A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.

A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. — Eudora Welty

A piece of advice that has stuck with me over the years came from one of my college professors, after I shared with him that I was having a hard time making the choice between studying abroad for a semester or staying at my home university, Wittenberg, for all of my sophomore year.  Like many decisions, this was a difficult one because I was choosing between two good options.  Studying abroad would give me the chance to experience a different  part of the world and make new friends, but I also had much to gain from remaining at a place that I knew to have excellent classes, devoted professors, and dear friends.

My professor’s suggestion: “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing, so it’s usually a good idea to say yes to new opportunities.” 

I took his advice, and he was right: until I was leaning over the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, celebrating my 20th birthday with new friends and red wine from the corner store; until I was requesting crepes with apricot jam for dinner from my indulgent host father Gerhard; until I was sharing an order of street stand wienerschnitzel in a cozy Viennese hostel room with friends who remain close to me today; until I walked the snowy streets of Salzburg late at night, and then eventually watched the snow melt away and the trees lining the Salzach River burst into bloom; until I had these new and precious experiences, I didn’t know what I was missing.

It’s somewhat unsettling to think about the things we would have missed if we had lived our lives differently, and perhaps it’s even more unsettling to consider the other side of the coin: the things we’ve missed because we’ve taken our particular path. 

What if I hadn’t gone to Wittenberg?  What if I hadn’t joined my sorority and met Sarah, who introduced me to her brother Caleb?  What if I hadn’t taken the risk of a long distance relationship and gone to graduate school in Boston?  What if I had taken a year off between college and graduate school instead?  What if I had majored in Psychology rather than religion?  What if I had turned down the part-time youth ministry job at Our Lady of Sorrows?

Awareness of this unsettling feeling — one that has almost taken my breath away at times — has pushed me to eagerly seek new experiences and say yes to opportunities for adventure, professional development, learning, new relationships, and really, expansion of myself in any form.  For a long time this meant that I was constantly on the move, filling free evenings with social gatherings or events, free weekends with day trips or getaways, and free weeks with longer-distance travel. 

But these days I’m noticing that expansion of myself is taking a different shape: it’s staying home and filling most of my free time with reading and writing.  It’s languishing in an uncommitted weekend and resisting invitations.  It’s prioritizing time alone, and committing to putting pen to paper at least a few hours a week. 

A few years ago, this change of pace might have scared or bored me, and truthfully, there are moments now when I somewhat panickedly think, “What if I’m missing something?”  But the truth is that we’re always missing something.  Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.  There’s a time to say yes to outward adventure — to new situations and spaces and people and places — and a time to yes to inner adventure — new books and ideas and insights and personal projects. 

The point is to stay open and to keep saying yes to something — whether that’s an outer something or an inner something.  As Eudora Welty says, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

 

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

“Life is Hard. But Love Wins.”

I recently read this quote by Glennon Doyle Melton on her Instagram feed: “Life is hard.  But love wins.”  If I had to pick six words to summarize my philosophy of life, those might be them. dsc_0133

Challenge, struggle, grief, pain, frustration, annoyance, anxiety — these things are real.  Informed by Internal Family Systems model, I am a big proponent of acknowledging and naming all our feelings, of giving the negative as well as the positive a voice, of normalizing the dark aspects of ourselves and our experiences that we so often want to hide or gloss over.  Life is hard.  And if not particularly so in the present moment, we know that it will be: we will all face losses and heartache and disappointment, in some capacity.  As one of my favorite Divinity School professors said, “the one thing I guaranteed my children upon giving them life was death.” 

And yet.  (Those are two golden words themselves, offering the chance for a closer examination, a longer look, a turning over of an idea, like a coin in your hand, to get a different perspective.)

Hope, satisfaction, relief, connection, warmth, joy, kindness — these things, the many manifestations of love in its various emotions and flavors, are also real. dsc_0107

Caleb is visiting his parents and siblings in Ohio for our sweet niece’s first birthday party, so I’m spending the morning in bed, content with my laptop, journal, a stack of books, and a cup of coffee.  I’m cozy under the weight of the quilt my mom made us for a wedding gift, with its “courthouse steps” and “Ohio star” patterns, mixing fabrics from my childhood — snips of halloween costumes and Cameroonian prints and my St. Andrew School uniform.  What a gift of love.  What a tangible reminder of the attention, time, creativity, discipline and tenderness my mom has wrapped around me — warm and protective, like the quilt itself — for the past almost-three decades.dsc_0125

I’ve felt anxious and sad about my parents this past week.  My mom slipped on the ice — breaking her nose, jamming her shoulder and gashing her forehead — and then they’re also about to head off for six months in Uganda.  I worry about them and I worry about me and what I would do if something happened to them.

