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

An Unrecognized Act of Violence

A great act of non-violence
A great act of non-violence

I woke early for a Saturday morning (6 a.m.) and though I longed to stay in bed, I got up and went right to work on the things I had left undone last night. I folded laundry, started a new load, did some dishes and organized a soccer uniform before I poured my first cup of coffee and sat down to read and meditate. I opened my daily tome, The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo, came across this passage and almost choked on my coffee.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“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

Nepe continues:

Merton wisely challenges us not just to 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 anything less than totally compassionate (and I would add capable and competent). 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.

It seems an old adage is a good place to start: Do one thing and do it well. Though I would offer it as: Do one thing at a time and do it entirely, and it will lead you to the next moment of love.

While I am not the peace activist Merton was referring to, I read this and thought of my actions and the many things I have scheduled for today, the way I already have my next eight hours plotted out in half hour increments, knowing where I must be and what I must be doing and who and what I am responsible for. I thought of tomorrow and the eight more things that are on my list of things to do. I thought of how any disruption of my plans could lead to violent thoughts: annoyance, disappointment, frustration. Though they may not lead to violent acts, those emotions certainly don’t promote peace in my heart, my life, or anywhere on the planet I can think of.

I had coffee with my friend T yesterday. She is one of the busiest women I know, on-the-go from 5 a.m. until I don’t know what time and up and at it again the next day. I asked her what her secret was, how she can seem to go non-stop without growing weary and she echoed Nepo’s words. She said, “I stay in the present moment. I don’t think about the past. I can’t worry about the future. If I just stay right where I am, I have enough. I am enough.”

One of my favorite things about her is that when I am with her, I never feel like I am  getting splashed with hot coffee. I love to spend time with people like that, people who know how to say, “Yes,” to just one thing at a time. I am pretty decent at it myself, except with my kids and Tim and you know, the people who actually matter the most. They see me too rarely face-to-face and eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand and heart-to- heart. They see me in profile, driving the car, doing the dishes, typing into the computer, reading a book, taking care of business. I am there, but my ego is in charge and my heart is dormant.

As I race to get these thoughts written down in the midst of making breakfast, finding shin guards and packing for a 24-hour trip out of town, I consider the thought that all this multi-tasking might just be the most common and unrecognized act of violence of all.

Life as a Labyrinth

7125995_origThis is Holy Space/ God is here – you are welcome/ This is your space to be with God/ And God’s space to be with you/ Make yourself at home/ Be yourself/ Be real/ There is no rush/ Let God love you

Just over a year ago, I began my walking meditations in the morning. I went outside and “walked” my prayers, because I needed to remove my head (read: my ego) as the primary operating system for my spiritual life. My mind, intellect and will had taken me about as far as they could go on that journey. I had knowledge; I had discipline; I had something to show for all my hard work: hundreds of pages of prayers and journals and an annotated reading list a mile long. But the fact of the matter was that little to none of this “spiritual” work was actually reaching my spirit any more. So when I had an opportunity to ask a wise woman how to change that, she told me to take a hike, literally. And so I did, every day, for months.

And my head was happy, because she still got to be in charge of directions and my heart was sad, because she had to actually feel what I was feeling. Instead of watching from a distance, my heart experienced disappointment, frustration and sadness. Sometimes, she felt lonely and confused. Previously, I could direct those emotions to my head where my ego would take over, fix the glitch and reason it all away. Our hearts have no such tools. To contain the paradoxes of our lives, they must soften, expand and adapt. In our hearts, we discover that our lives are not something to be solved, but rather something to be lived. By placing my head beneath my heart, I knew pain, but I also experienced authentic joy, connection and wisdom.

Switching the GPS for my spiritual journey from my head to my heart had some unexpected fall out. Simply put, I felt lost. All the maps I had used were obsolete; my best shortcuts took me to dead ends and dark corners. I could no longer get where my ego had been telling me I needed to go for the first forty years of my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my final destination had changed.

