Hokusai, The Great Wave
Hokusai, The Great Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am water, not just a wave.

And as an ocean girl, I like the idea.

Practicing it, however, is awful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi All

I know it’s been a while since I last posted a blog. It’s not because I haven’t been thinking of you; I think of you every day, but I haven’t been sure what to say. Last month, I had some huge things to get off my chest about being honest and my fear of growing old. And this month, I had some huge things to do, like getting back into a classroom after a 10-year hiatus. I had to remember how to stand up in front of an audience for 3 hours, 2x a week and convince them that something they hate is something worth loving. I have to show them that something that is really hard to do can actually get easier if you work really hard at it. Sounds like an oxymoron and that’s what I feel like up there sometimes – a moron.

As you can imagine, I’m not a typical college professor, who takes herself too seriously. I’m just me, which means I’m silly and irreverent, but somehow underneath it all, educated, informed, intelligent and very good at what I do. While I might not take myself too seriously, I take my job seriously. I want to help young women and men become more proficient writers and better communicators. I want to help them breathe a little easier when they get handed an assignment, no matter what class, or job they’re in.

But transitioning from working at home to working at night has been a little shaky at times. The prep time, the paper grading, the rush hour traffic has put a serious crunch on my time.

It isn’t that I don’t have time to write; it’s that I don’t have the time to think about what to say. For me, this blog is a natural extension of my “thinking” time, my “praying” time, and my “being” time and there is a lot less time for those things. I am still getting up early; I am still spending some quiet moments with G each morning, but the thoughts that usually come from that time are fewer and farther between. My mind is on a writer’s strike. It wants more vacation days.

I was talking to my friend J the other day about not knowing where my life was going. There is a lot going on, but not in any one direction and she said a funny thing to me.

She said,

“If you don’t know where to go, pay attention to where you’re invited.”


I’d never thought of that before. Where am I being invited? Not parties, of course, but in life. What opportunities are being extended? What is being asked of me? What is being offered?

She suggested I look for patterns, to see where one invitation led to another and another and another. The universe is always evolving, always moving towards something good. We are a part of that evolution somehow. The more we say, “Yes” to invitations, the more we are co-creating.

The tricky part is discerning which invitations are the right ones – the life events we are actually supposed to show up for. Too often, I think we end up crashing someone else’s party.

Deep in our hearts, we know which invitations are the right ones, the ones we truly want to accept, but most us stick with our gut response, trusting the guilt that makes us say, “Yes!” to everyone and everything, or the fear that makes us say, “No!” to even the most beautiful, and transformative opportunities. (For the record, I’m a yes man, while Tim’s a solid no.)

It was with this idea of invitation in mind that I said, “Yes” to teaching English 101 for Vincennes University at Balboa Naval Hospital. My heart wanted to meet and know the enlisted, the veterans and the wounded warriors who would be my students. Tim didn’t really understand it (a lot of work for a little money), but it wasn’t his invitation. It was mine. And though it meant saying no to several other things, it felt like an invitation I couldn’t refuse and didn’t really want to.

I’m looking and listening for invitations every day and when I opened up Facebook this morning, there one was, front and center from my “friend,” Glennon on Momastery. She sends out these amazing invitations, huge, fancy, hand-written ones, the kind that make you feel like if you don’t go, you might be missing the party of the year.

But I need to remember; it’s just an invitation, like any other. It might be right for me, or it might be just right for you, so I thought I’d pass it along, just in case you didn’t get one directly from her. Don’t RSVP yes or no based on guilt, or fear. Check out the link and listen to your heart.

Read Glennon’s fancy, photographic invitation here.

Did your heart start to beat faster when you heard the stories?

Did a face, a smile, a word connect with something deep inside you?

Did you just discover that this is something that really matters to you?

Because that’s what the right invitation does. It gives you an opportunity to participate, to co-create, to bring about something new and good in this world.

And when you do it, God looks around and smiles and says, “This is good.”

Many, many years ago, I was a part-time faculty member in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at SDSU. It was my dream job – or rather, it was the job I dreamed of having, when having a job was just a dream.

At twenty-one, I was finishing up my B.A., applying to grad school, and engaged to be married to the man I loved. Tim and I went back and forth about whether I would get my doctorate and take a tenure track position wherever it was offered, or whether we would put down roots in San Diego and open a surf shop. Obviously, the surf shop won. One of the deciding factors was that I wanted to be a full-time mom to the kids we would have someday. While doing my research, I didn’t get the feeling that a university professor could take years off to lie on the floor and read board books and push around wooden trains.

So I dreamed of a part-time position, teaching and mothering in tandem, and my dream came true. From the time I got my master’s degree until I became pregnant with our third child, I had steady and regular employment at several different campuses around Southern California. And when I finally left, it wasn’t because things weren’t working out the way I hoped they would.

I left, because I wasn’t who I thought I was.

I had always loved to read and write. At twenty-one, I couldn’t imagine that wouldn’t always be the most important skill I had to share with my students and if I couldn’t teach them how to love reading and writing, then at least I could teach them how to do it well. So I taught them how to read critically, how to say what they meant, and sometimes even how to find something meaningful to say.

