On Courage and a New Year

We’re closing in on the end of 2014 and the internet is full of year-end reviews, best of 2014 lists, and ambitious resolutions for 2015.  I’m a sucker for new beginnings and reflection, so obviously, I want to play too.

I have a fairly terrible track record when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions (either they’ve been discarded by February or I fail to set them at all) so last year I decided to choose a word to focus on in the coming year, a theme I wanted to manifest in my life that year.  It felt less specific than a resolution and in some ways, like taking the easy way out because a word is subjective and without specific benchmarks or quantifiable ways to measure its impact on your life.  So, basically, I’m confessing that back in December of 2013 I thought I had stumbled upon the Lazy Woman’s Answer to a New Year.  Boy was I wrong.

I chose the word courage and wrote these words on Facebook on New Year’s Day:

“2014 and I keep coming back to the word courage.  It sums up my hopes for myself and those I love in the new year.

This quote from “We Bought a Zoo” is often repeated in our home… “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.  Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery.  And I promise you, something great will come of it.”  

I have found this to be true and I hope that all of you can find that courage in the coming year when you most need it.  Whether it is the courage to try something new, create something, speak out, remain silent, forgive, trust, run a race, nap, wear appliqué sweaters with no irony…whatever it is, grab your twenty seconds.  There has never been a better time than now, because now is the time you have.”

I don’t consider myself a brave person.  I’mafraid of heights and tiny spaces and creepy dolls(which by the way includes most dolls).  But that  little word….courage….guided me through 2014 in ways I did not imagine in January when I typed out those words, and it continues to inspire my decisions.  It became the filter through which I asked questions and found answers.  I learned how different courage can look on different people, or even on the same person in different situations….like the way courage would nudge me to speak up and other times, remind me to just listen.  Focusing on courage encouraged me to ask questions about how to spend this one, precious life, and how to become comfortable living in the tension of those answers.  And the word kept popping up everywhere, though I’m sure that had more to do with my mental filter than reality, kind of like the way you see pregnant women everywhere when you are pregnant yourself.  It was in books, movies, and quotes on my Pinterest board like the following:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

Expansive life.  Those are bold words.  Bold, and if I’m honest, a little bit scary.  Our current culture is so consumed with the glorification of busy it is all too easy to read the word expansive and curl up in the fetal position.  Expand?  Where?  How?  Have you seen my calendar?  Or my laundry room?!?  I don’t have time to expand!

But here is the lie:  An expansive life is a busy life.

And here is the truth:  An expansive life is a life lived fully.  

This is a lesson that I have to learn over and over again, and no doubt will spend the rest of my life learning.  Each time I find myself staring at a calendar that is busy in a busy way, and not busy in a full way, I start making adjustments.  I start shrinking.  At first, it is a healthy shrinking, a sort of clutter removal to make room for the things I value.  It starts to feel really, really lovely.  All those beautiful white squares with NO PLANS and time for spontaneity and discovery.  I live in those days so well, loving the people I share them with and making room for interruptions.  But inevitably, I reach a point where I realize that I may have thrown away something useful in my decluttering process.  Similarly to the way that I donate my husband’s tools when I clean out the basement (he never uses them, right?) only to find that he needs them the very next week, I often find myself looking for something I cast aside.  Where did I put my knitting?  Theater?  Yoga?  

I am a person who loves to learn from her mistakes so much that she often repeats them.  

Just days into my newly courageous 2014, I tripped on some stairs, broke my ankle, and began to shrink.  At first, it was a healthy and necessary shrinking.  I couldn’t walk or drive, much of that winter was spent under ice, and it simply made more sense to stay home and hibernate through my healing.  I started to pick up a few of the things I rarely left time for … that children’s book I have been meaning to write, some watercolor paints, some time spent with my ukulele.  And as sure as winter turns to spring, so my ankle healed and my courage started to quietly roar and I was ready to enter a cycle of expansion again. 

 I’m not sure if courage is the right word for driving around Target in this fancy ride or humility.

I started playing music with other people (okay, so it was in the privacy of my home but other people were present so it counts as courageous) and I started writing regularly.  We dipped our toes into the foster care system, opening our home for short-term and respite foster children and explored ways to support families in crisis.  After several years away from musical theater, I auditioned for and was cast in November Theater Company’s production of Assassins in a role that stretched me as a performer, brought with it new and beautiful friendships, and offered me the privilege of watching an old friend achieve a long-held dream. We sent our oldest son to summer campOf the overnight varietyMy husband and I made the decision to home-school our children for this school year, a conversation that has been alive in our home since before our oldest started kindergarten.  I became an active participant in a faith-based community, a tension-filled choice that continues to surprise me in its impact.  I started this blog.  I’m not sure how many of these things I would have done without that little word, that guidepost of courage leading my way.  I fully realize that some of these things may not seem courageous to you, but all of them required me to become more vulnerable, to live out questions and live in tension, to leave behind the security of things known for things unknown, or to do something before I deemed myself ready.  My world expanded.

