My Funny Valentine

Yesterday was a day for writing love letters, which was convenient, since today is Valentine’s Day. But I don’t mean I was writing obligatory cards. Rather, my heart was just full – full of love and gratitude for a bunch of people in my life. Some of them probably expected to get a card from me, but I imagine at least a half dozen didn’t. I hadn’t written to them before and I don’t know if I will again, but this year, for some reason, I just thought, “I Love them,” so I went ahead and did it.

I think it’s because of the big Love I’m feeling these days for my youngest daughter Molly Grace. In about a week’s time, she will be having surgery to treat scoliosis with a procedure called “spinal tethering.” It’s a couple days in the hospital, followed by a couple weeks at home, followed by a couple months in a back brace. Though it was a difficult decision, we are confident it’s the right plan and that we have the right doctor. Still, as the date approaches, a low-grade anxiety is permeating our home. And when that happens, whenever Fear appears, I try to double down on Love.

Which is why I am so grateful I encountered this yesterday in the center of a book on my nightstand:

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I don’t remember where I got the card, but I’m glad I kept it. It surfaces every once in a while, seemingly just when I need to be reminded of the Love I need to give or receive myself. In this case, it’s both. I need to help Molly feel ultimately protected, and safe “in the hollow” of my arms, but I also need to trust that I am being held in the same way. We cannot offer to others what we do not have ourselves. So each morning, as I sit in Centering Prayer, I return my attention over and over again to Love, the ultimate source of my existence. I get up knowing that it is the ultimate action I can take, however it manifests itself that day.

It’s pretty easy to know how to Love on Valentine’s Day, a card, a heart, a bunch of flowers, but on other days, those answers aren’t so clear. How can we act in Love when we’re afraid of (and for) the people we encounter, the decisions we make and outcomes that are beyond our control? But today and every day, I try to come back to this:

Fear does not get to have the final word.

Next week, when I watch my girl go into surgery, I know I will be afraid. Fear will be sitting in the waiting room with me, making small talk with Tim and pacing the halls. But I also know we offered ourselves the antidote to that fear when we named her fifteen years ago: Molly Grace.

Grace.

Outpouring Love. Undeserved forgiveness. Divine presence and strength. Inner beauty.

Love stronger than Fear.

Today, Love in a way that is easy and light, but tomorrow, try to Love into a place that has been dominated by fear. You don’t know where it will take you, but I promise it will be better than where you are.

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Molly Grace and I at her final water polo game last week. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding a Way Forward

I’ve been pretty quiet here the last week. I started quiet, because I didn’t want to add my voice to the post-election cacophony. So many good and powerful and true things were being said. For the first few days, I felt what was mine to feel, but I didn’t feel the need to share it with the public. I’m grateful, however, for all the people who did, including two men I love.

My husband spoke up, and I was proud of him. Tim Kirkpatrick is a man who feels things deeply and I have a ton of respect for men like him, who are willing to express their vulnerability, especially when those emotions include a deep compassion for “the other.” A couple months ago, when the election was heating up, he started posting a series of funny, 30-second videos of him singing (badly) and riffing on all things from surfing to business to comedy. This last week, however, he stopped joking and posted some more somber reflections on the election outcome. Here is a link to his two most recent posts: “Tracks of My Tears” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

But there was a new voice too, one that hasn’t spoken up before and I am very proud of him too. My son Finn posted this commentary on Facebook on Wednesday night. (He asked permission to correct the grammar and add a couple lines).

I’m new to politics. And historically speaking this is weird place to join the convo. However, I thought I’d share this clip about Trump talking about the “good old days.” He says he loved the days when protestors would be “taken off on a stretcher.” This clip is showing footage from Civil Rights movement protestors (Brown vs Board of Education and more) and then modern-day protestors. He encouraged others to inflict harm on protestors of today. This clip made me sad. Yes, I know this clip comes from a documentary with an agenda. What documentary these days doesn’t? Yes, it was intended to make Trump look bad. Still, it has some truth to it.

This clip comes from the documentary, 13th, a doc about the mass incarceration of black men in America. They cover how little progress has really been made. First, the US had slavery. Then we had Jim Crow laws. Now we have a mass incarciration of black men. When the 13th Amendment was passed, it banned slavery, with the exception of crime, so then they just made them criminals. More and more laws were made to get more and more people in jail. Now the prison system is another example of institutional racism. It’s hard for me to explain. Anyways just watch the doc on Netflix; it will blow your mind/ reassure you how corrupt our whole political system is.

But back to Trump. This made me sad, sad for all of those who Trump has diminished and put in harm’s way with his words (shown in the video). Sad for my sister and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, for the minorities and all who Trump has already put in harm’s way. Most of my friends, being Trump supporters, tell me that he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, or that we need to give him a chance. But as far as I’m concerned, whether or not Trump believes his rhetoric, it still empowers other groups take action. And give him a chance? …Yeah, we should forget everything he’s said.  But I am still hopeful for the future. If you actually read this, thanks for listening; hopefully it makes sense.

I had originally embedded the clip in this post, but I am trying to be aware of adding more violent rhetoric to the atmosphere these days. However, it is a powerful statement on the impact of Trump’s language on his supporters. If you are able to watch, or interested, you can find the clip HERE.

As a newly registered Independent voter, Finn’s observations aren’t tied to a political party. It isn’t about being a Republican, or Democrat. It’s about how one young man is trying to keep his eyes open, and share what he sees with others. It’s what he does as a photographer and a budding film-maker as well. Most of his friends are Trump supporters, but he had the courage to speak up, to show them what he sees when he sees them wearing their “Make America Great Again” hats.

My heart broke a hundred times this week, beginning on Election night when I got this text from Keara:

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More than anything, I wanted to hold her in my arms and tell her it was all going to be okay, but I couldn’t, because I just don’t know. Trump has flip-flopped on his LGBTQ+ stance. I know that. He hasn’t been openly hostile to the gay community, and yes, he has even appointed a gay cabinet member, but Pence has consistently worked to disenfranchise, disrespect and demonize the gay community for decades. For many Trump supporters, putting the gay community “back in its place” was a huge part of the appeal. Ultimately, I believe it will be okay, but the long view wasn’t what Keara was looking for. I had to let her feel what she feels, but a week later, I have to help her look for hope.

In the aftermath of this election, I’ve frequently thought of Mister Roger’s mom. When something scary was happening, she would tell him: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That is what I’ve been doing this past week. I’ve been looking for helpers: those who could help me grieve, those who could help understand and those who could help me move forward.

The first category was amply supported by my husband, my sister, many friends, my Facebook feed, and late night talk show hosts. Lots of people out there are feeling my pain.

The second category was assisted in part by this article on Cracked by David Wong and this interview with Michael Moore on Morning Joe. I actually have a much deeper understanding and compassion for Americans in deep poverty, who have been asking for attention and assistance for decades, only to be ignored by both parties year after year, despite campaign promises. This vote was the biggest “F*ck You!” to Washington they could muster. If it f*cked over a lot of other Americans, so be it. It was still their best shot to be heard once and for all. The Michigan vote, home to Flint, the filthiest water in America, makes more sense now.

The third category, the one that inspired me to write today, was this TED talk by Jonathon Haidt. No matter whom you voted for, I highly recommend you watch it. Today. Multiple times. It could be critical to the success of your holiday season and maintaining future relationships with family members, even though they voted differently than you.

It was given a serious boost by this hour-long conversation between Rob Bell and philosopher Pete Rollins. Like Haidt, they are progressives, but balanced. They don’t demonize “the other” and they offered me a larger framework for what’s happening in America right now and how we can move forward. As a side note, Pete grew up in Belfast during The Troubles, so this isn’t just an academic exercise for him.

I could probably stop now, and maybe I should, but I’m going to push my luck.

While I started off quiet to allow other voices to speak, I’ve stayed quiet, because I couldn’t write anything that wasn’t a lament, or a tirade, and there are plenty of those out there already. I have several unpublished essays where I go from being vulnerable and centered to angry and raging. While that may be how I feel, I’m pretty sure it’s not helpful.

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I was amazed with Liz Gilbert’s ability to immediately focus on what she needed to do, asking “Who Do I Want to be in this Situation?”

I was impressed with Glennon Doyle Melton’s call to action.

While these ladies were out there encouraging the world, I was at home in a fetal position. I’m not finished crying yet, but this is what I have to offer as of today. Some tirade, some lament, some progress, hopefully.

I’ve heard a lot about the “echo chamber” the progressive elites were sitting in during this election and I’ll admit, I was there. But I will counter that many Trump supporters have been sitting in their “echo chamber” for the last eight years, watching Fox news and reading Breitbart, as blissfully unaware of the alternative point of view as we were. In our “echo chambers,” we are ignorant of each other’s pain and fear, (which we always cover over with righteous anger) and it is easy to assume the worst.

