Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sometimes the Only Life You Can Save is Your Own

Yesterday I was sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot when I thought, "I've got to get home to feed my koi." I never imagined that one day it would seem somehow necessary to dig a pond, gather guppies and water plants, ask a friend to help craft a waterfall, install a pump and finally to take my youngest daughter to select some young koi for a pond that I never thought I'd create in the first place.

But that was then, and this is now. And now, to my own surprise, I have become strangely obsessed with this pond, which is not one hundred percent complete just yet. I am still gathering stones for one side of it, scouring our woods for the perfect stones and then turning them and re-turning them until the sides fit together perfectly and securely, like a giant puzzle for grown-ups. I'm zealous enough for the pond that my kids have caught me out in the pouring rain gathering stones, when I should be doing other things (like starting dinner). My twelve-year-old stares out the window at her mom, dripping wet from the rain, lava stones stacked in my mud spattered arms, and says, "Seriously, mom?" While my seven-year-old prefers to lay down the law, "You may not work on the pond today," she says, when I pick her up from school.

This pond came about fairly recently. Over the past few years, we have come into contact with several people in difficult situations. Sometimes we couldn't do anything, but when we could, we tried, and sometimes it has seemed that the more love and resources we poured into people, the less they liked us in the end. After another situation went awry, I sighed deeply and thought, "All  that's left to do now is build a pond."

This past weekend my childhood friend Katy visited. Katy and I grew up together, building mud pies along the banks of Minnehaha Creek, and on Monday I took her on a whirlwind tour of the Big Island. She's now a college professor, and she told me that sometimes she asks her students to visualize how their lives will be after they graduate. They tend toward unreasonably high expectations, and sometimes she feels the need to warn them, "As you get older, you realize that life is often really disappointing," she tells them. "Sometimes you get the thing you most wanted only to discover that the reality is so different from what you imagined."

In other cases,  life takes an unexpected turn--the death of a loved one, a divorce, financial hardship, anything you might labor to build in your adult life only to have it crumble before your eyes--sometimes life ends up looking nothing like the way you hoped. Nothing like. Somehow we have to find ways to integrate those experiences, too.

And so, at least in my own life, my essential discovery has been so very basic: sometimes the only life you can save is your own. I still believe in intense, loving, engagement with the world, and in sheltering others in whatever way you can: by providing food or shelter (when possible) a listening ear, or even just looking out with wide open eyes and compassion: trying to see others as they are (which is of course also as we are, almost unbearably vulnerable and easily in need, despite illusions of security). As Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each another."

But sometimes, it is this very belonging to others that I must retreat from, at least for a time. Sometimes all that's left to do is dig a pond (or light a candle or draw up a bath or cry until all tears are spent) or just to do anything you can do to create a quiet place to rest and wait and watch and recover. For me at least, it's at the edge of this pond where I begin to see clearly again. Even in the face of so many irreconcilables, there are the koi, swimming purposefully, fins like wings, strokes full of flight.

The Journey

One day you finally knew 
what you had to do, and began, 
though the voices around you 
kept shouting their bad advice-- 
though the whole house 
began to tremble 
and you felt the old tug at your ankles. 
"Mend my life!" each voice cried. 
But you didn't stop. 
You knew what you had to do, 
though the wind pried 
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, 
though their melancholy was terrible. 
It was already late 
enough, and a wild night, 
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones. 
But little by little, 
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn 
through the sheets of clouds, 
and there was a new voice 
which you slowly 
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper 
into the world, 
determined to do 
the only thing you could do-- 
determined to save 
the only life you could save.

-Mary Oliver

P.S. If you love this poem, buy the book, Dream Work. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hello, Middle Age

Mahalo to my friend Keoki for snapping this photo.  

Yesterday afternoon, we were invited to a birthday party. While en route, a cooler tumbled off the truck in front of me. I idled on the two lane highway while the driver pulled over and ran for his cooler. Then he glanced up at me and smiled. I suddenly realized it was my friend, Keoki. He checked the oncoming traffic lane for cars and then ran toward me. "Hey Jenny!" He said, "What are you up to?" I told him I was headed to a party and he said, "For Sadie and Soyer? So are we! Hey, did you see any of my other stuff on the road?" I said, no, but promised to keep an eye out for it, just in case.

After I got to the party, I offered to watch the kids in the playground because most of the adults were cooking and setting up in the pavilion below. The kids handed me their balloons and snacks to carry. I am so habituated to carrying things that I forgot to tell them to lug their own loot. And anyway, I'm middle aged, now, I'm in carrying years.

I have wanted to be middle aged for as long as I can remember, perhaps because I imagined that these were the years of settling into whatever it was that I was going to do and actually doing it rather than preparing for it and wondering if it was possible.