 It took super-human courage for me to leave this boy at camp.  Thank goodness real college is years away.
 Bravely staring down a storm to watch my youngest play baseball. 
As Sara Jane Moore in Assassins. 

And here’s what I found:  When we unearth the courage to try something new (and we usually know the things we are longing to try), our joy expands.  We wake anticipating our days rather than dreading our to-do lists, because our lists start to contain the very things that bring us joy or purpose.

When we unearth the courage to connect to the people we meet throughout our day, rather than going through the motions head down, buried in our phones, our to-do lists, or our own minds, our empathy and sense of shared humanity expands.  We begin to see opportunities to help others in big and small ways, and to let others in to help us when we need it.  

When we unearth the courage to listen to a viewpoint other than our own, and listen with the intent to understand rather than defend, our worldview expands.  Our patience expands. Our compassion expands.

Expansive life.  Those are bold words, but they are words worth embracing.     

So, here we are almost on the eve of a new year, and to be honest, I’m sad to leave my little word behind.  My “easy way out”  become something more than I ever intended and I know that I’ll still need courage in the coming year.  But I’m going to believe that I’m leaving this year a little braver than before, and that I’ll be able to find that reservoir of courage whenever I need it as I move forward into a new year.

In searching for a word for 2015 I got a little frustrated because the process wasn’t as tidy and no one word jumped out at me.  I have a list of words that are great words, worthy of hand-lettering onto a watercolor backdrop and tacking on my cork board, but none of them sum up exactly the theme I have in mind for the coming year.  So, even though I just spent several hundred words writing a testimonial for the one word concept, I’m tossing it out the window this year and instead choosing a phrase.  A quote, to be more precise:

“Because remember, the talking about the thing isn’t the thing.  The doing of the thing is the thing.” – Amy Poehler

Less talking, more doing. 

Those of you who know me well, feel free to laugh at the “less talking” part.  I know I am!

Here’s to 2015.

Lessons Learned at City Museum

If you haven’t been to City Museum in St. Louis, make it a priority to get there very soon.  It is truly a marvel.  The nuts and bolts:  opened in 1997, situated in the former International Shoe Company warehouse, designed by artist Bob Cassilly and curated alongside his team of twenty artists, comprised of found building materials all from within the city boundary lines including two abandoned airplanes.  The heart and soul: a playground of wonder, ten story slides, underground caves and tunnels, outdoor climbing structures that look like the edging of your spiral notebook, mosaics and paintings and art in every nook and cranny, circus performers, a beatnik café, imagination run wild.

I spent this past Saturday morning at City Museum with my husband, our boys, and some friends and family visiting from out of town.  It’s always a blast to play hometown tourist in St. Louis, but I was particularly excited about this outing because my boys had never been to City Museum before.  We spent hours exploring the place, only leaving when hunger got the best of us (okay, in my case, hunger and exhaustion and sore knees and large crowds).  But I know we’ll return because there is always more to see and discover, and I wanted to share a few of the life lessons that City Museum taught (or in some cases re-taught) me today:
1. Don’t look down.
Seriously, just don’t.  Some of the tunnels in this place are very tall, and offer a lovely view to the ground below.  I’m not a fan of open heights.  Enclosed heights, sure.  Put me in an airplane or the top of the Arch or even a very tall roller-coaster that completely straps your body to a car and I’m fine, but the minute I feel out in the open, it’s a completely different story.  I’m vulnerable and  become aware of the fact that I could just fall at any moment.  Climbing through these wired tubes I learned to keep my eyes straight ahead, cast in a slightly upward direction.  Sure, that does not change the precariousness of the situation at all but it shifts my focus to the finish line and to all the successful steps it will take me to get there and takes my mind off the many ways I could stumble and fall.  This is a lesson I need to apply in many areas of my life.  I’ll never be able to ignore the (many) ways to fall, it’s simply not the way I’m wired.  And that’s okay.  It’s more than okay really, because recognizing and developing a plan to overcome obstacles is a necessary step towards achieving any goal.  The problem, for me at least, is dwelling on the potential pitfalls even after they’ve been assessed and planned for.  The ability to think strategically is useless if it leaves us in a state of inaction. I am learning that I can choose to focus on the ways to keep climbing which are just as visible as the possible falls if I keep my focus forward.  
Not thrilled about this clear plexiglass tunnel.
He makes it look so easy.

