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“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went.  Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.

The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way:  A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.

An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory:  Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world.  In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.

The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.

I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.

So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.

“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.

The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.

“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.

This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.

They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.

This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened.  In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.

Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change.  Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.

It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.

And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.

Fish, Fowl, and this Waiting Time

I’m not usually a political junkie, but this year seems more like a morality play than an election, and I’ve been hooked, finding my equanimity tossed around by the story line as well as the political implications. It’s a biting-your-nails kind of time for me and for so many others in the world.

Action usually helps, so the first thing I thought to do was to vote. So I did. And mailed it in. It’s something we do here in Oregon without polling sites, voting booths and lines. But I’m still not done with this democratic ritual we call an election. First, there’s more to do. And second, a guilty admission: I’m a little too hooked on the dopamine of the Barnum & Bailey sideshow that has characterized this year’s election.

There’s something familiar here, I think. I’ve always found the stories of ancient and universal human experience helpful in such times as these. So I wasn’t surprised when a couple of words pop through the fog: liminal time. These are the words I’ve often used to describe the state of being neither fish nor fowl, having left the old life behind but not yet having arrived at the new one. In anthropology it describes “a threshold during the middle stage of a ritual when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” Neither fish nor fowl.

So I gave my Inner Researcher a job, and she turned up a gem. “Liminal time” is usually characterized by a quality of ambiguity or disorientation. During these times “continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.” Of course! We’re all in liminal time!

My researcher went on: “There’s a lack of the usual order of life during this in-between time. However, with a more fluid situation, new institutions and customs are able to emerge.”

Now I’m back to a turf I know for real. I’ve seen so many times how important a time of not-knowing seems to be for personal transformation. And so here we are as a culture, not knowing the future for a couple more weeks. Preparing for something new to emerge. I have seen this process again and again. Enough that I trust it completely. Now I know the territory.

When I work with clients, I remind them that this state of waiting can seem excruciatingly long. But again and again my peeps have found that the results are worth the waiting and the not-knowing.

This seems to be always the case. Patience and trust are not necessarily my strongest character traits, but I know I can do this.

We can all do this. Together. Not fish. Not Fowl. But some seaworthy and airborne combination of patience and determination worthy of what is to come.

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

My Mother, Myself, and the Shoe Worship Lineage

Today I’m packing for a pilgrimage back to the Midwest. First, I’ll be connecting with lifelong friends at a big number high school reunion. There’s always news at these events, but mostly it’s a simple celebration that we’ve made it through life’s obstacle fields and we’re still here.

As I put my turquoise shoes into the suitcase, my 87-year-old mother is already with me. She’s the biggest reason for the trip. Living far away from her as her memory fades, I’m reminded of a line of a poem by Lyn Lifshin: She was like a kite whose string I’d lost hold of, getting smaller and smaller.

I’ve been feeling a bit untethered myself lately, living halfway across the country from her.  So this trip I want to remember every minute the gift it is to spend any time together. We have so few opportunities left. This brings me to the subject of shoes. They’re the one thing that’s guaranteed to tether us to the present moment, to strengthen that string. Last spring, my mother fell in love with the very shoes I just packed. I mean serious love. These love affairs run deep in our blood, a part of our ancestral lineage.

Or it could be that it’s a little vein of rebellion within our sturdy German peasant ancestry.  My German-speaking great grandmother wore black lace-up oxford heels, a style that looks far more chic on models in magazines now than they did worn with her cotton stockings. Her mother was “Grossie” and as a child I thought this was a mean comment about how she looked in the photos, in dowdy flower prints and crocheted collars and lace-up boots. I later found out the name was commonly used in the German farming community as a form of respect.

My grandmother, her daughter, bought shoes of every color and style to show off her slender legs and ankles. We all called her Imelda, especially when we were packing up her pumps and heels in every style and color. Vanity was something she never surrendered during her ninety-plus years.

My mother should wear Mary Janes or tennis shoes that she can count on as she pushes her walker. But she’s not satisfied with these when I visit. Lately she’s insisted on getting exact copies, in style and color, of whatever shoe I’m wearing. Tan sandals with ankle straps, red slip-on wedges. Without the support at her arches, they fall…or she does, which might mean the dreaded breaking of a hip and all that entails at her stage of the game.

I’m torn between practicality and pampering as I think of savoring the time we have together.  So maybe during this visit I’ll wear straps and laces, red, purple, or pale, pale yellow. And maybe we’ll take a long, slow jaunt to her favorite shoe store and look for some turquoise.

My Inner Slacker vs. My Self-Improvement Junkie

This has been the perfect season for my highly competitive inner slacker. I’ve put up my feet and sipped ice beverages with the best of them. “Manana” has become my favorite word. All was good until I noticed that September is sneaking up behind me. And now Slacker Sue and Serious Susan have come to a face-off.