Earlier this year, when I turned 38, I posted something on Facebook about how thrilled I was to finally reach middle age, to which several friends rained on my parade by telling me that I was not quite there yet. By the way, it is not very classy to rain on someone's parade on their birthday, just saying. Why deprive me the pleasure of reaching a modest and achievable goal like becoming middle aged?

I looked it up online, and it appears that middle age technically begins around 45 and stretches to 64. Who is behind these bizarre numbers? Could it be...the Baby Boomers? Anyway, for the purposes of my own blog, I will stick with my childhood understanding of middle age which was that it started somewhere between the ages of 38 and 40 or when you purchased a minivan, or when you took a practical job to simply to pay your mortgage, whichever came first.

Naysayers, please note: that means I am already there, save for the practical job, although my husband has two, thankfully. After wading through the murky waters of my twenties and (most of my) thirties, I have come to three principles of middle age that I'd like to share, in no particular order:

1) Don't Argue with Unreasonable People: I have always believed in having it out in an honest fashion, and when I was younger, I believed that I could say my piece in almost any situation and something good would come of it. But by the time I owned my first minivan, I was pretty sure that I had wasted too much of my twenties and thirties arguing with unreasonable people.

I recognize that unreasonable is an objective term. What is reasonable to one person is unreasonable to another. So when I say unreasonable, I am not talking only about differences of opinions (these can be navigated in all sorts of ways) I am talking about an emotional response to a perceived criticism that is extreme. If you try to say something to someone that you feel needs to be said, perhaps to tell them about how their behavior is affecting your life, and they respond with rage and a refusal to acknowledge your concerns, well, that's something. Maybe you can try one more time, but then it is straight to plan B, damage control: instead of explaining how you feel over and over and over (I have been guilty of this in countless situations) you simply work to limit the damage the other person can do, by protecting yourself and your loved ones.

2) Let Yourself Fail: This was a big one for me. When I was in my twenties I was terrified of failure. But it helped to try a lot things and discover that many of my best attempts yielded only so-so results. Take cooking, for example. I'm still not that great at it, but I find nothing more satisfying than sitting down to a home cooked meal, which is why I've decided to try to cook (and fail) often. Giving myself freedom to fail has made me bolder to try new things.

I've experienced this in my writing life as well. In my case, I sort of met my goal to be a writer by publishing five books by the time I was 35, but I can only say sort of because I think of the first four books as practice for whatever it was that I really meant to do. Three were write-for-hire jobs that paid well but had no connection to who I am, most especially "The Everything Organize Your Home Book" (which, please, don't get my mom started on the irony of me as author of that one, you will get an earful).  All this said, I am still a little bit proud of the fifth one Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections On Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death because it was written from the heart--it took me ten years to summon the courage to write it--and strangers still tell me that it helped them, which lifts me up, always. But then again, I can only stay aloft for a few seconds, because if I take the book off the shelf and open it, I can find a bunch of things I would change immediately, which is why I can't actually open any of my books, ever.  And then, of course, there's my kids, who say things like, "Mom, one day could you write a fun book that people actually like to read?"

Okay, okay, so it might be my best yet, but it's not a fun book. And this is part of the glory of middle age: realizing that you can have a whole lot of near-misses, and sometimes you can miss the target entirely, but the people who love you stick around anyway, and the more you miss the target or almost hit the bullseye the less it seems to matter if if you miss again. You actually can't even think about it that much, because you have still have a quiver-full of arrows and the sun is almost down. Just keep shooting, for Pete's sake, which is closely related to my next thought...

3) Consider the Time: time is a bank account that you continue make withdrawals from but you can't replenish. That's kind of a drag. By middle age, you know that your time is not unlimited, even if you do still have many years before you. Being bitter (even if it is, in some cases, the correct emotional response to a situation) steals a lot of time and energy. As Fr. Tom Hopko used to say at seminary: just do something productive. Instead ruminating about things that didn't work out in the way I'd planned, I can get up and load the dishwasher, I can fold laundry and allow myself the luxury of watching old Parenthood episodes (ahhhh! free therapy) on Netflix, or hey, I could even start a blog!

There's a scene in Anne Lamott's book Bird-by-Bird that I think about often. Anne is shopping for a dress with her best friend, who is dying of cancer. Pammy has already lost her hair and is in a wheelchair, and Anne comes out of the dressing room to get her friend's opinion.

Lamott writes, "I came out to model it for her. I stood there feeling very shy and self-conscious and pleased. Then I said, 'Do you think it makes my hips look too big?' and she said to me slowly, 'Annie? I really don't think you have that kind of time.'"

So that's a question for me, in middle age, that has urgency that it didn't have before: do I really have that kind of time? And also, how do I spend my most precious and limited resource of all? The time when my children were little is slipping away. One is 12 and the other 7. Much of my twelve-year-old's childhood has already been spent. How do we spend the rest of the time that we have left together?