2. Sometimes it is okay to look back and even turn around.

There are places in City Museum that really merit some kind of height/weight/claustrophobia warning sign.   One minute, you are walking through a cave, occasionally ducking your head and the next, you find yourself on your belly, pulling your body through a tunnel with your not so impressive arm strength, wondering why you don’t work out more often.  You have to remind yourself to breathe and that you’ve never heard a single news story of someone actually getting lost in the fathoms of the underground caves.  Sometimes, it is too late to turn around.  The path is too narrow or the way is crowded with people, and you have to just keep on keeping on.  However, sometimes, it is possible and advisable to turn around and go back to where you started and choose another path.  Sometimes, we get so stubborn about the path we are on that turning around feels like defeat.  Even if the path is clearly no longer for us (even literally, as in, my 36 year old body could not fit through the path) we feel like we have to finish because, well, we started.  But sometimes, we find out that if we just turn around, go back and begin again, we find an even more amazing path than we ever expected.  
See those little black holes?  You are supposed to go in those.  For fun.
Look what I found when I reversed course?  I think that’s legitimate treasure.

3. Boldly try new things because failure is always an option. 

I recently read a quote that said, “The beautiful thing about writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.”  (Robert Cormier)  Our culture constantly tells us that failure is not an option, but actually, it is almost always an option.  In fact, it’s kind of a wonderful option because it means you don’t have to shut out any possibility just because you might fail.  Kind of like how I did not shut out the possibility of becoming a parkour/circus arts professional at City Museum.  There is a magical room in City Museum and in it, you can swing on ropes like Tarzan or run up what looks like a giant skateboard ramp.  After you successfully run up this ramp you can grab the top of it and hoist yourself onto the ledge and look like a total rock star.  I know this because I saw my husband do it.  Not wanting to miss out, I also ran up this giant ramp but I looked more like a hamster in one of those clear wheels who keeps running and running and never getting to the top.  It was a total fail.  BUT, the point is, at least I know that I don’t have a future on the parkour Olympic team if that ever becomes a thing.  I also failed to make it across the kiddy half-pipe on the rope.  Okay, I failed to even get my feet on the rope.  But I tried.  BOLDLY.

4.  Facing your fears is not the same as conquering your fears.  But that’s okay because either way you get a marshmallow.

The last time I was at City Museum was in the summer of 2010.  I was with my husband a few of my cast-mates from a production of Guys & Dolls I was performing in that summer and so excited to be:
1. Meeting new people
2. Who loved musical theater
3. On a date with no kids
4. At a new place
5. Up past 9 p.m. I had already summoned up enough courage to audition for a show for the first time in a decade, so I was feeling a little extra brave.  One of the guys in the cast shared my aforementioned fear of heights and, totally sober, we decided we were going to conquer our fear.  Together.  We headed outside to the super terrifying fun web of tunnels where you can plummet to your death tower over the parking lot.  We started climbing and right away I realized it had been a terrible mistake to wear flip flops.  I tucked them into the back pocket of my jeans and kept going, barefoot.  We climbed higher and higher and one of us started sweating profusely and one of us was shaking so badly the entire tunnel cage structure was rattling (and yes, both of those were me).  Finally we made it to an exit and all I remember was a slide and sweet relief as my bare feet hit solid ground.  We did it.  
Can you see that tunnel?  No?  Oh, that’s because it is so high up in the sky that it is almost invisible to the naked eye.  That’s the one I thought I would not make it out of alive.

Flash forward to this weekend.  It was raining and the outside tunnels of death climbing structures were closed. Oh, too bad.  But, a couple of hours later, the clouds parted and yay!  The tunnels were open!  Did I want to go up to the top?  “Mom, come on!  Let’s do it!  You’ve done it before!”
And that is when I learned that facing a fear is NOT the same as conquering a fear.  Because no thank you very much.  I was not going back in those tunnels, even in my appropriate footwear.  I was staying on the ground where it is solid and not high up in the sky and also solid.  And to make matters worse, I was rewarded for my cowardice by a lovely City Museum employee manning a bonfire and handing out marshmallows to sit and roast.  Solid ground for the win.
5. If you homeschool your kids, they might end up juggling knives.
If you get tired of the terrifying heights and claustrophobic tunnels at City Museum (man, I’m really selling this place….they should consider hiring me for their PR team), you can take a breather and watch the performers from Circus Harmony.  We caught The Awesome Brothers in action and it was incredible.  There was tumbling and ring tossing and juggling and sandwich assembly.  Crowds were dazzled, popcorn was consumed, and at the end of the act, my seven-year old found his new life’s ambition.  When one of the performers announced that he and his brother were homeschooled, my also homeschooled child decided that he too wanted to juggle knives for a living, preferably on his older brother’s shoulders.  Older brother politely declined the offer and went back to mentally creating an app for that, but the younger one talked to the performers on the way out, grabbed a Circus Harmony brochure, and started practicing a variety of “acts” as soon as we got home.  And I might have also checked out the classes online, because, if I’m crazy enough to homeschool my kids, I’m also crazy enough to enroll them in circus classes.
The Awesome Brothers, aka, a glimpse into my future.