I sit right now in the mountains, savoring the summer air, listening to the nearby creek. I want to write about the stuff that folks from my home state Oregon are known for. Boring old Nature and mountains and beaches and stuff like that. The stuff of life.

The Purpose of Life

What All Animals but Man Know is that the Purpose of Life is to Enjoy It. -~Samuel Butler.

This bittersweet moment arrives every summer. The calendar flips and we’re in August. Not yet! We cry. There’s another month until Labor Day.

Some of us (as in me) wear blinders to the darker fall colors and school supplies subtly reminding us of what’s coming.

And yet. (And this is important): Fall is not here yet.

The Grace of the Sea Stars

Sea Star is the name of a watercolor in my office, painted by a friend years ago when she was traveling in India. She was on the beach in Goa watching the sea when a local woman, arms full of colorful, dancing scarves, swept up to her: “Sea Star, You want to buy? “ It took her a minute to realize that the woman was calling her “sister,” not selling her sea stars or starfish. Sea stars, or “sisters,” my dear women friends, have held me in kindness, given me tea and sympathy and laughter my whole life. The painting is a vivid reminder of the strength of this tribe of love.

And then there are the other Sea Stars, the variegated, orange and purple creatures of the sea that are also called starfish.

A Burn Center and a Kind Universe

Einstein famously said that the most important decision we can make as humans is whether or not the universe is kind. As I’ve practiced Positive Paranoia in my life, I’ve looked for evidence of a kind universe for the last forty years. Based on lots of evidence, my own jury has pretty much already decided. But my mind is still open to new proof.

A few years ago my son awakened in the night with his bed on fire. He got out alive, even though the Burn Center doctor said he shouldn’t have awakened because of lack of oxygen to the brain.

Positive Paranoia

1975. I’m 26 years old and my life is just what I always dreamed it would be, yet I’m raw and desperate. I’ve achieved all the things I set out to do: travel, happy marriage, a meaningful job. I’ve somehow proved myself Successful in conventional ways and unconventional ways, taking on all the tasks of being an acceptable member of the Counterculture of the time. And then, without knowing why, I hit a dead end.

It happens in a moment. I’m walking down the street and I suddenly feel flat and hollow inside. Not there. It seems like a dead end: there’s no exit in sight. I’m deeply scared, and my bed seems like the best refuge.

To Life As It Is

Only a few weeks ago I saw myself as a Recovering Rushaholic. I was experiencing a few days of peace and a deep sense of optimism. Just as the peaceful and hopeful and reflective Memorial Day holiday was ending, I pulled together my travel stuff, drove a couple of hours to an early flight, flew into the Heartland, drove another three hours, and spent a week in the muddle of family, caregiving, loving and experiencing losses first hand. My speed picked up. There was so much to do, to solve, and only a week to do it! By the time I capped the trip off with two doctors’ appointments and a twelve-hour reverse journey, I was past rushing. It’s taken three days for all my cells to return home. They seem to take longer than the luggage.

Rushaholic Recovery: An Unbecoming Tale

It’s been years now since I officially retired from my first career as a teacher. During most of these 25 years all the roles of life converged: Teacher (over 150 teens a day), Mother, Daughter and Sister in a family continually in crisis. Toward the end I also wore the hats of Author and Speaker, with a new book out (and that “baby” to raise).
I know. Cray cray. You can look it up in your urban dictionary. It’s a word for that means taking crazy to a whole new level. Times two.

Deep Spring

At my cabin in the mountains there are many deep springs. As in deep pools of water bubbling up from below, with temperatures ranging from cool to dangerous. The water below ground is visible because the mantle of the Earth is a little thinner here. Even though I know where the springs are, they’re always somehow a bit of a surprise, a catching of breath, a tender mercy of heat on a snow day or chill in a heat wave.

Since I love playing with words, I’m thinking of Spring (the season), in the same way. Here I was, trudging through the mud and rain, and I come upon a clearing. A deep pool. Not too cold, not too hot, a blessing of refreshment and inspiration.

The Daylight Bloom of Night’s Dreams

I’m a dreamer, and I respect (and sometimes remember) my dreams, in all their vivid and jumbled details. I made it a hobby more than thirty years ago to study them, at one time logging three or four dreams a night for several months. This has offered a window into the subtle realms of healing. From time to time, I delve deeply into the symbols and the details. This is great entertainment, but often there’s way much TMI to decode or recall. Over time I’ve found reason to trust the process, which is beneath and beyond what my conscious mind can grasp.

The Great Un-Doing of Spring

The early warning signs are so subtle at first… a swelling of the limbs, a softness of the breeze/breath, a whiff of possibility. I’ve usually been so busy DOING, strategizing and reacting to the demands of winter, that I barely notice the change around me. After all, my inner Drama Queen insists, we’ve been under siege, and Important Things must be done.