Two Choices

Two large trees leaning away from one anotherI’ve narrowed my grad school choices down to two.

Two schools. Two cities. Two different states, both in the Midwest. Equal scholarships. (Equal amounts of student debt looming. But let’s cruise right on by that for now.)

I know it’s an illusion that my life will now divide neatly, one way or the other. It’s not like one choice will be bad, and the other good. Both will be complex and challenging and fascinating and rewarding.

Both will test me. I’m hoping that both will unfreeze a part of me that’s been iced in for many years.

This is a huge turning point. And it’s also absolutely routine.

*

Every moment, our lives divide in this way.

As immortalized in the pre-goopy Gwyneth movie Sliding Doors, the difference between missing a train and catching a train can yield two completely distinct life paths.

Not that it’s ever really that binary. It’s just easier for our minds to grasp an idea broken into two neat chunks.

I’m trying not to get hung up on making “the right choice.” I’m relishing the opportunity to visit both cities, and to see which one gives me that live-wire feeling–the feeling that zapped me when I decided to apply to grad schools in the first place.

You know. That feeling of, “I’m about to blow up my whole life…But I think it might be OK.”

Photo by Gillie Rhodes via Creative Commons.

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Laughter at the Rape Crisis Center

Statues in a fountain depicting women laughingYou might think it would be a gloomy place: the office where survivors of sexual assault go for therapy appointments. The phrase “rape crisis center” conjures images of institutional, grim rooms, with people sitting in the scuffed-up waiting area weeping quietly.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is the opposite of that. Its waiting area is a bright, colorful space where clients can drink tea and relax on a comfy chair before seeing their therapist. It’s nothing fancy, but it feels safe and welcoming.

I’ve been volunteering at BARCC for a couple months, checking people in for their appointments. It’s rare to see anyone in obvious distress or in crisis mode. Most are composed when they come in to the office. Some are cheerful, and some are straining to appear so. Others are quiet, and hesitate to make eye contact. I only have their initials in the calendar, not their names.

When people come out of their appointments, they appear physically lighter. They move more easily. Sometimes their therapist will walk them out, and they’ll be laughing together.

Isn’t that the essence of healing? To walk out of a therapy session with a brighter aura, cracking up about something?

I haven’t done a fundraising walk for many years, but this spring, I’m jumping on board BARCC’s Walk for Change. I’ll share more about it as the date gets closer.

Their 24-hour hotline is 800-841-8371.

Learn more about the work they do in Boston and beyond.

Image: Laughter, by sanpani, via Creative Commons.

Tea for Two

My parents have dueling tea kettles.

A stove with two kettles on the back burners.

Actually, the kettles don’t really duel. They just face off across the back burners.

It’s a somewhat long story, how the two kettles came to live on the same stove. My dad scorched one of them (the original kettle) when he put on water for tea and then got distracted and left the room.

Now he won’t use that one. He bought a replacement, which my mom won’t use because it’s annoying to fill up. She still uses the original one.

They also use different water for their tea: my mom has a Brita filter, and my dad buys water from the store. Neither trusts their tap water, which has a somewhat tainted history in their small NH town.

I asked them what the his-and-hers kettles symbolize about their marriage.

Mom: “We’re stubborn, and we let each other do our own thing.”

Dad: “We work well together.”

All of those statements are true. My parents give each other space and support. They are independent and connected.

They know that sometimes, compromise means giving up something. And sometimes, it means allowing something extra into your life that you might not have planned for.

As we head into the New Year, I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of relationships: the paradoxes of intimacy (both romantic and otherwise).

Everything that we give up, and everything we gain, when we intertwine our lives with those of others.

Large Loss Specialists

A lost stuffed animal sits among plants.On a walk today, I saw a truck labeled “Large Loss Specialists.” If your home gets destroyed or flooded or burned, this company will help you get it rebuilt, cleaned up, and looking right again.

Their slogan, similar to others in that field, is this: “Like it never even happened.”

