Growing Roots (A Series): Part V

Rooting in Your Gifts

When my children were young I began to search for a family church – not out of faith or a desire to worship anything in particular, but out of a desire to provide them and maybe even me with a safe spot, a community, a place to be at home even when home didn’t feel that good.

activity-adult-adventure-1376960.jpgI held memories of backpacking trips with groups from my my childhood church firmly in mind as I investigated our local options. Ironically my now seminarian husband was less enthusiastic about this quest, so I became the advance team. I made a list of churches to visit based on what I knew generally about beliefs and practices and what I could get down with, and perhaps more importantly what I couldn’t get down with, and I began to visit them.

I went to services to see how it felt, to check out what was being taught and said. If the minimal bar of not offending me was passed, I then asked about their programming for kids. It’s possible that part of my motive as a stay at home parent of twin pre-schoolers was to find just one hour in my week where I could sit and think without being interrupted.

I could say more about the churches I visited – who made the initial cut and why, but that’s not really the point today. Today the point is what I did with church.

I think, even in my older twin mom exhaustion that I knew that many of my core needs were not being met. This reaching out for community was an attempt to shift that balance, but it was, in many ways, an attempt to apply that same old geographical solution to the problem of feeling terribly alone and isolated. If I could just find the right place, I would feel better.

I did find a place, a really great place, and we began (slowly and intermittently) to attend as a family. People were welcoming and friendly enough. We were reserved and rushed. Church became an additional item on the list of things to do, and I (as the one who started it all) became the ringmaster of the Sunday morning circus. In my attempt to find community, I had created a lot of work for myself, had added more tasks to the insane stack of domestic work, childcare, and freelance writing and editing I was already doing.

For me doing all of these things meant doing them well. I was exhausted, and fully retreated into my armor of perfectionism. So when I entered this new space – wrangling husband and children to get there, it became a box to check off (and to be sure to do well) – one more thing on my list – a thing that I sensed could help but that I was really unable to engage with in a way that WOULD actually help.

I had set a trap for myself, and I was caught.

And then, one Sunday, the choir returned from summer hiatus. And they were good! I say this with love: church choirs are often NOT good. Being a musician can make regular attendance at a place with a not good choir a difficult thing to commit to. This choir was good, and it occurred to me that maybe this was a thing I wanted to do.

It had been over 20 years since I had sung in the University Choir at Penn State. I had been in a few bands in the meantime, and occasionally even been paid for that, but even that beer-soaked musical effort was a distant memory, so there was some anxiety about taking on this new musical thing with a group of people I didn’t know.

The director and I sorted out where my voice belonged and I began to attend. And I began, again, to sing. It had been years since I’d sung in front of people who I wasn’t attempting to coax to sleep or to learn the alphabet or just cheer up.

It had been far longer since I’d read notes on a page, and it was tricky. As I continued to attend, I found help all around me. I learned who the great sight-readers were and sat near them for a boost. I slowly went from singing along quietly and tentatively to actually singing along, sometimes with confidence. I began to feel my way back to the space that appears when I sing and I allow myself the pleasure of trusting that I am good enough at it to stop worrying.

Wednesday nights became sacred time, and it was easy to believe that the shift that occurred was a result of finally choosing the right geographical solution. I had finally found the right place. In retrospect, I think something else was at play that created that magic for me.

To participate in choir, I had to set everything else aside. There is no multi-tasking in choir. I also had to face the fact that I would make mistakes. These were two things I was desperate to do but didn’t recognize the longing.

attractive-background-beautiful-756453In addition to that though, to get that soaring feeling I sometimes get when I sing, I had to engage with my gift and trust that it is good enough. Whoa.

I had to plug into something that I knew could bring me joy and let all of the worry about looking foolish go. Whoa.

I had to take off enough armor to let the sound come out, to breathe deeply to support it, and to have the sensitivity to others necessary to work in a group with my, and all of their, gifts. Whoa.

I had thought to turn outward to root myself in a community. I had thought it was a question of finding the right place and then identifying the right people and then, over the course of however long it would take a shy and introverted person to do so, to cultivate relationships with those people.

It had not occurred to me that I could turn inside – to my joys, to my desires, to my needs and my gifts and that turning in THAT direction i could grow roots and find community. i could find more nourishment, confidence, AND kindred souls for care and comfort.

I had never realized that rooting begins not just with soil, but in the seed.

How to Come Home

So this week I’ve been talking about coming home to yourself – being who you really are and bringing that sense to all of the difficult spaces you find yourself in: the difficult job, the marriage that isn’t what it once was, the argument with a friend.

antique-art-door-211763And that’s all very well and good as advice goes, but it doesn’t tell you a lot about how to GET THERE. Okay, Julia I can see that being my authentic self could have benefits. I can see that not continually fighting to improve according to some metric and instead bringing my gifts to a problem might bring me some creative solutions AND a whole bunch o’ fulfillment. I am on board, but… what the hell are you talking about? How do I come home.

It’s a fair question.

