I know this is a kind of strange and unpleasant image. It wasn’t exactly where I thought I’d start this post, but it’s kind of fitting.
I woke up this morning, feeling under fire, kind of like you do on a Monday morning, when the weekend has sucked up every last ounce of your time and energy. I set my alarm, said my prayers, and started making lunch for my kids. There was only a heel of bread, enough turkey for one kid, expired mayonnaise and an apple that looked good on the outside, but was turning dark in the middle. But don’t worry! After fifteen years of making lunches, these things are not a problem. It’s a simple matter of sleight of hand and a confident presentation.
But twenty minutes later, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, a lesson caught up with me. As I poured expired milk down the drain, I saw the brown center of the apple, peeking out from under the dishes. Oops! That was a #signoflove, but who’s got the time? I dumped out the cold coffee pot. It didn’t move. I turned on the water and hit the garbage disposal button, but still Love didn’t budge.
Okay. I get it.
If Love remains in the compost pile of a dirty kitchen sink, then Love remains in the compost pile of our lives. Apparently, this was a message I needed to hear.
Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 45. I looked in the mirror. I didn’t love what I saw, so I looked around and I liked that a lot better.
I saw a husband, who is also my best friend. He’s the provider of stability and sound advice, but also the purveyor of all things creative and silly.
I saw three kids, each unique in their gifts and their challenges, but unified in their love for me and each other.
I saw countless friends and family who remembered me with texts, messages, phone calls and cards.
I looked around this morning and saw that I didn’t have a birthday “day.”
I have a birthday life.
Everyday, I can wake up and celebrate.
In the predawn darkness, I have a warm body lying next to me, a heart keeping time with mine.
In the silence and stillness of the morning, I sit with God and remember I am Loved.
In the busyness of my days, I have work to do and a healthy body and mind to do it.
In the fall of the evening, I have the privileges of my life to be grateful for and the hope of getting to do it all over again tomorrow.
Amidst all those daily routines, I also have access to hot coffee and cold beer, not to mention clean water and fresh food. There are sunny skies and good people in my life who bring me laughter and conversation and full-bodied hugs, any time I need them. The Pacific Ocean is only ten minutes away and I have a car with gas in it!
Who gets to live this life?
That’s what I remembered this morning.
This life is a gift. It’s mine; it’s the only one I’ll ever get and I want to celebrate it – all of it – even the stuff I didn’t ask for.
No one gets everything they want, or keeps everything they have. I may prefer to smile, but tears have something to teach me as well, as do hard conversations and unpleasant truths. While I tend to shove those packages to the back of the pile, sometimes they’re the greatest gifts of all, because they give me the opportunity to rediscover who I am and who I want to be.
At 45, I just want to be grateful, but I’m not always.
I just want to be here, but I often fantasize about being somewhere else.
I just want to Love, but instead, I close up shop when I’m feeling lazy.
At 45, I have a birthday life, but I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.
So, that #signoflove in the dirty sink?
Yeah, thanks for that Universe, as well as everyone else who reminded me of my birthday life and helps me live it. You’re the gift that just keeps on giving and for that, I’m grateful.
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:
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.
Richard Rohr spoke about this nuance recently at a Living School Symposia and I found the distinction really helpful.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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…
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!
I feel a little sheepish to be introducing the third word in this series, PERSISTENCE, after a three-week delay. However, without PERSISTENCE, there would be no #Signs of Love at all, much less this much-delayed post.
I love the practicality of this word. According to Rob Bell, PERSISTENCE is the engine of just about everything. Nothing in the world would get done without it. Books wouldn’t get written; companies wouldn’t last; marriages would fall apart. The fact that we exist at all is due to our evolutionary drive to just keep going. A spark might get us started, but without PERSISTENCE, we’d stay right where we are.
Of course, we need to find that spark in the first place, that particular something worth our time and effort. Rob Bell introduced the word ikigai, a Japanese word for “that which gets you up in the morning” to describe that impetus. Once we find that passion, or purpose, PERSISTENCE will follow. Sure, setbacks make us want to give up, but when we find ourselves lagging, we can return to that original question. What gets me up in the morning? People give up, because they are pursuing something other than their ikigai, or they don’t what it is yet. It is living out of your purpose, that makes you PERSISTENT.
Now, if you are thinking this sounds a little “pie in the sky,” you might be right, which is why it was helpful to have Elizabeth Gilbert there to hit us with the reality stick.