Like most people who’ve survived into their 40s, I’ve experienced loss. I’ve had loved ones die. I’ve been dumped. I’ve dismantled loving relationships that were no longer healthy.

The “large” part of “large loss” is relative. I have not experienced the death of a child, for example. Or the destruction of my home.

My losses have been peanut-sized compared to those of many other people. But to me, those losses were real and painful. They set me back. They hurt.

The truck’s slogan made me think twice about loss. If we do go through a large loss, isn’t our objective to learn from it, rather than pretend it didn’t occur?

*

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, people can use a service that erases their memories of a particular person. One of the film’s messages is that deleting pain is impossible without erasing ourselves. Our hurtful memories are intertwined with our joyful ones, and cannot be disentangled.

To lose our pain is to lose our humanity, to stay shallow rather than diving deep.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t clean up and repair our damaged homes, or move on from broken relationships. Dwelling in the past is just as unhealthy as pretending it never happened.

But large loss is a great teacher. We learn what’s essential. We learn who our friends are. We learn how tough we are.

Afterwards, if all goes well, we are NOT the same as before. We are no longer unblemished and smooth.

We proudly bear the scars of loss, and we can hold our breath a little longer when we go under again.

Image: Lost!, by brockxx, via Creative Commons.

A Poem for Harold Lloyd

Silent film star Harold Lloyd hangs from a clock several stories up on the outside of a tall building.Harold on the Clock

Keep climbing, Harold, even though
it was supposed to be your buddy
and not you
seven stories up
the outside of the department store.

Los Angeles tilts around you
and you cling
to the façade.

Your fiancée runs up the stairs inside
Taking the sane route, you the mad one.
Later, you’ll meet on the roof
Press your pursed lips together
The only kind of screen kiss
chaste enough for 1923.

Moviegoers swooned
to see you stagger on the window ledge,
to see the fragile minute hand of the clock
support your flailing body weight.

Did they have to look away,
as you once did
when you saw another stuntman
make this same scramble?

Did they know
you were climbing the building
with only one hand, the other
half blown off
years before
when a prop grenade
turned out
not to be
a prop?

Almost 100 years later,
my own palms are sweaty
as you face danger after
danger: vicious attack pigeons!
A falling badminton net!

Your glasses had no glass in them.
Your eyes, though also damaged by the blast,
were sharp and clear.

You scaled the building,
almost literally knocking
yourself out.

And then you got the girl.
Onscreen and off.

And she got you.


Inspired by the movie Safety Last (1923). Watch it on Kanopy!
Image from the same film, retrieved from the Music House Museum.

On being an unpopped kernel

Blue paper sign reading, "Watch out for 'old maids'. Though we sift our kettle corn the occasional unpopped kernel will show up..."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Friends, I’m obsessed with popcorn.

What’s not to like about it? It’s the crunchy ambrosia of movie theaters and carnivals.

Over the years I’ve invented my own gourmet flavors, like buttery ginger. Usually these days I make it with olive oil and salt, sometimes with nutritional yeast to give that cheesy taste.

Air-popped, it’s reasonably healthy, unless you drench it in butter. And it fills you up.

Each kernel is unique in shape, I’ve been told.

As a kid, I remember referring to unpopped kernels as “old maids,” and my mom was displeased. “I don’t like calling them that,” she told me. “That makes it sound like, if a woman doesn’t get married, she’s an ‘unpopped kernel’ and she’s not worth anything.”

I was annoyed that popcorn had become political. The next time we were eating some, I carefully referred to “unpopped kernels” instead of “old maids.” My mom thanked me for using better language. I wanted her to just let it go.

But now I see that she was onto something.

*

Some Christians—and others whose religions include an afterlife—see all of us, here on Earth, as unpopped kernels, waiting to be thrown in the kettle of heaven to explode into our true, full identities. (Though I guess the fires of hell might have the same effect.)

I don’t see buy into this “waiting room” theory. Our heaven and our hell are alive within us at all times, just waiting to be activated. And we’re not in God’s waiting room. We’re in God’s world.

So what does it mean to pop?