I had always thought of my life as a journey. The ultimate destination was heaven, but there were a lot of stops on this side of the grave. I witnessed the lives of my parents and their friends. I watched TV shows and movies; I read lots of books and they all seemed to say this: Life is about having a goal. Make a plan and make progress. Go to school, get your degree, get a job. Fall in love, get married and have kids. Raise your kids, work hard and retire. You’ll die, but you’ll rise again on the other side, better than ever. In this schema, life is about forward motion. You could expect some ups and downs on the journey, maybe even some detours, but you always knew where you were headed, because you had a plan. “Life as a journey” looked something like this.

mappa_via_francigena

If Rome is the birthplace of Western Civilization, picture Canterbury as heaven. For a scholar of British literature like myself, it’s not such a stretch. Can you see how it works? Though the way may be far, the journey is all mapped out for you. Anytime you get sidetracked, you can just get back on the road and head to your next destination. There are lots of people with you, safety in numbers and all, so you can never truly be lost.

But over the last few years, between the Great Recession, career changes, teenage children, and a dark night of the soul, the way disappeared. However, I didn’t know how to travel any differently. Even though I had switched operating systems, I just kept trying to make “progress.” It’s what our culture expects us to do. Make something happen. Keep something from happening. Set a course. Stay on course. Find a new course. Move on!  I had done it pretty successfully too, but as I listened to my heart, I finally had to admit that the “life as a journey” metaphor just wasn’t working for me any longer. It’s hard to move forward when you don’t know where you’re headed. So instead of a map, I found this image to rely on.

labyrinth1

In the center of my labyrinth is God and somewhere in the midst of the maze, I am. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you where. I don’t have a map, or a plan; I have no idea where my next stop will be, or how long I’ll stay there. However, I am also no longer plagued by the question, “Am I making progress?” In a labyrinth, who can tell? When it seems like you are at the furthermost point, you can take one more turn and walk right into the heart of it all.  When you’re confident you are almost “there,” you can pretty much count on being wrong and finding yourself back in the outer ring once again. It is the way a labyrinth works.

Though the image would have terrified my ego, “life as a labyrinth” makes perfect sense to my heart. I may not be able to see where I am headed, but I know I’m never lost. There are simply no wrong turns. There is only one winding path and it leads directly to the heart of God. I cannot go astray as long as I am heading in the right direction. If I ever wonder what direction that is, I simply sit in silence and stillness until I find myself pulled in the direction of Love. And if I ever get scared, turn my back and start walking the other way, all is not lost. The labyrinth is my life; I can never walk out of it. I’ve just made the walk home a little longer.

*The poem is an excerpt from www.labyrinth.org.uk. The heart image is from talented artist, Whitney Krueger.

The Spirituality of Spin

As most of you know, I love to find intersections between the head and the heart, the moment and the infinite, the spiritual and the secular. The sacred is everywhere if we allow the possibility and so today, I offer you “The Spirituality of Spin.”

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.”

These are words of wisdom a friend shared with me recently when I was in a lot of pain. At the time, I wanted to haul off and hit him, but he was just out of reach and I was locked into my pedals anyway. The pain was real and physical, but he also was the one putting me through it. His name is Rich and he is my spin instructor, but I secretly think he was a Zen master in a former life. You’ve got to love a guy who can seamlessly bring Buddhist philosophy, 50s doo-wop music and prodigious amounts of sweat into the same moment.

spin

For many years, I avoided the spin room at my local YMCA. People who “spun” were intense. Whenever I walked by, the lights were dim; the music was pumping; the instructor was yelling, and the cyclists were staring at a glowing LED-display, mounted between their handlebars. They appeared transfixed, as if on ecstasy in a techno-fueled nightclub. Not my scene, thank you very much. I also happened to cherish sitting normally after a work out. Spin will never win, I thought smugly.

But about a year ago, one of my good friends defected to the dark side of the gym. She didn’t become an addict exactly, but two days a week, I’d see her in there, huffing and puffing and pedaling away. She invited me to come with her; I demurred. She told me what a good work out it was; I scoffed. She promised me my butt would adapt; I doubted it. But I couldn’t completely dismiss her perspective; I trust her. She’s a fit, successful, serene, 50-year-old woman who would never tolerate bad music, or macho bullshit. If she chose to spend an hour in a spin class, there must be something to it after all.

So I gave it a try and after a couple misses with bad music (the dreaded techno music) and worse instructors (pompous donkeys who sat up on their bikes and played air guitar while talking about how high a gear they were pushing), I finally made it to Steph’s cherished, Friday morning class and found my “spin” home.