For her, PERSISTENCE is a total grind most of the time. That’s why we call it PERSISTENCE! If it were easy, we would call it “Fun!” and we would do it all the time. But things are hard, so we don’t. Each of us has a history of not following through on people and projects. Our lives are littered with unfinished things – personal and professional – and we can carry a lot of shame about those things. But when we beat ourselves up over it, we tend to believe that we are undisciplined losers, who have never persisted in anything in our whole lives, which LG assured her audience was NOT TRUE!
The third letter LG asked us to write at the creativity conference was from our PERSISTENCE. “Ask it to give you a pep talk,” she said, “and remind you of all the things you have accomplished together – the mundane and the momentous.” That letter would help us counteract the story we tell ourselves about our ability to follow through: “There are many things you do DO. Look at them all.”
Part Two: The Letter
So here is my letter from PERSISTENCE. Much like the others, I find it embarrassing and if I didn’t believe in the power of vulnerability, I wouldn’t be sharing it with all of you.
I am your PERSISTENCE and this is damn sure what I want you to know about me: I exist! You are fiercely persistent. I may not be bombastic and loud, but I show up every single day! I get you out of bed in the morning to pray, to learn, to stand before God, to make breakfasts and healthy lunches for your family – all before 7:00 am. To kiss and hug your kids, even when they are bugging the crap out of you. You make your family food – you shop and prepare it. You take care of the house and the laundry. You exercise. You raise good kids, the hard way, in ways that no one else sees. You remember other people’s stories, even the details, and you follow up with them to see how they are doing, because it matters to you. You write thank you cards for goodness sake! You read hard books most people haven’t even heard of and then you connect them to your life and try to make them relevant to others. You prioritize your marriage and the romance that sustains it. You willingly choose to hang out with 14 year old girls on Tuesday nights and you do it all with a smile on your face and Love and joy in your heart. You are disciplined enough to know that your own happiness doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t contribute to the happiness and wholeness of others.
At the time, I felt proud of my list. Today, it feels silly.
In part, that’s why it’s taken so long to publish this essay. I was all set to go, then Alton Sterling was killed, then Philando Castile, then the Dallas police officers. I didn’t know what to say. What difference in the world does my own little PERSISTENCE make in the face of a world gone mad? Last week, new waves of terror began: Baghdad, Nice, Germany, and then more violence in our own home: Baton Rouge, Kansas City, Miami. Where will it be tomorrow? What could I possibly say?
Almost nothing, except this.
Part Three: The Love
Through obstacles and distractions, victories and heartaches, PERSISTENCE is the virtue of showing up; it is the ultimate act of “keep on keepin’ on” and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit. That is what I re-learned about PERSISTENCE last week while Tim and the kids and I were at Family Retreat.
As I prepared my talk for Thursday morning, I remembered my true ikigai. My purpose on earth (and yours too ultimately) is to Love. Over the course of my lifetime, my ikigai will take a hundred different forms, but currently it means making meals, hanging out with teenagers and writing this blog. And as much as my FEAR and ego like to tell me otherwise, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. Thank God PERSISTENCE is there to remind me that I just have to show up and do what I do.
The theme for this year’s Family Retreat was “Love is…” and I had asked them to call my talk, “Love is Fearless,” but with everything happening in the world that title didn’t really work for me, because choosing to Love is actually pretty scary and no matter how much we Love, we will still be afraid. The world is a scary place and bad things happen to good people –Loving and kind people. But Love allows us to face our fears and act in spite of them. Love means doing what is necessary to create more wellness, more wholeness, more HOLYNESS for ourselves and those around us – in our own home and in the world.
Love is what we were made for and Love is what we are here for.
And we know that to create those things – health, wholeness, holiness – we have to show up! Of course, we’re happy to show up for the good things, but we’ve got to stay put for the hard things too – the things we’d rather NOT show up for, the ones that involve pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and hard truths we’d rather lie to ourselves about. There are many things in our lives we’d like to run away from, but that’s not Love, because it lacks PERSISTENCE.
On the first day of Family Retreat, I read the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 on Love. Maybe you’ve heard it before? It goes something like this, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” If you’ve never read the chapter, dig in, because it is good stuff.
The Love that Paul describes is not the wimpy kind of Love we’re used to giving and receiving. This is next-level Love. This Love is MUSCULAR. It is ROBUST. It is HEARTY. It is PERSISTENT. This Love is COURAGEOUS.
