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.
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!
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.
On Saturday, my family had the pleasure of attending a wedding; I had the privilege of speaking there at the request of these two lovely people.
This is Todd and Amanda. Their love story is unusual. Todd’s a little older than Amanda and their romance began under some rather unusual circumstances, but over the last 18 months, I have seen their love grow.
None of us knows where romance will take us when we first start out, but I think these two have navigated enough detours to find themselves on the right path. The tricky part, for them and for all of us, is figuring out how to stay there. I hope I gave them some good advice.
Here’s what I shared during the ceremony:
“I am known to Todd and Amanda as someone who loves Love. My theme song: “All You Need is Love.” My blog: #Signs of Love. I find Love in the form of hearts everywhere I go – in dirt, in rocks and leaves, water, shadows and food and post them on Instagram. You might say Love is my thing, so they probably thought I’d have a thing or two to say about.
I’m going to start with my favorite poem about Love by e.e. cummings.
It’s called “i carry your heart with me.”
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go ,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
I had a copy of that poem hand-calligraphied for my husband Tim for our 5th anniversary. The first line is inscribed on the inside of his ring. It has always spoken the truth of how I feel about him. When I was younger, I was afraid it made me sounds a little clingy, but after 20 years, I don’t worry about that. I know that Love goes and grows even deeper than that, even deeper than I thought possible. For me, this poem is about love on a cellular level.
Love doesn’t just happen up here, in our heads, in our decision to care and commit to someone. It doesn’t happen just here, in our hearts, in the way we feel about them. Love happens here – from my head to my toes. Love happens with every breath that we take.
Quantum physics has discovered that something like Love actually exists on a molecular level.
An atom’s attraction to another atom – it’s not just random, like I always thought. It’s actually deeply personal in some way, as strange as that sounds. There are billions of atoms bumping into each other all the time, but they don’t get together. They wait until the find the right one and when atoms choose each other, they willingly give up some part of themselves, so that they can come together, and be balanced. What happens between those two particles is selfless, creative and life-giving. Together they create something new, something more complicated, but generative too. They are no longer two, but one and that brings life to the world. It isn’t just hydrogen, it isn’t just oxygen any more; it’s water.
One of my favorite writers and mystics, Teillard de Chardin, who was a scientist as well, claimed “the physical structure of our universe is Love” and I couldn’t agree more.
In 1 John, the writer states: “God is Love,” which we’ve turned into a totally overused phrase, I know. But when we say “God is Love,” I think that’s actually what we’re talking about. God is Love and Love is actually the physical structure of the universe. Love is the energy that sustains everything, through continual selfless, creative and life-giving actions. And so when we commit to Love, like Todd and Amanda are today, they are committing to a practice of selflessness and creativity, so they can bring new life to the world – not just in the form of grandbabies for Bruce and Clara and Ramona – but new life to the universe itself, in ways they can’t even fathom, but that I am sure God is counting on them to deliver. God’s counting on all of us to deliver.
Like the atoms we are made of, Todd and Amanda, you’ve made a choice for each other. Out of seven billion men and women in the world who bump up against each other every day, you’ve said, ‘That’s the one for me.” You’ve willingly given up many things to be here today: treasures from your past and perhaps even some dreams for your future. And everything about this wedding, from the invitations to the table settings to the ceremony, speaks of your creativity, which I now hope you will pour into your marriage and relationship.
When each of us is born, God whispers in our ear, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart).” There is no dividing us from God’s heart and today, you make that same promise to each other. Carry each other’s hearts lovingly, gently, patiently, honestly, compassionately and faithfully and I promise that the life you gain will “(grow higher than soul can hope or mind can hide).” It will be the very wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.
Fear no fate and want no world, other than the one you begin today in Love.”
I loved sharing those thoughts on Love, though I’m not sure they came across quite like I wanted them to. They came from my heart, but might have sounded a little academic. The mic kept going out, so I felt like a techno remix of myself, dropping syllables and beats as I went along. I would look out at the crowd of 250 blank faces and get scared, but then look back into the smiling eyes of the bride and groom, just a foot away from me, and relax. They heard me just fine.
It was also hard to choose what to include and what to leave out. There are a hundred poems on Love I could have shared from Rilke, or Shakespeare to Bono or Leonard Cohen. I wanted to talk about quantum entanglement, the importance of commitment, the risk/reward ratio of investing your whole life in someone else. Love involves all those things and more, but I had to make a choice. They asked for five minutes, not fifty, and so I spoke the truest words about Love I know.
Here are a few more things I know.
In our deepest being, Love is what we are made for.
If we are not Loving, we are not truly living.
Love asks us to die to ourselves, so something new can be born.
We have to be willing to let go of our dreams of perfection in order to keep Loving. If we refuse to grow and change, or keep others from doing so, we create a legacy of broken promises and broken hearts (especially our own).
Love is mutual.
It never requires only one to give and the other to take. If that is how your relationship works, it might be romance, or co-dependency, but it isn’t Love.
God is Love.
If you know Love, you know God. And if you claim to know God, but do not Love selflessly, creatively and in ways that bring new life to the world, you have a case of mistaken identity. You know a god, who is not God.
Love isn’t love.
We throw the word around carelessly, “loving” this and that, based on our expectations and emotions, but what the world calls love is not Love at all. It’s a cheap imitation based on infatuation, without integrity. It can become Love, but it doesn’t start out that way. Love with intention, which “grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide” will change the shape of our lives and if we lean into it, the very course of the world.
I write these words from my experiences of trying and failing to Love with my whole heart, over and over again. I have been committed to the same man for over 23 years, more than half my life. I have given birth to four beautiful children and have had the privilege of raising three of them. I have two parents, three siblings, eleven in-laws and dozens of relatives and friends. I have met thousands of people along the way. I have tried in some way to Love them all. I have failed as often as I have succeeded, but I hope I’m getting better with age and practice.
I have studied Love, watched Love, written about it and found it written in the ground beneath my feet. But it still surprises me. It can take my breath away, sometimes with its beauty and sometimes with the impossibility of what it is asking me to do. You want me to Love that? I find myself thinking when faced with an extremely difficult person, situation, or institution. Yes, is always the answer.
And so I keep trying, because I have been Loved by Love itself.