Like any new exercise routine, or spiritual practice, spinning felt a little awkward at first. It was Catholic calisthenics all over again. We sat; we stood; we did a strange hover over the seat for 20 seconds at a time. I was always looking at my neighbor to gauge my posture and proficiency. I couldn’t tell if I was trying too hard, or not hard enough. I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm, when everyone else moved like an old pro. But the instructor Rich began that first class, and every class since with a gentle reminder: For the next sixty minutes, we simply need to be present to ourselves, to acknowledge what we feel and do what we can do. For the next hour, there are no problems to solve, or people to fix, so we can focus on why we are there: to transform our bodies and our selves. His stated goal as our teacher is to push us beyond our comfort zones, which is where all genuine improvement lies.

Though my ego and body didn’t love my first spin class with Rich, my soul immediately responded to his coaching style: creative and engaging, humble, but tough. It took only a few classes for me to begin to see how I could take his words into my spiritual life. Can you imagine a priest, pastor, or rabbi beginning every service that way? Asking us to breathe deeply, to center ourselves and let go of outside concerns? To be fully present to the Presence within us and open to the (sometimes painful) transformation that can take place if we allow it? Though they don’t usually ask, since I began spinning, I try to do it anyway.

Rich reminds us that if we wanted easy, we would be on a treadmill next door and I often think of that as I walk, sometimes reluctantly, into church. If I wanted easy, I’d be back in bed, munching on a donut and sipping my latte. I’m at church for a reason. Walking through life at a comfortable pace isn’t going to change me.

When our lungs and legs are burning, Rich calls out, “This is the feeling of improvement!” In all my years, during the many times I have been on my knees in prayer, in frustration, in desperation for things to be different, I had never thought of it that way. Our hearts and souls are no different than our bodies. Positive change never comes easily. Each step is just beyond our reach and the only way to get there is to do the very thing we don’t think we can do. In those moments in the classroom, Rich reminds us, “Somewhere inside of you is the person who can do this hard thing.” I want to believe he’s right, so I keep pedaling and push on, whether I’m on a bike, or in the midst of my life.

Finishing up a tough hill, Rich asks us to imagine our 80-year-old selves, thanking us for what we are doing right now at the age of 30, 40, or 50 and as I hold Tim’s hand at night, apologize for an unkind word, or let go of a petty grudge, I imagine the same thing. I am doing it for us now, but I’m also doing it for our 80-year-old selves. We plan to be together for another forty years at least, but that’s not going to happen if I don’t take care of business today.

One day when the hills were extra long and the incline steep, it seemed like the hour would never end. No matter how good the music, or how fine the company, I just didn’t have it in me to finish hard. I wanted to back off and quit, but sensing the mood of the room, Rich tried another tactic. He made sure we knew we were in this together. “Every one is feeling what you are feeling,” he likes to say and you can tell by the effort in his voice that he is no exception. He reminded me that solidarity is the key to enduring any difficult experience. Knowing we are not alone in our pain allows us to transform it. Great leaders, spiritual or otherwise, embrace the trials of their people and the burdens of their community. A great Leader is with you on your journey, in your effort and pain. She isn’t standing in the Promised Land, waiting for you to hurry up and get there. He doesn’t pretend that the journey didn’t cost him something as well.

Great leaders aren’t impatient. They don’t shame and blame, judge, compare and compete. They meet people where they are. They care and then they cure. I don’t know if Rich does all that in two, sixty-minute spin classes each week, but I do know I leave there better prepared to face my day, more sound in body and mind.

Pain

The most Zen of Rich’s words are where I began. Though they were spoken in the sanctuary of the spin class, they have resonated with me every day since. When I encounter frustrations, big, or small, I am reminded that the choice is mine. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering is not. I still choose to suffer more than I’d like, but because I signed up for improvement, I’m willing to work on it. I breathe deeply, relax my hands, and drop my shoulders. I feel what I am feeling and then I move on. I know I will be glad I did it today and perhaps even more grateful down the road. And ultimately and perhaps most importantly, I know I’m not alone. I have a great Leader.