The clip Finn shared is a glimpse into the progressive “echo chamber.” If you haven’t yet, please take a moment to watch it, especially if you’ve been sitting in the other one (and if you aren’t deeply concerned by this election outcome, you haven’t been in my “chamber.”) We are all – every single one of us – in some “chamber,” breathing the air of our own confirmation bias. It makes us human, but not as wise as we could be.

For all of you who voted for Trump, who said it was about the economy for you, Hillary’s past, the need for change, or the “sanctity of life,” know that for a fair part of Trump’s base, it wasn’t just, or only about those things. It was about this! THIS is what fired them up and what they hope to see more of in a Trump presidency. It may, or may not happen on a policy level, but it is already happening on the streets and Trump, their candidate, told them it was okay. In this video, in his own voice, he waxed nostalgic for it.

If you don’t believe me, look at the feed of Shaun King who is collecting data and reports about these types of incidents. If a millennial civil rights activist isn’t a reliable source for you, here is Dan Rather on the subject. And if you don’t trust him either, look for the honest reporting of it in your own go-to news sources. If it isn’t there, know that your “echo chamber” is alive and well. (And yes, I have seen at least one video of it going the other way. I have also sought out inflammatory videos about Hillary, so I could experience the other echo. I am trying to do my homework.)

If you are a part of my life, I believe your vote wasn’t about this. I know you aren’t supportive of this type of behavior or rhetoric. I believe you aren’t racist, or homophobic, or xenophobic. You wouldn’t be part of my life if you were. A few of you have even reached out to reassure Kiko of your support. I trust that you want justice to prevail for ALL Americans.

But know that if you wear your victory on your sleeve, this is part of what you are clothed in, along with misogyny and a whole host of other qualities that I know you do not teach your children. You wouldn’t tolerate Trump’s behavior in a classroom teacher, or even a volunteer soccer coach. I KNOW you. I’ve seen you speak up and activate for your own kids. Trump would be fired the first time he made a comment about your daughter’s performance based on his impression that she was “bleeding out of her you know, whatever.” But we didn’t fire him; we hired him.

So if your child is spouting Trump’s rhetoric, or rocking a “Make America Great Again” hat, perhaps you could talk to them about all that it implies. Show them the video clip (and the one where Trump talks about grabbing a woman by the p*ssy) and encourage them to make a statement about what you (and presumably he, or she) actually stand for – an end to the insider’s hold on Washington, an end to abortion, a more conservative immigration plan, a business man in the White House? Whatever it is, don’t offer Trump a blank check to speak for you.

And this is where I want to be clear about my own culpability.

Every time I raise my hand to point a finger at you, three fingers are pointing back at me. I know that. There’s a good chance  you see me in the same way.

I know my support of HRC was incomprehensible to many Americans, especially people who share my faith. I imagine you see me clothed in her sins as well. So let me be clear, as I am asking you to be. I did not support all of her policies. I am fully aware of the many unethical choices she’s made over the course of her thirty-year political career. I may be sporting a whole host of obnoxious sartorial choices you find unfair, and unfaithful. She would not have been my first, second, or even third choice for a president, but against Donald Trump, she was my ONLY choice.

I will wear a pantsuit and hold my head up high if that’s what it takes to say that women, the disabled, the immigrant, and the oppressed be treated fairly, with dignity and due process. Hillary’s sins were many, but mostly politics-as-usual as far as I’m concerned, ones that men have used for centuries to get ahead. The corruption of the DNC was despicable and their inability to grasp the consequences of their actions in real time contributed to a truly horrific outcome for all Americans. I wear it all, not with pride but with humility, conscious of the fallibility of the candidate and our political process.

I’m pointing my three fingers back at me. I KNOW what was wrong with my candidate and many of her positions, but Trump’s character, actions, standards and campaign rhetoric are beyond the pale for me. There was no formula by which I could have voted for anyone else but the one woman who could have beaten him, who did in fact beat him in the popular vote.

You can call me a hypocrite, a sore loser, a false Christian. I don’t know; I may be all those things, but I’m also an American and at the moment, I’m heartbroken and concerned about the safety and civil rights of my fellow citizens. Even if the system works, and the Trump/Pence ticket is limited by the checks and balances of Congress and the Supreme Court, I am disappointed for my daughters, that they heard again at the largest scale possible that men can say and do whatever they want to women and get away with it, as long as they have enough power, money, or charisma.

Donald Trump is my president. I support the demonstrations that are happening around the country as a protest against his campaign strategies, but not against his rightfully won position. I condemn the violence and awful, inflammatory statements made by some protestors. I absolutely believe in our election process and the peaceful transition of power. I am extremely proud of the way both Secretary Clinton conceded the race and President Obama began the transition. In fact, I am blown away by Elizabeth Warren and her clear offer to work with Trump on many of his election platforms. You can read it here. They are true politicians, and I mean that in the nicest way, and I didn’t even know it had a nice way. Even Trump has sounded presidential a few times since the election, civil and conciliatory. If he keeps it up,  disavows his earlier rhetoric and condemns the violence it has spawned, that hope we so desperately need just might rise.


This was a really difficult essay for me to post. I SO wanted to get to a place of total peace and acceptance before I published anything, something like the Dalai Lama. If nothing else, this election has truly humbled me, showing me how much work I have to do to become the person of peace and unity and Love I want to be. But people have told me many times over the past week that they have reread my last post and asking themselves, “What is mine to do?” So, finally, I came to terms with this essay.

This is mine to do: to grieve, to educate myself, to share my process, honestly and with as much Love as I can muster. I am hoping this essay helps you do a little bit of that too. I know this has been a long post, with a lot of additional information, so I appreciate it if you made it to the end.

 

 

 

 

Post-Halloween Blues

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One of my favorite pictures of Halloween 2016. She’s joy incarnate!  

Like many of you perhaps, I relished going on to Facebook over the last two days and seeing dozens of pictures of adorable kids dressed up for Halloween. It was especially poignant for me, since my own kids are past the point of painted chubby cheeks and crazed sugar highs. But soon enough, my feed was populating again with news reports and commentaries about the many things that are going wrong in our country these days. Reading about Trump’s unethical business dealings and new email innuendos about Clinton, the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, the latest political scandal, or refugee crisis, my heart grows heavy with anxiety and confusion. I find myself spinning. What do I do with all this (mis)information? The oppression and injustice? The violence and cruelty in our politics and on our prairies? What in the world can I do about all this suffering?

I don’t know.

I felt helpless the day before Halloween and I felt it creeping back up on me today. Like a sugar addict with her hand in her kid’s candy bowl for the twentieth time, I pass one sickening headline after another and feel myself getting nauseous from the over-indulgence. I want to stop, but I tell myself I can’t stop, because then I’m just burying my head in the sand, using my privilege to pretend like it doesn’t matter. I’m safe even if I don’t engage. I will be so grateful when the election is over and I hope (though I know it may be a false hope) that at least some of these issues will be resolved.

So when I sat down to pray this morning with a heavy heart, I didn’t know if I would find silence, or be able to still my busy mind. I didn’t know if my “prayer of quiet” would actually bring any, or if it would just be an exercise in futility. I was open to either outcome, since the latter is more frequent than the former. But I have been taught that success lies in the intention, more so than the execution and so I continued.

As is my habit, I opened up my copy of Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening before I began my sit. And this is what I read:

Thomas Merton wisely challenges us not to just slow down, but, at the heart of it, to accept our limitations. We are at best filled with the divine, but we have only two hands and one heart. In a deep and subtle way, the want to do it all is a want to be it all, and though it comes from a desire to do good, it often becomes frenzied because our egos seize our goodness as a way to be revered.

I have done this many times: not wanting to say no, not wanting to miss an opportunity, not wanting to be seen as less than totally compassionate. But whenever I cannot bring my entire being, I am not there. It is like offering to bring too many cups of coffee through a crowd. I always spill something hot on some innocent along the way.

 

My heart sank as I read his words. Whom have I burned?

I want to do my part to make the world a better place, more loving and thoughtful, and in times like these, when so much of the world is hurting and so much of it is right in front of my face, I start to lose focus. I start “liking” everything and I want to be here, there and everywhere with my words and prayers and money and presence, and when I can’t, I feel like I’m part of the problem, not the solution. Left unchecked, my desire to do the “right thing,” leaves me feeling helpless. I sat there this morning, convicted of the fact that over the last several weeks, I’ve scalded people on my political left and right, and probably even those who sit at my left and right around the dinner table.

It can be one of the hardest questions to ask ourselves: What is mine to do?

(Hint: It’s NOT everything!)

Deep down, we know what is ours to do. If we don’t, it’s because we haven’t slowed down enough to hear the answer. Or we’ve ignored it, because it’s asking something of us that we don’t want to give, or give into yet. But when we create space and silence, the answer comes – like it did for me this morning.

