...

As I think and type, I think there is another distinction to be made within our brokenness: those who know that brokenness can be mended and those who don't.  Those who know that healing can happen understand that though there will be visible signs of past calamities, adversity can be overcome.  Then there are those who don't believe that repair is possible.  They may have a gaping hole and feel no hope of filling it, no hope of getting closer to wholeness, no hope for that mosaic to be made.  

I wonder if the second distinction is more important.  I wonder if those who know that healing is possible, that it is probable, that it is, in fact, impossible to elude unless we actively work to avoid it, are those who will work to heal themselves and, in doing so, to heal the world. Each personal mend is also a mend for the world.  Our world can only be whole when all people and places are mended.  

I have thought a lot about my friend in the courtroom who handled a horrible situation with incredible grace and hope, much more than I imagine myself having if I were ever in a similar situation.  Through it all, he believed that he would make it through.  He never lashed out at anyone who hurt him.  In fact, he hoped and continues to hope for their healing, too.  He has been working towards wholeness. 

I also think of a young man I know who has been in prison now for a couple of years.  He committed some horrible acts, acts that most certainly left gaping holes in those he harmed.  I know only parts of his story leading up to what he did, but knowing what I know, I've asked myself many times if his "reason" for damaging others has to do with being so broken himself.  I wonder if he had no hope of healing himself, or if he thought that breaking others would somehow make his own pain diminish.  I don't know.  Please know that I am not trying to excuse anything he did.  I am not; I am simply trying to understand it.  I don't know how he will get closer to wholeness. 

As I think about other broken places in our world, it seems clear that breaking others to somehow "fix" an area of brokenness is modus operandi.  An eye for an eye? It doesn't make sense to me.  Maybe I just haven't (thankfully) suffered enough gaping holes to get it.  Maybe I am too committed to healing to ever be at that point.  I hope so.  

I feel like I am leaving a lot still unsaid, but I am going to leave these thoughts half-formed. Perhaps it can be fodder for future thought and growth... 

In the meantime, I wish peace and healing to you in whatever state of brokenness you may be.    


Monday, June 4, 2012

Fleas and Sojourner Truth

"Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
-Margaret Mead.

My sweet kitties are home now and they brought with them a lot of fleas. A lot of fleas.  It's not the first time they've had fleas, so I'm sure I'll get the situation under control soon. Today I went to the vet and got some medication that kills all the fleas on the cats almost immediately after they take the pill.  Sure enough, shortly after stuffing the pill down the cats' throats, the fleas seemed to be falling off them, dead or on the way to that state.  I feel the same lack of guilt over killing fleas as I do for killing mosquitoes and cockroaches.  I guess I don't have the same respect for life as Jains or Buddhists, who challenge us to honor all living beings, even mosquitoes, cockroaches, and fleas.   But I don't want to talk about my cats' fleas.  I want to talk about Sojourner Truth's fleas.

In a talk I give to students, I often read a passage from Marian Wright Edelman's The Measure of Our Success.  Let me share it with you:

"My role model, Sojourner Truth, slave woman, could neither read nor write but could not stand slavery and second-class treatment of women.  One day during an anti-slavery speech she was heckled by an old man. 'Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Why I don't care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.' 'Perhaps not, but the Lord willing, I'll keep you scratching.' she replied.

"A lot of people think they have to be big dogs to make a difference.  That's not true.  You just need to be a flea for justice... Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation."

Normally, I wouldn't be too keen on being compared to a flea, but the way Sojourner Truth and Edelman spin it, I'm proud to call myself a flea.  I want the big dogs to itch just as much as my kitties seem to be itching now.  I want to make the big dogs uncomfortable.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of big dogs out there that need a good flea infestation: corporations, institutions, and governments that seem to be operating with no regard to the well-being of people or the broader world around us.  What saddens me is that some of those dogs, I could probably even say many of those dogs, are going about their business thinking they're doing something good.  Considering all those big dogs and the things they do with tails wagging can be, sometimes is, overwhelming.  How can my bite stop their digging in the wrong places or chewing on the wrong things?  How can my bite stop their misguided barks, snarls, and bites? I don't want my own bite to be ill-placed.  Where will my bite be most effective?   Can I bite more than one dog or do I need to keep my eyes, my body, my presence in one place to be effective?