“Somebody That I Used to Know” and Other Expressions of Gratitude

My cousin and fellow blogger, Allison Sebastiani, recently started a campaign called Gratitude Mondays. Each week, she publicly thanks someone who has had an impact on her life. I loved her idea, but I didn’t make a public promise to do the same. It was a nice invitation, but I didn’t think it was meant for me. I was wrong. Before the week was out, I received my very own invitation made up of one part coincidence, two parts gratitude, and whatever parts are left over to humility.

The kids and I were visiting Huntington Beach last weekend and my brother invited us to go to church with his family on Sunday evening. As I sat in the back row of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, my mind drifted to memories of a boy I used to know. He was tall, redheaded, freckle-faced, funny, sweet and kind. He wasn’t just any boy. He was my date to junior prom and senior homecoming, though not my date to anything in between. As teenage girls are known to do, I liked him and then I didn’t. I wanted to go out with him and then “something suddenly came up.” I am not proud of the way I handled my friendship with him, but at the time, it seemed perfectly acceptable. At 17, hormones and emotions ruled the day.

As I sat in his childhood parish, Allison’s “Thank You” challenge came to mind and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this now 40-year-old man, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. I never planned to write this blog, but I knew what I would like to tell him if I ever got a chance. I would like to tell him that he holds a place in my heart as one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met. He was my first model of what a gentle man is and what a gentle man does, a model I used to judge just about every man I dated after him. (Thank goodness Tim passed with flying colors!) I would like this man to know that his smile made my day, day after day, at Mater Dei. I would like him to know that his quirky sense of humor, his ability to be himself, his kindness to his family, friends and strangers were all things I appreciated about him. I would like him to know that being asked to those dances, getting dressed up and spending those evenings with him are some of my fondest high school memories.

At one point in our friendship, he gave me a picture of himself as a toddler and from that moment on, I always hoped to have a redheaded, freckle-faced little boy of my own. Though I never got the hair, Finn’s freckles are part of what makes him my pride and joy.

So as I sat and kneeled and stood and sang, my heart filled up like a helium balloon with thankfulness for who this man was and the role he played in my teenage life. He was just so good and I wondered how I could track him down and tell him so.

But of course, I didn’t have to. As I walked into the communion aisle, who was coming out of the pew directly across from me at the exact same time? My redheaded friend, of course! I about jumped out of my skin I was so excited. I mean, GOD IS GOOD! This is the invitation I had been waiting for – the chance to tell him all the things I want him to know! This is awesome, I thought to myself and then I immediately punched him in the arm to get his attention, just like I used to in high school. He looked up from his holy reverie, shocked, because really, no one expects to get punched in the communion line, but come on! It’s been twenty years! He looked at me with really big eyes and kind of half-smiled and then returned his focus to the little space in front of him, occupied by his wife and their 3 young children. He seemed a little nonplussed to see me after so long, but that’s okay, I thought, because he doesn’t know what’s coming! He doesn’t know that I have a heart full of gratitude and a bunch of nice things to say to his wife about him. He doesn’t know any of that, but as soon as mass is over, he will!  

I kept an eye on him to find where they were sitting. I planned to run over as soon as the last song ended. I pointed him out to my kids, who have seen his picture in old photo albums. Keara giggled and said, “That’s your ginger, mom?” with a huge smile on her face. They were excited to meet an old friend of mine.

But a funny thing happened before the last song ended. He left! He and his wife and his three darling, freckle-faced kids walked out of the building, without once looking my way to even nod, or wave goodbye. And as I watched them walk away, all the air got sucked out of my helium balloon of happiness. I went from walking on air to concrete boots. Part of it was that I wouldn’t have a chance to express my gratitude, but part of it was my wounded pride. In my fervor, I assumed my feelings would be reciprocated, at least in some small way. Though I didn’t expect the same level of excitement, I thought I might generate a friendly feeling, or maybe even a glimmer of curiosity about what I’d been up to all this time. And although I can’t know for sure what was going on in his mind, I don’t think I warranted a second thought. And that makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me any less thankful, which is why I’m writing this blog.