I know what is mine to do. I was born to Love – to find it, to make it, to spread it. I’m a smiler, a talker and a laugher, a hugger, a baker, a reader, and a teacher. What can I do with that?

I can do all sorts of things with that, but I have to be there! If I am vacant, preoccupied, or feeling badly about what’s left undone, then none of the things I do have the same impact. I’m just a body, going through the motions, not half the woman I was born to be.

As this election season winds to a close, how are you feeling? Are you clear about what is yours to do, especially on November 9th? How can you make the world a better place?

Because no matter who wins, we’re definitely going to need the help.

 

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace.”

Thomas Merton

The Final Word: DIVINITY, or “It’s all going to be okay.”

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We are finally at the end of this linguistic journey through some of the central themes of creativity. Thanks for going with me. We make so little time to explore subjects that make us uncomfortable; we’d much rather tread on familiar ground. But pushing ourselves to write these letters, (instead of just thinking about writing them) is one way to check out the terrain and see where new roads might lead. We can decide later if we want to take those roads, but if we never get a bird’s eye view of the area, we’re not likely to set out on the adventure.

And so, DIVINITY.

Liz Gilbert was really intentional about choosing this word. She didn’t want to use God, because it carries so much baggage and can also be limiting. In any given audience of real life bodies, or readers, there may be atheists, agnostics, Christians, former Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and others. We all have a different word for the Ultimate Source of Life and Love, and each word carries a different nuance. The Divine has as many manifestations as there are people on earth, birds in the sky, flowers in the field, or stars in the universe. While a mystery is something “ultimately unknowable,” the Divine Mystery might be better described as “endlessly knowable.”1 We’ve been describing it for millennia and it’s pretty clear we’re not losing steam.

Now, a mystic has a very important job. A mystic is someone who has had an intimate experience of the Divine, and it is their sacred duty to share what they learned from that experience. Some do it well and publically, while others do it quietly in their everyday lives, but no matter what time period a mystic lived in and no matter what faith tradition they came out of, virtually every one of them shares the same message. If we believed what the mystics have been saying for thousands of years, it would change everything! While I might have shot for more poetic language, Liz Gilbert nailed it.

We’re all fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.

Let me repeat that mystical message for the 98% of us who didn’t get it.

We’re all fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.

That, my friends, is the “fall out” from a Divine experience. You know you are safe; you are secure; you no longer sweat the small stuff.

As you can imagine, this makes mystics difficult to live with. They come back fearless, taking on their culture and traditions, theologians and authority figures. They don’t want to destroy those things; they just know those things are beside the point! Religious leaders believe it will all be okay too, at least for some of us, at some point, but they believe the only way to get there is through rule-keeping and discipline. Mystics just jump ahead to the finish line. They want to share the gospel, the good news, that it’s all going to be okay and since it’s going to be okay, IT’S ALL OKAY RIGHT NOW!

See what I mean about changing everything?

What would you do? How would you behave? What risks would you take if you knew that the story ends with you in Love, existing happily ever after?

Despite what you might be thinking, this isn’t pie in the sky, airy-fairy stuff! Knowing that it’s all going to be okay doesn’t let us off the hook from trying to change things in this world. Rather, it inspires the mystics to work harder to make what is Ultimately True more true in the here and now. If I believe the mystics and I see my sister struggling, I can’t just say “Chin up; it’s going to be okay!” Rather, I have to engage in her life in such a way that it actually becomes more okay. If my brother is oppressed, I want to get down under that pressure with him and help lift his burden. When it is all said and done, the mystics inspire us to act in ways that make our current reality a greater reflection of the Divine Reality, (which they experienced as the Ultimate Reality during their mystical experience).

So in the final moments of this really special day, LG asked us to consider:

What would you do if you knew it was all going to be okay?

Holy Crap! That’s a big question!

While it might be nice, most of us will never have a mystical experience. We probably won’t levitate, have visions, or experience “union with all that is.” But that’s okay! The mystics can be TRUSTED, Rob and Liz insist, because they never change their story! We are all going to be okay!

If we were willing to go with that idea, then we were ready to write our final letter to our FEAR from the DIVINE. The first letter we wrote in this series was from our FEAR, telling us all the reasons we shouldn’t live and respond from our hearts, whether it was in art, work, or life. This final letter was an antidote to that narrative.

Yes, FEAR is right. We might fail; we might screw up and get our ass kicked, but you know what?

We’re fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.

We might lose a job, get our heart broken, be disappointed, but you know what?

We’re fine! It’s going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.

I like that message. I like how it made me feel. My heart simultaneously swelled with hope and shrank with dread, but that’s a paradox I can live with. That is the kind of creative tension that leads to evolution, to change and growth, inspiration and COURAGE.

And so, finally, from the DIVINE:

Dear FEAR,

I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain and I know you are doing your best to protect Ali. But let me tell you, it’s going to be okay. FEAR, dear one, I’ve got her and I’ve got you too. There is no place she can go that is separate from Me, outside my care, or Love. What Ali does best is Love people and when you are in charge, she stops Loving others and starts trying to protect herself. That’s not good for her, or anyone else for that matter. So FEAR, please remember, Ali wasn’t an ugly duckling. That’s what you called her. She was a swan all along; she just didn’t know it and she doesn’t need your Chicken Little shtick amplifying the drama. The sky isn’t falling! Let her remember what she knows deep down anyway:

We’re fine. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t be afraid.

DIVINE.

 

  1. Richard Rohr spoke about this nuance recently at a Living School Symposia and I found the distinction really helpful.

The Fifth Word: TRUST, as in “TRUST me, ENCHANTMENT, I’ve got this.”

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I can’t believe that what took only one day for Liz Gilbert and Rob Bell to unpack at a creativity conference has taken me two months to write about. Call it laziness; call it summer vacation; call it what you will, but we are in the home stretch!

First we had COURAGE; then there was ENCHANTMENT. We were tasked with PERSISTENCE, before we received PERMISSION.

And the fifth word is TRUST.

TRUST is hard to come by these days. The world doesn’t seem like a trustworthy place. Presidential politics and police brutality, terrorism and terrible news dominate our airwaves. If you’re paying attention to the outside world, it seems there is little we can place our TRUST in.

But according to LG and RB, there is one thing you can TRUST, today and always. You can “TRUST that your life is always talking to you,” but not in that masochistic, “Everything-happens-for-a-reason” kind of way. Absolutely not, but what they would argue is that everything that happens is saying something to you.

That something might be really loud and clear, or it might be a whisper you have to listen closely for. It might not even be obvious right off the bat. It might take ten days, or even ten years before you smack yourself on the head like someone in the V-8 commercial and finally get the message.

But you know what? If you look back over the last ten, twenty, or forty years of your life, it has probably been giving you the same message all along. I know that’s true for me. Throughout our lives, we keep asking the same questions and our lives keep giving us the same answers, albeit in different ways. The problem is that we aren’t listening; we don’t TRUST our lives, as much as we TRUST the louder voices – those of media and culture and the ads on TV.

Let’s be clear though, even if we TRUST that the Universe is talking to us, we cannot expect that nothing bad will ever happen, because it will! We will fail; the people we love will get sick; we might lose everything. The Universe is not a particularly safe place, but what I do TRUST is that my life means something and that humanity is going somewhere. We may have evolved physically from primates, but we are evolving consciously, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually from that place too! It is a slow and painful process, but it is “in process.” On this day, Rob Bell claimed, and I have to agree, that the Christ mystery affirms that there is an animating force that holds the universe together and is always evolving towards greater wholeness. If we TRUST in that, the rest of the pieces fall into place more easily.

The question, then for Liz Gilbert becomes: “Are you TRUSTWORTHY?”

Can your life TRUST you to listen, or are you like a grumpy old man, turning up the TV set to tune out his wife of fifty years?

Can your hands be ENTRUSTED with your life’s work?

Can your ENCHANTMENT TRUST you? (If you forgot what ENCHANTMENT is, that’s my bad for taking so long. You can review the definition here.)

That’s the crux of the matter and the topic of the next letter LG asked us to write. Our ENCHANTMENT may have shut up, or shut down, because it was tired of being ignored. Who keeps talking when no one is listening? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way. We all know someone!) So, LG asked us to write a letter to our ENCHANTMENT, promising that it could TRUST us.

