Monday, December 31, 2012

How improv saved 2012

Washington Improv Theater, "Seasonal Disorder" run, Dec. 2012. Photo by Xavier.

Thanksgiving 2012, 11 p.m. New Mexico time. I was sitting in my married friends' guest room in Albuquerque, with another friend in the next room, thinking about our long, casual, laugh-filled holiday thanks to pervasive giddiness about being together in person again and also to board games like Taboo.

For the first time since I'd stepped off the plane, I was in silence. Posts had flown around social media all day on what everyone was thankful for, but I hadn't really participated. Not because I wasn't thankful for anything (I certainly am; read how my dad so beautifully summed it up), but because I wanted to push myself beyond the obvious blessings in my life and pinpoint a source or cause of gratitude I hadn't adequately acknowledged yet.

I thought back through my year. It included: a breakup, my grandfather's death, a parent's brush with cancer, family employment turmoil, up-and-down dating, increasing work ennui, and all-around transferred stress from friends and family who were unanimous in their analysis of 2012 as "a pretty crappy year."

The year brought a torrent of tears and many sleepless nights, for sure. But as I flipped the mental calendar pages and examined their throughlines, one bright thread emerged: humor. And not just any humor, but improv specifically.

Thanks to improv -- an activity I started in January and kept up throughout the year -- I feel faster on my feet. I am more relaxed in the present moment. I am more accepting of the unknown. I make people laugh, and in doing so I like to think I'm alleviating both our burdens, even if only for the span of a 15-minute set.

Thanksgiving giggles, Nov. 2012. Photo by Kristy.

Improv gave me an outlet. It gave me perspective. It gave me optimism and silliness and a renewed belief that life is not a vale of tears. It resurrected my childhood sense of play, and with it the personal understanding that we can add light or darkness to this world, and that I prefer to add light. Improv showed me that joy walks in on laughter's back, and humor helps invite them both in more often.

So for the as-yet-unknown 2013, I am already thankful:

Thankful for my silly, sarcastic, steeped-in-cheesy-vaudeville-humor family.

Thankful for my witty and clever friends who keep me on my toes.

Thankful for my coworkers, my classmates, my audience members, all of whom laugh with me and for me.

Thankful for my funny and friendly community of improvisers who took me in without condition and generously, unknowingly, lifted my spirit whenever I needed it most.

Thankful for levity.

Thankful for balance.

Thankful for giggling.

The work ladies are not impressed with this post. Nov. 2012.

Prayer #235: Laff Track

Life has dark corners, but it has wacky ones too. Thank you for switching on the lights in forgotten rooms and reminding me that laughter likes to hide -- and be found -- in unexpected places.

Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A note on the end of the world

So close, yet so far. Photo by Anthony Citrano, flickr

Tomorrow, it is said, the world will end
and with it go long DMV lines,
taking off your shoes at airports, trying to
speak with the service reps in India.

Tomorrow, we've been told, the world will end
and take along its heartbreaks, large and small --
its dying kids, its bloody wars, the fears
that seep and creep beneath our dull routines.

Tomorrow. That's the date the world will end.
Yet so will evening walks and long road trips,
first kisses, last goodbyes, the million songs
we've yet to hear or write or partner up for.

Tomorrow, it is said, the world will end.
But not for me. Not for the hope I hid
under my bed, or for the joy I stashed
in mason jars last fall. And not for love.

Never for love.

Mere worlds cannot end that.


Prayer #234: Appointment

God beyond all day planners:

Deign to work in terms I understand, and circle a date for me when I can start fresh. Except ... not completely fresh, mind you, because I didn't know anything when I started the first time around, and I had to learn as I went, and I'm pretty sure that's where I ran into trouble.

Except ... maybe not completely in the know, either, because I have enjoyed discovering life as I go (for the most part), and I run into adventure as much as danger (for the most part), and I like to think there's more of that in store.

So ... circle a date. Not for a reckoning or a rapture, mind you (that seems a bit extreme), but more for an evaluation. A touchbase. A "hey, how you doing, what's next" sort of thing.

If it's on my calendar, I'll be there. I hope You will too.

Until then ...

Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Fire is the only fruit of Winter"

Photo by 0olong, flickr

Today's text comes courtesy of Khalil Gibran, poet and mystic:

The Life of Love XVI: Winter

Come close to me, oh companion of my full life;
Come close to me and let not Winter's touch
Enter between us. Sit by me before the hearth,
For fire is the only fruit of Winter.

Speak to me of the glory of your heart, for
That is greater than the shrieking elements
Beyond our door.
Bind the door and seal the transoms, for the
Angry countenance of the heaven depresses my
Spirit, and the face of our snow-laden fields
Makes my soul cry.

Feed the lamp with oil and let it not dim, and
Place it by you, so I can read with tears what
Your life with me has written upon your face.

Bring Autumn's wine. Let us drink and sing the
Song of remembrance to Spring's carefree sowing,
And Summer's watchful tending, and Autumn's
Reward in harvest.

Come close to me, oh beloved of my soul; the
Fire is cooling and fleeing under the ashes.
Embrace me, for I fear loneliness; the lamp is
Dim, and the wine which we pressed is closing
Our eyes. Let us look upon each other before
They are shut.
Find me with your arms and embrace me; let
Slumber then embrace our souls as one.
Kiss me, my beloved, for Winter has stolen
All but our moving lips.

You are close by me, My Forever.
How deep and wide will be the ocean of Slumber,
And how recent was the dawn!

---

I write this post in a semi-dark church. Not a quiet church, though. The baptismal font in the center of the aisle is gurgling, the Hispanic Heritage Group is celebrating in the foyer, a fellow choir member stops by to say hi.

I am here waiting for practice to begin. I am here escaping the misty gray chill so typical of a mid-Atlantic December day. I am here trying to stay awake after a much too-late night of improv and socializing, and I am thinking the slumber of winter might not be such a bad thing after all.

I learned about this poem at a chorale concert a couple weeks ago in a song called "Winter" by Z. Randall Stroope, based on Gibran's text. Those lyrics, however, are modified -- a gentler version of Gibran's bone-deep melancholy that makes it seem like the poet merely has seasonal affective disorder.



What strikes me about the original "Winter" text is its palpable grief -- its mourning at separation, its loneliness, its desperate plea for a peaceful end. Spring, Summer, and Autumn all get conjoined to happy occasions, but Winter is reserved for death. It is a somnolent thief, snatching everything "but moving lips."

But "Winter's touch" isn't all bad. It has brought the narrator and his lover together one last time. It has prompted them to reflect on the life they've shared. It has illuminated with a flickering fire "the glory of [their] heart."

In this respect, Gibran might as well be speaking to God as to a lover. Because it's not always a matter of keeping the dark and cold away; it's about inviting the warmth to your side and letting it hold you.