*

Unpopped kernels feel smooth and cool to the touch. They’re appealing to plunge your hands into a huge bucket of.

But if you bite one unexpectedly, it’s awful. You’re expecting a delicious crunch, and instead, you get a broken tooth or a loosened filling.

Those little kernels have a mission in life: to scatter to the winds, and create more corn plants. Or, to be eaten by humans or animals, and to return to the earth as fertilizer.

As humans, we can “pop” through doing good in the world. We can pop through finding something we enjoy doing, and immersing ourselves in that experience of deep flow.

We pop through getting married and having babies.

Or through becoming a soldier, and putting our life on the line for our country and our brothers and sisters in arms.

Through throwing ourselves into a creative endeavor, even though we think the story or song we’re writing won’t make sense to anyone else.

There are many sources of heat to transform us.

*

Maybe our job, as earthly kernels, is to subject ourselves, as much as we can, to the right kinds of fire. The loving kind. The kind of the spirit.

The kind that takes us out of ourselves, like a popcorn kernel, whose insides become its outsides.

If kernels could think, would they fear that transformation?

Or would they be excited?

Danger! Do Not Walk on Ceiling

Sign on the ceiling of Boston's North Station, saying "Danger: Do not walk on ceiling."
There’s a sign on the ceiling of Boston’s North Station. It says “Danger: Do not walk on ceiling.”

Here’s a better close-up of it.

I take the train from North Station up to Maine fairly often, and always mean to ask someone at the station, “What’s up with that sign?”

It’s a warning that begs to be violated. Like Bluebeard telling his young wife, “You can go into any room in the castle—just not that room.” Or God telling Adam and Eve, “You can eat from any tree in the garden—just not that tree.”

When I was a kid, I remember getting up on a high slide. My dad told me to keep my feet together as I went down. I was going to do that anyway, but since he told me to, I spread out my feet, and fell off the slide. Two stitches.

I’m wondering if the issue was a missing “because.” My dad probably felt the “because” was obvious: “…because otherwise you could fall off the slide and hurt yourself.”

In Genesis 2, God offers a broad but scary “because”: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But that begs another “because,” kicking off a chain that winds through the centuries, from Eve to us: “Why will we surely die? What does that mean? What’s wrong with knowledge? Don’t you want us to understand good and evil, so we can choose good? And PS, why will I fall off the slide?”

There’s a level of dizzying choice when someone tells you not to do something, but doesn’t tell you why. It’s a compelling fairy tale convention. As soon as the hero is told not to do something, we immediately, viscerally want her to do it.

Does that urge show our sinful fallen nature, as my Baptist friends believe?

Or is it just our innate curiosity, the thirst that drives so much of our positive and negative progress?

In any case, the first chance I get to walk—or dance—on the ceiling of North Station, you better believe I’m taking it. Unless someone gives me a good reason not to.

 

The Terror of Not Logging In

A computer keyboard showing the keys "Control" and "Option"

What about when control isn’t an option?

One morning last week, I couldn’t login to my work computer.

On the one hand, this was a total champagne problem. I was not in danger of losing my job, of physical violence, or of anything else truly disturbing.

But it almost sent me into a panic attack.

If I can’t login, I can’t do my work. Stuff will be happening without my knowledge, people will be asking for my help, and I can’t do anything about it.

I can’t write, I can’t edit. I’m a writer, I’m an editor.

I’m rendered useless.

*

My email was behind a firewall. So were my files. So was the internet (though I could have accessed that from my phone).

What was frustrating wasn’t so much any terrifying consequence of my lack of access. It was more the loss of control. If I’m locked out of my home, I can call a locksmith. But the walls of technology are a lot less climbable.

I wonder if there’s a spiritual equivalent of being unable to login. We long for access to truth, to a sense of order in the universe. And we can tell it’s there.

We just don’t have the password.

*

After about two hours, David from the IT Service Desk liberated my computer. He reassured me that the lockout wasn’t my fault: “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” He was pleased when he saw me typing in a new long passphrase, instead of a puny password.