I don't know the answer to any of the above questions.  I particularly wonder about the last question because I have shifted focus numerous times over the years from U.S. policy in Central America to teaching and volunteering on a local level to teaching and volunteering on an international level to (now...I think) working for justice in Israel and Palestine.  Right now I'm clinging to that last dog, a particularly large dog to be occupying (and I use that word deliberately) such a small place geographically.  I hope to be firmly attached to and biting that big dog for awhile, though I'm not sure exactly how I'll do it.  

Until I figure it out, maybe I can hop from dog to dog, taking a nip here, sinking my teeth in there.  Surely something is better than nothing, right?  I know some of you are hopping and biting along with me.  I hope that others of you will find the big dog(s) that need(s) your attention.  If Sojourner Truth, who lacked the education and resources you and I have, found the big dogs she needed to bite, you and I can, too.

Of course, it's easier to hang with the big dogs.  It's safer, too.  But is it right?  Is it satisfying?  Only you can answer that for yourself...

If you're already part of the flea population, thanks for your work.  I hope the big dogs...or their owners... don't treat you the way I treated the fleas on my cats today.  I know you are taking some risks counting yourselves among the fleas.  Your examples inspire me and energize me to do the same.

If you're not hanging with the fleas, know you're always welcome to grab some fur, latch on to a dog, and start biting.  I think you'll find you're in good company.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Sorry for leaving you in a lurch after my last despairing post.  Let me begin by saying things are looking up.  Definitely up.

A friend of mine refers to some people as "good vibe" people. I know a lot of good vibe people.  Chances are, you are one of them.  But I'm not here to write about people today, but places.  Places also definitely have a vibe, an energy that is palpable and that affects our own energy for better or for worse.

When I walked into my house a few days ago, my house didn't have a bad vibe, but the energy that filled it wasn't mine.  It was unfamiliar.  It was (for me) stagnant.  After being there a few hours I left convinced that I wasn't going to feel comfortable in the space.  I wrote my last post.

However, before I left my house, I opened the windows.  I wanted, needed, to move the stagnant air.

There is one other time I have felt really uncomfortable in a part of my house, so much so that I needed to change the energy.  My house was broken into a few years ago, but even though that was a little scary and I felt violated, it didn't take long to feel comfortable in my house again.  My energy was still the dominant energy in the house. I changed some habits so that I felt safe again.  Pretty easily and without much fanfare, life when on.  As I think about it, I'm surprised by this fact, but it's the truth.

Besides a few days ago, the other time I needed to change the energy in my house was after a gathering went horribly wrong.  It went so wrong that I didn't even want to- couldn't without feeling sick- be in the room of the gathering.  The energy spewed, in some cases hateful and hurtful, strongly inhabited the room in a way I didn't previously know was possible.  I knew something in the room needed to change, because I wanted to feel comfortable again in my own home.  I opened the windows and performed a sort of cleansing ritual.  That helped.  I also enlisted the help of a friend who did a smudging ceremony for me.  After that I knew the room was fully cleansed, fully mine again.

A few days ago when I returned to the house after opening the windows and leaving for a few hours, I could tell a change had begun.  The air was no longer stagnant.  The energy was different.  I was relieved and grateful. The air that came with the rain that fell later that day washed away the recent past. I could feel it happening, leaving the space clean, cool, fresh.

It was only after this cleansing ritual that God performed for me that I could begin to unpack, to inhabit the space.  I'm not finished unpacking and I know I'll be both purging and repacking in the coming months.  That's OK.  I think I'm up for the task.

It was only after my kitchen was fully in order that I'd allow anyone else into the house.  I'm glad I waited.  As with my time in Montenegro, I just needed some time and space to get my bearings.  I didn't know when I'd be ready...until I was ready.

Other people have now entered the house.  Food has been made, a meal shared, and my cats are back.  The energy is in my house is good; it is moving.  I think I'd call my house a good vibe house now.  Though this is the case, I still hesitate to call it my home, only because I don't want to get too attached. I'll be leaving again.  Maybe I'll rent the house or maybe I'll sell it.  These are details still unknown.

I am grateful to be in a good vibe space for now.  You are invited to share it with me for minutes, hours, or days.  I mean this sincerely.  In my travels I learned the beauty of sharing good vibe space.  Who am I not to open mine up for you to enter?  You are welcome.