Right now we in the Christian tradition are in the Advent season, where we wait through the darkest point of the year for the coming of God. So it does me well to remember, as I sit in the semi-dark church with winter squeezing in through the cracks, that even if fire is the only fruit of winter, it's a damn good one to have.

Prayer #233: Come Close to Me

The letter has yet to arrive. The phone has yet to ring. The carrier pigeon has yet to collapse in fatigue on the porch. But I know it's coming with a message meant only for my eyes, and for that I wait at the drafty back door, wrapping my sweater tighter, keeping watch.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An open letter to the love of my life, part 2


Dear love of my life,

Hi again. I wrote to you about a month ago -- did you reply? I haven't gotten a signed letter or a number identified as "LOVE OF YOUR LIFE" on my phone, so I can't be sure.

I've continued thinking about you. Your (presumed) absence is driving me bonkers, but I'm recasting the crazy as practice for when I'm crazy about you. As crazy, I hope, as you'll be for me.

Once when I was mourning a waning love with vast amounts of tears and snot, my patient listener let me moan and groan for a good 10 minutes, and then she asked, just once: "Are you crazy about him?"

I couldn't answer her. Because I knew if we had the kind of love that would see us through to the bitter, sweet, complex end, the answer should be yes. But I couldn't say yes. So I didn't say anything.

And there was my answer. To everything.

That's what it's going to come down to in the end. We're going to be wild about each other. We're going to crack each other up, go on play dates well into our 90s, tease our kids mercilessly, hold hands at the grocery store, attempt to eat healthy together but always resort to ice cream, look around rooms to see if the other has come in yet.

You'll be crazy about me. I'll be crazy about you. No big questions. No big doubts. Just calm assurance from the still, small voice.

In the meantime, however, I am descending into a pit of emotional wackiness and overblown chocolate consumption. Feel free to get in touch soon. We could all use a break.

Love,
Me

---

A note on this week's post:

I received so many incredible responses and thoughts to the first Open Letter post that I had more than enough goodness to crowdsource a second prayer. So, here you go ... love in everyone's words, take 2.

Do you want to ring in and help take us to Open Letter 3? Leave your thoughts on love found, love lost, and love still searching in the comments!


---

Prayer #232: An Open Letter to the Love of my Life (part 2)

I will tell you you're the best.

I also will apologize when my dog chews your shoes, gnaws your clothes, and steals your food. I know this will happen because no matter how old my dog is when I meet you, he will still be eating things he shouldn't be eating.

I look forward to thanking you for the chocolate cake you'll bring home for every occasion, because you will know me well enough to know that I love chocolate cake about as much as you, and you'll be fine with that. (I'd also like to thank you in advance for sharing the last cookie with me.)

I can't believe how excited I will be to see you every time I get to see you. Let's hug tightly, kiss passionately, act meaningfully, live fearlessly, and love unconditionally, no matter what life brings us.

Be warned: I won't know how to love you the way that you want, need, or deserve at first. But I will do everything I can to learn. For you, I will never stop learning how to love better. And I know that you will do the same for me.

We'll both understand that love is not an emotion, it's all emotions. But more than that, love is a decision -- the best decision we will ever get to make.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged.

Missing me one place, search another.

I will have stopped somewhere, waiting for you.

At that point, I'll feel like I waited forever. But then the rest of my forever will feel the way it should -- happily complete -- with you by my side.

Love will be found ... and hopefully found again, and again, and again, all with the same person. Because I love the idea of rediscovery -- even if I did learn it from Journey's Faithfully.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To sit in judgment: What jury duty taught me about justice, conscience, and the American way

The jury summons. November 2012.
"Madame Foreperson, have you reached a verdict?"

The court clerk was staring at me. I stood up, sealed envelope in hand, and answered on behalf on 11 other people, "I have." I handed the envelope to her. She handed it to the judge. The judge wrestled with the seal for a minute, pulled out five papers that had my signature on them, and began to read.

"One count of robbery: guilty. One count of robbery: guilty. One count of abduction: guilty. One count of abduction with intent to defile: guilty. One count of statutory burglary: guilty."

Each "guilty" dropped like an anvil in the center of the courtroom. I didn't look at the counsel, the victims, or the defendant. I just kept my eyes trained on our calm judge, for whom putting people away was routine.

I, on the other hand, was ready to hurl all over the scales of justice.



The jury summons had come a month earlier. It was the first summons I could actually fulfill, so on the appointed day I bounced into the Arlington Circuit Court overflowing with civic pride and expectations of Law & Order.

I had a feeling somewhere deep in my fate barometer that I was destined to serve on this jury. So when my name was called to join the juror pool, I did my utmost to demonstrate the integrity and impartiality I hoped was in there somewhere. The vigorous nodding and laser eye focus did the trick; within a couple hours the trial had begun, and I was in the jury box along for the ride.

It was a criminal case. An African-American man stood accused of breaking into the Best Western Pentagon and robbing two older Canadian tourists (a mother and a daughter) on one of their regular road trips through the U.S. The Commonwealth of Virginia was prosecuting on the victims' behalf.

Evidence was circumstantial at best, resting largely on the eyewitness testimony of two women who'd been covered with hotel blankets most of the time the robbery took place. Security camera footage was fuzzy. Paperwork was patchy or inconsistent.

Though the prosecutor was polished and dramatic, his theatrics couldn't gloss over the thinning facts. And the defense, though they had several opportunities to highlight that, seemed to favor distractions or red herrings.

By the end of two days, with approximately 10 witnesses and lots of counsel posturing to absorb, I didn't feel much clearer than when we started. The concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" kept replaying in my mind:

The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

The prosecution hadn't convinced me this man had done it. I could still think of a few other logical explanations. And I wasn't about to convict someone on "likely" or "probable." How could the other jurors feel any differently?, I thought. Surely deliberations would take 30 minutes.

With that, the judge dismissed us, and we headed back to the chilly jury room.



We were a group of 12, with nine men and three women. Most skewed 40 or above. A couple of us were around 30. We were lily-white save for two Hispanics. Everyone struck me as well educated and pleasant.

The clerk instructed us to choose a foreman. The other jurors clasped their hands and looked around expectantly. No one stepped forward. I, ever abhorrent of a vacuum, raised my hand.

"I haven't done this before," I said in an attempt to set reasonable expectations, lest I derail the entire legal process while on a learning curve. "But I'll do my best." Everyone nodded and smiled. It was time to begin.

Contrary to my confident assumption, we were split as a group: six convinced that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient and the eyewitness testimony reliable, and six convinced that the case hadn't been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Open and shut it was not.

I started covering the white board with notes and lists. People wandered around the nippy room clutching coffee cups. We watched the surveillance footage on a locked-down laptop. We discussed different styles of skull caps and debated about what warranted "suspicious behavior." I noticed a few people had tendencies to veer into procedural-drama-type speculations, as if we were playing at CSI.

Everyone stayed fairly calm, except for a tense moment when one juror erased half of a discussion list and another juror chewed him out. I rewrote the list. The first juror apologized. The second one stewed. And on we went.