While the previous letters were written from different parts of our psyches to us, this letter was our opportunity to respond to our ENCHANTMENT. This letter was written to say that if it piped up, we would honor what it had to say. We would work to be worthy of its time and the gifts it had to offer. Here’s my letter:

Dear Ali’s ENCHANTMENT:

You can TRUST me. I read the letter you wrote to me and you’re right! We do our best work together and I promise to do my best to not let FEAR come between us, even FEAR disguised as “good decision-making.” The people in my life, the ones I Love and trust the most, affirm me when I am open to and working with you. You, ENCHANTMENT, Mystery, Holy Spirit, bring me to life, make me whole and give me all I have to offer the world. “Enchanted Ali,” we have some hard work ahead of us to do, but I will try to make sure I am doing it with you. I will let the chips fall where they may. If I am rejected or fail, I will get still and silent. I will return to you, that which brings me Love, energy and joy, the greatest gifts I have to offer the world. Though I may fail and fall, you can TRUST me to try again.

Ali

P.S. I will keep pushing my kids towards their ENCHANTMENT too!

After we completed our letter and some people shared their responses, LG wanted to give us a final pep talk about what a creative life, partnering with out ENCHANTMENT might cost us and why we should do it any way.

This was one of her key points. So many of us, women especially, struggle to TRUST ourselves and keep looking to outside and often untrustworthy sources for affirmation and advice. Thanks patriarchy! I know I’ve spent way too long looking for male approval for my actions, often from my father, but also from too many men in clerical collars who purported to speak for the mythical Big Man himself! (That is not to say that God is a myth, but that our hyper-masculinization of God certainly is!)

Living creatively and curiously – for both men and women – means we look first and foremost to ourselves and the lessons from our own life for guidance. It isn’t about rejecting outside wisdom; it’s about not rejecting our own. How much could we learn from our mistakes and the moments when we got it right? What would our instincts tell us if we actually learned their secret language – the one of sinking guts, tingling palms, and fluttering hearts – instead of pretending we didn’t understand? That’s the kind of TRUST we need to live more boldly and authentically.

As I wrote this post, I found myself thinking that it sounded good in theory, but was it actually true? Could my ENCHANTMENT TRUST me to do what I promised in that letter? I started thinking about the times in my life when I have listened to my ENCHANTMENT and we were able to foil the voices of the priests, and principals, and even the loving parents who so frequently dominated my inner dialogue.

I think the critical lesson came when I was 19 and found myself pregnant, accidentally of course. I wasn’t in the habit of sleeping around, but it wasn’t with someone I loved either. Culture called for abortion. Catholicism called for adoption. I chose the latter and at first put on the requisite sackcloth of guilt and shame that accompanied my status. “I am a sinner,” I thought, “used goods. The loss of my child is penance for my profligacy with my body.” While I was pregnant, I planned to hide inside, read books, and develop a love for cats (because clearly I was going to be an old spinster with a dozen of them.) I even moved to a “secret location” to avoid pregnancy detection, but here’s the funny thing. Once I was ensconced in a place where no one knew who I was, or how I was supposed to feel, ENCHANTMENT started to work its magic. I forgot to be ashamed of myself. I made friends; I laughed; I went to the beach in a bikini and I met a bunch of guys who worked at a local surf shop. In fact, I FELL IN LOVE with one of them. I was EIGHT MONTHS PREGNANT and I had a new boyfriend! How do you explain that besides MAGIC?!?!

To be clear, I wasn’t having the time of my life, but my life took this time to tell me something.

Everything was going to be okay – not perfect, not what I had planned –  but maybe even better if I TRUSTED my instincts, not my FEAR.

I chose Sarah’s parents, people who had careers and a life I had never imagined for myself. But I was drawn by their open-hearted smiles and their obvious Love for each other and to this day our relationship is marked by patience, openness and gratitude.

Though it seemed like foolishness to many, I married that boy I fell in love with as a pregnant teenager and we’ve raised three more children together. Out of the 9,000+ days we’ve spent side by side, I’ve maybe only regretted it for five of them (and not even whole days at that).

Tierrasanta, the “secret location” I went to run away from my problems, became my hometown. I thought it was a temporary stop, but somehow it became the place I put down roots and raised my family.

When I look back at that time of my life, it feels like it was ENCHANTED, like everything that could happen for my good did happen. And all of it came about because I failed, not because I did it right! I was drunk and careless and I could have died – either of alcohol poisoning or AIDS (early nineties folks!) – but I got lucky and then I didn’t  follow other people’s rules. Instead, I got quiet and I let my soul speak and this is what it asked me:

“What would Love do?”

Love would have the baby.

Love would give her up to parents who already Loved and wanted her, before she even existed.

Love would fall in Love despite the circumstances.

Love would keep on Loving, through the ups and downs, the good times and bad, the richer and poorer, the sickness and health.

Love would fall in Love over and over and over again.

Love would honor each person for the best of who they are and forgive them for all they are not – or not yet.

Love would never end.

That’s how I know when it’s my ENCHANTMENT asking the questions and giving me the answers. It always, only, ever wants to Love and then Love some more.

FEAR never tells us to Love, though some people get confused. They stay when they should go; they cling when they should release; they suffer in misery and degradation and call that love. That kind of “love” is really just FEAR in the drag of romance and codependency.

I earned my soul’s TRUST at that time in my life. I heard the whisper of a Love song and turned it into a full-bodied dance, but I haven’t always done it so well. I turn 45 next month and over the course of the last two decades, I have forgotten many times to listen to that Love song. Days and weeks and months go by where I am out of step and off-key, using a lot of jazz hands and pirouettes to cover up my confusion. Eventually, I’m so exhausted by the hustle I have no choice, but to settle down and listen to my heart, which reminds me to Love and let go of the rest. Suddenly, I breathe easier. My moves become more graceful; my smile isn’t forced. Shoulders back, head up, heart open in gratitude, I make a mental note:

Dear ENCHANTMENT,

I think I’m getting the hang of it.

TRUST me.

A-

The Fourth Word: PERMISSION, or “Go Ahead and Get Started”

 

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The fourth word at our creativity conference with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell was PERMISSION.

(If you are just getting started, you can go review the first three words: COURAGEENCHANTMENT,or  PERSISTENCE by clicking on the word.)

Every place has a set of rules, a code of conduct and expectations. We find them in our schools, churches, families, and culture. No matter where we are, we know what’s okay and what’s not, what will get us affirmation, or draw condemnation. And if we don’t know, we figure it out pronto.

This was certainly true in my house growing up. We were “good kids” and “good Catholics” and those simple descriptors came with a whole list of “dos and don’ts.” They covered everything from our physical appearance to religious practices, academic expectations to moral obligations, but I’m not complaining. In my childhood home, I learned about hard work, critical thinking, the importance of family and the steadfastness of the Spirit. In fact, I’m trying to pass those traditions on to my own kids as well.

But I’m also trying to leave a couple things behind, like shame about my body, sexuality and femininity, as well as my fear of speaking up to authority. I don’t believe those were values my parents’ consciously chose to give me. For the most part, they were just transmitted from their own cultural and religious upbringing right on down to us.

But what I have learned while making my own home and my own rules is that we will never move forward, or evolve if we don’t transgress the rules and expectations of those around us. Those norms exist to stabilize the social order, not to aid the flourishing of human consciousness. If we want to grow up, become adults in the truest sense of the word, we have to challenge what we are told. We have to decide what works for us and what doesn’t and for that, apparently, we need PERMISSION.

Unfortunately, too many of us think PERMISSION comes from an outside source. We spend years, sometimes even decades, waiting for an authority figure to tell us that we can challenge what we were taught, but it’s not true. We are the adults and we have the inner authority to make those decisions! We are the ones who sign the permission slip, not the ones who have to work up the courage to ask if we can go on the field trip!

In the decade since she published Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert said the single thing people seek from her most often is PERMISSION. She gave herself PERMISSION to shake up her life, and they want her to give them PERMISSION as well.

  • Can I leave my unhappy marriage?
  • Can I not have kids?
  • Can I travel alone?
  • Can I go back to school and pursue my dream?
  • Can I be spiritual, but not religious?
  • Can I listen to my heart and soul and NOT just the people around me?

Obviously, LG says, YOU CAN, but should you? That’s the real question.

But you’ll never ask the real question if you don’t think you have PERMISSION to do so.

Let me just say, along with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, you have PERMISSION!

You have PERMISSION to take every belief, value, assumption and stereotype out of your mental closet. You can hold them; turn them over; find out where they came from. Do they still deserve pride of place in your mind and heart? Does the ideal you’re clinging to still align with what you know to be true of yourself and the world around you? Is that belief/value/assumption still serving you? How about those around you? How would your life look differently if you let it go?

LG and RB have both rearranged their mental, emotional and spiritual furniture many times over the last decade and I have never seen two people who live so joyfully and compassionately in such spacious houses. I’m still working on my remodeling job, but it’s getting roomier all the time.

I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of rigid Catholic doctrine and more than a few pieces of false Christianity – all of which served to keep some people in and put some people out – outside of Love, connection and worthiness, which is totally unacceptable to me today, but totally normal to me in my younger years. I keep pulling out ideas I have about what it means to be a good parent and to raise successful kids. (In both cases, perfection has transformed into intention, effort and execution.) As I reach middle age, I find myself again questioning what it means to be happy, healthy and put-together. (Again perfection has given way to grateful, present efforting) and I keep re-evaluating my relationship to FEAR and how it informs my decisions. (A daily reminder: FEAR is there for risk assessment, not project management!)