We need look no further than Jesus on the night before he died to see the COURAGE and PERSISTENCE of Love. Was he afraid in the Garden? Absolutely. He sweated blood. I don’t think any of us has ever been that terrified. And what did he ask of God, the ultimate source of Love he had come from, drawn on and trusted in his whole life? In that moment, Jesus asked for a pass! He was afraid, like you and I would be, and he asked to not have to show up. He said, “If it is your will, let this cup pass from me.” And then what did Jesus do?
He showed up! He got up and he walked out – unarmed, and vulnerable – knowing he was going to lose his life, his reputation, his friends – and he trusted in LOVE to see him through it – all the way through the pain and the fear and the trauma of rejection and the hardship that he would face in the following hours.
And Love let him walk through it. That’s the part we wish weren’t true. When Love wins, it can still feel like losing.
Love doesn’t excuse us from anything, but Love allows us face ALL things – with our heads up, even as our hearts and sometimes our bodies are battered. When we choose to Love as Jesus did, all things can be redeemed. I believe that with all my heart.
Thank you, PERSISTENCE, for reminding me what I’m here for.
ENCHANTMENT is a funny word, old-fashioned and otherworldly. It reminds me of fairy stories, and William Blake’s poetry. As soon as Liz Gilbert introduced the word, you could almost feel the room get awkward, and a little skeptical. To go from COURAGE and FEAR, such straightforward, active words to such whimsical nonsense seemed like a non sequitur. But because it was Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell and we had paid a lot of money to hear what they had to say, we tried (and some of us failed) to keep an open mind.
ENCHANTMENT is a concept that we might use other words to describe more comfortably – words like our curiosity, soul, spirit, our True Self, or passion. Ultimately, no matter what we call it, ENCHANTMENT is the part of us that knows we are here to do something more than pay bills and die. ENCHANTMENT knows we are here for some particular reason and wants to do something about it. Unlike FEAR, ENCHANTMENT is comfortable with not knowing or having all the answers. It asks us to take risks.
The voice of ENCHANTMENT is subtle, which makes it a little trickier to hear. If FEAR uses a bullhorn, ENCHANTMENT speaks in a whisper. While it is persistent, it is never pushy. And here’s the rub: unlike FEAR, ENCHANTMENT can be silenced, so it needs to be protected from internal and external aggressors, like FEAR, efficiency, and our consumer culture. To gain the wisdom and gifts ENCHANTMENT has to offer, we need to create space in our lives for it to thrive and grow.
LG, a best-selling and award-winning author, has spent the last twenty years of her life learning to listen and play with her ENCHANTMENT. She knows what it wants to do and what it absolutely cannot do. It will fall asleep every time someone talks about money, or market share. ENCHANTMENT doesn’t care about outcome, or failure, or ego strokes. It thrives on experience and risk and joy. Consequences be damned! As soon as we pick ourselves up from our failures, ENCHANTMENT asks, “Can we do it again?”
ENCHANTMENT is the reason writers keep writing, artists keep painting, kids keep creating and we all keep falling in Love, over and over and over again.
Contrary to popular opinion, the voice of our ENCHANTMENT deserves more air time than we give it, so after writing a letter from our FEAR, LG wanted to make sure our ENCHANTMENT got its say. With less FEAR, but still some consternation, here is my letter from ENCHANTMENT:
I am your ENCHANTMENT and this is what I want to tell you. We love our time together. When you are with me, you are happy and immersed in your life and your work. Together, we let FEAR have its say and then it goes to sleep, because when you’re hanging out with me, you know it’s all going to be okay. When we are together, we write, we read, we walk at the beach (and yes! It’s always me who gets you in the car to go to the beach when life is bringing you to your knees and you need to smell the salty air and feel the sand between your toes. I know what you need to be healthy and whole and happy!) Most importantly, together, we fall more deeply into Love. You do your best work for the world and everyone in it when we are together.
Ali, I would always have you with me, but I know, or think, or consider that it might be too much sometimes. Is it? Is it magical thinking to believe that we are our best version of ourselves together? Is this work we do an appropriate use of time and resources for an adult? I hear you thinking this and I don’t know the answer. Is there such a thing as ENCHANTMENT strengthened by realism? How do I find the balance between being who I am and being a “real” grown up?