After two hours and a lunch break we were split 9-3. After two more hours, we were 12-0. Unanimous. Ready to rule.



The clerk brought in the verdict forms and handed them to me. Each required me to handwrite in our decision and then sign it on behalf of the group. I spread out the five forms in front of me -- simple Word docs that had been printed off in a back office and were now about to alter the course of a man's life.

We voted around the table once more on each count, just to make sure we were all in agreement. The chatty group lapsed into a sober silence. The only sound was my pen scratching. I thought about the weird fact that these forms would probably go into a vault somewhere until fire or the march of time destroyed them, and that my signature from this point/day/moment in my life was forever linked to them.

The pit in my stomach went 10 feet deeper. A terrible rush of adrenaline surged through my body. My vision swam for a split second, and my hands turned to ice. I knew in that moment this was a power trip I'd never wanted to have and wasn't relishing now.

Still, I finished signing them. And out we went into the courtroom to reveal our decision.



As the prosecution presented immediately following our verdict, the defendant did have a prior criminal record -- gun possession, sexual assault, robbery, just to name a few. He'd already been in jail a few times too. I could feel some of the burden lift from the jurors' shoulders (or maybe it was just mine?) at this reveal, knowing that his record increased the probability of his guilt.

Ultimately, we sentenced the defendant to 95 years. (Full story and ruling here.)  Then we packed our bags, put on our coats, and headed our separate ways.

Only then did I realize I'd never learned everyone's names. We'd been unintentional yet complicit partners in anonymity, sharing these three days, this major decision, and nothing more. I felt a little lonely as I headed toward the metro. Who else would understand?



I know now why we have so many law dramas depicted on film. Where else is human nature on such bald display? What else so well encapsulates our hubris, missteps, hope, desperation, fear, elation, and indecision? Even with a "lesser" crime in judgment, I felt swept up in the victims' emotions, the prosector's intensity, the judge's soothing oversight. Imagine what happens when even more is at stake.

But what's really been gnawing at me since the trial ended is this question: How can we ever really know? How can we as humans really sit in judgment of others when we weren't present, when we bring our own prejudices and experiences to the table, when we are expected to reach decisions with a set number of other strangers?

Moreover, why am I feeling guilty for assigning guilt to someone else? The defendant had the same moral choice that any person does, and he chose to break into a hotel room and rob two little old ladies. Had he chosen differently, none of us would have been at that trial for three days. So why am I reluctant to put him behind bars for a decision he made?

I've determined it's a matter of transferred conscience -- that because this man's conscience failed him at a critical moment, I had double the responsibility to follow mine in this moment. I had to do my utmost to set personal opinion and bias aside and rule strictly on facts. I had to rely everything I've ever learned about values, societal expectations, and our legal system's checks and balances, and let it guide a fair decision. (Or one as fair as is possible.)

We could get into a whole discussion here about why we as society choose to levy justice, or why justice might be best left to a higher, more final authority, but all I know for sure is how my stomach felt when I signed and handed over the verdict forms. My entire moral education came to bear at that point. I think I made the right decision. I hope I did.

Prayer #231: Judgment Day

If I'm ever asked to sit in judgment, Lord, let it be with full faculties, deep humility, wide discernment, and a firm grasp on my own imperfection so that I understand the impossibility of sitting in judgment at all.

Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Awesome" is a self-fulfilling prophecy

Awesome billoard. Photo by musedTM.

Believe you are awesome, strive to be awesome, and true awesome will follow.

That's the theme of this week's post, and perhaps will be the theme of the year, and should probably be the theme of our lives. Why am I saying it now? Well, first read the following story from a dear friend who asked that I share it, and then we'll chat. [I've edited for length, emphasis, and anonymity.]

This past weekend I went to a wedding. The bride is a good friend of my spouse's. She was a beautiful bride. Her dress was gorgeous, she looked stunning, and her soon-to-be husband got tears in his eyes when he saw her walking down the aisle. It was such a beautiful day.

But ... the bride spent the entire morning and afternoon before the wedding putting herself down. It was a day full of criticism. She stated over and over that her shoulders were too wide, her hair wasn't right, etc.

She even took some time to bring up things that were wrong with her on my wedding day when she was in my bridal party. (Ironically, I only remember her looking pretty on my wedding day and I have no memory or photo evidence of her looking the way she thinks she did.)

When she was putting herself down, she wasn't complaining in a way to fish for compliments. It was more like she was just stating facts about herself, except that everything she was saying wasn't true. She is gorgeous. She just doesn't see herself the way the rest of the world does.

I cried when I told my husband how she was putting herself down. My heart broke for her because it was her wedding day. That is the day that a woman is supposed to feel gorgeous and happy and loved. I am not one of those women who have a ton of confidence (I at least think I look "OK" most of the time), but I can tell you that on my wedding day, I felt beautiful.

In fact, I think I never looked more beautiful than I did on my wedding day, because it was the happiest day of my life. I tell everyone that I spent most of my wedding day crying because I was so happy and it's true. I was marrying the love of my life, I was wearing a gorgeous dress, my family and friends were there to celebrate the event with us, I felt beautiful ... and all of that just made the day beautiful.
And when I look back at my wedding pictures, I don't nitpick about things the way I usually do. I don't look for a fat roll or too much teeth in a smile or bingo wings. All I see when I look at my pictures is how happy I was.

I wish I could have transported the feeling of those memories to this bride, because she should have felt lovely and not self-conscious about all of her imaginary physical flaws.

I guess this weekend just reinforced the idea that women need to stop telling themselves things that they wouldn't let another person say to them. I would get pretty angry if another woman came up to me and told me that my post-pregnancy mommy bulge is disgraceful, so why is it okay to whisper that thought to myself? And even worse -- believe it?

Women are their own worst critics. And I wish we would just stop. So much potential joy and happiness is lost in waves of self-loathing. You can never get those times back.

I wish the bride could have broken the cycle of self-criticism on her big day, and I hope sharing her story with you will help you, me, and other women remember that we should be happy to be ourselves and that we should stop the nitpicking.

I hope you don't mind me sharing this with you. You aren't the sort of woman who constantly puts herself down, but this whole situation bothered me enough to want to talk about it. And maybe talking about it will make other women take the steps to consciously try to stop putting themselves down so that at least the big events in their lives aren't marred by self-criticism.

Photo by ALEGNA MARIE

Ok, now we can discuss. A couple points to frame it:
  1. This story is about women and addressed to women, but I know men can treat themselves the same way. It's a human thang, so let's include everyone.
  2. The wedding in this story is a backdrop for a larger point.We could have a whole separate series about wedding day expectations, societal pressure, etc. But that's not the main peg here, so let's leave it be.
So you know where I'm coming from, my friend is right when she points out I'm not a self-criticizer. I'm blessed to have developed healthy, grounded self-esteem over the years. People believed in me early on, let me learn, fail, and grow on my own, and as a result instilled in me a strong sense of what I bring to the table.