I wish I could tell you his name and post our prom picture, so I could give him the credit I think he deserves. I wish I could use social media to track him down, but after the way our chance encounter played out, I have a feeling the publicity wouldn’t be welcome. Back in high school, our song was the 80s hit “I’d Melt With You,” but apparently it’s been replaced by Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He might like it better, but I don’t think it has quite the same ring to it.

What I need to remember is that gratitude is a gift – to us. It makes our hearts larger, softer and more open to life. It makes us bigger, kinder, more positive people. Expressions of gratitude are a gift we give to other people and as gifts, they can be accepted or rejected. We can’t force it down their throat. A lot depends on who’s offering, but it doesn’t change the fact that the attitude of gratitude (pardon the cliché) is what’s most important.

I limped out of St. Bonaventure with my thwarted plans and busted-up ego. I called Tim and told him the story and he laughed with (or at) me (I’m not sure) and I felt better. I had dinner with my kids, my parents and my lovely little nieces. I laughed and loved and was grateful for their company and I was able to tell them so. I hope someday to be able to tell my redheaded friend as well, but first I have to make him stick around long enough to listen to me.

You Can Stick Your Sorries in a Sack

Based on the assumption that I am failing to meet everyone’s expectations, I find myself saying “sorry” all the time. Though I still know I am ‘enough,’ at least on a cosmic level, in an every day, nuts-and-bolts kind of way, I often feel like I am falling short. As a result, I find myself apologizing all the time, and quite frankly, I am sick of saying “I’m sorry!”

I say sorry to God if I get distracted during my prayers. I say sorry to Tim if I haven’t shaved my legs in a few days (oh, let’s be honest, a week or two). I say sorry to my kids when I run out of their favorite breakfast foods. I say sorry as I head out the door to work and sorry if I get home late.  I say sorry I can’t buy you that; sorry I can’t donate more; sorry I can’t stay later; sorry I can’t talk; sorry I can’t show up at all. Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!

Does anyone else have this problem?

One of my all time favorite lines from Seinfeld is from their trip to India. George and Jerry get in an argument and although Jerry apologizes profusely, George is having none of it. He is so mad, he spits out, “You can stuff your sorries in a sack, mister!”

That is what I would like to do with all my sorries. I’d like to stuff them in a sack, take them down to the river and drown them.

I am not even sure what all my sorries mean. An apology should be offered to a party who has been wronged by one of your actions, or choices, so when did I start thinking that saying “No” was a synonym for wrongdoing? When did I start thinking that my not-so-terrible choices warrant an apology?

Today, I am making a pledge to not say, “I’m sorry.” Just for today, I am banishing that word from my vocabulary. If I make a real mistake, then I will apologize, but I will not use that word.

From here on out, I will not allow “Sorry!” to be my automatic response every time I cannot be every thing to every body.

Writing that last line, I have my “aha” moment. How in the world did I get it in my head that I could be everything to everybody all the time?

Will you please excuse me while I go take off this messiah complex and slip into something more comfortable?

Ah, my own skin, much better.

It’s clear how closely my sorries are tied to my Superego. Psychologists say that’s the part of us that aims for perfection. I say it’s the part of us that believes we need to be ‘super.’ Author Rob Bell writes that we each have a “Super,” living inside of us: a super-mother, a super-man, a super-worker, a super-volunteer. You get the picture. (He also writes that we should take it out back and shoot it. It’s the only way we will ever be free.)

When we are young, we are simply ourselves, but the “Supers” come on hard and fast. As a kid, I needed to be a “Super-student,” able to get straight A’s in a single bound. As a teen, I secretly wanted to be a “Super-model.” As a young wife and mother, I aimed for “Super-woman,” a perfect balance of Martha Stewart, Mother Goose and Playboy bunny.  The avalanche of sorries that come out of my mouth are a clue that I’ve finally maxed out. Instead of dropping one impossible image of perfection for the next, I’ve just kept piling them on. Currently, I’m trying to add one more (as yet undefined) “Super-something” to the mix and I’m just not up to the task.

Repeating “Sorry” is my coping mechanism, but I’m willing to try something new. The next time I want to say, “Sorry,” I am going to smile instead. I am going to repeat a mantra I picked up from the poetic Anthony de Mello, SJ.

“Behold God beholding you… and smiling.”

