The Gifts of Imperfection

I’m very bad at letting go. I hold tightly. As my boss said yesterday, I want to see all the balls in the air, at the same time, in perfect harmony.

I don’t see why that’s so much to ask.

This week, I chose to read Gifts of Imperfection (which also has like 3 subtitles) by Brene Brown. I initially came across Dr. Brown through a special she did on TedTalks and PBS, which eventually came a viral video in the social work world.

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Her entire life, Dr. Brown studied shame – its impact, overcoming it, understanding it. These questions led her pretty directly to trying to understand what makes a whole life. One in which we feel fulfilled and find “courage, compassion and connection.”

Awesome right?

Yea I totally failed at finishing this book (yet). This tiny, slim volume has conquered me (as of today).

A huge part of me wants to shrug off what I’ve read so far “yes, yes, I get it – let go and it’ll all be okay, suuuure,” or to not honestly admit how much it really does reflect on my own nature.

I share with the author a tendency to want all the information, to then analyze it, and follow the prescribed instructions. As P says, I’m a very good German rule-follower.

What Dr. Brown calls her “great unraveling journey” (in which category she also includes any huge life milestones imaginable), she speaks of the harsh reality check she had to give herself. No matter how many volumes read or how many papers published, she didn’t have the answers.

And that’s okay.

I know that most days, but reminding myself to just let it go (seriously, my volunteers put the address stickers in the wrong place today – HOW HARD IS THAT TO DO RIGHT?!?! DO YOU NOT GET MAIL?) can be difficult.

Beyond that, it’s really not the small stuff that I “sweat,” but I often gloss over the deep exploration of my own faults, harmful tendencies and self-perfectionism. Not that any of us should dwell there – but to reflect on them in order to accept them.

To be okay with not being okay.

To turn from obsessive perfectionism to “healthy striving.”

First, I’m going to finish this book.

The Six Foot Well

“I follow what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that: ‘If you want to strike water, you don’t dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well.”
~Reza Aslan

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College pride is not something Santa Clarans lack. When deep in “interview mode” a scholar of religion inserts a “Santa Clara REPRESENT” complete with fist pump, you get the picture.

Today I watched one of the most accessible, compelling and interesting discussions on modern religious experience with renowned Bronco alum, Reza Aslan.  (which will not embed, but can be watched by clicking here; second video on the page, HuffPostLive Full Interview)

In the almost 30-minute conversation, he has an honest, self-reflective and wide-ranging dialogue with the host. Unlike the more viral video (the first on the linked page) where he puts the smack-down on a Fox News reporter, Aslan is given the time, space and respect to present his vision as a scholar and a spiritual seeker.

Through a fascinating journey of immigrating to the US from 1979 Iran, converting to Evangelical Christianity as a teen, his time at SCU, to his eventual return to Islam, Aslan traces his ever-present draw to the transcendent.

Even after casting off his fundamentalism, he treats that period in his life with respect for its authenticity and power. He offers a simple, yet profound truth: when you feel the draw to something beyond materiality, you need help defining it – even to yourself.

Aslan defines the value of religion as being just that: an offer of symbols and metaphors that can help define those experiences that we cannot articulate.

Those feelings and intuitions that by their very nature, are beyond words.

This is something I’ve always believed about the power of religion in my own life. At eight, I was obsessed with the temples of Japan, once hiding in one because I didn’t want to leave. I had a real conversion experience at some of the Christian camps I was invited to as a teen. I felt the same standing in front of the Cristo Negro in Guatemala at 20. Transcendence rings again through my current practice of yoga.

Each is a different, and crucial aspect of my spiritual life.

At my conversion to Catholicism in 2010, I still had questions. I still do. My religious teachers encourage me to never stop having them. As Aslan notes, Catholicism is my chosen well, where I find the water that most nourishes my journey. Yet the patchwork of my spiritual past is valuable and no less valid.

In the end, “Whatever well we drink from, it’s all the same water.”

First Lines

I don’t find the old line about first impressions to be true.

Probably because I happen to put my foot in my mouth more often than I’d like to admit (just ask P about the first time we met…oops), but also because I believe in depth, not brevity.

As an aspiring writer/thinker/philosopher, I love to probe through the intricacies of a problem, explore the contours, and truly appreciate the whole of a problem/entity/issue.

But when I read about this “first lines” article it made me want to do the same.