In the core of my being I believe in my worth -- not just of my outward appearance, but also of my beliefs, my actions, my talents, my shortcomings, my potential. I really do tell myself on a regular basis that I am awesome, and on a regular basis I really do believe it.

Some of you might read that and think I am horribly arrogant and self-righteous. So let me state for the record that awesome does NOT equal perfect. Far from it, especially in my case where I have a long list of un-awesome things I've inflicted on myself and others. My point is that we still have to love ourselves first, ALL of ourselves, and that includes perceived and real flaws.

Then you can focus on self-improvement. Then you can challenge yourself to keep growing and learning. Then you always expect (demand?) that others treat you with respect, dignity, and grace -- the same respect, dignity, and grace I'm sure you're showing them. But you need the foundation first. You need to know you are worth it.

I was very much involved in my friend-the-narrator's wedding, and I can verify that she was over the moon on her wedding day. But let me tell you, she is as beautiful to me every day as she was that day because she carries love and joy with her. Her smile is every bit as radiant; her laugh is every bit as bright. And that has nothing to do with makeup and a good photographer -- it comes from kindness, gentleness, and openness.

I can guarantee you're equally awesome. The question is, do you believe it?

Photo by kelsey_lovefusionphoto

Prayer #230: Awesomesauce

Awe is wonder. Awe is dread. But awe is also veneration -- to honor what sits before you, to admire all its facets, to defer to where it can lead you and what it can teach you.

Why, then, are we scared to awe and be awed? Why do we shy away from acknowledging it and inspiring it? Why do we not look at the daily miracles at work in our own hearts and minds and say, "This is worth expanding. This is worth revering. This is worth exalting."

Force of awe beyond our reckoning, bury the nasally voice that says we are not worthy, and turn the knobs way up on the symphonic chorus that says we are. For if we listen to beauty, we become it.

Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Cold awakening: A reflection on Superstorm Sandy

After the storm in NYC. Photo by Barry Yanowitz, Flickr.

The lights flickered once, then twice, then off.

The cold didn't rush right away. It glided in like a young girl on ice skates, oblivious to sharp blades and hard falls.

Once it did arrive, I had nothing to do in the dark gray hours but keep it at arm's length. I avoided my own hands so their iciness wouldn't petrify me on contact. Warming soon occupied all my energy and thoughts. (That, and praying the house didn't burn down from one forgotten, whispering candle.)

The premature dark sunk its fangs deep into my bones. I couldn't shake it loose. I couldn't slip into sleep when warmth was leeching from my body, gasping at the night, and disappearing with no further fanfare. I had to let the cold come close, close enough to taste its metal, touch its prickly hide, smell the hidden blue snow building somewhere in a vast back room.

It sat around me for hours. Every so often it inched closer, twitching its eyes in the opposite direction and whistling while it did, as if to pretend the inevitable wasn't happening. Soon we were holding hands. I knew because I couldn't feel mine anymore.

And when the dusk succumbed to real night -- a transition my body didn't notice -- and all that remained were lightless shadows, I thought only about the tip of my nose, how I had no dignified way to warm it, so instead I considered it an Eskimo kiss from a ghost.

Prayer #229: What Superstorm Sandy Taught Me

Cold is easy to bear when you know your power will come back in a day, and you can pile on warm, dry sweaters while you wait, and you have friends to stay with if you're feeling grouchy.

Cold is easy to bear when you don't have to file insurance claims, or rebuild your home, or mourn a community.

Cold is easy to bear when you are not the one hardest hit, when you are not really the one they are talking about when they say, "those affected by the natural disaster."

In light of all this, cold seems fine.

So today I pray for warmth for those without it, for light, for energy and comfort and a return to near-normalcy, for the blessed boredom of routine. I pray that we who have it help others get it back. And I pray that we all gain the grace, amid the chaos and disruption, to notice what life looks like when stripped to its bare essentials.

Amen.

---
Please consider donating to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts. Donate online at www.redcross.org, or mail a check to: the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C., 20013. To donate by phone, call 1-800-RED-CROSS or give up to $10 by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An open letter to the love of my life

Waiting? Photo by K U M Z
Dear love of my life,

I think of you when I'm cooking dinner. When I'm running errands. When I'm wearing sweatpants. When I'm feeling pretty. I think of you in all the small, in-between moments that comprise 90% of our lives, yet are so much more noticed when you have someone noticing them with you.

I think of you at the holidays, too. At weddings. At funerals. At births. I think of you in all the moving, seismic shifts that comprise 10% of our lives yet feel close to its entirety because these shifts remind us why we're alive and that we're living them together.

I think of our kids, our vacations, our dates, our fights, our accumulated history that as of today hasn't started accumulating yet (at least not to my knowledge). I think of all we will share, and I'm impatient, because I know we're going to be awesome and I want the awesome to start RIGHT. NOW.

I don't think of your face. There are 6 billion people in the world. You will look like a combination of two of them. That's all I know.

I do think of your heart and mind a lot, though. Don't ask me how, but I just know, somewhere in an untapped part of my heart, how they look. They are bright. Kind. Compassionate. Feeling. Loving. Funny. Adventurous. Thoughtful. Good.

Good.

That's the conviction I summon when couples walk by me in the busy city and their locked hands pack a double fist to my chest. That's the assurance I cling to when I see two people blossom into their best, most loving selves with each other. I know that you are good, and that you are out there, and that you are waiting.

It's bigger than waiting, though, isn't it? You're preparing. Just like me. You're out there with your friends, your family, your job, your life. You're cooking dinner, running errands, attending weddings and funerals, visiting your family. You're watching others pair up. You're wondering who is out there for you. And every triumph and tragedy -- every moment when you're lonely, confused, content, or overjoyed -- is molding you into the person who will want me.

Who are you? Where are you? When are you? The questions roll around a lot in my mind. I know better than to expect the answers in a given timeframe. It doesn't keep me from asking, but really, I do know the answers will come in due time. Or, at least, I hope -- trust -- they will.

Until then ...

Expect and demand the best -- of yourself, of me, of us. Prepare for imperfection from all sides. Get excited. Stock up on Post-It notes to leave me around the house.

And be good, ok?

Love,
Me

---

Now, a note on this week's prayer:

As I was brainstorming this post, I asked people on Facebook and Twitter, "What would you write to the love of your life (found, lost, or still in search of)?"

I received so many poignant, funny, heart-punching responses that I decided to mold them together into a crowdsourced meditation. It's far from complete, so if you have open letters of your own you'd like to share, please add them in the comments!

P.S. All the comments from those who have found love started with "thank you." Coincidence? I think not.

---

Prayer #228: An Open Letter to the Love of my Life

Thank you.

Thank you for believing in me.

Thank you for loving me for me.

Thank you letting me change and loving me for it.

Thank you for understanding my crazy, determined attitude and embracing it.

Thank you for being the only one who can put up with all my crap.