Just as I recognized the voice of FEAR inside me, I recognized the voice of ENCHANTMENT as well. I KNOW her. I LOVE her. She makes me so happy. My best days on the planet have occurred when she was the only voice I heard. That doesn’t mean I was alone; it just means that there was no static, no noise distracting me from my purpose. On some of those days, I have been alone – reading and writing. On others, I have been surrounded by strangers, speaking and teaching on my favorite subjects – spirituality, literature and life. On some of those days, I have been swimming in the ocean, or lying on the sandy shore. On others, I have been holding the hand of the Love of my life, or hugging as many children as I possibly can. The common theme on every one of those days is that I was immersed in the deepest reality of who I am and what I was made for – to know and serve and be a source of Love (Joy/Freedom/Connection/Insight) to others. That is what my ENCHANTMENT offers me and what I, in turn, can offer the world around me.
Before LG and RB opened up the floor to questions, we had a few minutes to talk about what we wrote. I told my sister, Amy, about my letter and how it changed directions near the end. In the first half, ENCHANTMENT affirmed our work together; in the last half, it seemed worried that we do it too much. I didn’t really know what to make of it, but the concerns seemed reasonable and Amy agreed. However, we shrugged it off and headed back inside for the Q&A.
Right off the bat, a woman got up and admitted that her ENCHANTMENT was actually kind of a Debbie Downer. The letter was snarky, nihilistic, and full of ennui, with no real ideas about what could be new, or fun about anything. This woman’s ENCHANTMENT was a bummer, but HOT DAMN, LG got ferocious FAST.
As Liz struggled to stay in her seat, she asked Rob politely if he would mind if she went first and then she yelled,
“That wasn’t ENCHANTMENT speaking! That was FEAR in disguise! It put on a Groucho Marx mustache and came back in through your subconscious! FEAR will do that! It will put on a million disguises to try to fool you into taking orders. It comes as the voice of reason, boredom, nihilism, perfectionism. ENCHANTMENT knows none of those things!”
As LG’s profanity-laced rant went on, the woman just stood there kind of slack-jawed, like the rest of us, but we got it! Too many of us have no idea what our ENCHANTMENT would say. We can’t even make it up, so we quit before we even start.
We haven’t been taught to listen to the voice of our inner authority about who we are and what we Love. We’ve been trained to submit to the voices of religious, cultural, parental and peer authority. We’ve been taught to view every one of our actions through the filter of FEAR, rationality and effectiveness. We’ve been convinced that every investment of our time and energy should move our personal stock up and to the right. ENCHANTMENT doesn’t give a shit and as LG said those things, I realized that my own letter had also devolved into “FEAR in disguise” when the questions about balance and responsibility took over.
It’s not that they weren’t reasonable questions. It’s that it wasn’t the time for them! I had been asked to let my True Self, my passion, my soul and spirit have her say – for five minutes – and I couldn’t do it.
So this blog is, in part, an apology to my ENCHANTMENT and all she represents – the best, most life-giving part of me. I’m sorry I got scared and cut you off. I didn’t need to. Even when I let you have your say, I am still a rational, reasonable, responsible human being. You don’t turn me into a defunct adult, who doesn’t make good on her promises.
In the few minutes I gave her, my ENCHANTMENT told me the truth: We do DO our best work together! From my morning sits to my ridiculous dance parties, from my creative writing to my contemplative studying and teaching, from my out-loud living to my whole-hearted Loving – that is ENCHANTMENT casting it’s spell on me. And according to the people who love me, they wish I’d listen a little more often.
ENCHANTMENT doesn’t make me flaky; it makes me fun and funny. It doesn’t make me irresponsible; it makes me responsive to the needs of others. It doesn’t make me a loser; it makes me a Lover.
And I bet your ENCHANTMENT does the same thing for you; we just don’t give it the credit it’s due!
If you were willing to write a letter from your FEAR, I hope you’ll be willing to give your ENCHANTMENT equal time. It might not come as easily, but I promise it will be worth it. There is so much negativity, doubt and cynicism in our culture. We have to find a way to hold space for the alternative – for hope and joy and optimism. It is so much easier to know what we are against (our FEAR) than to articulate what we are for (our ENCHANTMENT).
PLEASE, take five minutes to let yourself be enchanted and listen to your heart speak about what kind of beautiful, loving, life-giving work you were made FOR.
Here’s the prompt:
I am your ENCHANTMENT and this is what I want to tell you.
I wanted to include a few image of my ENCHANTMENT and me, doing some of our finest work together.
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.
In 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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!