Each time I put one of my beliefs back on the shelf, it’s been adjusted. It’s less rigid, more flexible and ultimately stronger. It’s been through a refining process, getting rid of what was unnecessary, or did not resonate with my hard-earned knowledge and experience of the world and the God who made it.

But there’s a caveat if you are going to start a remodeling process of your own! “Waking up,” becoming more conscious, whatever you want to call it – is likely to generate some negative feelings. If you step out of your familial, or cultural norms, you are going to meet  resistance – even if  you are moving towards something that is intrinsically good for you and the world. Think about the first kids to question segregation in the South – not a popular change of view with their parents! Galileo was arrested; Darwin was denounced; Jesus was crucified! Institutions, corporations, and the people you love might condemn you, but you have PERMISSION to break the rules in order to live a fuller, more authentic life. And the bottom line is that you can spend time explaining your process to those around you, or not.

For the people I Love and whom I know Love me, I take the time. My mother and I have had many heartfelt conversations about the teachings of the traditional Catholic Church, especially those I no longer agree with, like their stance on homosexuality, female ordination, and the legitimacy of patriarchy. My father and I talk quite frequently about the US educational system, white privilege and politics. Tim and I battled for years over how to parent out kids and we still debate our family finances, marital expectations, and professional goals. Over and over again, we take out our positions and try to identify what needs to stay, because it is of ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE to both of us, and what needs to go, because it is simply a carry-over from our family of origin, or cultural expectations. These aren’t always easy conversations, but I can’t imagine not having them. When we make a decision, it has both of our signatures on the bottom line.

Elizabeth Gilbert made it clear that she is happy to keep handing out PERMISSION slips to people who ask for them, but what she would truly love is for people to find the inner authority to write their own PERMISSION slip. Each and every one of us can set ourselves free from the messages, beliefs, and narratives that limit us and keep us from living authentically.

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To that end, the fourth letter LG asked us to write was from the Boss, the greatest authority figure in our lives. It could be our father, mother, priest, rabbi, pastor, or elementary school principal. When we do something that we know “they” won’t approve of, who is the “they?” That’s the voice we’re channeling here. There is no greater, or higher authority than the person who is writing this letter and this person is giving you a PERMISSION slip to ask questions, to be who you are, to keep growing up so you can live the fullest life possible.

This is how the letter begins:

Dear _______________:

I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:

While I hate to disappoint, I cannot transcribe my original letter here in full. I have finally reached my threshold for vulnerability and embarrassment. A few lines are all I can offer.

Dear Ali:

I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:

Be yourself and Love yourself. …

You are free to NOT listen to all the voices in your head about what is worthy to do.…

You are free to be thin-skinned and not muscle through. ….

You can move at your own pace….

Everything does not have to be “just right” for everything to be okay…

Sincerely,

ALK,  The Boss of You

At first I didn’t think I needed another PERMISSION slip. I signed my first one long ago, when I was nineteen, single and pregnant. I had transgressed all the rules about what it meant to be a good, Catholic girl, so I started making up my own and guess what? They all began with Love and still do to this day. (You can catch up on part of my adoption story here.) But I have to admit, writing this letter was helpful anyway. Anything we can do to step into greater freedom and away from fear is a win in my book. And I hope you will write yourself a PERMISSION slip and see what you get to do next!

FEAR, or Rather, COURAGE, which is What We’re Striving for

This post is Part Two of a seven-part series on Creative Living. To catch up, or understand the context, read “Get a (Creative) Life!” , which I posted just a couple weeks ago.

24453082In her last book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert tackled the very uncomfortable subject of FEAR – what it is, what it does and how to handle it.

Some of us walk around all day, every day, on the edge of FEAR. We are intimately familiar with what it feels like to swim in the warm bath of constant anxiety, always teetering on the edge of panic and overreaction to everything that might go wrong.

Others of us walk around completely unaware of our FEAR, confident that everything will turn out okay and taking risks that others might call foolish.

Most of us walk the line somewhere in the middle, complacent in our patterns, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got our bases covered, until, that is, we decide to do something new. That’s when FEAR gets us. In any endeavor, which takes us beyond our comfort zone, FEAR is our most ready companion.

But the funny thing about FEAR, LG observed, is that it doesn’t always show up in its most obvious form – the racing heart and sweaty pits. Most of the time FEAR arrives in a fantabulous disguise. It walks into our psyche dressed up like reasonableness, maturity, cynicism, depression, or my FEAR’s personal favorite, perfectionism, which LG calls, “FEAR in high heels.”

While the cultural narrative about FEAR is that we have to “kick its ass,” and “shut it down,” LG takes a kinder, gentler approach. She thinks we should welcome FEAR and appreciate all that it’s done for us over the years, all the ways it’s kept us safe from muggers and rapists and getting into cars with drunk drivers. Our FEAR is the reason we’re alive. But, and this is a BIG but, FEAR is one voice in our head – not the only one and so we shouldn’t give it exclusive decision-making power. LG clarifies that “Fear gives us information; not orders. It is there for risk assessment; not project management.” When her FEAR gets bossy, LG gently reminds it: “No one is going to die if I write a bad poem.” Truer words were never spoken and it applies to 90% of the things we’d try if we weren’t so damn afraid.

According to Rob Bell and Liz Gilbert, the antidote to FEAR is COURAGE.

When they mentioned that word, I cringed. “Darn,” I thought. “I don’t have that. I guess FEAR will be making the decisions forever.” I think of COURAGE as a big, showy virtue, something that manifests itself as you ride into battle, or fight cancer, or save someone from a burning building. There are not a lot of threats waiting behind bushes in suburban San Diego.

But, as RB pointed out, COURAGE can be a little thing too. It shows up in the way we just keep going amidst all the daily failures that take place in our lives and work and family. If we haven’t quit and run by this point, we have manifested COURAGE. “Courage is the thousand little steps you took to get here” – to this moment (RB). The lives we have took COURAGE to achieve, so the least we can do is give ourselves some grace for just getting up off the floor.

I liked that and sat up a little bit straighter in my chair.

LG talked more about BIG COURAGE – about making changes, taking risks, living creatively, more beholden to our dreams more than our fear. “Creative living,” she said, “is any time you make decisions more out of curiosity than fear. Then your life becomes your work of art. You are co-creating with the universe.” The universe is essentially creative – new things are always coming up, growing, arising. Having steadfast COURAGE means you live that way daily – choosing curiosity, possibility, and Love over FEAR.

If that sounded like something we’d like to do, a way we’d like to live, then LG had a task for us – to write a letter to ourselves from our FEAR. What if, instead of denying, or suppressing it, we just said to our FEAR: “What is it that you’d like to tell me? If I promise to listen without freaking out, or shutting you down, what would you like me to know?”

Feeling a little stuck in my creative process, I decided I’d take the challenge and ask my FEAR the question.

And with great vulnerability (and FEAR), I’m sharing (most of) its response here. Remember, this wasn’t an exercise in rationality, or objective truth. This was an exercise in uncovering the subconscious narrative that dominates our psyches and shapes our lives in ways we aren’t even aware of.

Dear Ali,

I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you:

From the time you were small, you were afraid of being rejected. You felt dorky, unaccepted, unwanted and “less than” in so many ways – mostly from your peers, but maybe even sometimes from your super-sporty dad. But when you approached your late teens and early twenties, you started to come out of that phase and find some acceptance. You felt like the ugly duckling that became the swan. And yet, this is our problem! I am afraid of you being unmasked and being seen as the ugly – stupid, failing, out-of-place, desperate – duckling again. When you send out those query letters to agents and publishers, I can’t stand it. It’s like you are begging for acceptance and affirmation from the “cool kids” again. And so every bit of failure, of non-response, or not being chosen, or being ignored, makes me terrified that the mask is being stripped away and you will end up the ugly duckling again.

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All of life these days – the getting older, gaining weight, trying to write a book, get published, get speaking jobs, self-marketing, all the ways you aren’t succeeding, tells me that I’m right. I know deep down that the swan is just a façade and the ugly duckling is the ultimate truth of who you are and I want to protect you from figuring that out! What if you really are the sum total of your failures?

Ali, when you are centered in your silence and stillness, when you stay in your lane, the places where you know you belong and shine – like being a mom, a wife, or even a blog writer at this point – I can calm down. In fact, I hardly notice any danger at all, so I don’t need to act up, but you trying to publish a book, or expand your dreams makes me crazy! Terrified! Please, stop all this striving nonsense and let me go back to napping in the corner! We both liked it so much better when you could just ignore me!