It reminds me that I do not need to be perfect. That good really is good enough. That whatever else I do, or don’t do, God is smiling at me (and at you too.) I can drop the mask. There is only Ali, and I don’t need to apologize for being human, for having limited time, talent, or treasure. I have a feeling that if I can remember to smile, instead of reaching for that all-too-easy “sorry,” it will feel absolutely super.

My Elephant Knees, or Beauty is in the Eye of Beholder

When something comes up repeatedly in my life, especially if it comes from a variety of sources, I know it’s something I need to pay attention to. Usually it is not a pleasant something. If it were something I wanted to think about, I would have done so already. I would have seen it, embraced the lesson, and possibly even written about it. It’s very unpleasantness is why the universe has to force me to look upon it. I hope you’re with me on this one. It seems to me that we don’t look at what we don’t want to see, even if it’s as obvious as the nose on our face.

Recently, I can’t seem to get away from the fact that I am aging and that with each passing year, I look less and less like the woman I am in my mind and more and more like the middle-aged woman I am becoming.

Now before every one who was born prior to 1960 starts screaming at my use of the term “middle-aged” to describe my 40 –year-old self, statistically, the word bears out. The average life expectancy for a woman in the US is currently 80.8 years. I am no math genius, but it seems to me that ‘middle-aged’ is generously from 30-50 years old. Correct me in the comments section if you so desire.

No matter where I turn, I am confronted with the fact that my skin is not what it once was. Years of smiling have etched grooves from the corners of my nose to my jaw line. My eyes have begun to settle more deeply into their sockets. My hands look like my mother’s (whose age shall remain unnamed) and my knees look like an elephant’s, all saggy and baggy and heavily lined.

It’s one thing to see myself in a mirror on a daily basis. I know how to deal with that: I look at the parts I like and glaze over the rest. However, I’ve had some experiences recently that have made it harder for me to ignore what the rest of the world must be seeing.

A few months back, I asked a colleague to take a few photographs of me for my website. Bobby takes some of the most stunning nature photographs I have ever seen. Here is some of his work so you will know I am not exaggerating.

Zion, Angel’s Landing, Bobby Lee
Zion Subway, Bobby Lee
Montanadeoro, Bobby Lee

Isn’t he amazing? I thought (mistakenly it turns out), “If he can make dirt and sky and water and air look so beautiful, surely he make me look good too.” We set a day and went on a little photo safari and he took a lot of pictures, and he sent them to me and I thought, “Wow. These would be really gorgeous pictures, if I weren’t in them.”

I learned my lesson about “natural” photography.

I love Bobby’s photographs for their precision, for the way they capture every nook and cranny in the distant mountains and every grain of sand in the sweeping desert and he makes them look beautiful, otherwordly. It’s for that very reason I have a hard time loving Bobby’s photographs of me. They capture every  line on my face and crevice in my hands, but what looks so gorgeous on Mount Zion looks so unattractive on me.  It took me a few weeks, but I reluctantly put the images on my website, convincing myself that an honest portrait was better than none at all. Here are a couple examples.

Enjoying a book by the fire in Laguna Beach
Writing at a sidewalk cafe

A few months later, my sister-in-law recommended a photographer who was trying to build up her portfolio by doing inexpensive sittings. It had been years since we had taken a family photo, so I thought, “Why not? Maybe she can snap a couple of me as well that I’ll like a little better.” And boy did I!

After Stephanie got done editing her images, I realized that Photoshop is my best friend! I loved these photographs. They came infinitely closer to how I see myself. They may not accurately reflect how others see me, but it’s how I want them to see me. I put a couple of those images up on my website right away.

Our family, courtesy of Stephanie Anderson

“Whew,” I thought, “This is who I am. Maybe not young, but youngish, definitely.”

I was so pleased with the results that I thought I’d get a jump-start on our Christmas cards by ordering a couple hundred copies immediately. We don’t actually send out Christmas cards, but since we had such a great picture (of me), I thought I’d make an exception.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my Shutterfly account.

At that very moment, the mail arrived and I had a letter from my sweet sister-in-law. She sent me an article called, “Aged to Perfection,” with a sticky note that said, “I read this and thought of the pledge you and your friends made to never have any ‘work’ done. :)”

Gulp. Her note reminded me of a time when I was confident that I would grow old gracefully, that I would cherish every line as a badge of honor, of a life well-lived, or as the author of the essay wrote about her aging body as, “a repository of soul and experience… mellowed by love and time to a rosy luster.”