Last week, I had the privilege of attending an all day creativity conference led by authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, two of the most lively, original and creative people I’ve ever met. The joy and enthusiasm they bring to their work is remarkable and for me, it is their most unique and significant contributions to the arts. For too long, our culture has ascribed to one narrative about what it means to be an artist and it’s a dark one. To be an artist is to struggle – depressed, anxious, alcoholic, and anti-social. Rob and Liz blow up that stereotype, not only by their own natural tendency towards optimism, but also by their insistence that your life is your work of art, which means we are all in the game. You are the medium. What you create (externally) is secondary to how you live.
In essence, the creative journey is anything you are doing that is creating YOU – a new you, a better you, a more vibrant, powerful, lively you.
Rather than ascribing significance to some arbitrary metrics of talent, production, or economic reward, the true measure of your work as an artist, or an individual is how you choose to live.
If you want to be more creative, here are some questions you might ask yourself to see where you might step up your game.
Are you creating something new within yourself? Are you getting out of your comfort zone once in a while, mentally, emotionally, physically?
If you don’t know where to start, read a non-fiction book and apply that knowledge to your life. Get therapy; have that hard conversation with a loved one you’ve been avoiding. Go on a hike; get out in nature; head somewhere new for vacation, or even just for dinner. One of the most important habits we should be in is breaking our old habits! We’ve all heard, “Life’s too short; take chances!” My take is that life is waaaay too long to just keep doing the same old thing. Do you really want to be the same person at 50 that you were at 30, in any way? (Please, don’t even consider your physical image! Honestly, it freaks people out when someone doesn’t age and too much plastic surgery is NOT a good look!)
Are you pushing at the boundaries of what you were told your life should look like, or are you simply following all the rules handed down to you?
So many of us were taught exactly who we should be, how we should behave and what we should want. Our careers were mapped out for us, as were our aspirations in terms of relationship, material success and values. Are you still striving for those same goals, even as you’ve meet them and find them unsatisfying? Have you discovered even one new thing about who you are, or what you want that has nothing to do with what your family, or culture expects? If you are still playing by all the rules, dig deeper! You are more than just your mother’s child, the teacher’s pet, or a coach’s dream. Explore your own soul and see where it might be calling you.
Are you living with integrity and authenticity?
We all like to think we are people of integrity, living by the high standards we profess to believe in. Even the politicians who are working so hard to get our votes this election year claim personal integrity, despite the many public examples to the contrary! Even though we are loathe to admit it, we all fall short – very, very short – from time to time. For me, living with integrity has come to mean (as the root word, integer, suggests) living as a WHOLE. Am I embracing the whole of who I am? Are my head, heart and gut integrated, especially in response to difficult circumstances? Artists are not often known for their personal integrity, but if my life is my medium, I’ve got to step up.
I love these messages about creativity, even as I struggle to embrace them. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an artist. In fact, artistry was pretty much dismissed in my Catholic, Anglo-Saxon upbringing. Artists were self-indulgent, while productivity and achievement reigned supreme. I might have been a talented writer, but I never thought of being “a writer.” I thought I would use my skills in service of my job, or a family. Even as I gravitated to a more creative way of living, I couldn’t even acknowledge the movement within myself.
Just a couple years ago, when Keara first started shaving her head and decided to pursue a theater degree, I asked my friend Jen, “Where did she come from? How did I end up with this artist?” She looked at me incredulously, like I was joking and said, “What are you talking about? Where else would she come from? She is you!” I was dumbstruck. In my mind, there was nothing creative about me. I was still a good, Catholic girl, grown up to become just a plain, old mom.
In the course of the conference, Rob Bell told a story about an ancient Jewish rabbi named Akiva. One evening, Akiva was walking home by a Roman fort and the guard on duty called out, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva walked on and again the man shouted, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva stopped and called out, “How much do they pay you to ask those questions?” The guard gave him a number. Akiva replied, “I will pay you twice that much to come to my house each morning and ask me those questions.”
Who are you? What are you doing here?
My goodness, we’d love to know the answer to those questions, but we rarely do the work to figure it out. Most often, we put our head down and keep going. And even if we want to live just a little bit differently, so many things work against us. Some of the most powerful (but really sneaky) blockages are the family histories that are embedded in our DNA – generations-worth of messages about who “we” are and what “we” do. Compound that with our actual upbringing, our cultural milieu, our own inner critic and our paths are pretty much set. We think we are free, but unless we are pushing hard enough to feel the chain at our neck, we are merely being good dogs on a long leash.