There is inherent power in the opening of a new book. It is the hook for the whole story and its power can motivate a reader through hundreds of pages.

I would love to write a book someday, although who knows how that will turn out. Nevertheless, I will need an awesome first line.

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“I’m seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.”
~ Infinite Jest, DFW

“Nothing to be done.”
~ Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

“I live on The Island, where much has the appearance of Life Goes On.”
1 Dead in Attic, Chris Rose

“We have all the answers,” Dostoevsky said: “It is the questions we do not know.”
Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Laub & Felman

“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”
Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins

“One cannot work constructively in theology or philosophy without encountering at every step the concepts which constitue the subject of these lectures, love, power, and justice.”
Love, Power and Justice, Paul Tillich

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What are your favorites?

Trouble

It’s rare an authority figure tells you to make trouble.

Rarer still when he happens to be the Holy See.

Yet, to my delight, this is what seems to have happened at World Youth Day in Brazil this week. Pope Francis, while speaking to Catholic youth gathered in Rio, encouraged them to “shake things up” and “make trouble in the diocese.”

Throughout my Catholic journey, this is the clearest time in recent history that the Pope has spoken directly to the model I was taught. To be closer to the people, to practice subsidiarity, and value tradition while questioning its impact on modern life.

To push on boundaries from a place of faith, believing that what cannot hold up to questioning must fall down.

To humble ourselves in recognition of life’s realities and respond with love, not restriction.

The trouble Francis is talking about is not a violent, destructive movement, but one he hopes can bring out the best in all of us – to be compassionate, creative and enliven a faith too often laden with its own hypocrisy.

Delivered in his native Spanish: “I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!…I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”

Somedays, in words and moments like this, I do find real hope. And if that doesn’t call for some hippie-Irish-cross-band jam, I don’t know what does:

Grouch

Today is not my day. From the unexpected paving crew at 7am, the subsequent car moving up a giant hill in my PJs, and an early morning “I-can’t-find-this-where-did-you-put-it” argument from the partner, I have my grouch on.

I have the urge to push the smiley little kid in the coffee shop onto his tuckus and be like: YEA THAT’S HOW LIFE IS. DEAL.

[not really, but you get it.]

Instead, I will drink my gigantic iced coffee and stew in my own juices. Sometimes, I just can’t shake this mood. Whether it’s stress, my ever-growing to-do list, the perpetual rain, or my hyper-sensitive blood sugar levels, or a combo of all of the above, I want to scowl at everything.

On a normal day, I for sure have Bitchy Resting Face, causing most people to ask what’s wrong or to try to console me in some way. Often, I just have to say: oh no, that’s my face. But today, that ‘tude is real.

pete and i sillyDeep down, okay not even that deep, I know that none of this will matter tomorrow, in a day, or even in an hour. Powering that intellectual awareness over my emotions, however, is another story entirely.

And, let’s be honest, sometime’s it just feels good to be angry.

To exert some kind of force into the world and rage a bit. Maybe it’s the letting go of the face I put on each day to please the outside world. Or the power to just say ‘no’ to anyone who tries to fake-cheer me up.

We all do so many things throughout our life to please others that at times it’s nice to just….not. Or is that only me?

The trick, I guess, is to find something constructive to turn this energy into. Be it a run, powering through a bunch of bullshit, or standing up for myself when it really matters.

Because as fun and natural as anger can be, I’ve seen what it will do if you let it be your only guide. The heartburn just isn’t worth it.

Mug Club

I am not a woman to turn down a drink.

Blame it on the German/Irish/Welsh/Euro-mutt background, but I have a passion for a good microbrew, a love of bad dive bars, and am quickly becoming an expert on gin-based cocktails. [muddle cucumber and basil, dash of agave nectar, add ice and hendrick’s; shake; strain; serve straight up with a basil leaf. trust.]

In every town I’ve lived in I’ve had what I consider “my bar.” I don’t spend every night there, or go to that bar exclusively, but if I have to choose, these are my places.

From Blinky’s Can’t Say, to Finn McCool’s, to the Silhouette, to the Behan, to the M&M; these are touchstones of every home in my life.

Places where I’ve had birthdays, dates, sang group karaoke, held costumed dance parties, challenged strangers to play pool, friendly dart tournaments, deep conversations, more laughs than I can count, and even finished a paper or two.