The realness of love doesn’t negate the hardness of life, but maybe it makes it worth it. 

Expanding my worldview

plutocratsI try to balance reading fiction and non-fiction, which for a long time gave me the false impression that I am a well-rounded reader.  It recently became apparent to me, however, that I have not, in fact, exposed myself to a variety of genres and ideas.  This conclusion came to me as I made my way through business journalist Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats, a 2012 examination of the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else.  This book was in such contrast to the non-fiction I typically read — self-help, spirituality and psychology — that it threw into light how narrowly focused my taste in non-fiction is. (Thanks to my girlfriends’ book group, which primarily reads novels and short stories, I am exposed to a wider variety of fiction).

Reading something new definitely had its perks.  I learned all sorts of new words and phrases (plutocrat and oligarchs and BRICs and The Middle Kingdom), statistics (the top .01% of earners in the U.S. make an average annual income of 23,846,950, whereas the bottom 90% make an average income of $29,840 — youch!) and concepts (super-wealth used to come primarily from family inheritance/land renting; now… not so much… “In 1916 the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent”) that I’m simply not exposed to in my day-to-day.  Even more importantly, I was challenged into new ways of thinking… or, at the least, to question some of my taken-for-granted assumptions.  Read more

Thanks, Sugar

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“I know it’s a kick in the pants to hear that the problem is you, but it’s also fucking fantastic.  You are, after all, the only person you can change.” – Cheryl Strayed

A paradox about myself is that I detest receiving unsolicited advice, but I LOVE reading advice columns. 

I find that, 90% of the time, people who give advice are doing it more for their benefit than for the sake of their listener.**  After all, it’s fun to give advice.  It’s satisfying to help people, it’s enjoyable to tell our stories, and it’s gratifying to be able to share the wisdom and knowledge that we’ve gained throughout the years with a young, impressionable mind.  The situations we experience in life are often messy and uncomfortable, but when reflecting back on them with the perspective that only time can give, we can clean them up and make sense of them.  How thrilling it is to have this perspective and be able to share it with others!  Baz Luhrman’s spoken word song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” aptly sums up my understanding of the mindset of advice-givers: “Advice is a form of nostalgia; dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

I understand the impulse to give advice, but that doesn’t mean that I relish the experience of receiving said advice, unless I particularly requested it. This is why it’s so odd that advice columns are the first ones I turn to in magazines. Whether the topic is etiquette, relationships, or organizing, I devour advice columns.  I both love the anonymous questions and the thoughtful responses.  I am eager to get a sense of what other people struggle with, and I derive much satisfaction from figuring out how I can integrate the advice bestowed upon letter-writers into my own life. 

My affinity for advice columns made me very, very excited to pick up Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.  The book is a collection of the once-anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar’s letters to countless readers and implorers, originally published on The Rumpus.  I laughed and cried my way through this tender, witty, honest, humble and hopeful mine of letters, and now I’m recommending it to every other person I meet.

One of the things I liked best about Dear Sugar is Strayed’s marvelous capacity to both lovingly accept the imperfections of the people writing to her and to confidently expect more from them.  We have the capacity to choose how we act in any given situation, Strayed extols again and again, and the choices we make determine our destiny.  Life is hard and it’s understandable that sometimes we make shitty decisions and hurt the people we love (and don’t love).  Sometimes we royally mess up.  But messing up and making mistakes doesn’t destine us for failure, and we all have the power to become better people, one choice at a time.

“We do not have the right to feel helpless…we must help ourselves…After destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives.” – Cheryl Strayed

** For the record, I just made that 90% figure up.  I would wager that most advice-givers believe they are offering it for the sake of their listener, but I would also wager that the act of giving advice is more pleasurable than the act of receiving…at least for me; although, also for the record, I do frequently solicit advice from a few trusted individuals, including my husband, my parents, close friends, and a beloved mentors, but receiving advice when having asked for it is an entirely different experience than being harangued with it passively.