For better or for worse, I have never been a pet person – neither keeping, nor being one.
Growing up, my family went through several dogs. (I was told they went to better homes.) My kids begged for a puppy, a kitten, a fur-covered mammal, but all they ever managed to get through the front door were goldfishes won at fair games and a cold-blooded, hand-me-down snake, which I adored, but accidentally killed with kindness.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the most I can keep alive is the wild, little animal inside me and the most I can offer to my children is a big, safe yard and a leash made of the thinnest chain possible, so that when they are ready to run, the inevitable backward tug, doesn’t actually stop them from going. For all the ways I’m raising them to be good citizens of our culture – to aspire, to work hard, to have discipline, to save and to serve – I’m also trying to raise them to be creatives.
The poet Mary Oliver has given me the perfect question to ask them:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
In other words, who are you and what are you doing here?
Don’t be afraid to ask the question – of yourself, or your children. Start old if you have to, but start young if you can. Give the people you love, including yourself, permission to find the fullest expression of who they are.
Over the next couple months I plan to unpack the six words that Liz and Rob offered us at the conference to lean into our creativity and help us answer those questions. Look for the series: Fear, Enchantment, Persistence, Permission, Trust, and Divinity.
For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.'”
– Emma Watson in her speech at the UN in September 2014
A couple weeks ago, I read an essay by Courtney Martin, an author, activist and mother to two daughters. It was called “The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood.” In the essay, she commented that her husband, John, is relieved to be raising daughters. John is definitely male, but not an alpha. He doesn’t identify with the masculine stereotypes of yesteryear, so daughters seem like a more comfortable fit. He knows the message he wants to deliver – Be strong; be yourself; transcend your limitations, etc. John’s lucky; he also married a ringer of a role model– a super intelligent, strong wife, who wears the pants in the family, just like he does.
Sons? John’s not so sure what he would say to them. It’s confusing enough to be a young man in today’s world, much less raise one. (He’s right; it’s way easier to teach someone to step into their power, than to temper it.) Being a journalist, Courtney ran a little informal poll and found lots of men who felt the same way. Whew! I’ve got girls. I know the message I want to convey: empowerment, strength, personal freedom. It’s disappointing they don’t feel like they could give boys those same messages, but I get why. The implication for a boy, based on historical evidence, is that male empowerment, strength and freedom comes at a cost, usually to everyone else. Patriarchy flourished over the past millennia on the backs of the “other,” namely women, the weak and the poor.
Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game, by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashion of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which really angers some long-time feminists.
But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. It’s NOT because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a vote about it in the first place! We didn’t help make the rules; we didn’t get to pick the venue, or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored, or what determined the winner. It was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were just so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It may have been a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc. and then face criticism if they don’t meet some pre-determined standard.
Young women are ‘leaning in,’ but not to the patriarchal, “winner and take all” game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists, of both genders, are trying to invent a new game – one where everyone can play to their own strengths. Everyone is invited to the conversation, to take leading and supporting roles, to find their niche in a system that honors all of who they are – the masculine and the feminine – the parts of themselves previous generations had to deny when they were locked into the essentialism of their gender at birth. (Essentialism is just a fancy word for the false belief that men are THIS and women are THAT – biologically and entirely, with no exceptions.)
Now, I know that oversimplification might ruffle a lot of feathers in the blogosphere, but in broad strokes, I think there is something to it. We want more parity, but not just according to the old paradigms. (Change happens on the margins, so if you want to see more examples of where this happening, look no further than the young women flocking to the Bernie Sanders movement over Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or the huge emphasis on the T and the Q in the LGBTQ community. Gender non-binaries are where it’s at!)
So what does all this have to do with raising a feminist son?
After I read Courtney’s article, I sent it to Tim, who I thought might understand where her husband was coming from, but in fact, Tim was super disappointed in John’s perspective. In his email back to me (and my mellow brother-in-law, Nathan, who is raising three girls), he wrote:
“I feel the opposite. I’m happy to raise strong women, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a son that isn’t a typical alpha-male. The world needs less of those, so I’m glad I get to play a part in moving things forward rather than backward. But whoever we are raising, I think that we need to raise them with less gender constraints and more humanity.”
Hot damn! Is it any wonder I love that man?
I just wish his perspective was more common among Courtney’s husband and their peers. If any of them have sons, I know they will step up to the plate, but I wish they were more excited about the prospect. We need to change the narrative about parenting. We can’t change our daughters’ futures unless we change our sons’ as well! We can’t leave our sons in the dark, while we lift our daughters into the light. It is going to take the evolution of BOTH genders to bring about real gender equality.