And I have access again.

For now.

Until the system goes down, until my computer dies, until I accidentally delete all the documents that populate my digital kingdom and that I’ve forgotten to back up.

For now, I can get in where I need to go.

My soul, though? That’s still pressed up against a sheet of colored glass, looking at the lights on the other side, wondering how to break through.


Photo by Frederico Cintra via Creative Commons.

The Fine Art of Arguing

“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”

The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.

GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.

Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.

As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.

GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.

Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.

Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.

Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.


Photo by jon collier via Creative Commons.

Born-Again Buddhist?

A statue of a person with an arm raised up overhead, outside, with an open gate nearby.I’ve been getting to know God lately. And it’s been kind of weird.

I’ve labeled my faith in many ways over the years. For a while, I was calling myself a “semi-practicing Buddhist Pagan with strong Jewish and Unitarian influences.” (There’s one in every town, right?)

Sometimes I’ve called myself “agnostic.” But that’s never felt right. More recently, on dating sites, I’d been going for “spiritual but not religious.” That seemed to encompass my feeling that there’s a higher power, compared to which we humans are just tiny blips of ego and emotion and desire.

Lately, I’ve been calling that higher power God, and it feels natural and correct to do so.

A black church against a blue cloudy sky.
There are so many angles from which to approach this, and I don’t know where to begin. I could tell you about how I read a book about neopaganism while living in China, and then had a dream in which The Goddess visited me. She took the form of a gigantic, benevolent silver spider spinning a protective web outside my window.

I could talk about how I have relatives who are Unitarian, Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Jewish, and Atheist (yes, with a capital “A”), as well as one who’s a minister in the United Church of Christ. And how I was raised to see equal value in all belief systems, since at their best they create community and spur humans toward greater acts of love and courage.

But the bottom line is that, earlier this year, I took a tour of a mosque, and walked out of there with a strong desire for a spiritual community, and in particular, for a Christian community.

So now I’m going to this conservative Baptist church where I feel more at home than in any other church I’ve ever visited.

It’s very odd.The wall of a house spangled with the shadows of tree leavesI was never told directly, growing up, that I should run like the wind away from evangelicals. I just never knew any (or maybe the ones I did meet were closeted).

It was always implied to me that it was OK to be religious, but not too religious. You wouldn’t want to become a fanatic. (And indeed, I don’t.)

But I’ve blundered into this community that hit me with a wave of love and joy from the moment I set foot in their door. It’s dismantling my stereotypes about Christians. It’s making my heart expand.

Part of what I love about this particular church is the openness everyone has shown to my questions. More than openness: the delight they take in answering my questions, or in telling me how and why they don’t know a particular answer.

Perhaps that’s one of the traits that separates the healthy communities of faith from the unhealthy ones, from the cults: The cults don’t want you to ask inconvenient questions.A mural of a huge bee on the side of a building.There are many moments when I’m out of my element. The vocabulary is new. Being “convicted” is a good thing: it means you believe something strongly. (Where I come from, you get “convicted” only of a crime.)

At times I feel like I’m looking at one of those Magic Eye posters from the 1990s, where if you could cross your eyes just slightly, you could see the 3-D picture, but until you mastered that eye-crossing, it was just a chaos of lines.

Other times, I’m scared about what’s going to happen when the unstoppable force of my attraction to this church collides with the immovable object of what I believe, versus what this community believes. There is a lot of overlap. But there are chasms between us, too.A lagoon with water lilies
I have no idea what blue lagoon of belief this Christianity water slide is going to dump me out into. But along the way, my soul is getting watered for the first time, and a lifetime of seeds sleeping in its soil are beginning to sprout.

If you have thoughts on all this strangeness, let me know. I love to hear other people’s stories of belief, unbelief, and the burning question marks of faith.


All photos by Anya Weber, except for:
Second photo: Blue hour at the Nineteenth century black church at Budir, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland, by Diana Robinson, via Creative Commons
Last photo: lagoon, by feryswheel, via Creative Commons