Oh, I thought with a pang of regret. That’s how I used to feel about aging? Really?

When I read that article, I felt a prompting to find that truth deep down inside myself again. It wasn’t gone entirely, just laid by the wayside some time in the last 10 years. But then I looked at Stephanie’s pictures again and liked them so much that I buried the truth somewhere deeper inside me, where hopefully it wouldn’t emerge for another twenty years. In the meantime, I could Photoshop and facialize and maybe even use Botox to help my outside perception match my inside imagination.

But the universe wasn’t going to let me off that easy. A couple of weeks ago at a breakfast conference, I met a woman who works for the San Diego Museum of Art and I mentioned the last exhibit I had attended there, Annie Lebovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life” in 2007. Ugh, it was embarrassing enough that it had been so long since I had been there, but then the nice woman gave me a knowing nod, saying Yes, that had been a very popular show, with the celebrity photographs and all. I was obviously an artistic light weight in her mind (and I am in actuality, so I don’t fault her for her comment) and although the celebrity photographs were what I had gone to see, I also remembered (and was able to tell her) that what I had most enjoyed were the personal photographs Lebovitz shared, especially the ones of her mother, most especially the ones of her mother at the beach.

Of the many photographs taken at the shore, this is the one I imagine most people remember.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in all his glorious perfection.

This was the photograph I fell in love with.

And another one like it. Though I can’t find a copy of it for the life of me, Lebovitz also captures her mother, playing in the waves with her young granddaughter, pirouetting on the shore, with one leg splayed out in a high kick of joy.

This is what I wrote in my journal at the time….

That is who I want to be. At 70, I want to be the woman who still wears her swimsuit to the beach and plays in the waves with the children she loves. I want to live life and not give a damn about my cellulite jiggling in the sunshine. That is real beauty.

I came home from my morning meeting and took a good long look in the mirror. Then I went back and looked at Bobby’s photographs again. I saw something different this time. This time I saw that I look a little bit like Annie Lebovitz’s mom. I look happy. I look like I am enjoying my life and when I am truly enjoying life, I never once stop to think about what I look while I am doing it.

So after this final reminder, the universe finally succeeded in making me stop and reconsider the truth I knew when the knowing came too easy. (And isn’t that always the case?)

I think the love of my life says it best. He reminds me that I can’t get what I have if I still look like a twenty-year old woman, because then I would still be a twenty-year-old woman. I can’t have a marriage of almost twenty years and the confidence and security that brings to my life. I can’t have my kids hug and kiss me and feel my heart melt.  I can’t get the wisdom and perspective and friendships and faith that all the ups and downs of the last twenty years have brought me, if Ihave never lived those twenty years. I know it’s true, and really, I wouldn’t trade those things for anything, not even an unlined face and bright eyelids and perky knees.

At least I don’t think so, but it’s off the table anyways. We can’t turn back time, despite the billion dollar beauty industry’s insistence that we can with their help. For now, I think I’ll pass. I will put the image of Annie Lebovitz’s mom on my mirror to remind me who I want to be today and every day: confident, laughing, joyfully dancing, cellulite, wrinkles, saggy knees and all.

Project Runway Life Lessons

There are not many programs on television that I like to watch and even fewer that I’ll watch with my children. With a wide range of interests and maturity levels, finding common ground is difficult, but there is one program we never miss: Project Runway.

(If you aren’t familiar with the show, you can check it out here, but it’s basically a cross between Survivor and American Idol for up-and-coming fashion designers.)

My mother has always been a little concerned about our Project Runway viewing. To her dismay, it’s inspired Keara, her eldest granddaughter, to dream of a career in fashion. To her dismay, her eldest grandson, Finn, has watched it religiously since he was 6 years old, (To be honest, at 13, Finn has backed away from claiming it’s one of his favorite shows.) To her great dismay, little Molly does killer imitations of any and all of the most flamboyant contestants.