But I know Tim and I aren’t alone on this belief. In our circle of friends, we know a ton of boys who are being raised to see girls as their equal, and to treat them with the respect due a peer, not a princess. Some of these young men are even willing to be vulnerable, to have conversations with each other about their dreams and disappointments. They are intentional about who they are and how they want to be in the world. Finn and his friends give me a lot of hope for the future and so do a couple of other people out there in the wider world.
One of them is Glennon Doyle Melton. She’s on the other side of the country in Florida, but I share a lot of her work on Facebook and sometimes link to her through my blog. About a year ago, she wrote something about her son Chase that she reposted recently. I think it’s a perfect model for how to raise a feminist son. She wrote:
When Chase was eight, a woman approached us at the grocery store and said, “What a handsome boy! What do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?” Chase looked at her and said, “I plan to be kind and brave, ma’am.”
Chase wants to be a human being who is kind and brave and he is already that. He knows that his “success” does not depend upon whether he lands some job or not. He knows he’ll be a success if he continues to practice kindness and courage wherever and with whomever he finds himself. Today he is a kind and brave sixth grader and one day he’ll be a kind a brave high schooler and one day maybe he’ll be a kind and brave teacher or artist or father or carpenter or friend. His roles will change but his character will remain. He is already who he wants to be. So he can just go about being himself forever. Following his curiosity. One Next Right Thing at a time.
Glennon and her husband Craig are not raising their son to play the old-school game, of winners and losers. If you are yourself, if you are a person of character, if you are conscious and compassionate, YOU WIN! This kid is going to be a feminist, but not just because he is growing up in a home with sisters who are his equals, and a strong mom. Perhaps most importantly, he has a strong dad, a man who doesn’t derive his power from dominance, or by diminishing the ideas and gifts of those around him.
The second example is a little closer to home. Here in San Diego, there is a little church called Sojourn Grace Collective. It was founded about two years ago by a couple, who pastor together: Colby Martin and Kate Christensen Martin. We’ve stopped by a few times and we love what the church is about. But what I love especially is that Kate is on fire for feminism and Colby is on fire for Kate (duh, who wouldn’t be?), but for reasons beyond the obvious ones. Like Kate, he is all about changing the rules of the old-school game, even though, as an educated, straight white man, he could have won big time by playing for the patriarchy. He has a book, Unclobber, coming out in the fall about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church and society; he writes blog posts about why #BlackLivesMatter and he is just wrapping up a sermon series on Liberation Theology and how it changed everything for him. Kate preached her own liberation sermon Mother’s Day. You can check it out here.
But there is one more thing about Kate and Colby that is pretty special. They have four sons! They get to reverse engineer this whole feminism thing for the next twenty years by lifting up their sons! I want them to write a book about that next! Parents who are wondering how to raise boys in our ever-changing world could probably use it!
So, how do you raise a feminist son?
I think there are a thousand ways and more, but it has to start with wanting to. It has to start with realizing that feminism isn’t just about the empowerment of women and girls to be all they can be. It is about the liberation of men and boys from outdated cultural models that force them to be less than who they fully are. We have to free our children from the belief that masculinity is synonymous with material success and stoicism and that strength and forthrightness are not feminine. We have to honor them for ALL they are and encourage them to “lean in” to that above all else.
But first, we have to wake up ourselves to the fact that this “war” between the sexes is not a zero sum game; we are not actually on different sides. We are winners and losers together. Feminism is the path we need to embrace for now to get on the same team, but true liberation for both genders is about so much more. It is about the fullest expression of who we are as individuals and a collective humanity. It will always be a dance between freedom and responsibility, strength and vulnerability, struggle and victory. It’s about equality for all and we have to be willing to get into the new game ourselves, showing up humbly and authentically, ready to play.
Also, one of my favorite podcasters, Mike McHargue, is a super smart and super spiritual guy, who also proudly claims to be a feminist. Unfortunately in my opinion, he is raising only daughters. Sigh…So is his incredible podcast partner, Michael Gungor. Check them out at The Liturgists sometime. You won’t be disappointed!
Finally, let me be clear as I end this post:
Finn has never claimed the title “feminist” for himself, but when I showed him the definition of feminism above, he looked at me with a “Duh? Who doesn’t believe in that?” kind of look. “I believe in feminism,” he said, “but I wouldn’t call myself one.”