You are my inspiration and my best friend. My life is so much better and happier for having found you. I'm glad you love this life as much as I do, and I'm not sure what I'd do without you.

See the way the city has become so magical? Every place -- every diner, movie theater, sidewalk, park bench? This is great, this feels like a miracle ... but this isn't even the half of it.

We have many ups and downs, but still I say: thank you.

Thank you for helping me grow up. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being willing to soften and for being willing to push me to soften where I need to.

It's funny to think about how those sweet picnics under the stars are really about moving us forward on the journey -- the super-serious, capital J Journey -- to something bigger, more, beyond our little selves. Thank you for being on that journey with me.

I didn't have the slightest clue for so very long. But here we are. And now ...

Now I can't wait to meet you.

I see you -- do you see me?

Please exist. And please hurry up.

Because once we meet, the rest will all make sense.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Poet Mary Oliver (and my friend Chuck) on wonder

"A wise man is astonished by everything."
Photo courtesy Todd Huffman, Flickr.

MYSTERIES, YES
by Mary Oliver from Evidence (Beacon Press)

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

What does this poem mean to you?

When I re-posted the closing quotes on Facebook a few months back, my friend Chuck chimed in with a thoughtful rumination on the subtle challenge Oliver poses:
It's a balance between persistence and humility, something that I've always struggled with. Perseverance requires immense confidence in one's convictions. In order to be a bold, transformative force, to "be the change one wants to see in the world," one must be convinced that one has at least some of the answers.

It means having the courage to advocate a position and attempt a solution. It also means having the humility to avoid inflexibility and dogmatism; to change course when necessary.
I think he pretty much nailed it ... and gave me a slight complex in the process, because HOW THE HELL ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO ACHIEVE THAT?

I suppose the first step is to follow Oliver's advice and surround yourself with people who maintain wonder. Maintaining wonder doesn't mean indecision, naivete, or wishy-washiness; it means looking at the world with clear eyes and staying open to the endless awe it can inspire, even amid your chosen paths.

Yeah. That sounds good. Let's start there.

Prayer #227: The Wonder Year (part two)

When I stray too close to the naysayers, push me behind you and block the path. When I drift too far from the exclaimers, sling me back into their orbit. And when I glimpse the universe in all its bigness -- bigger than I can comprehend yet love no less -- join me in my sudden, breathless laughter.

Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What happens when a dream catches up with you


There he was: Avi, the one-named author of more than 70 books for children and young adults, whose massive output includes The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, one of the novels that inspired me to become a writer. He was standing right there, being friendly, normal, and impossibly human.

I, meanwhile, couldn't breathe.

And while I was busy not breathing -- instead reliving the many hours I spent with Charlotte Doyle wondering how I could make that same magic happen across sheets of paper -- the tent filled with other word nerds of all ages who had flocked to the National Book Festival that weekend to celebrate stories well told.



Ever the overemotional ninny, I watched child after child crowd the microphone, eager to ask Avi their burning questions: What inspires your characters? How do you do your research? How many drafts do you write? What's your favorite part of writing? Have you ever run into any legal problems?

Avi was splendid with them -- always interested, never condescending, and clear and direct with all his responses. He respected every child first as themselves, second as his readers, and third as his "potential competition" in another few years.



As Avi shared his wit and wisdom with the overflowing tent, I welled up for a different, more profound reason. "Oh my god," I realized. "I can do this. This is a thing. And it's my thing. I can write and tell stories and touch people and talk to them and encourage them to do the same. I want this to be my life. This should be my life."

The conviction behind the thought overwhelmed me. I wasn't considering my day job or personal development; I wasn't project-managing the situation. I was simply stating what I wanted more deeply than anything else in the world.

The epiphany scared me shitless.




Knowing your goal, finding your tribe, acknowledging that what you want most in the world is absolutely okay to pursue because if the idea of it thrills you, imagine what reality will deliver ... that combination of ideas and lightning bolts has to be the most exhilirating and terrifying thing I've ever experienced (especially in a tent).

I have marching orders insofar as I've been ordered to march. I don't know where or how yet, and frankly, am not even sure how to figure it out.

It strikes me that an appropriate first step would be to write something awesome that only I can write. An appropriate second step would be to get it published before I leave this mortal coil.

Beyond that, I think I will have to make it up as I go.



So what now? What do I do after crying at Avi? All I have is a vision of me standing in a tent on the National Mall someday, speaking with children about books, imagination, and the mattering of words.

But that might be enough. Because that's what happens when a dream catches up with you in Technicolor HD 3D Smell-o-vision. You jump between wild hope and abject terror. You try to discern which questions are worth answering first, later, or never. You fend off the pitchfork-wielding self-doubt just long enough to get the job done.

You believe it in your heart, and you keep knowing it.

Sounds good. Let's start there.

Prayer #226: Vision

I have planted this vision in your heart, and it is meant for you, and you alone.

You will rail against me in frustrated moments. You will shove me aside in short-sighted weakness. You will question your judgement, and my judgement, and everyone else's judgement, and wonder why you're sticking to a plan you can't see and don't understand.

Through all this I promise: the vision is yours, and yours alone.

Because when you succeed -- when all the gears click into place and unlatch the hidden chamber where I stacked your nascent abilities and you placed your wildest dreams for safekeeping  -- then you will thank me for revealing to you early on not your results, but your potential.

Amen.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An open letter to my graduate school professors

Dear Professors Turnbull, Walleye, Haruspex, Conflagrate, and other silly-named unknowns:

You don't all know me yet, but I'm Julia. Hi. I'll be in your Masters in Writing (Fiction) program for the next three years or so. Thank you, first off, for admitting me; you boosted my confidence, gave me hope, and took a large wad of cash from me within a matter of months. It was quite special.

I know you see a lot of students flow in and out of this part-time program as their schedules and daily lives permit, so I wanted to help you recognize me by offering these personal identifiers:

  • I will be the young-ish woman sitting as near to you as possible in the classroom without veering into Police "Don't Stand So Close to Me" territory. You may spot me leaning forward a lot, boring my eyes into your sweaty forehead and uncombed hair. This is not a come-on. This is me paying attention.
  • I will often be the first to raise my hand in response to your questions. Sometimes you won't even ask a question and I'll still raise my hand. I really like raising my hand. It makes me feel involved.
  • My gel pens are multi-colored. I don't doodle with them, but I do take rainbow-esque notes a) to maintain my own interest and b) to make myself feel more "creative." To that end, I might show up to class one day in Birkenstocks and a caftan.
  • I chose to enter this program because creativity frightens me. I'm terrified of unleashing the beast. So I'm devoting the little disposable income I do have to seek your counsel and discipline-instilling ways. Tell me I can do it. Tell me I must do it. Tell me to do it. Period. Especially when I'm too afraid to start.
  • If you get a writing submission in and it's kinda funny, it's probably me. An undergrad screenwriting professor once told me to sneak up on the big themes through humor (rather than through the underdeveloped, overwrought pomposity I was spewing at the time, though he was kind enough to not say that). When I allow myself to be funny, I relax; it seems to help the flow of things, and, as an added benefit, spares you another self-wallowing manuscript about deep thoughts.
  • I do improv. You might think this has no bearing on your class, but it does, because IMPROV AND WRITING ARE TURNING OUT TO BE EXACTLY THE SAME. Heightening. Consistent character choices. Strong initiations. Beats. Rise and fall. Points of view. It's all the same, except one puts me on the stage and one puts me on the page. Also, it means I will make random side comments in class that strike me as hilarious and everyone else as pathetic.
  • I've been waiting for this day since I was five years old. Not just the first day, but every day I get to sit in class and become what I've always wanted to be. Every journal, every blog post, every manuscript, every library visit, every night spent reading has led to this moment. I might wet my pants from the unceasing excitement. Just a warning.
  • I have a voice. Yes, everyone in the class does, I know. But mine is a little on the deeper side, not overly polished, and prone to loudness. I have found this voice carrying over to my writing too. My question to you is, am I using my voice the "right" way? Am I maximizing it? Can you tell it's me inside that story?
  • One day I will be published. Many of your students say it, but fewer achieve it. I will be one of the few. I'm just saying "one day" at the moment because it's open-ended and non-specific. It gives me plenty of time and room to fail miserably. You may no longer be in a classroom or even walking this earth when I finally deliver my firstborn writing creation, but I promise you, I will scream so loudly in exaltation you'll hear me wherever you are.
  • I have big hair. It's brown. Maintain a safe distance for your own protection.

Thank you in advance for nurturing my nascent ability, i.e. slogging through my pablum. I promise to make you proud -- or at least not make you cry.

Your in word nerdiness,

Julia



Prayer #225: Back to School

Write me in chalk. File me in a folder. Sit me on the Bunsen burner and turn the heat up high. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but so is time. So help me learn all I can, as I can, for I can. Education is a right, yet still a gift; keep me mindful of its power.

Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Make me as magnanimous as the sea


To learn how to thrive in this manic world, look to the ocean.


The ocean is sensory abundance. It sucks in your feets with gloopy mud and pelts your eardrums with bird chatter. It crafts alien sandscapes, ridged underfoot, that mimic rocks, mountains, and lunar plains in temporary miniature. The tidal pools end up warmer than the air; the silverfish glisten like lost New Year's earrings in the shallow holding pens.


The ocean works in concert with the sky. Together they shovel air and cast reflections. They take turns indicating what the other might do. There'd be no horizon if they didn't get along.


The ocean doesn't apologize for its off days or excuse its angrier moments. It already knows it is fiercer, gentler, and braver than you can ever hope to be. Such awareness breeds power, to be used with discretion, and the ocean proceeds with caution.


The ocean carries primordial insight that ignores humanity's fussy mechanations and proceeds in time-tested, universe-proven, prediction-busting ways. We forecast the times of tides, yet we can't foretell what they will create or expose. To accept what emerges is the height of vulnerability.


The ocean is generous and expansive. It doesn't judge its guests, because if you've come that close, it must mean you can handle it. So handle it you will -- surprising everyone but the ocean.


Above all, the ocean nudges you to drop the pretense and relax against a force you know can hold you. And you're ok with that. Because once the wind and waves have stripped you bare, and the sand has sloughed off your crusty skin, only then do you breathe, as if for the first time.


Prayer #224: Shell Game

I found a blue jean shell on the shore, all denim swirls and azure strata. It winked wet in the sun, and I could tell it found comfort in the nearby crash of the waves. It was still near its home, near the once and future forces shaping it.

But when I took the blue jean shell back to my shelf, away from the water and driving wind, it blanched -- shocked, I think, to no longer hear the rhythmic pitches of the tides or gather salty droplets on its chipped edges.

The ocean, with its ubiquitous magnitude, achieved what my short-sighted, jealous adoration could not: It put its smallest tenant in the brightest light. It offered context, history, creation, destruction, a full era to create dazzling beauty. Whereas I attempted to freeze a moment, and in doing so, froze a life.

Lord, make me as magnanimous as the sea. Let me appreciate natural beauty as I find it, and never attempt to remove or change precisely what attracted me to its splendor in the first place.

But more than that, set my small mind adrift. And instead, cultivate a mindset that acknowledges a big picture I will never fully grasp, in a boundless world I will never fully see -- though, by God, I will try.

Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2012

What are we waiting for? Answer: TBD

Colorful wanderings of a pensive mind. DC, August 2012.
At the start of summer, I granted myself a mental summer vacation. My body had no plans to travel to far-flung lands or hole up at the beach, but I figured that didn't prevent my mind from meandering wherever it damn well pleased for at least three months.

Besides, I thought, it's been a hard spring. And I'm starting school again in the fall. Soon I'll be filled to the brim with thinking -- best to rest the noggin now.

My goals were straightforward:
  • Read a lot.
  • Schedule less.
  • Be outside more.
  • Go on a summer date.
  • Let my mind wander whenever, wherever it wants without guilt or censure.

I've achieved them all, I'm proud to say. My library card got a workout, spontaneity found me again, the summer heat didn't faze me, my summer dates (plural!) were funny and fun, and my synapses racked up major rewards on their Frequent Flyer program.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fall. My mind wandered in as much as it wandered out. Thinking became a contact sport -- all cyclical and circular, with dips, fits, starts, spurts, peaks, and pops to spare.

At first it felt self-indulgent. Then comfortable. Then uncomfortable. Then exhausting. And the biggest surprise was that all the wanderings and wonderings kept leading back to one core thought:

What am I waiting for?

Not in a "why don't you just do it?" way. I mean as in, "What, pray tell, is coming next?"

Why all the shaping, molding, and kneading recently?

What am I being prepped for?

Where will I arrive? And when?

[Side note: Not knowing the answers is killing me. KILL.ING.ME. To the point that when I took a lunch hour break last week, ostensibly for coffee, I instead ended up in front of the Mary statue at the cathedral where I bawled my eyes out and hiccuped, "What do you want? What now???" And I didn't have tissues. And returned to the office covered in snot. Classic.]

My spider sense tells me this is not a "final destination" scenario. I'm not moving toward a single endpoint, simply to the next stop. So everything I've accumulated this summer might be meant for the immediate moment or the next big phase (or maybe both). I just don't know.

Regardless, my brain and spirit feel mightily tilled, more than they have in a long time. They're tired, but expectant. Ready, even, in spite of my baser objections.

In which case, we'd best get to planting.

Prayer #223: Ready Freddy

Forgive me for feeling entitled, God, but You've put me through the ringer for months now -- years, even -- and I have my hand out for the pot of gold that justifies this crazy ride along the rainbow's stormy arc.

I am as ready as I'll ever be. Literally. I'm more ready now than I was an hour ago, and by tomorrow I'll be unstoppable, especially with a good night's sleep.