My mother has had all this dismay and has never once seen the show. She just saw the impact it had on our family culture and wasn’t so keen on it. And then, Season 10 began and somehow my mother saw it and then the real dismay began. She couldn’t believe I let my children watch. It was chaotic and cruel and the people were crazy and no one was nice. What in the world was I thinking? (Tim has given up asking that question, but he thinks it all the time as well. He is not a fan of Project Runway.)

But Episode 3 of this season gave me the perfect way to explain “what I’m thinking” by allowing my kids to watch the show.

In that week’s challenge, designers were randomly paired up to create a red carpet, runway ‘look.’ Enter Elena and Buffy, two of the most unlikely partners you will ever find. Elena is angry and high-strung. Buffy is a friendly, jovial sort. Elena wears her dark hair in severe French braids and scowls at the camera, while Buffy flashes one smile after another. Buffy even has pink hair, accented with a multi-colored, cheetah patch shaved into the side. Elena designs would fit in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo collection. Buffy could design for the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun boutique.

Their time together went about as well as you can imagine, with Elena bossing, criticizing, and sniping at her partner and Buffy keeping her head down, too afraid to say anything for fear of having her head bitten off. As I watched it with Molly, I thought how we might cover the basic Project Runway Life Lessons – again.

What kind of person do you want to be? A nice one.

How should you treat people? With respect.

Who do we root for? The good guy with the most talent, of course.

Those are the standard conversations Project Runway delivers to our home on a weekly basis.

But then it happened, that little moment where a whole new conversation unfolds.

In a cutaway interview, Elena defended her actions,

“Being from where I am, you need a toughness to survive. If you go to Ukraine, no one is going to say please and thank you and blah, blah, blah. To just survive and eat every day, people really have to hustle. You have to be very strong. The weak ones don’t survive.”

Suddenly her strident behavior made sense. She comes from a place of scarcity and even though she has lived in the States for almost 20 years, the fear of not having enough has never subsided. I imagine that fear gives rise to the aggression and arrogance that Elena displays, not just toward Buffy, but also toward everyone on the show, from contestants to judges to the grandfatherly host.

I recently read a passage from a book and I immediately thought of Elena. The author said, “Where does arrogance come from? The answer, I think, is fear. The more insecure I feel, the more arrogant I tend to become and the most arrogant people I know are also the most insecure. The arrogant ego… is fearful of losing its status if it loses the battle at hand.” In a world of scarcity, to lose a single battle is to risk losing everything.

In contrast to Elena, it’s clear that Buffy comes from a place of abundance, a place where it’s easy to say “Please” and “Thank you” and wait your turn, because there is always enough. (We thought she was from England, but it turns out she was raised in Dubai.) When you are assured of your place in life and in line, you can sacrifice your ego once in a while for the sake of peace and the well-being of the other. You know there is always another opportunity around the corner.

After Elena’s comments, I paused the show and Molly and I talked about scarcity and abundance, about communism and capitalism, and about how our childhood experiences shape us. Was Elena really talking just about food? What else might have been scarce? Maybe kindness and compassion, love, or respect? Even if they were present in her home life, they obviously weren’t abundant in her culture. To this day, their lack affects her perception of the world and therefore the audience’s perception of her.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that Elena is currently listed as the “Fan Favorite” on the official website by a wide margin. What does that say about the typical viewer of the show? Nothing good I’m afraid, but clearly, we are not the typical viewer. Buffy is Molly’s favorite contestant and I asked her to think about what Buffy had in abundance as a child. Probably everything, we agreed. When you think of Buffy as a girl, you think of art supplies, dance lessons, and face painting, but Molly thought she probably had lots of love and patience, hugs and kisses too and maybe even a really funny dad. When you have an abundance of joy, it’s easy to share with others. I guess the same goes for pain too.

Molly and I wrapped up our “talking timeout” by naming some of the “abundance” people we know and how much we enjoy their company, but we also thought about the “Elenas” in our life, who might need a little more empathy the next time we encounter them on the playground, or in life. Scarcity is no fun and it’s scars run deep.

I never imagined I would be having this conversation with my 10 year old on a Saturday morning, but that’s the magic of Project Runway. Under the guise of fun and fashion, it allows me to talk with my kids about everything from politics to economics, morality to spirituality. You aren’t going to get that in 60-minutes or less anywhere else.