But after a few years of teaching, of watching students come in and out of my classroom, becoming better readers and writers, I realized that it wasn’t actually what I wanted to teach them any more. I realized that there were more important things I wanted them to know. I was teaching them how to write, but I wanted to teach them how to be.

Does that sound arrogant to you? Pompous? Conceited? If it does, you’re right and unfortunately, those words describe most of the college professors I had ever met, or at least the ones I disliked the most and I DIDN’T WANT TO BECOME ONE OF THEM. I didn’t want to be another authority figure, who ostensibly taught their subject matter, but in reality, filled lectures with their own personal philosophies. It didn’t matter if it was communism, atheism, socialism, patriotism, Catholicism, or simply hedonism. Although I couldn’t have named my ‘ism’ at the time, I knew I was struggling to teach without it.

And so, uneasy in my professional life, I carried on for another year or two, until I stumbled across an essay in an Oprah magazine from January, 2001. I still have the original page, tucked away in a file. It was written by Parker Palmer, someone I had never heard of at that point and it was called, “Are You Listening to Your Life?” Palmer’s words resonated with something deep inside me.

He said, “I was in my early 30s when I first began to question my calling, teaching at a university and doing it reasonably well, but I felt stifled by the confines of academic life. A small voice inside was calling me toward something unknown and risky, yet more congruent with my own truth.” He admired Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. He had read their work and allowed it to change him. He went on to admit that “Clinging fearfully to my academic job even though it was a bad fit, I tried to teach the way I imagined my heroes would. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable and sometimes grotesque, as when I caught myself preaching to students instead of teaching them. I had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a false life, imitating my heroes instead of listening to my heart.”

And as I read those words, curled up on my couch with a cup of tea on a January afternoon, he spoke to my heart and he broke my heart. I remember the tears streaming down my face and my heart beating faster. Becoming a college professor was all I had ever wanted to do professionally. I had never conceived of a time when I would not want to read literature, write about literature and teach literature. I didn’t even know what else I could do. I just knew what I had to do, even though it seemed impossible. I knew it was possible, because I saw him do it first.

Frederick Buechner, an author and theologian, defined vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I knew that there was a deep need for good writing instruction – any school principal, college dean, or business leader will tell you that, and I knew that I could meet that need; I was good at it. I had the reviews and renewed teaching contracts to prove it. But after my many years of teaching, I also knew that I would not find my deep gladness there.

I couldn’t teach, or preach in my classroom any more – it just didn’t matter enough to me if they knew how to write a thesis, organize an essay, or correctly punctuate a sentence. I still loved literature. I still loved being around young people. I still wanted to influence their lives. I just knew that my vocation was not teaching. I felt that staying in the profession was a disservice to my students and myself. It was no longer an authentic way of communicating who I was and what mattered to me. Maybe it was naïve to quit and get out of the work force, but I wasn’t able to see another way to listen to my heart and I had the privilege of making that choice.

For the next ten years, I found my “deep gladness” being a mother. As a bonus, nothing about that career choice kept me from sharing my “isms.” I didn’t have to hide my personal philosophy from “my students.” I was and still am allowed to teach, preach and even screech what I believe. As a matter of fact, it’s my responsibility to teach them how to be and as a bonus, I get to teach them how to write as well. It is one of the perks of my job, but as a full-time position, it’s rapidly coming to an end. They are all proficient writers, but even more importantly, they are beyond-proficient, decent human beings and so once again I have become uneasy in my “professional” life. While it has brought me “deep gladness,” I believe I can do more to “meet the world’s deep need.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I was “supposed” to do, a few years ago I started to write for an educational non-profit.  I began to speak to different groups when invited and last year, I started this blog. I hear from time to time that it has helped someone to think about how to be in this world and those comments always make me smile, because deep down I know I am still teaching, though maybe not in the traditional sense.

Ironically enough, I recently came across Parker Palmer again, this time in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Though I got it at the library, it is covered in my sticky notes, of different sizes and colors, some for me, some for Tim, and some for my friend T, who reads every great book with me. She already has her own copy on order from Amazon.

In the very first chapter, he lays out a problem many of people face, myself among them.

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished, or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.

At twenty, I pursued a career in good faith, thinking I knew who I was. At thirty, I took a leap and fully embraced it, but in the smallest terms possible, within the four walls of my home and the four people who lived there. At forty, I am knocking those walls down again, while trying to remain faithful to who I am and the truth I hold within. It is the truth I have learned over the last twenty years of teaching and writing, parenthood and marriage, business and friendship.

I am here to love. I am here to be with people, to support, and to serve them. In my best moments, when I am patient and humble and kind, I am here to help people see for themselves who they are and what they are capable of.

And it doesn’t matter whether I do it in a classroom, or a conference room, on paper, or in person. It is my vocation, “where my deepest gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

What is your vocation? What are you called to do in the biggest terms possible? How are you living it out?

That isn’t a loaded question. I think we all live out our vocation in at least some small way in our lives. It’s what gives us the ability to find joy, to smile and love and ultimately, to carry on, each and every day.