Love,

FEAR

Sigh. I hated sharing that letter here. It feels absolutely humiliating. As a matter of fact, I asked Tim to read the post and tell me if he thought I absolutely had to include it. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “Who am I talking to? Ali, or her FEAR? Because the letter’s where it actually gets interesting.” To be fair, he wasn’t trying to be mean; he had just already heard the set-up in person.

Damn, FEAR’s sneaky ways!  It manifests beautifully in the editorial process, encouraging me to remove any signs of weakness.

But after I wrote the letter and reviewed what my FEAR wanted me to know, I understood something new. I hadn’t thought about “The Ugly Duckling” story in years, though I had always loved it.  Apparently my subconscious had been waiting for just the right moment to bring it up. The story of “The Ugly Duckling” isn’t just about becoming beautiful. In fact, beauty is never really the issue. The story is about trying to fit in, be accepted and affirmed for who you are; it’s about finding your tribe. No matter where the ugly duckling went, no matter what he looked like, he was ostracized.

Friends who have only known me as an adult frequently express surprise, or disbelief over my insecurities, so here’s a picture. It’s a great snapshot of my “ugly duckling” days in more ways than one.

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That’s me on the right, in case you couldn’t tell.

In this photo, circa 1980, I am nine years old and seated next to Anne Ketchersid, the prettiest girl in our age group, which was a real confidence booster. Check out the pale, freckled skin, mousy brown hair and gap-toothed grin. If that visage weren’t enough, I was also figuring out who I was, which turned out to be smart, religious, and overly eager to please my teachers. Those traits earned me all sorts of unpleasant nicknames from my classmates, mostly the obvious ones like Freckle Face, Skinny Bones Jones, Teacher’s Pet, Narc, Goody-Two-Shoes, or Goody Good, (to which my sweet, but utterly unhelpful teacher, Ms. Hobbs, said I should reply with “Well, you’re a baddy-bad!” As unsavvy as I was, even I knew that retort was a terrible idea).

Even though I might have been unhappy with the way I looked, I wasn’t uncomfortable with who I was and I honestly had no idea how to be otherwise. I had no appreciable qualities that a wider swathe of the student body would have found attractive. I wasn’t funny, sporty, musical, theatrical, stylish, or even simply rich, which left me with a quite small, eclectic tribe of other ugly ducklings. (Hi Mary Beth and Jenny T!)  In sixth grade, we spent most of our lunches in the library, reading the Little House on the Prairie series over and over again until the librarian, Mrs. Deakers, told us that we weren’t allowed to come in any more. The principal had decided it wasn’t healthy for us and we needed to spend at least some time outdoors.

We outsmarted her though. Instead of embarrassing ourselves by attempting to do something athletic, or foolishly trying to join the scary flock of junior high girls, only to be shooed away, we moved to the outdoor lunch tables out of sight of the office and founded the Uno Club.  Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds and no, we never got anyone else to join. For months on end, we played Uno against each other, handing out prizes to the high-point winner when the bell rang. The lucky girl might walk away with a mini-sewing kit, a stick of gum, or stale Tootsie Pop. While our peers hung out in co-ed groups, listening to Spandau Ballet on their boom boxes, we perfected the art of “otherness,” one that has stayed with me to this day, even as I “fit in” more easily.

I will admit, I blossomed, physically and socially, but it was a gradual process. This is one of the first pictures taken of me when I felt confident in my own skin. I was a senior in high school.  I was still smart, still religious and still managed to make friends with all my teachers, but I had learned to camouflage those qualities behind a curtain of long blonde hair and a love of laughter. I was funny, it turns out, in a Lucille Ball kind of way. Pratfalls came naturally to me, since I had so many years of practice, tripping and falling over my own feet. If people are going to laugh at you anyway, you might as well seem like you’re in on the joke. I became a good swimmer, got a job as a lifeguard in Huntington Beach, and began to date regularly, though never anyone for very long. It was too hard to keep up the pretense that my insides matched my outsides.

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Mater Dei High School Homecoming 1988 

 

I am coming to grips with the fact that the feeling of “otherness” that my FEAR so desperately wants me to avoid is, in fact, unavoidable. If I want to live authentically, then I’ve got to admit that I am both the swan and the ugly duckling. I can’t separate the two and I can’t control how people perceive me. My FEAR is always going to want to protect me from pain, but it’s just not possible.  That is what I need to remind my FEAR: “It’s okay if it hurts. I’m not nine years old any more. I can take it.”

But my FEAR keeps talking, keeps begging me to hit delete, especially on a blog like this one. It is supremely aware that each time I post, especially something like this, I run the risk of “fitting in” a little less. And each time I ask an agent, or a publisher to accept my work, and am told, “You’re not our tribe,” the ugly duckling in me feels pecked away yet again. I get why my FEAR wants to protect me from those feelings, but I have to keep pressing forward.

So, where does that leave me?  Where does that leave any of us who hear our FEAR’s impassioned pleas to play it safe and make “good” decisions?

Here’s my take, based on some sage advice from RB and LG:

First, acknowledge your FEAR, the what and why it’s trying to communicate to you. Once you recognize where its coming from, you can feel sympathy towards it and yourself, instead of confusion and shame. Then kindly ask your FEAR to ‘stand down.’ Our lives are not in danger, only our egos and they can take a few more lumps than we’d like to admit.

Then, remind your FEAR that everything is a risk, and NOTHING good comes if we risk nothing at all. You wouldn’t be married, have a child, a job, or even know how to ride a bike if you never risked being rejected, ridiculed, or run off the road. Remember, COURAGE has been present in your journey all along! Give yourself all the credit you need for making it this far.

Finally, remember that FEAR only works in advance. And so, while it’s true that to act is a risk, doing nothing is risky too. As RB so eloquently put it: “There is a risk in denying your True Self, a risk in dying to your dreams and future plans.” Ironically, your FEAR won’t tell you about those risks. It isn’t able to look back and see all the things that went wrong by staying the same, or staying in the same place for too long. FEAR loves the comfort zone, even as it becomes more cramped, less honest and emotionally available. How many dramas and divorces and deaths occur, because we’re too afraid to have the conversations we must and take the actions we can that will lead to greater health and wholeness? Good luck ever getting FEAR to admit when it’s been wrong, but keep pointing it out, because you never know…

When I stand in this place as a woman, a writer, a wife and mother, I have to honor my FEAR. I have to admit how badly I want to listen to it, and then I have to write anyway! I have to live and Love anyway, even as I do it imperfectly. I have to set a good example for my children that FEAR should never have the last word about who you are, or what you do. FEAR is one voice in our heads, but thank God, not the only one and hopefully, not always the loudest.

So, there you go, the first word: FEAR, or rather COURAGE, which is what we’re striving for.

If you are up for it, may I share Liz Gilbert’s prompt for starting the letter from your FEAR?

Dear __________________,

I am your FEAR and this is what I want to tell you:

I hope you’ll find the time and the COURAGE to hear what it has to say!

 

 

 

IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY

 

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Any day now, many of my friends here in California will be getting some big news. The UC acceptance and rejection letters go out in the next week and the ensuing cheers and tears will be heard across Tierrasanta and the state. I imagine it’s just the beginning as the private universities send their letters in the weeks that follow. We got to be a party to the big reveal last year and next year will bring another round for us, but as the nerves build over the next week, this is what I would like to say to all the parents who are waiting…

IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.

No matter where your kids go to school next fall, IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.

But I’ll admit, it’s really easy to forget that.

When Keara was figuring out where she would go to school, I had so many hang ups. I was disappointed that we couldn’t afford to send her where she really wanted to go. I felt like I was limiting the potential trajectory of her life by putting parameters on her applications. I felt like a failure as a mom for our financial limitations. I second-guessed every free-thinking decision we had ever made. Maybe some of you will agree with my self-assessment, but Tim didn’t. He reminded me that there is little connection between where you start the fall of your freshman year and where you end up in life! There are no guarantees. I just have to look at my own life to be reminded of that fact.

When Keara began the college search process, I wanted to give her exactly what I had – every opportunity – academically, socially, financially – to go to the school she wanted. My parents said, “Pick out a school and go!” so I picked out a great school and I went, but within a year and a half, I was homesick and partying and pregnant. The “best” school simply turned out to be the “best” place for me to learn some really hard lessons about who I was and how I wanted to be in the world. I still finished my degree in four years by attending summer school, intercession and every semester I could, at five different universities. I graduated at 21, was in grad school at 22 and carried on to get my dream job at a local university as an adjunct professor before 25. But you know what? That didn’t turn out to be “the best thing” for me either.

Ultimately, I have found the “best” place within myself by integrating my body, mind and soul. I ended up in the “best” place of my life, through trial and error, love and commitment, through facing hard things with all the courage I could muster and the skills I had at the time. I created the “best” place I could by surrounding myself with people I could trust and striving to be that for them as well. My “best” place continues to be wherever I find myself fully engaged in meaningful work, surrounded by people I care about.