Middle age is the time when many of us carry small children, first in our bodies, then in our arms, then in our vehicles. It is the carrying time. I seem to be on the latter part of that spectrum, having put almost 17,000-miles on my minivan since I bought it in August. It is also the time when many of us find that we have to carry jobs, mortgages and aging parents (in whatever way we are capable of) as they transition from middle age into old age.

So that is a lot of carrying to do, and it is hard to juggle all that stuff, not to mention the random balloon creations and nests and empty plastic cups that make their way into our hands. I love the line from U2's song Yahweh, "Teach me what to carry." It's always a challenge to figure out what to carry and what to set down, and that is part of the delicate and necessary work of middle age.

Back to Saturday's party: with my arms full of balloons and snacks, a water bottle and even a nest, I leaned against a lava wall and watched Natalie climb onto a huge metal whale. Another child climbed onto the whale beside her and said, "The whale's name is Hina." Hina means gray, and that's middle age, for you. I thought I'd feel all settled and it would be just great, but instead, much of the time I feel more like a pack mule trudging up a mountain. But I also feel, in another way, freer than I ever did before. Free to fail, free to say no, free to choose what I'll carry and how I'll spend my time.

That day, watching the kids on the whale with a huge jacaranda tree dropping purple petals all around them, like spring snow,  I thought, this is just a little bit magical, isn't it? As Vincent Van Gogh said: "In spite of everything, yes." 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Untying the Knot; Thoughts on Forgiveness

I have taken quite a breather from writing--a three-year-breather--much longer than I intended. These past few years life has walloped me pretty good, between caring for young children and aging parents, holding down the fort while my husband works two jobs, starting my own business as a private tour guide, a cancer scare with my mom, and a slew of challenging interpersonal situations. There has been a lot to work through and figure out and I have been doing a lot more working through than figuring out.

In Thich Nhat Hanh's book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart he says that when we hurt others through our words or actions, knots form in them. The work of love is to help untie these knots. With my own children, I'm often surprised at how easy it is to see the knot and help untangle it. Yesterday I found my youngest weeping on the floor in her room, in a fort she had built a few hours before. I crawled into the fort and lay down beside her. I asked her why she was crying, and she couldn't (or didn't want to) explain. So I just lay there beside her, my hand resting on her back, and soon her sobs turned to sniffles and then finally, a calm silence.

But this is easier with children, of course, because they are young still, trusting and malleable. What about my own knots? A couple of weeks ago, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, we entered into lent with the Rite of Forgiveness, a service in which everyone in the community asks forgiveness of everyone else. Each person says to the other, "Please Forgive me," and then the other can respond in a few different ways. They might say, "I forgive you," or "God forgives" or "May God forgive us all." I always opt for the latter because the older I get, the less confident I am in my own ability to forgive. Not that I don't want to, but I see clearly that I can't do it on my own. Forgiveness is a work of grace that travels its own mysterious path, in its own time, unravelling the knot in its own mysterious way.

So for me, at least, the beauty of the Rite of Forgiveness is that we simply express our openness to the grace that can unravel the knot. We express our intention and desire to have it unraveled and to help unravel the knots we cause in others.

So what about situations where no apology comes? What about people who are unaware of the knots they create? I have heard it said that forgiveness is learning to accept the apology that never came. Maybe that's partly true, but also, maybe it's not such a bad thing to hold onto anger for awhile, while also holding onto the intention to forgive. 

Anger has its place. It is a natural human response to a wrong. It is a red hot reminder that the person you trusted may not have been worthy of your trust and it is warning to never enter back into that relationship or situation in the same way again. Sometimes you'll have to step away totally, and sometimes you'll just have to enter into it differently, with eyes wide open and exit plan in place. For those seeking the courage and stamina to exit an abusive marriage, relationship or group, anger may be your best ally. The anger says: step back, be safe, not now, not ever again.
One of the most helpful things I've heard about forgiveness came from NPR's On Being. This podcast explores forgiveness and anger from a biological perspective. According to Michael McCullough, we are naturally equipped with both the desire for revenge and the capacity for forgiveness, although forgiveness is also a learned skill, and easier to achieve when certain conditions are met. Michael McCullough says that the first condition is safety. If the other person can convince you that they understand the damage they have done and that they will not harm you in the same way again, then you will naturally have an easier time forgiving them.

Last Friday I hiked Devastation Trail in Volcanoes National Park, a trail through a forest that was devastated by falling cinder from the lava fountains of the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption. I love this path because you can see how resilient life is. Cinder can destroy a forest, lava can overcome a landscape, but in time (I have heard that it can take as much as one hundred years for lava to break down into one inch of soil) little plants begin to grow. These plants eventually grow into trees and birds return to nest in their branches and pollinate their blossoms. This gives me hope for my own heart, that all that is hard in it will in time, be softened into fertile soil where good things can grow.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks