On the Street Where I Live...

Back in November / December of 2013, I was getting ready to bring out my first album, and I realized somewhere in there that I needed some kind of web presence, so I started a blog and said, yeah, hi, I'm blogging because I'm gigging and that totally freaks me out. 

I did a couple like that. 

Then I got a little further into what I was doing with the music and decided that if I was going to take my music seriously, I refused to NOT take my writing seriously too. In other words: I wanted to give myself permission to be a serious artist - however that manifested itself - not only a serious singer.

(Sidebar: As I told a friend at church yesterday, the word 'professional' singer / artist scares the bejeebers out of me. Calling myself a 'serious' anything is bad enough without bringing The P Word into the discussion.) 

When I started thinking about this blog as something other than a place to A) have a web presence and B) panic about singing gigs, I started thinking about the nature of the discussion I wanted to foment here. At about that time, I attended the C. S. Lewis Foundation's triennial Oxbridge conference (in 2014), and I heard Dr. Diana Pavlac Glyer - author, professor, writer; expert on the Inklings and on creative collaboration - give a lecture on Intellectual Hospitality: the idea of welcoming ideas and viewpoints different from my own. Not just... tolerating them. Welcoming them - and the people who hold them. Masterfully weaving together the works of C. S. Lewis, Dante Alighieri, St. Francis of Assisi, and others, Dr. Glyer offered her listeners the mantra seek first to understand. She described the miraculous outcomes when we offer each other understanding and kindness even when we disagree vehemently about life-and-death issues. And she said that the good stuff - real community; meaningful and nourishing conversations - come about not despite, but because of our differences. 

I wanted to do that. I wanted to make space for a conversation like that. A discussion in which anyone could feel welcome to participate regardless of their beliefs or background. 

At first, the only way I could think of to do that was to keep my own beliefs almost entirely to myself. 

Recently I have begun to realize that this approach isn't working. It feels dishonest. Talking about important subjects like vulnerability and shame and what it means to be human and alive and walking around on this planet without talking about my faith, which is the core of who I am, and the why behind just about everything I do, ends up feeling like I can't talk about anything... or that if I do I have to talk in riddles. So here's me coming out of the beliefs closet: Jesus Christ is my life. Boom. 

Most of you reading this already know this about me. But for those of you who didn't know, or who aren't on that page yourselves, the reason I wasn't more open about this before was that I really want YOU to feel welcome here. I want to include you in this conversation. I don't want to create more space where Christians talk only to each other using language that only other Christians understand. What I do want is to make space where humans can help other humans feel less alone. When I personally talk about those things, if I'm being honest, Jesus is going to come up pretty often. Because (understatement of the century alert) Jesus is the biggest reason I don't feel perpetually alone.

You may not be on that page. And some of you may be so far from that page that you may be about one more J-word away from closing your browser on this blog. But before you do: know that I want you here. You are welcome here. Pull up a chair. Kick your shoes off. Wiggle your toes in the carpet. Have a glass of something tasty, and let's talk about life. Life is hard enough without letting intellectual polarization divide us from each other. 

And yes. It will be uncomfortable sometimes because we will not agree on everything, and sometimes we will disagree so vehemently that we might have to walk away from certain topics for a while, or hang out in separate rooms for a little bit until the fires of the passions of our beliefs have become slightly less volcanic. But I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible, at least for me, to exercise hospitality - intellectual or otherwise - whilst pretending I don't live anywhere in particular. Having a hospitable conversation is a much bigger deal when we're talking in real terms about matters of substance. Saying what we really think. Sharing our real experiences. Seeing each other as we really are and welcoming each other anyway rather than adopting a polite blindness to our awkward differences and "tolerating" those parts of each other we can't pretend not to see.  Letting each other into the places where each of us actually lives. 

So.

I live in this particular apartment on this particular street in this particular town. And now you have a basic idea of where that is. 

So come on over. 

Do you live on the other side of the world? 

Come on over. Tell me about where you live. 

Gun shy because you've been hurt? 

Come on over. (Join the club.) Let me refill your glass. 

Maybe from the same city but live in a completely different part of town? 

Come on over. Bring bread and wine. Or crackers and juice. Whatever. Just come. 

This is the kind of house I want to build. This is the kind of home I want to create. You too? 

Come on over. 

 

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss

I've told you before that Paris was hard for me. Don't get me wrong. I am glad I went and immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to be there. If I were to go back again knowing what I know now - and especially if I were to find myself there alone again - my strong temptation would be to get inside the Louvre and leave it only to eat and sleep. From beginning to end - with a bizarre constellation of exceptions I'll tell you about later - the Louvre was a profound delight. 

The audio tour of the Louvre is delivered on a Nintendo DS, for some reason - a little handheld device with a touch screen and a headphone jack. One of its features was a grid of tiny pictures of some of the museum's most famous pieces, and one of those tiny thumbnail images caught my attention from the first moment I saw it. I didn't recognize it, mind; I couldn't have told you the name of the piece or the name of its sculptor. I just knew I had to find it. I actually walked right past it at first, trying to follow the bizarre, incomprehensible walking directions on the little screen; making my way to the opposite end of that particular gallery before turning around and finding myself face-to-face with the very thing I had been looking for: Antonio Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss. 

HFDT Cupid and Psyche I

I think I  stood there with my mouth and eyes wide open for... I don't even know how long. I was transfixed. Undone. One look and suddenly I was drowning in this glorious ache; a longing so deep and fierce that once I had filled my eyes with Canova's piece, I had to empty a full cup of coffee and fill an empty page of journal before I could move on. 

That day, and in the days that followed, I found that Psyche Revived had torn me open - and I started to bleed sonnets.

I have transcribed the first one below. 

 

To read the Louvre's synopsis of the story of Cupid and Psyche, click here.

The original story (if I understand correctly) is found in a book by Apuleius called The Golden Ass (I am not making this up.)  

C. S. Lewis's brilliant retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth is called Til We Have Faces, and I recommend it highly. 

 

Here's the sonnet. 

 

Cupid & Psyche I

The red twin bows that are the love-god's lips

Have loosed at her this final, parting shot

He hovers, tense through legs and chest and hips

Awaiting whether parting is his lot. 

He found her supine, stretched upon a rock

The flask of death drunk deep in beauty's haste

And he too late the fatal fumes to block

The love of Love himself by death laid waste. 

But see! She stirs, and once again Love breathes

To see breath fill her lungs, and blood her cheek

She reaches for his face and his chest heaves

With joy - though death has made her passing weak. 

Her eyes gape wide with wonder; his show soft

Regarding gently what Love almost lost. 

By Invitation: Blog Hop!

A while back, a friend invited me to be part of a blog hop for writers. The idea is that you answer a few simple questions about what you're writing and then link to three other peoples' blogs who will then do the same. I have found it challenging to find others who want to play this game, so basically I'm answering the questions my friend set me because I said I would, and if, later, I find other people who want to play too, I'll post about their blogs then. 

Deal? Deal. Great. Here goes. 

A. What am I writing or working on? 

I've answered this pretty thoroughly elsewhere, but in short, the answer is as follows: 

  1. A fantasy novel for young adults* whose working title is The Ruler's Mark
  2. This blog, and 
  3. Another piece of fiction. As things stand now, it looks like this one might turn into a quartet of books once I finish it, but it's much too early to know if it will develop that far. Really, at this point, it's too early even to say what genre it'll be. Right now it's looking like a three-way tie between fantasy, romance, and the sadly common "nobody but me will ever look at this for any reason" genre. 

*Note about the 'young adult' label. I have been advised to say that I'm writing YA fantasy as opposed to adult fantasy because I am not cut out to be George R. R. Martin. As I understand it, YA fantasy is any fantasy that you wouldn't be too embarrassed to hand to someone aged about 12-14 (or possibly even younger) because it doesn't have a metric ton of graphic sex or violence in it. As it happens, most of my favorite books - in adulthood as in childhood - are classified as YA fantasy. You don't have to be a young adult to read YA fantasy, and you don't have to write down to your readers when you compose it. Just ask Madeleine L'Engle, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and a host of others. ...just FYI. 

B. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This and all the subsequent questions are answered in the order of the projects listed above. 

  1. I'm trying to think of a way to answer this question without giving away major plot points, so I'm going to leave it alone. 
  2. So far as I can tell, this blog is unique among blogs only inasmuch as it is written by me.
  3. Ha-ha! I don't know its genre, so I don't have to answer this question! 

C. Why do I write what I write?

  1. Because I do not have a choice. This story has been inside me fighting its way out for more than eight years now. I'm a little bit afraid that if I don't give birth to it soon, either it's going to die or I am. 
  2. Because I occasionally have thoughts, and sculpting them into blog form is a good discipline for me as a writer and as a thinking human. Also, putting my words out into the world where anyone can read them is good practice for the day when I finally do  manage to bring The Ruler's Mark out into the light. 
  3. Because it has these big, sad, beautiful eyes, and it keeps tugging on my sleeve and looking up at me, asking to be written. So far, I haven't been able to refuse it. 

D. How does my writing process work?

  1. Most of the time, if I don't work on The Ruler's Mark first thing in the morning, it doesn't get worked on. Period. Which means that if I can't get out of bed at some hideous hour or other, I get very little done on this project these days. When I do manage to get out of bed early enough to work on it, I've been rewriting the book from scratch one scene at a time. This process started during the summer of 2014 when I got some great feedback from a few agents and editors at the Greater Los Angeles Area Writer's Conference and ended up giving this treatment to my first ten pages. I saw that those first ten pages didn't match up with what came after them, so I rewrote the first fifty. As of writing this sentence, I'm on page 152 / 347, and no end in sight except the end of the last page. It's slightly panic-inducing to think about how much work is left to be done, but I am confident that the 151.1 pages I've rewritten are substantially better than the 195.9 pages I haven't.
  2. Every day, a recurring task pops up on my list. It says, "Work on At the Top of my Lungs." If I'm busy doing things that are on-fire-urgent - which I almost always am - I cycle it forward into the next day... if I'm not, then eventually something gets written and posted. 
  3. I wrote about fifty pages of this and then had to put it aside for a while. When I picked it back up, I started getting glimpses of scenes featuring the story's characters, but they're from all over the place: some obviously much later in the story; some from nearer the middle; some that I have no idea if or when or how they fit into the rest of the puzzle. But I think about it everywhere, and when I have time - and sometimes even when I don't - I scribble down whatever I've thought of as fast as I can get it down. 

What writing are you doing these days? Is it pouring out of you like a venti latte dropped on the floor of the back seat? Or is getting it out onto the page or the screen more like pulling teeth? Are you enjoying it, or doing it because you have to? Or maybe both? 

 

Better Late Than Never: Gig Recap, Christmas 2014

"Better late than never," right? I hope so. I meant to have written and posted this months ago. You know what they say about good intentions. 

THANK YOU to all those of you who attended, or helped coordinate, my Christmas gigs: three worship services, one dinner, one luncheon, and one evening concert. At the time, the three gigs we booked to launch In the Bleak Midwinter in 2013 felt like a lot to me. A lot can change in a year. I think I can honestly say that the six engagements In the Bleak had in 2014 were WAY easier on me than the three the previous year, and they taught me some important lessons. 

  • December 6th: Canoga Park Presbyterian Church, Canoga Park, CA. CPPC puts on an annual Christmas Luncheon and I had the privilege of offering some of the entertainment for it. I've attended / been a member of the same church for twenty-three years (not this one) so I have a very clear, very specific picture of what a church family looks like. I was fascinated to find myself immersed in the traditions of another beautiful family... albeit one significantly different from my own. But like any good family, they fed us well, and they were very patient when things went wrong. LESSON: sometimes the backing track is going to fail, and it's just you and the piano. Learn not to lean on the track so heavily. 
  • December 7thMonte Vista Presbyterian Church, Newbury Park, CA. Songs from In the Bleak contributed to both of MVP's morning services, and Tom, the pastor at MVP (whom I have known for years) showed an especially fetching picture of me as part of a sermon illustration. LESSON: be careful what photos you post on Facebook. No, really, I think the lesson this morning was in the power of spending time with wise people who know you and your story. Tom drew a line between a piece of my story and the Christmas story in a way I wouldn't have thought of. I got to be grateful for the shape of my life, the other people present got a living sermon illustration... AND, I got to hear a roomful of people singing along with songs from In the BleakWow
  • December 13th: Rancho Ventura, Ventura, CA. Rancho was one of the three 2013 gigs, so it was an honor to be invited back. In the interest of not singing the exact same things we did last time, Jimmy and I worked up a short unplugged set of three Christmas songs from the 40s, and this set taught me something crucial about performing. LESSON: if I don't freak out when things go wrong, neither will anyone else. I'd done it perfectly several times in the studio, but when we took that set in front of an audience, I could not for the life of me find my starting pitch on one of the songs. When something comparable happened at one of the 2013 gigs (not the Rancho one), I freaked out, clammed up, and the whole rest of the evening labored under the weight of my nervous tension. This year when it happened, I made a joke, people laughed, Jimmy (my producer / accompanist) fed me my note, and we moved on. Amazing. 
  • December 14th: First Presbyterian Church, Santa Paula, CA. I was in a dark place when I got in the car to sing that morning, but the warmth of the welcome I was given and the poetry of the lyrics came together and handed me the gift of a fresh mindset even as I sang, and I think that something of that gift translated to those who were there. It was a beautiful morning and I was (and am) deeply grateful for it. LESSON: Great art and the grace of God are in the business of bringing light into darkness - even my darkness.
  • December 19th: Lemonwood, Ventura, CA. One of the biggest gifts of this gig season was the vocal quintet I had the privilege of working with. These are people with decades more experience than I have who are much better musicians than I am who opened the Rancho and Lemonwood gigs, willingly sat through the same set of my music twice, and joined me to close both evenings by singing backup on O Holy Night. I was calmer and looser than I've been for any other gigs I can remember doing and I KNOW they were a big part of why. Thanks, you five. You rock, and I love working with you. LESSON: good company makes a world of difference. 
  • December 28th: Good Shepherd Community Church, Columbus, OH.  Proof positive that I do not ONLY sing for Presbyterians. I sang three songs during the morning service, and for whatever reason, I was not connecting emotionally with the music this particular morning. Despite this, at one point I looked around and several people were in tears. This kind of disparity has made me anxious in the past, but that morning I just kept doing my job and trusting that everything would be okay. And it was. LESSON: my experience will not always be the same as anyone else's, and that is okay. 

What a gift this season was. Let me reiterate my thanks to all those of you who were part of it, and who stick with me as I learn some of these things... even if sometimes I learn them - or share them - a bit late.

Cheerleaders are People Too

I am nobody's idea of a serious sports fan. 

I support the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the underdog in whatever NFL game is on TV for the sake of my various family members who care deeply about those entities, but truth be told, I don't pay much attention to any of them if those people aren't around.

The thing I love about sports is the capacity they have for telling great stories. Think of Remember the TitansBlindsideMiracle. The Sandlot. 42Facing the Giants. Classics of my childhood such as Angels in the Outfield and Little Big League. Books like David James Duncan's The Brothers K. And of course--and here I would remove my cap, were I wearing one--Ken Burns' masterful documentary Baseball.

Time and time again, sports stories capture something seminal about what it is to be human--to struggle against oneself; to face monumental obstacles and overcome them. (Note that overcoming the obstacles and winning sports victories do not always happen concurrently, even in the movies.) When they are told well, sports stories seem to tell all our stories--because regardless of whether any given one of us particularly cares about (or is any good at) sports, we all have dreams; we all have obstacles to overcome; we all need teammates to help us get where we need to go; we all need a good coach (even if we often don't recognize good coaches because we're too busy complaining about how hard they make us work), and we will all face, in some form or another, a big, bad, seemingly unbeatable foe. 

I recently attended my youngest brother's first high school football game. Despite being a freshman with an injured ankle, he actually got some playing time in (he played defensive lineman, for those of you to whom that information means anything) and he played well. I was told by those who would know that he had excellent vision, and was immediately double-teamed by, among others, the biggest guy on the offensive side. (This is apparently a big compliment to anyone, and especially to a freshman. Good on you, brother mine.)

Just for fun, here are some of my random neural firings from that first game. 

  1. It is my theory that there is an unofficial rule requiring everyone at this event to shout incomprehensibly. Doesn't matter if you're a player, spectator, coach, referee, or cheerleader. If someone isn't shouting incomprehensibly, it's not football. That is my theory. 
  2. This
  3. Man, I am getting a surprising amount of knitting done, and it's only the second quarter! 
  4. Cheerleader. Noun. An emaciated person, usually female, who, in concert with other such persons, attempts to distract the opposing team by chanting, flailing, climbing on top of each other, and waving shiny objects around whilst wearing skimpy outfits. 

I've been to a few of these games now (summary: my brother hit some people, and we won) and I am kind of horrified by the power cheerleaders still have over me. These girls are little better than half my age. I have an apartment; a bachelor's degree; thousands of pictures taken all over the world in the years since I graduated. They have to finish their Algebra homework and go to bed and hope they don't hit snooze too many times because if they're late to homeroom again they'll be in detention. And yet my self-loathing rises exponentially in direct proportion to my proximity to these girls. (And this is the JV squad. God help me when my brother plays Varsity ball.)

Especially at first, I couldn't look at these girls without remembering the cheerleaders / friends of cheerleaders I knew in high school, and how they wanted nothing to do with me or my friends. And then I found myself taking vindictive pleasure in not raising my eyes from my phone when the stick figures turned around to wave pom-poms in the faces of the spectators. 

But when I did look up, and actually looked into those girls' faces, I saw something both surprising and intensely familiar: insecurity. Familiar because I see it in my bathroom mirror every morning on the other side of the hard water spots; surprising because, I mean, for God's sake; you're a cheerleader. Don't you know that, by definition, you have nothing to feel insecure about?! ...but it was there. It was there in the way they straightened their hair and skirts. It was there in the way they glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes. It was there in the looks on their faces when they missed a step. 

And suddenly I couldn't hate them anymore. 

I am certainly not the first to realize or to say that hating other people isn't the answer. What came home for me during the process of watching these games was the realization that cheerleaders are people too. It is so easy for me to write off entire groups because something about them makes me feel fundamentally uneasy in my own skin. I try to restrict myself to drawing these lines in socially acceptable places (i.e., I mentally and emotionally dismiss cheerleaders, celebrities, soccer moms, Olympic athletes, Martha Stewart, and anyone else who seems to / pretends to have their lives put together better than mine) as opposed to socially unacceptable ones (i.e., I do my best not to mentally or emotionally dismiss people on the basis of, for example, race). So most of the time it's fairly easy to pretend that this habit or tendency says nothing about my character. 

But it does. 

All of those people are people too--every bit as much as I am myself. Even Martha Stewart. No, really. I actually moved a bit closer to legitimate human fellow-feeling for her when I heard an interview wherein she admitted that she once dated Anthony Hopkins, and he was a perfect gentleman, but she broke it off because she couldn't get Hannibal Lecter out of her head. See? That's a human response right there. She's a person.

Smart Aleckry aside, this is why sports stories are important. I would argue that the following is true about most of the great sports stories I've encountered: 

Q: The opposing team is the enemy, right? 

A: WRONG. _______________ is the enemy.

Sometimes prejudice is the enemy. Sometimes it's apathy, laziness, hopelessness, arrogance, fear, or just the slew of bad stuff that happens because that's the world we live in. But the people facing us--across the dinner table or the conference table; the party line or the line of scrimmage or anything else that divides us--those people are not the enemy. They are people, just like you and me, and in some form or another they are facing the same enemies we are. 

And yes, this is true even of the cheerleaders. 

So I've started memorizing their names, and I try to make a point of looking at them when they turn around to do their thing. They're baby steps, yes. But I've been on the receiving end of the write-off I have given these girls, albeit for different reasons, and I would rather be two baby steps closer to compassion and understanding than doing that to my fellow human beings. 

Because they are not the enemy. 

Terminus

I’m not there yet.

I don’t even know where “there” is.

And it is driving me crazy.

I’ve always expected myself to spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, as it were, and when I don’t or can’t, I’m often profoundly tempted to give up. I have felt that way about this blog. If I can’t offer up something fully-formed—an idea that has arrived; that strikes me as moderately complete and wise and polished—I don’t want to write anything.

But that is not what my life looks like right now. Thousands of ideas, thoughts, problems, and questions ricochet off of each other every minute. The ideas are usually half-baked; the thoughts are mostly gray and dismal; the problems range from petty to petrifying, and the questions have circular answers, if any.

So here I sit, surrounded by used Kleenexes and clutching my aching head, because my instinct is to wait for something brilliant to say, and all I’ve got is this sense of emptiness.

But I am a writer, which means that I have to write, and emptiness is no excuse for not writing.

So in lieu of the brilliant thing that hasn’t come to me, I’ll tell you the crux of one of the ideas / thoughts / problems. It takes the form of a question, namely: What is adulthood?

I think if I could go back in time and ask my childhood self how you know if somebody is an adult, the answer she would give would look very much like the life I’m living now. An adult has a place to live that is her own, not somebody else’s. An adult has a car and is able to drive it. An adult has graduated from college, has a job, pays her bills, and can have alcohol if she wants, sometimes. Also, nobody will make her eat food she doesn't like. That’s an adult.

When I was a kid, though, I believed that once certain thresholds of life have been reached, a person will have arrived, somehow. Now I’m not sure I believe that we ever arrive anywhere in this life. I begin to suspect, rather, that life is a journey and it is (you are) constantly in motion as long as it exists (or as long as you do). Arriving has nothing to do with it.

The Latin word terminus can be translated by the English words term, limit, boundary, ending, frontier, and finish. It bespeaks, if I understand it correctly (which I may not; I am no Latinist) both the act of arriving somewhere or finishing something and, in other contexts, the destination itself; the goal; the Rubicon.

I want a terminus. I want to cross a border that will eviscerate my insecurity—convince me once and for all that I’m Okay; that I no longer need to justify my presence on the planet.

Maybe a Real Adult is someone who wants good things because they’re good rather than because she thinks they’ll be a means to an end; a ticket to there; a way to arrive. A terminus. There are lots of things I want that, I realize, I think of (or have thought of) as terminuses (termini?)… marriage, children, promotion, publication, fame, wealth. Coffee. The list goes on. Maybe, in a way, I’ll be there when I learn to stop focusing on getting there, and learn to be where I am; learn to accept it all and let it be for good. (Sidebar: please follow that link. Those words are a line from a poem called The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite. You won’t be sorry.)

I may wake up tomorrow and realize that there’s “more of gravy than of grave” about all of this, but here’s the theory I’m working with tonight: maybe I have to be okay with being here before I can get there. Maybe here will never turn into there unless I am able to embrace here for itself without seeking to make it a gateway to there. I wish I knew the magic spell that would make me able to instantly love what is (accepticarius allthecrapicus ingoodgracibus, maybe?) but lacking that, I’ll go with this, and let that be the end of it (at least for tonight):

Hello, here. Thanks for being here with me. You are painful, but I will do my best to make room for you anyway.

There.

…does that count? 

The Magic Meatball vs. the Numinous Nugget

I have possibly the most phenomenal day-job in the known universe: I office-manage a small company that provides technical design and production for theme park attractions. In layman’s terms: if you walk into a theme park (or museum or aquarium or other entertainment venue) and see something magical, chances are if we didn’t do the work ourselves, we know how it got done (or, in some cases, how it could have been done better.) One of the many perks of this job is that virtually every year, I get paid to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Marketing research is a beautiful thing if you do it right. And by “right,” I mean “with Butterbeer.” Sometimes when the concept of gratitude feels far away and impossible to me, I can summon it a little closer to where I live when I recall the existence of Butterbeer.)

A few years ago I was taking meeting notes for a design charette on a proposed new theme park somewhere in China, and the minds around the table were trying to come up with a basic story structure for one of the attractions. One of the story concepts someone brought up was the “Quest for the Magic Meatball.” It’s a common enough story structure. You set out seeking a particular artifact that will grant the bearer… something. Power. Protection. Parsnips. Other things beginning with P.

In my day-to-day life, I am constantly on the lookout for the Magic Meatball. I have this semi-subconscious belief that someday, I will watch the right movie / Oprah special / TED Talk, or listen to the right song / podcast / NPR segment, or read the right book / article / blog post, or attend the right conference / church service / party, and then I will wake up the next morning and my life will have fallen magically, effortlessly into place, meaning that any or all of the following will be true:

  • I will prefer kale salads and fruit smoothies to pasta and cheesecake.
  • I will arise magically before the sun every day and joyfully launch myself into a vigorous exercise/ writing / apartment cleaning / personal grooming routine strenuous enough to convince anyone (even me) that I have earned the right to live on this planet today.
  • I will have a magnetic, effervescent personality; everyone will love me; I’ll throw great parties and be a paragon of hospitality and a witty and gracious conversationalist.
  • I’ll be the kind of office manager through whose fingers no detail, however minute, would dare to slip.
  • My to-do list will be, and will remain forever, 100% under control, and no item that could be accomplished today will ever, ever, ever be put off until tomorrow. …or a week from this Tuesday. …or possibly a year from next Arbor Day.
  • I will have a literary agent, a small fortune, and a man.
  • Etc.

Spoiler alert: I have not found the Magic Meatball. I still prefer pasta to salads most of the time (although I did recently eat a kale-quinoa salad wrap thing that was spectacularly delicious.) No matter how many times I tell myself that I really do function better when I get up and get moving early in the morning, eight or nine times out of ten, the alarm goes off and sleep just seems more important than whatever else I could (or arguably should) be doing. I’m still socially awkward and chronically behind on about four dozen tasks (and those are just the ones I have written down.) I make mistakes in the office; I’m still unpublished, in debt, and comprehensively single.

Rationally, I know that there is no Magic Meatball. Neither Oprah Winfrey nor Jillian Michaels nor Brené Brown nor any pastor; neither my own competence nor someone else’s ingenious new system nor the hot new fad diet nor anything else in all of creation can totally insulate me against the reality that life is hard.

I think sometimes I hang onto the Magic Meatball delusion because it’s easier to believe that there is a Magic Meatball and everyone else has already found it, and that that is why I always feel so tired and inferior… than it is to accept the fact that life is hard. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for you. Research (by which I mean “my own intuition;” “research” just sounds better) indicates that anyone who says they have their life handled and everything is easy and perfect is a big fat liar (and will probably not be invited to any of my Fabulous Parties once I acquire a magnetic, effervescent personality). Sure, I can always find someone else whose life sucks more than mine. Actually, in my case, lots of peoples’ lives suck more than mine. I have a job, a car, and an apartment; those things alone put me ahead of the vast majority of the human populace in terms of ease of life.

And how many times has knowing that information made it easier to get out of bed in the morning?

Never.

Not even once.

Know why?

That’s right.

Because life is hard.

One thing I’ve been learning lately, from Brené Brown as a matter of fact—okay, so she can’t fix everything in the universe and organize it and put it in a Bento Box, but she’s still a phenomenally wise and winsome person whom everyone should listen to—is how critically important it is to admit that life is hard, and to let the people who care about you know when life is just especially hard, even if the reason why life is just especially hard seems colossally Stupid and Embarrassing to you.

(Such as, to offer a real and recent example, the fact that a friend and I both recently applied for something and she’s getting it and not me. And I know I should mostly be happy for her because arguably she needs it more than I do, but mostly I feel like a failure and I kind of just want to curl up and die, especially when I remember the (half joking) things I said after both applications had been submitted. And no, it doesn’t help that I know that she’s not gloating; not even a little bit, and that she doesn’t think I’m a failure, and that she didn’t think a thing of anything I said after the applications were submitted. In fact, knowing all of that makes it worse because it makes all my feelings even more irrational and Stupid and Embarrassing.)

Actually, the moments when life is hard for Stupid and Embarrassing reasons are the moments when it is, perhaps, especially critical to admit that life is hard. Because people who are willing to put themselves out there over things that are Embarrassing and Stupid help other people to feel they have permission to put themselves out there over things that are Embarrassing and Stupid. And if you can reveal your Embarrassing and Stupid enough times, eventually you might find yourself able to divulge—to the right person, at the right moment—your Shameful and Terrifying. (Yes. I have Shameful and Terrifying. And so do you. And anyone who claims not to have Shameful and Terrifying is definitely not going to be invited to any of my Fabulous Parties.)

And having the right people to whom to divulge your Shameful and Terrifying—not being alone with it, in other words—actually does make it easier to get up in the morning. And to sleep at night. And to put one foot in front of the other on the days when life is just especially hard—even for reasons that are Stupid and Embarrassing.

And that’s something else right there: Brené Brown may not be able to fix everything and put it into a Bento Box—she neither is nor has the Magic Meatball, in other words—but she does have many nuggets of wisdom to share. In the interest of extending both the alliteration and the meat product idiom, I’ll call them Numinous Nuggets. And partaking of Numinous Nuggets can make all the difference when life is hard. Learning to be; pushing myself to be; giving myself increasing permission to be vulnerable (like admitting that I feel rejected and small that my friend got this thing and I didn’t) is making a big difference in my life. Learning—painfully slowly—to accept love and grace from somebody once I’ve offered them my vulnerability (such as accepting my friend’s words of comfort and affirmation about this thing she got and I didn’t) is making an even bigger difference. Learning to cultivate gratitude for that love and grace instead of feeling awkward and weak for accepting it will probably make a huge difference once I actually get to that point. I’m not quite there yet.

None of these things can make all my problems go away. They can’t change the fact that life is hard. In fact, living this way tends to open me up to feeling the pain of all the problems even more keenly than I did before.

But.

It also makes it possible for me not to be alone with them.

No matter how many places I search for it, I’m never going to find the Magic Meatball because it doesn’t exist. I’m still not managing to get up at oh-dark-thirty every day like I’m getting off the bench at a basketball game, but the Numinous Nuggets that I glean from good books (like Shauna Niequist’s Bittersweet; just started it and I already love it); good TED talks (like Brené Brown’s); the wisdom of good friends—all this makes it possible for me to get up at some point and put one foot in front of the other, and to go to bed that night and sleep, and then to get up the next day and do it all over again, even in the midst of living out the reality that life is seriously hard.

There is no Magic Meatball, but it turns out there are a lot of nourishing nutrients in Numinous Nuggets. And thanks to the people from whom those nuggets come—and other bright spots like my job—sometimes, I even get to wash my plate of Numinous Nuggets down with a flagon of Butterbeer, and I get to eat that nourishing and delicious meal in good company.

Which is a pretty spectacular antidote, when I can remember to / bring myself to take it, to the poisonous gases of despair and bitterness that can be released into the soul when life is especially hard. 

Paris: City of Lights, Love, and Vulnerability

Have you ever had one of those seasons of life where you hear the same word or phrase so many times from so many different directions that you start to think it’s not an accident and maybe you’re supposed to pay attention?

To my great consternation, the word in my life that currently fits that description is vulnerability. If you haven’t seen Dr. Brené Brown’s brilliant Ted Talk about vulnerability and shame, I urge you to watch it.

Here’s her position in a nutshell.

  1. I have to be willing to be embrace vulnerability in order to really live.
  2. Vulnerability means showing up and being seen for who I am regardless of what anyone (including myself) expects me to be. 
  3. That coin has two sides. One side of that coin is living authentically with my shame; not trying to make everything look perfect, or to numb myself to the reality that it isn’t perfect… 
  4. …and the other side of that coin is giving myself, and those around me, permission to believe that I am / they are worthy of love and belonging in spite of my / their shame, and indeed because of my / their vulnerability. 

I think I do pretty well at living authentically with my shame and being honest about it. But I have never been comfortable asserting my own worthiness of love and belonging, and as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time contradicting people who have tried to assert it for me—and worrying that anyone who doesn’t try to assert it for me doesn’t believe I have it.

I went to Europe in November 2013 to see C. S. Lewis memorialized in Westminster Abbey, and after all the Lewis events ended, I went to Paris. I went to Paris because I had already been to London and Oxford, where the Lewis events were, and while I love London and I adore Oxford, it seemed a shame to cross an ocean and a continent and not go anywhere new. So I went to Paris.

I’ve said before that I take preparation very seriously. I prepared for Paris, in part, by acquiring and using a language learning CD. Here’s a real French sentence I learned from this program:

Voulez-vous boire du vin avec moi chez moi?

Translation: Hey, big boy! Wanna come back to my place for a drink?

I will admit that I have exaggerated the flirtatiousness of the sentence slightly, but only slightly, and the whole program was like that. Lots and lots of sentences you might use if you’re trying to pick somebody up in a foreign country, but no help whatsoever with things like “restroom” or “museum”… or with transport words like “taxi,” “train,” or “subway.” Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Without question the most useful French phrase I learned from this CD was:

Pardon, je ne comprends / parle pas très bien le français.

Or: Excuse me; I don’t understand / speak French very well.

I used this phrase constantly. I opened nearly every conversation with it once I was there. I was told countless times before I went that Parisians tend to be slightly more accommodating to Ugly American Tourists who at least attempt to speak French before diving in with English. So I held this one phrase up in front of me like a shield, and prayed that whoever I was speaking to would immediately switch to English once I said it, and many of them did, but by no means all.

I started feeling vulnerable as soon as I got off the train at Gare du Nord. Mercifully, almost right away, the signage offered me the following very welcome cognate: Taxi. And I thought, Merci, mon Dieu, and began practicing what I thought might be a good pronunciation of “Pardon me, where are the taxis?”…in case the answer wasn't obvious when I got to the end of the signs. Whether the phrase I had worked up was right or not I’ll never know, because I lost my nerve when I actually came face-to-face with the official-looking guy directing pedestrian traffic, and what actually came out of my mouth was, “Er… taxi?” in as close as I had to a French accent in that moment’s state of mental acuity. He immediately gave me very precise directions in English and I said, merci, monsieur and did what he said.

When I actually got into the cab and gave the driver the address of my hotel (I may or may not have muttered vingt-neuf Rue Cler under my breath for the entire duration of the taxi queue) he had never heard of the street in question. He punched “29 Rue Cl” into his GPS and then asked me how to spell the rest of the word, and I froze, because yet another thing my language learning CD had failed to teach me was even a single letter of the French alphabet. I could order wine or coffee or something to eat; I could offer wine, coffee, or something to eat to a handsome stranger; I could invite that handsome stranger back to my place after the wine, coffee, or something to eat had been consumed, but I couldn't say, “…e, r.” After a couple seconds of embarrassed silence, I said it in English; he punched the letters in and off we went.

I have never in my adult life been so happy to see a tiny hotel room with serviceable dead-bolt, and I threw it as soon as I was inside and collapsed onto the bed.

The four-point-five days I spent in Paris were an unending exercise in vulnerability. I was alone. I was stripped of verbal communication and knew not one soul in a city whose reputation can be summed up as follows: 

1.   Paris: City of Love.

2.   Paris: City of Lights.

3.   Paris: City Where You Really Need to Watch Your Bags, Especially on the Metro.

Not surprisingly then, one of my most vulnerable moments came on the night I took the Metro to the Opera. Alone. After dark. I couldn’t even find the Metro station at first. But a kind stranger showed me where to go and I did make my way onto the right train (where one hand white-knuckled it on my purse strap and the other on the vertical pole that was the only reason I didn’t sprawl into the dozens of potential muggers all around me) and eventually made my way to the Palais Garnier. My ticket was for the opening night of La Clemenza di Tito, a lesser-known Mozart opera—lesser known possibly because it somehow managed to get around the seemingly universal stipulation that opera must be tragic.

Here’s the plot in as few words as possible: Sesto is in love with Vitellia who wants to kill the emperor Titus, so she convinces Sesto to do it for her. Sesto—described by Wikipedia as Titus’s “vacillating friend”—reluctantly agrees and attempts to kill the emperor. He fails, is caught, arrested, tried, and sentenced to death (pending the emperor’s decision to sign his death sentence.) Titus signs it, but changes his mind and tears it up, choosing instead to show clemency (hence the title, which translated from the Italian is The Clemency of Titus.)

There’s more to it than that, and if you care about the more that there is, you can read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

I had read about La Clemenza before travelling, but I had failed to take in that a couple of the male roles, including that of Sesto, were to be played by women. I found this to be both distracting and fascinating, and it contributed to the fact that ultimately, Sesto was the character I most identified with (indecision; unrequited love; crippling feelings of agonizing guilt… what’s not to identify with?) But I didn’t recognize this until Act II. I might have made the connection more during Act I except that:

1.   I was sitting in a seat that was approximately the width of a knitting needle.

2.   The space between my seat and the seat in front of me was little more than the length of an average knitting needle.

3.   When I sat down, the man already seated on my right gave me a dirty look and began speaking rapidly (presumably in French) to the people on his right in a tone that clearly bespoke, “Can you believe this fat Ugly American Tourist sitting next to me with her giant bag full of Paris Opera House swag? UGH.”

So there I was feeling enormous and unwanted; my hips were aching from being pressed against the sides of my seat; my legs were pressed so hard into the back of the seat in front of me (which came to about the level of my shins) that I was seriously concerned about knocking the person in front of me in the back of the head, and my feet were taking turns falling asleep.

I felt sad to have come so far and been disappointed—and then I felt guilty for feeling disappointed because I was in the Paris Opera House for God’s sake; lots of people go their whole lives without seeing such a spectacular place and all I could think about was the fact that my feet were asleep?! Who does that?!

Then, two things happened.

1.   An angel of mercy disguised as a member of staff saw me massaging life back into my shins during intermission and moved me to an empty seat in the back of someone’s private box. I’m sure that an ordinary chair has felt that miraculous to me at other times in my life, but I can’t remember what times those might have been.

2.   The art started speaking to me.

In Act II, there’s a scene where Titus is alone with Sesto after the failed assassination attempt, and Sesto is basically pushing a pen and his own death warrant into Titus’s hands because he feels so guilty for trying to kill him that death has become preferable to life. He basically talks Titus into sealing his fate—against the emperor’s initial inclination. The emperor is standing there offering him mercy, but Sesto would literally rather die than accept it.

I would say that this is insane, except that I do the same thing all the time.

I mean, okay, I haven’t killed anybody (yet) so the parallel isn’t exact. But per my admission a couple thousand words ago, I have a tendency not only to deny my own worthiness of love and belonging, but to refuse love and belonging when they are offered. Vulnerability happens. Sometimes it’s that someone sees more of my real self than I intended to show. Sometimes I hurt or anger someone by my words or actions. Sometimes I try something new and find that I’m not immediately good at it. Sometimes I just… fail. There are lots of ways vulnerability happens. And when it does, I’ve seen myself over and over again push the pen into peoples’ hands, asking them—if not explicitly then certainly by my behavior—to write me off. Not because I want to die, as Sesto did; nor because I want be estranged from people (I don't) but because it’s a way to retain control. More often than I’d like to admit I live in fear that others will write me off. So I push them to it. Like Sesto, I deny that I'm worth keeping around and I refuse to let anyone else contradict me because if at some point someone decides that in fact I'm not worth keeping around, I will feel as though I have some measure of control of the situation if I intentionally did something to instigate the loss.

At least, that’s how it works in my head.  

Except that really it doesn’t work. It’s no way to live. It means playing into the hands of the people who don't want me around—and treating those who do want me around as if their opinions are worthless. Quite apart from being no way to treat the people who really matter to me, this approach makes no sense

It turns out that the price of invulnerability, at least for me, is a life of self-perpetuating misery: I feel alone; feeling alone makes me feel worthless; feeling worthless makes it almost impossible for me to accept that anyone else thinks I have any worth; if I spend enough time insisting that I have no worth people will either start believing it or stop wanting me around because let’s face it: if I don’t want me around, why would anyone else want me around? And then I feel alone, and the whole thing starts all over again.

But vulnerability changes things.

In order to enjoy Act II of La Clemenza, I had to admit my shame (admit that my seat was indeed too small for me) and then assert my worthiness of love and belonging (let somebody help me find a different one) in spite of it. And when I did, the story opened up for me in ways it hadn’t before.

In order to experience Paris at all, I had to embrace vulnerability (accept the pain and fear of being alone and without words.)

On a certain level, you could say I never did this while I was there because I basically walked around broadcasting that I can’t speak well instead of just trying to say what needed to be said and letting the chips fall where they would.  

But life imitates art (thank you Oscar Wilde), and sometimes Titus just shows up out of nowhere and gives you your life back. I know this because I did experience Paris. I did see Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the Seine; I did drink superb coffee and eat croissants and really excellent cheese and the best apples I’ve had anywhere. I did all those things. And when I wasn’t holding my lack of language ability up in front of me like a shield, I also had some fun and interesting conversations.

Could I have done more of that if I’d been willing to be vulnerable? If I’d been willing to let the Parisians see for themselves that I didn’t speak their language well and draw their own conclusions about whether or not I was an Ugly American Tourist? Probably. It wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. I was pretty neurotic, actually. But even so, je suis digne d'amour et d'appartenance. I am worthy of love and belonging.

And so are you.

When has vulnerability paid off for you? When has it been painful? What has it cost you to resist it?