Friends, this isn’t just my story. It’s your story too. Look at the life you’ve created! Your college experience was a part of it, but only one part. You might have great memories of those years, but you probably could have created them at ten different campuses across the country, or even a hundred. They are specific in details, but not content. You might have gone to one school or three. It might have taken you four years or seven. You might have had starts and stops, dramas and things that derailed you for a while. You probably changed course, at least a couple times and IT’S OKAY. That’s life!

No life is protected, or perfect. We know that, so let’s be clear with our kids about what we most appreciate about our own lives. It might help them know what to aim for.

Aim for wholeness. Aim for goodness. Aim for meaning, purpose and impact. Aim for independence, in the context of loving, healthy relationships. Aim for respect and wisdom. Aim to learn continually and to use that knowledge compassionately and effectively.

Moms and dads, I know you are nervous; I know you are anxious for your kids. I know you feel like you have a lot riding on the decisions these schools make and that a lot is riding on the decisions you make. I know your kiddos have put a lot of time and effort into these applications and into their last twelve years of school. But no matter what happens, no matter where your child goes to school in the fall…

IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.

I keep writing IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY in ALL CAPS, over and over again, because that’s how I reminded myself to believe it last year, as Keara worked her way through the application process. It’s how I am preparing myself for next year when Finn is waiting for the news. But just because I have to remind myself of something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Our fears (especially those we share culturally) can sometimes outweigh the facts, make us reactive and get in the way of good decision-making. (Look no further than the success of Donald Trump to see the truth of that.)

At 18, our kids are in process – they are figuring out who they are, what they want to do and what they are capable of. We need to let them figure that out and remember that they can and will figure those things out virtually anywhere. What we’ve given them over the last 18 years of their life is a far greater indicator of their future success than the name on their college degree.

P.S. Whatever happens next fall, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve successfully raised decent, well-educated, productive members of society, who have a strong desire to continue their education and contribute the world in a significant way.  That is truly good news!

P.P. S. Keara ultimately ended up in an excellent program for her major at CSULB, a school about 100 miles away from home. She loves it and has admitted that although she longed to go back east, she doesn’t think she would have lasted for that long that far away from home. Despite my anxiety, it really has turned out even better than OKAY.

The Wave and the Water

Hokusai, The Great Wave
Hokusai, The Great Wave

I had dinner with my darling (birth) daughter Sarah last night. She is heading off to graduate school at LMU next month, on a full scholarship. She also just rented her first solo apartment in Manhattan Beach. She’s excited and terrified about beginning to build her life as an independent adult. We both brought a book to the bar, because what else would you do if you had to wait ten minutes? She brought crosswords; I brought The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. She looked at my book and laughed.

IMG_7012Sitting across the table from her, the beautiful difference in our age and stage was clear. “I’m looking forward to the day when I want to work on my spiritual progress,” she said, making some sort of flapping gesture with her hands over her heart, “That’s great. I’m really happy for you.”

And I think she meant it, but it’s always hard to tell with Millennials.

But I took the opportunity to share my favorite Buddhist metaphor with her – well, I think it’s Buddhist, but since Thich Nhat Hanh is pretty much the only Buddhist I’ve read, it might just be “Hanhist.” It’s a metaphor that works on me all the time, or at least when I remember it. I just wish I remembered it every day.

Imagine a wave in the ocean as it approaches the shore. That wave has existed for miles and miles. It began across the sea, perhaps even across the world, but as it finally becomes visible, it becomes conscious of itself and it begins to worry. How good am I? Am I the biggest? The prettiest? The strongest? Are they taking pictures of me? Am I surrounded by other waves? Will I always be alone? Am I useful to people? Do they find me fun? Terrifying? Are they mad at me for washing away their sandcastles? How much longer do I have to live? Can I be all the wave I was meant to be in these too brief moments of time? What will happen to me when I’m gone? I…must…hold…on. All of this chatter is the wave suffering, because it thinks it is separate from the water.

But if the wave could just recognize that it is water, that it came from water and will return to water and never stopped being water, then its suffering would cease. It will stop over-identifying with its wave-ness. It can simply enjoy its temporary form, knowing that all along, it is still the water.

“Okay…,” Sarah said, nodding her head, “I can see that…” And she moved on.

She totally could not see that, which is why she said, with great honesty, that spiritual growth was for someday, down the road for her. Like Keara, her younger half-sister, honesty is one of their strongest policies. But because the girls love me, they also do it kindly, which I deeply appreciate. Kind people are some of my favorites.

But the wave/water metaphor is something that is working on me deeply. As a writer and teacher, it is so easy to get caught up in how my “wave” is being received. It feels especially true in this time of social media-driven audiences. Each opportunity for a like, a share, a repost, a retweet, or a positive review is an affirmation of your “wave-ness.” It’s practically the only game in town for artists like me, but I think it’s true for everyone. From eight-year-olds to octogenarians, we all want to be affirmed. But we try so hard to be waves that we forget we are water.

I love writing this blog, but there are so many successful bloggers out there, so many writers and authors and vloggers, pastors and preachers, speakers and teachers that I admire and who seem to make a difference in the world that when I look at the scope of my work, I feel like the tiniest little toe-lapper on the banks of Mission Bay. Not only am I not even a real wave; I’m made of polluted water that most local residents won’t even touch. And I look at all the other waves and want to be like them and make a powerful, beautiful, and useful splash.

And so after another disappointment, I collapse into a puddle of tears, ironically still forgetting that I’m water.

I have my coping mechanisms, the first of which is to look for Tim, my husband, the surf-shop owner. As a life-long surfer, he’s good at judging the waves and he thinks the world of me, so his answer’s a sure thing. He builds me up, tells me what a good wave I am, how smart, how kind, how talented and loving, and how much my kids benefit from riding in my wake. He reminds me that even if my wave never gets any bigger, it’s okay. I’m the perfect wave for him and the people I love.

Okay, so he doesn’t actually talk in similes, but you get the picture. After several of these pep talks, I can begin to feel my wave-ness again and I am ready to hit the shore. But you’ve been to the beach. You know what happens.

I don’t need my Buddhist buddy to point out that this “I’m a wave” thing is unsustainable. The pattern repeats itself and I crash and disappear, over and over again, in a big frothy mess of self-doubt, snot and tears.

The reality is: I don’t need a coping mechanism. I need the truth.

I am water, not just a wave.

And as an ocean girl, I like the idea.

Practicing it, however, is awful.

Giving up finding my worth in my own self-identity is really difficult. If I really believe that the wave is always water then it involves disassembling a lifetime of culturally-constructed images and measurements of success.  It means gracefully accepting the disintegration of my physical self. I am not the tall, thin, blonde that was sitting across the table from me last night. I resemble her; I used to be her, but now there are wrinkles and sunspots and saggy bits when I wear a bikini. My body doesn’t work the way I want it to. I can’t swim, or play, or even throw a football without paying for it the next day and I know that’s just beginning. It means dissolving my standards for achievement, including being rewarded, financially or otherwise, for what I do. I always thought that I would do something important, but I can’t even figure out what I want to be when I grow up and I’m well past that point. My teenagers seem closer to figuring it out than I do! I find myself randomly searching Craigslist for a job that requires my strange grab bag of skills – well-read, conceptual organizer, multi-tasker, strong oral and written communication skills, no professional references. The Starbucks barista listing seems like the safest bet. Finally, it means allowing my own agenda to disappear as the driving force for my life in the world and interactions with others. I have to let the water take me where it will, and use me as it may. I used to think it was easy to “go with the flow,” but in this case, it entails the painful erosion of my ego and false self-confidence.

Upon reflection, I can see why Sarah is putting off this spiritual journey. It sucks, but I can’t see any other way forward, only back.

Do you remember when Jesus gave the teaching in the Gospel of John that his followers had to eat of his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life and virtually everyone left and he looked at Peter and the twelve and said, What about you? Are you leaving too? And Peter looked back at him and said, “To whom shall we go?” What other options did they have? I can just picture Peter looking balefully at Jesus and shrugging. They weren’t looking forward to the feast, but when the Truth is before you, what can you do?

heart-of-the-buddhas-teaching-273x418I am reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching as part of my Living School curriculum. Though in different language, Hanh’s metaphor says virtually the same thing as every Christian mystic: We have to let go of our separate identity, and fall into the Love of God from which we came and to which we will return. In a dance of cosmic coincidence, I read these lines from John of the Cross just this morning during my meditative reading. He wrote “Beloved, please remind me again and again that I am nothing…Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation.”

The wave calls out to the water in the voice of a 16th century Spanish mystic.