Bars aren’t all fun and games, especially those I’m drawn to (the 2pm Keno and Bud crowd you know is having a rough go of it). Yet there’s a special sense of community I get hanging out at a bar.

Unlike coffee shops or book stores, they are a place people intentionally go only to relax, to have a conversation with a friend or a stranger (whoever shows up first), take a breath in the midst of life.

Norway, unfortunately is lacking a good bar. P and I have tried to find one that fits our vibe, but all of them are also restaurants, or the seemingly exclusive property of a stalwart group of old Maine men.

Nonetheless, I’ll keep trying to find my spot. I’m sure those old guys have some great stories.

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Dispatch this week to Megancita!

Sparrow Island

Sometimes you just gotta get out.

Even living rural, on a lake, that impulse still takes over. My absolute favorite place to go is what P and I have dubbed Sparrow Island.

Usually overtaken by small birds, it’s optimal swimming, sitting and nature-observing, smack in the middle of Norway Lake.

Last night after work I power-paddled over, enjoyed the pre-sunset and took a swim. Best way to end the day.

Southern Wild

Louisiana rings with magic. The heaviness of the air, the sticky heat, the bizarre…well, everything.

I don’t mean this paternalistically, as a member of the outside, and I don’t mean to deny valid social critiques of the region. I mean it honestly, truly and deeply. There is magic in the South for me.

I know I’m desperately behind the curve, but I just saw Beasts of the Southern Wild this week.

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There’s a lot to critique about some of the imagery, the story, and the struggle the movie represents, but I’m drawn to the mythic. As one scholar put it, it is the first wrenching, real, epic myth of climate change.

The movie is a gritty, expansive, gloriously visceral adventure tale of one young girl versus a world that is falling apart around her. Despite its very real roots in the bayou communities of Terrebonne Parish, levee politics and Hurricane Katrina, I did not connect as much to that aspect.

I connected to the magic.

I felt, for the first time in recent memory, what it was like to be a child. To feel that the world was only yours, and your quests were of ultimate importance.

The crude rafts harkened back to ones I fashioned on Johnson Creek out of abandoned barn doors, rope, and collected sticks.

Hushpuppy, the six-year-old heroine, walking alone through the woods pumped adrenaline into my heart with each squish of her rain boots. The thrill and terror of solo exploration, without the oversight of a parent.

The real encounters with death and life, the intimate need to touch each animal’s heartbeat, to take in the grotesque, not looking away because the world hasn’t yet taught you that you should.

The shining, the mucky, the glorious mess of it all.

This tale, created diligently, lovingly and painstakingly by friends, family and a community, captures a spark of creative, life-loving, struggling, desperate beauty that I have only ever found when living in New Orleans.

Even more, a myth points toward a greater truth. Wisdom that is difficult and hard-won.

Perhaps, if we treat our horrible, painful, amazing, awe-ful world with such brave, childlike joy, perhaps we can find our way back to balance.

Basic Needs

I don’t get many days off. Working with a near-100% volunteer organization means that I get consulted about everything. Every. Thing.

Most of the time I don’t mind, but it is all-too-easy to get caught up in the minutiae. It’s surprisingly easy to lose your bearings when debating toilet paper purchasing and who’s getting the almonds for the book signing.

Yet I also recognize how absolutely vital the “small things” end up being – that you cared enough to put a bow on the chairs or make a flower arrangement. The tiniest detail can make someone’s entire experience.

An unexpected and near-giddy reminder of this popped into my inbox when a newsletter linked to a video of an explorer in Antarctica. Aleksander Gamme is currently in the midst of a solo expedition and, needless to say, is tired, hungry and probably not a little bit cold.

To make this quest possible, he hid caches for himself along the route months ago in preparation. They include necessary supplies, food, emergency kits, etc. Anything one might need in sub-zero Antarctic temperatures.

In a stroke of genius, he purposefully did not keep notes of what was in each pack once they were placed, in order to surprise himself a bit, and hopefully find some small motivation to hearten him forward.

His exuberant joy at his latest discovery made me laugh, but also reminded me that our basic needs extend beyond food, beyond tools, beyond the things that keep us alive.

We need joy, we need laughter, we need a viking yell at the top of our lungs.

Most of us search, strive, claw toward what we think will fulfill us – but maybe it’s been right there all along. In that bag of cheese doodles.

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” ~ Mother Teresa