6.  Life is better with a soundtrack.
Have you ever watched  a really emotional scene from a movie without the music, maybe in a director’s cut or behind the scenes footage?   Doesn’t it feel so strange?  Music is straight up magic and it has a way of finding the heart-swelling emotion in you and magnifying it.  As we watched the Awesome Brothers warm up for their show, we were already a little captivated.  They were, in fact, awesome.  But, when they came on stage to perform and added music to the act, it became larger than life.  I thought about how true this is in everyday life.  You can make dinner, or you can make dinner to Ella Fitzgerald.  You can drive to work, or you can “Keep the Car Running.”   So, as I was trailing behind my ten year old in the sort of spooky caves, hesitant to enter the tiny mouse holes he referred to as tunnels, I pulled out my phone and opened Spotify and discovered you can climb through caves with your kid, but it is lot more exciting to offer “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”  When in doubt, add a soundtrack.
7.  Some people can hula hoop and some people cannot.
There’s really nothing more to add to that one.  Some things just are what they are.

A Plea for Broken Hearts

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” – Mother Teresa

I keep coming back to this quote, partly because it never stops being true.  But I also keep coming back to this quote because we keep forgetting.  I’m compelled to write today to implore us to remember.

Two years ago, almost to the day, we watched in horror as children lost their lives in a senseless school shooting on our soil.  This morning we are confronted by the images of weeping mothers and fathers facing the same unimaginable tragedy half a globe away.  The circumstances behind these tragedies are very different, but the grief of these families, the grief is the same.  It breaks down language and religious barriers and exposes the connectedness of the human experience.

Yet, we are so disconnected.  In an era of instant online connectivity and global communication, we still lead such isolated lives.  We wake up half a world away from this tragedy and we read the headlines and we feel horrified and sad and angry and then, because the world keeps turning, we finish our coffee and we move through our day.  Many of us have personal challenges to attend to in the midst of this particular world crisis, such as a sick family member, a job loss, a funeral.  There is laundry to be washed and meals to cook.  We go to our jobs, because there is work to be done.  There are final exams and dental appointments and drum lessons and gift wrapping.  Someone receives wonderful news and that news deserves celebration, even today.  It is someone’s birthday.  Someone gives birth today.  The world keeps turning, as it always does.

And yet, in the same 24 hours, the world stopped turning for the families of 141 people in Peshawar, most of them children.   And they don’t know when or how it will ever start again.  Their communities will grieve, are already grieving.  There will be funerals and vigils and space for the overwhelming anguish.  

I walked through this day in a semi-fog.  I wondered over and over where to find a proverbial wailing wall in the context of our own culture.  I need a wailing wall.  My heart is shattered for these families and I long for a collective space to share that grief.  My personal world keeps turning and all the normal events unfold and yet I cannot let this news become yesterday’s headline.  I know I am not alone in this.  I know because my phone is lit with messages and I see the words online from others who don’t know what to do with their grief but are not ready to simply move past it.  

I asked a friend from Pakistan this morning what her community will do to mark this tragedy and what we can do and she simply asked me to pray.  I promised her that I would pray for each and every name that is released, that I would hold space for every person’s life that was lost today, and I’m asking you to join me.  Whether you pray or not, all of us can hold space for our brothers and sisters in Peshawar.  As names are released, as images pour in, all of us can set aside a moment to light a candle and look at the names and let our hearts be broken open as we read them and remember that these boys and girls are someone’s babies.  We may not share their language or even be able to pronounce their names, but we can write them on our hearts.  

It is painful to lean into tragedy.  I know how hard it is to look at the pictures, to envision the children as loved ones, to dare to imagine this in our own community and allow that to fill us with compassion.  But I believe that is exactly what we are called to do as humans.  That word – compassion – derived from Latin means “to suffer alongside.”  To be compassionate is to suffer alongside.  When we do this, we let these mothers and fathers half a world away know that we will remember and honor their children, just as we have collectively remembered and honored children lost in horrifying tragedies on our own soil. When we do this, it becomes harder to ignore our shared humanity.  When we do this, we are organically moved from shared suffering to shared action.  When we do this, we move towards peace.  
I know the world keeps turning.  I know there are children to tuck in, meetings to attend, elves to hide, phone calls to make, floors to sweep, bills to pay, books to read.  There is joy in the midst of tragedy, celebration in the midst of grief.  That is the way of the world. That we wake each day and live our lives in all the ways we live them is in and of itself a beautiful act of optimism and hope.  But tonight, for a few minutes, please hold space for those who are not ready for a new day without the ones they love.  Please suffer alongside them. 

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/11296809/Peshawar-school-attacked-by-Taliban-in-Pakistan-in-pictures.html