I don’t know about you, but I am much more comfortable with the 21st century, natural language of wave and water. In fact, I think it’s only by understanding the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh that I can approach John of the Cross with an open heart and mind. Reading the great mystics of all the religious traditions has brought me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of those in my own spiritual home.

Tim and I have a date planned for tonight after work. We are going to the beach. We will surf with our bodies, and on our boards. We will play in the waves. I will ride down their faces and let them tumble me head over heels for the sheer joy of it. I will honor their beginnings as I float over their swells and their endings, as they dissolve one by one at my feet, becoming indistinguishable from that which they always were. I will mourn for them, like I mourn for myself, for clinging to all that I think I need to be worthy and worth noticing. And when we are done with the waves, we will swim past them and float in the expansive water. I will lie on my back, with my face to the setting sun and I will remember that I am both.

I am a wave and I can cherish and love the ride, but I’m not just a wave. I have always been and will always be part of the water, God’s creative, generative, and never-ending Love. And  I know the pattern is not over, that my waves of desire will never cease to rise and fall, sending me head over heels, back down to my knees. But tonight at least, I will try to remember I am water.

A line-up of waves, courtesty of www.theintertia.com
A line-up of waves, courtesty of http://www.theintertia.com

Storytellers: Family Retreat 2014

On Sunday, my family returned from our week at La Casa de Maria Family Retreat. I’ve written about Family Retreat before, what it means to us and what it could mean to all of you. You can catch up here.

The theme for Family Camp 2014 was Storytellers. We covered a lot of ground in five days. We began with the premise that our stories are all a part of God’s story and worked from there. None of us are excluded, no journey or character is too small, or insignificant. We talked about the stories we love, the ones we tell ourselves to get by and the stories we hide behind. We talked about Love stories we embrace and the ones we’d rather forget. We gathered each day with the premise that listening itself is an act of love. (Thanks Storycorp!)

Though I spoke throughout the week on a variety of topics, my favorite talk, the one closest to my heart, came on Thursday, when we open up the floor to any storyteller who wants to share. In those moments, before I handed off the mic, I was able to explore a theme that has been the focus of much of my journey over the last several months and years: the relationship between Fear and Freedom.

The theme of the day was inspired by Momastery.com. This is their image.

sacred-scared1

The words that follow are the ones I spoke last Thursday at Family Retreat.

“Until Glennon Melton put those two words together, I had no idea they were related, but after I saw it, I wondered how I could have missed it.

Sometimes, the stories that are the most sacred to us, the most holy, the most personal, are the ones we are the most scared to tell. What if someone doesn’t understand, or respect our story? What if they judge us, or treat us differently after we share it? What if our story includes something we did wrong, or that we don’t have a resolution for yet? It can be really scary to tell our story, because we don’t have the answer to those questions.

Trust me when I tell you that it was really scary for many members of our team this week to get up and share their stories. We’ve done some things right, but we’ve also done plenty of things wrong and there were no guarantees on how you would experience it, or react to us after we shared it.

But we chose to be story tellers, because of those two words up there. The parts of our stories that we are the most scared of can only become sacred, or holy, if we share them. If we keep our stories hidden inside us, God can’t use them to bless others. Only by overcoming our fear and sharing our life stories do they become sacred – tools that God uses to bless others and the world. When we share our stories, it also gives others an opportunity to bless us with their love and compassion.

That’s what today is about – sharing our Sacred/Scared stories.

The great Maya Angelou who died last year said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And I believe it. And I believe the main reason we hold those untold stories inside of us is because we are afraid.

I’ve been told that the most frequent command from God in the Bible is “Fear Not!” I’ve heard it appears well over 100 times. The association I have with the line “Fear not” is from one story in particular. Anybody want to guess which one? THE ANNUNCIATION, of course. So I never thought of “Fear Not!” actually being a command that God wants us to keep. I always thought “Fear Not!” was a command that really only applied because an angel had appeared and scared the heck out of you.

But over the last few years, I’m beginning to learn differently. It isn’t “Fear Not! This super extraterrestrial being who just appeared out of nowhere won’t hurt you!” It’s “Fear Not. I am with you.” And that is a very different thing.

I used to think fear was normal. I used to think fear was a tool God used to keep us in line, to keep us safe, or to keep us from making bad choices. But I don’t think that’s it any more. God has way better tools at God’s disposal than Fear.

Fear keeps us imprisoned; fear paralyzes us. It could be fear of anything – of injury, of judgment, of failure, of sadness, of conflict, of solitude, of rejection. And God tells us over and over again to “Fear Not.”

At one time, I would have been hard-pressed to say what the opposite of fear was. In my mind, the opposite of fear was just being “Not Afraid,” being in your comfort zone.

But now I know that the opposite of Fear is FREEDOM. Freedom to take off the mask. Freedom to be ourselves. Freedom to speak our truth. Freedom to share our story. Freedom to step into our story, the one God has had on offer for us all along.

This week I heard other storytellers say that same thing.

The song and music video, “Try,” was about being free from the fear of how we look without our makeup on and what our culture thinks about female beauty. (Readers, if you have not seen it, take the time to watch it!)

Rachel shared in her story on Tuesday that in her vision of God reaching out to her, the word over the white column was “Freedom.”

While Todd and Amanda were a little afraid they were falling in love and afraid to tell everyone, their story could never blossom into the love affair that changed both of their lives and set them free to write a new chapter.

The theme of Chase’s song “Leave” last night in the talent show was that he needed to be free and Ali needed to let him be free. As a mother, as someone who loved him, she encouraged him over and over to “Kick down the walls of resistance” that were imprisoning him.

I don’t think those are just coincidences. Freedom is the key to any story inspired by God.

Just the other day, I heard Erwin McManus, the founder of the Mosaic church, say that when he’s asked about who will have life after death, he says it’s the people who have life BEFORE death. We do not have life if we are afraid.

Freedom is God’s desire for us. Not freedom to commit sin, to act without consequences, to tell lies, to live our lives however we want, but rather Freedom from the lies we tell ourselves. Freedom from sin which always rears its ugly head when we are living a false story, the one that tells us we are separate from God.

Fear makes us Scared. Freedom allows us to make our lives Sacred.

Twenty-three years ago, when I got pregnant with my daughter Sarah and gave her up for adoption, I was terrified of people finding out. I did everything I could to keep her existence a secret from virtually everyone I knew and for almost a decade, virtually everyone I met. As long as I was scared to tell that story, it was not truly sacred. While I was afraid, I was never free.

And the person I was most afraid of telling that story to was my future husband. The story I was telling myself was that I was damaged goods. I was afraid I was unworthy. When I was 19 years old and pregnant, I was already afraid of my future story. And ironically, or rather, perfectly in God’s way, God set me free from that story when I was seven months pregnant and met Tim. I never had to tell the story again.

The Truth set me free and when I was brave enough to share my story with others, it set others free as well.

When I finally started to share my Sacred/Scared, many girls have come to me pregnant, unsure of what to do, but who look at my story as one of possibility and redemption. But it didn’t start that way. It started with me, sitting in my scared and them, sitting in their scared, with no possibility of a sacred Love to be born.

Today we are asking all of you, the Storytellers who have been among us all week, but who haven’t gotten a chance to share a story with us yet, to come on up and share a story. It might be scary; but I promise you, it can be sacred. It will be a little of both, but we are here, knowing that “Listening is an act of Love,” one that we all want to participate in.

So please, if you have a Sacred/Scared to share, if you feel that little flutter in your chest, please consider sharing your story with us. Today is your day. It doesn’t need to be long; it doesn’t need to life changing. But if you would like to share, we’d like to hear it and be blessed by it.

Thank you.”

Many people got up and shared their Sacred/Scared on that day. It was powerful to watch the transformation in their bodies as they moved from Fear to Freedom. It was powerful to watch everyday people doing God’s work here on earth, embracing the storytellers with unconditional Love and support. I can’t share Thursday’s stories here, because they are not my stories to tell. We can only, ever, tell our own truth and allow others to tell their own, but I will say this:

It does not matter if we are rich or poor, strong or weak, male or female, old or young, gay or straight, black or white. If we look at our stories honestly, we will all find ourselves in the characters Jesus healed and set free with his forgiveness: the lepers, the lame, the woman at the well, the Lazarus in the tomb, and perhaps, most especially, the disciples who abandoned him.

And if we understand that our stories follow the pattern of the Christ, we will also reach out and set others free. It may be by feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, lifting up the oppressed, or simply standing in loving acceptance of each other, until such time as our assistance and opinion is desired.

The Scared can only become Sacred if unconditional Love is the primary directive and that is what I love about Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria. For over 40 years, the experience has brought families to greater Love and greater freedom. It has helped them tell better stories. Those stories have changed their lives, homes, communities and the wider world. Family retreat is the light on a hill, the mustard seed that grows, the yeast that changes everything and I, for one, am going back next year.