My Catholic readers know that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. For my non-Catholic readers, which is most of you, Lent is the 40 day period before Easter, the pivotal moment of our Christian faith when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent, Catholics (and some other denominations) try to focus their energy on preparing themselves to celebrate the Easter season. Technically, this is done through fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but mostly, people focus on the fasting. If you ask a Catholic, or even a non-Catholic, what Lent is about, they will probably say it’s about giving something up – a favorite food, or drink, indulgence, or bad habit. I was raised to think that way and it’s taken me a very long time to move beyond emphasizing that one practice.
Looking back at my childhood, I’m trying to remember the theology behind the fasting – why we were asked to sacrifice something. I don’t think the priests actually said this, but in my mind, I thought it was for one of two reasons.
#1 – Jesus gave up his life for me, so the least I could do is give up candy (it was always candy growing up!) for him during Lent. You know, tit for tat. Fair is fair after all.
Or #2 – You aren’t worthy for Jesus to have died for you – so your candy sacrifice is your way of becoming more worthy of Jesus’ death.
As if that were possible, as if anything we could do in a lifetime, much less forty days, could make us worthy of Jesus’ life.
I knew there was something about those theological constructs didn’t sound quite right, but I couldn’t quite move past those child-like assumptions for a really long time. But of course, as I grew and matured, my Lenten practices did as well. And so what I ‘gave up’ changed, but I was still doing it for the same reason – to somehow become more worthy of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.
The fasting habit fell apart for me a couple years ago, which you can read about here, and it came about as most failures do, through a confluence of good intentions and misguided execution. Of course, it was my husband, who had the words to help me see the light. After suffering through a Lent that left me feeling deeply saddened and discouraged, Tim gently called me out. He reminded me that he loves me “as is,” and that God does too.
God always loves us ‘as is,’ not ‘when,’ not ‘whether,’ not ‘if,” we get our act together during Lent, or at any time. If God is the Abba that Jesus taught us about, then we are loved beyond measure already and it is knowing and experiencing that Divine Love that inspires any changes we make. It is never, “First you are worthy and then you are loved.” Contrary to most of our cultural conditioning and human reasoning, with God, you are always loved first and that Love makes you worthy. What you do with that Love is up to you, but personally, I have never once in my life been loved unconditionally and taken it for granted. True Love has never turned me against myself, or another person. Being Loved deeply has always inspired me to become a better version of myself, a truer reflection of the woman God created me to be.
Through that conversation, I finally got it: Lent is never a question of worthiness; Lent is a question of mindfulness, of bringing to our minds the Mind of Christ, which is compassionate, loving, and tender to all human beings and absolutely faithful to the Love of God, which he experienced first hand in the Trinity.
At the end of our talk, Tim reminded me of this bit of wisdom from my own teacher, Richard Rohr, who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” The scriptures are full of this imagery about the death of our ego, the part of ourselves that we keep separate from God and each other. We read over and over again that we must die to ourselves. I know the truth that unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, a simple grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. But the point I had missed in my Lenten fervor was the fact that life itself will take care of death, both literally and metaphorically. Life is already full of losses – of the people we love, of seasons and situations we cherish, of dreams, hopes, plans, and health. And we don’t have to manufacture those losses on purpose; they happen as an inevitable course of our lives, but what we can do, during Lent, and every day of our lives, is prepare ourselves to face them.
And that is what I plan to focus on this Lenten season. Last year, I committed to just keep practicing my practice and that is what I plan to do this Lent as well and what I’ve tried to do almost every day in between.
I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.
I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.
I’m going to smile at friends and strangers alike.
I’m going to find Love and pass it on whenever and however I can.
Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.
I may hold a different intention, or pick up alternate readings to begin my meditation. I may find a special focus for my journal, but I will not fool myself into thinking I need to be different than I am to celebrate the new life that is constantly before me.
Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!
We are all moving through a season. Some are observing Lent; others are experiencing the transition from winter to spring, in nature, or in their own lives. Though we are in different parts of the cycle, we are all participating in the eternal movement from death to new life. As gardeners of our own soul, the only thing we can do is prepare the soil and trust that God will do the rest.
We can aerate our egos, poking holes in the outer shells that protect us from each other. We can soften the hardness of our hearts with the holy water of tears (you too guys!). We can let the things that have died over the past year become fertilizer for the new life to come. I cannot think of a more difficult practice for Lent, or any time of year.