So let's get this show on the road. Time for the big reveal. Put me in, coach, I'm ready to fight. Because fight I will until You answer me.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The battle of the whole-hearted: Some thoughts on vulnerability

Stick figures have the worst luck. Photo by eddiemcfish.

Vulnerability is having sex with the lights on after your body has been through two pregnancies. Sounds funny, but that takes a lot of trust ...

--

[It's] putting yourself out there through writing. You open yourself to praise and criticism.

--

Being vulnerable is when you're most likely to feel the most, and get the most out of something. The scary part when you let yourself go is worth the outcome. Whether good or bad, you learn, and live more fully.

--

[Vulnerability is] dining alone in a restaurant. Some people love it, others find it the scariest thing in the world. I love it -- as long as I have a book.

--

Vulnerability makes you powerful ... Honestly, it was the first word that popped into my head. It took me a while to figure out why. Our vulnerabilities lead us to empathize, trust. That is the basis of the tribe/society. This applies on all scales and times. Tribes/society/working together is what has made homo sapiens what we are -- tech (farming, space craft), the arts, etc.

--

Signing a lease with a Craigslist companion? Moving in with people who are virtually strangers?

Trust. Risk. Emotion. Alone-ness. Power. All responses to a simple question I posed: What are your thoughts on vulnerability?

As a adjective, "vulnerable" comes off as dire -- "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage" (according to Merriam-Webster). Where's the incentive for exposure in that? Why ever be unguarded if the only results awaiting you involve wounds and damage?

I was reminded of vulnerability's double-edged sword recently when I handed my heart over to summer joy wrapped only in a thin layer of half-popped bubble wrap, with nary a question of what might happen to it. And it's probably best I didn't ask anything, because the answer would have included disappointment and a slight ego bruise, and I also would have avoided all the wondrous things I reawakened to alongside those less savory elements just to avoid the hint of pain.

Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability requires courage -- vast stores of it, in fact. Thus, when my little beleaguered heart came back to me gripping its tattered bubble wrap and looking shamefaced, I sighed, hugged it, and re-watched this beautiful TED video from social work professor Brene Brown:



Brown illuminates what we often obscure in our very human need to survive without and beyond pain. Even her point about the origin of the word courage -- that its original meaning was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart -- drives home for me that vulnerability is as much (if not more) about kindness, gentleness, authenticity, and honesty as it is about fear, doubt, shame, and self-recrimination.

As Brown says in the video:
... Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. [...]
You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
What cruel evolutionary tactic is at work in us that we trade nut muffins for purpose and meaning? Why would we ever declare ourselves unworthy of a full, rich, provocative human experience? Sure, have your pint of Guinness or your pint of Ben & Jerry's, have your angry drive or an ugly cry when you need to. Those are honest responses to real emotions.

But then open wide again and get back out there. You owe it to Life/God/Unidentified Cosmic Force to share your whole heart with passion and truth. Because we are worthy. We are enough. We are meant for this, and perhaps only this. 

Prayer #222: Am I Not Worthy?

You never intended me to sit behind a closed, fading curtain in a musty room, peeking out onto the overwhelming world only when unexpected noises interrupted my daytime television programs.

So when I shout "WHY?" from my careworn armchair and shake a half-hearted fist at you, keep replying "BECAUSE!", and shove my creaky bones into the human tides of the wakening street so I can see, in the bright hubbub and bustle, what You mean.

Amen.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"The universe wants to be noticed"

Golden threads. Photo by apophysis_rocks.

"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it -- or my observation of it -- is temporary?"

---

[...] I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed, and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn't get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn't gotten to be a person yet.

-- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars*

Am I living in a way that notices the universe?

Am I living in a way that looks through both ends of the telescope?

Am I living in a way that pokes dark corners with bare hands?

Am I living in a way that cannonballs into the riptide of human consciousness?

Am I living in a way that admits the possibility of a soul?

Am I living in a way that admits the possibility of oblivion?

Am I living in a way that acknowledges the end of living?

Am I living in a way that digs for the few, golden, permanent threads?

Am I living in a way that leaves me choked up,

because no matter what I believe,

this beauty is undeniable?

* Warning: Reading this book will set a million thoughts teeming and send a million emotions colliding and stash a million quotes in your journal/phone/Twitter feed ... and then lead to short blog reflections that don't come close to capturing how you really feel about it.

Prayer #221: On Notice

Lord, I can't explain
why this world moves me
to tears

maybe because it's so
daring and futile
by turns

but the bare fact remains
it does

so I can only ask
they magnify
my sight

and not obscure it.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A hurried post on patience

Time waits for no man. But Dog will. Photo by 1514.
Good things come to those who wait.

But good long waits come to those who can't wait. Such is cosmic irony. It's hilarious.

You know you should wait. Take a deep breath. Live in the moment. Let things unfold.

Screw that. It takes too long.

Instead you drum your fingers on the table and over your keyboards. You stare at your screen(s). You put friends on speed dial to talk you off your manufactured ledge whenever roller-coaster emotions threaten to nudge you off into the busy street below. You journal your excitement and cloak your anxiety and stock up on ice cream even though it's not on sale. You go to bed late without doing anything of note, and you get up early only to arrive 20 minutes late anyway. You're afraid to daydream because daydreams aren't guaranteed to come true. You can't help but daydream because it's the only state where you're productive. Are you sleepy or distracted? Confused or illuminated? Dare you trust instinct over intellect in this compromised state? Neither, you decide. So you let all your feelings collide in agonizing slow motion while you watch the clock over their frenetic heads, waiting for the planned-for, waiting for the wished-for, waiting for the unknown.

Then.

After all this cantwaitcantwaitcantwait ...

It's over. Done. Whatever it turned out to be. The flush of discovery fades. The zing of newness subsides. Reality re-forms around what used to make you toss and turn. You're left wondering why you rushed it in the first place. You wonder why it took so long yet went so fast. And instead you ask --

Was it worth the frenzy?

Was it worth missing the meantime?

Prayer #220: A Good Wait

God, see me through this, or I will explode all over the place in tiny messy bits that are likely to stain the carpet.

I don't want that. You don't want that. So let's work together, shall we?

Amen.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Joy: The good terror

Shy magnolia blossom. July 2012.

I have termed it "the good terror" -- when your chest is splayed open to the world and your heart tha-THUMPs, tha-THUMPs in broad daylight, unprotected and unguarded from all the joy flying at it.

Good because joy carries abundance and contentment with it; it wakes you up laughing. Terror because joy can frighten a body, especially when it piles on high enough to invite your distrust.

In what has been my happiest month yet this year, I'm trying to embrace the contradiction, and through these feeble attempts have rediscovered small joys that slipped through the cracks in bluer times. For example ...

Open-heartedness brought me back to cheese and crackers. To trying on flouncy clothes over a warm summer tan. To listening to a homemade mix CD right before dream time.

It prompted me to write today's prayer with a gel pen on college-ruled paper. I danced to Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club before a Saturday night date. I didn't turn on the stove all weekend, and in related news, ate caprese salad for at least two consecutive meals.

Joy, I remembered, is singing alongside African drums and holding hands during church. It's affirming a kindred spirit over a Sunday morning strata. It's that incredulous, grateful lurch in the pit of your stomach when someone moves in to kiss you.

The good terror doesn't need an invitation.

It doesn't even need a reason.

Just a yes.

It'll take it from there.

Prayer #219: Resting in the Joy

Sitting in the happy, resting in the joy,
taking just a minute to bask and loll within it
and appreciate the sunlight, unalloyed.

Setting down the worry, breathing in the calm,
warmth I've waited long for, my tears abating now more
than what once pooled into my open palms.

Asking not "why me?", saying now "yes, let's!"
Welcome respite, this, to saturate with bliss --
the kind of gift one never gives, but gets.

Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

We now know that we don't know: A birthday reflection

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added. -- New York Times, emphasis mine

When I visited my dear friend and college roommate Steph a couple weeks ago, we packed a metaphorical bag and six quarts of poetic trail mix and hiked down Memory Lane. It wasn't just stories and "where are they now" discussions; this round of reminiscing was multimedia-driven.

During the year we'd lived together at school (sophomore year, Lawrinson Hall, corner room), Steph had come to possess a camcorder that grew into an extra limb by the end of fall semester. (I know this doesn't seem impressive today, but given technology in 2002, having such a major piece of electronic equipment made you a minor celebrity.)

Steph took that camera everywhere. She filmed lip sync routines in our room, dramatic reenactments about cleaning out the fridge, running commentary around campus, car rides with high school friends. Nothing was off-limits. She just hit the red button and caught us all as we were: baby-faced, goofy, cocksure and scared shitless, with a surprising amount of time on our hands.

With a decade now between the students making the video and the women watching the video, and with our 29th birthdays approaching soon, we couldn't help but stand in awe of just how much had changed in and around us (starting with video camera technology).

Steph was feeling particularly reflective. She told me she'd found an old journal of hers where she listed what she'd have by age 30. It included:

  • Be married
  • Have one kid and/or be pregnant
  • Own my own home
  • Make $100k

She cracked up. "Well, that's not quite the reality, is it?" she said. No, not really, I agreed. I don't even remember what I once thought 30 would bring. Probably much of the same, especially the married-with-bebes part.

"We'll have to adjust our scale," Steph said. "Where do you think you'll be when you're 35?"

Hmm. Given our conversation to this point, I was reluctant to answer. I have no clue. In fact, the only thing I know now that I didn't know before is that we don't know and we can't know.

I can share what I'm hoping for and what I'm working toward:

  • Publish a book
  • Earn my MA in Writing
  • Travel to India
  • Find the love of my life
  • Pop out a bebe (and maybe another book)

Ultimately, though, life will take me where it wants. I wasn't predicting three years ago, much less 10, that I would still be in DC, that my job would have expanded, that I'd be on the cusp of grad school, that I'd be back on the dating scene, that I'd be writing picture books. Life swirled right along, taking my day planner and my false sense of security with it.

Trust me, I will still attempt to shape my future, as I will never be laidback enough to float along and take whatever comes. But I will also never be able to account for the economy, my health, drunk drivers running red lights, encounters with bad seafood, and other people's decisions.

Here's where you're thinking, "There goes Julia, veering into morbid birthday unhappiness land." I promise, I'm not saying any of this to be bleak. I say it because I'm hopeful. Life has been beautiful to me thus far. Whatever happens, I'll be a-ok at 35, however a-ok looks.

If anything, embracing poor fortune-telling skills relieves some pressure. I can't predict bad things OR good things. My wildest imagination might not be wild enough. Anything can happen (and I've been told that anything will).

So Steph, what do I want when I'm 35? I'd like to be satisfied with where I'm at. I want to have dynamic memories on hand and in progress. I hope I'm sitting back on a couch with you, talking about what 40 will look like.

That, I think, would be terrific.

Julia and Steph, sophomores no more. July 2012.


Prayer #218: Birthday Wish (29)

Imagination rests in the shadowy corner of the gray cage, its many-hued chest slowly rising and falling, waiting for me to release it.

Every so often, at my bidding, it steps forth for some mundane task. But I've never unleashed it. I've never challenged it. I've never trusted it.

This year, Lord, give me the courage to let my imagination run wild. Years are not bars, nor is failure. When heartache comes, don't let it calcify around what's boundless.

I wish for a vivid and visionary life. I wish for an imagination that can't recall captivity. I wish for faith in a wild creature.

Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The fullness of time: A take on The 'Busy' Trap

Busy bees. 2012.

Last week, in strange concurrence with the derecho-enforced quiet, Tim Kreider's article "The 'Busy' Trap" made rapid rounds across email, Facebook, and Twitter. The thesis of this New York Times piece? Busy-ness is self-imposed and over-inflated.

In it, Kreider claims:

[People are] busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. [...] Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

To which a nation of busy white collar worker bees said, "Damn straight," and then went back to their spreadsheets, having posted the article for other busy friends to read.

But this point wasn't what gave me pause. That honor goes to this quote (emphasis mine):

More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Think about that for a minute. The cats and boa constrictors tended to be doctors, teachers, construction workers, farmers. They played simple, direct roles in the world around them with clear outputs and services.

Now think about what you do every day. Does your job end up in children's books? Can you describe it in one or two words? Are you essential?

I can't lay claim to any of those points. Managing Editors aren't often rendered as household animals (That bear sure does love calendars!), nor is the job summary compelling (I oversee content!), nor would the government turn to me in the event of a nuclear holocaust (Thank god you're alive! Can you update our website?).

This sobers me. What, then, am I doing? What am I about? What, as Kreider puts it, is "earn[ing] my stay on the planet for one more day"?

I like to think that my nonprofit work contributes to a greater cultural good. That tutoring and sandwich-making through church puts a little social justice back into the world. That writing and singing add art to a grand human tradition. That attention to family and friends deepens connection.

All worthwhile ventures, to be sure. They also require time spent and time invested. And what keeps them (I hope) from veering into "busy" is fullness. Not every minute is a winner, but the overall quality of time spent leads to deeper satisfaction. The investment results in more tangible outcomes -- much more than the internal memos I spend half my time outlining. Given these pursuits, I feel like my fellow humans could find a reason to keep me.

For now, I will strive to make at least one, maybe two corners of my life full. I will give them my best, if not my all. What would the Richard Scarry characters do? I'll think. And then I'll proceed to do the same -- to create something I can hold, and achieve something I can share beyond myself.

Prayer #217: In What I Have Done

What have I done? What am I doing? What have I yet to do? And what will You do with me?

All noble questions that, in their answering, draw nearer to truth. Guide me there in enough time to do something with it.

Amen.