And it’s not one that there is one specific answer to, but there are strategies, there are things you can do, and things you can stop doing. Maybe we should start with the stopping.

Stop: pretending you like things you don’t, volunteering for things you don’t want to do, assuming that you’re the only one who can ________, believing that you just need a little more/different training/certification, believing that there is a right way to get it and that’s what you need to figure out, hanging on to clothes/books/music that you don’t like/make you feel bad, spending a lot of time with people who leave you feeling exhausted or really negative. This list could get a lot longer, so I’m going to leave it here for a moment because the critical thing is not that you STOP EVERYTHING that isn’t perfectly aligned (at least not right away because that would be really hard), but that you stop enough to make some space for discovery. Stop just one of these things and make room.

You need space for discovery because that’s the START category of this whole proposition.

You need to start paying some attention to what you already have inside you, maybe some things that have been there, unattended and dusty in the corner for a while.

A few suggestions on how to pay attention to those dusty parts. Some of these standalone, and others are multi-part strategies.

  1. Consider a meditation (ugh, I know – okay I’ll do like Martha Beck does and call it stillness – better?) practice of some kind. You don’t need to sit on a mat for an hour and think and do nothing (unless you already can and find it blissful). You just need to carve out some time and space in your head to let go of the junk that fills it up all day long. It’s awfully hard to look inside when there’s a constant influx of information, tasks, sounds, requests, noise, news, and wind-up monkeys banging cymbals (just me?). All of that everything keeps us at the surface, puts us in survival mode, keeps us from connecting to our core, which is (and I would have laughed uproariously if you’d said this to me five years ago) a place of peace. If you’re open a practice like this, check out this post for some suggestions on easy ways to get started.
  2. It feels weird to continue with a bulleted list after suggesting meditation, but such is the way of learning sometimes. The second thing I’d recommend is that you ask yourself what you used to like to do that you don’t do anymore. Any old hobbies in there? Any secret and long packed-away dreams? You may find some things on that list that got packed away for a reason. Like me for example, I used to like to drink beer competitively, as a sport with friends. First of all, I don’t recommend that. Secondly, that particular game got put away for a whole collection of good reasons. When I started asking myself this question about tucked away pieces of myself, I remembered how much I like to sing and how sad I was that I had stopped when the kids were born. I also remembered writing, a lot. Hmmmm…. Yes, I do a whole lot of both of those now, and one is part of my “work” in the world. The other is sheer pleasure, and even pays now and then.
  3. Get real honest about what you need and what you want and no, I’m not going to tell you to stop wanting anything. Check in on those needs and see what you can do to meet them to make yourself feel safe, secure, and like survival mode may be a little minimalistic. Explore those wants to see how they line up with the goals, career path, actions you’ve written down for yourself in your big book of obligations. Check yourself.
  4. Write down all of the reasons that you cannot want what you want, that you cannot be who you are, that you cannot dream what you dream. Write them all down in a flurry of negativity. Be the worst fan you can imagine. Be the anti-cheerleader. Go after yourself; just get all of it out on the page. ALL OF IT.
  5. When you have exhausted the list of shitty anti-support and abuse, read through it and for each one, ask yourself one thing: is this absolutely, irrefutably, totally 100% true? Do I know it for a fact? Would other people agree with me? If your list is anything like mine, there will be a whole lot of “No” in response to those questions. Challenge your reasons for hiding, for pretending, for squirreling big parts of yourself away.
  6. Start to play. Pick something. A hobby, a dream, a want, and play with it. Let it take your imagination on a journey. Let yourself explore the ideas. Let yourself imagine what could be different. Unleash yourself in your mind, and do so without constantly telling yourself why you shouldn’t or how it’s a waste of time. Savor your daydreaming. Get really good at it. Draw pictures about it. Write stories about it. Sing about it. Whatever. Just do it and be in it.

adult-armchair-beverage-846080And that’s it. Wait, what? No, really it kind of is. And let me tell you why. Because when you unleash yourself in your mind, everything else follows. Your beliefs change. Your feelings change. Your actions change. It ALL changes and it changes in a way that lets you be your whole self, that lets you be you, that lets you be at home wherever you are.

I’m here if you need someone to navigate. I have excellent maps.

And I’ll happily say: “Welcome home, love.”

 

The Angel at the Start and Finish

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. While there, I heard a number of REALLY great lectures. I’ll have more to share about them in the coming weeks, as I sort of process and integrate everything I heard and learned. I wanted to go ahead and share one tidbit with you now because I thought the story was so beautiful AND so instructive.

The speaker who presented this lovely tidbit was the Rabbi Daniel Cohen, whose talk was entitled: “Leading a Life of Legacy: Mission and Meaning in Every Moment.” I’ll have more to say about Rabbi Cohen’s talk later, but this one story was asking to be told.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I am no rabbinical student. My knowledge of Judaism is scant at best, and so what I present here I do with faith that mistakes will be taken with charity. I am happy to be corrected; just know that my intentions are pure, or at least really good.

adorable-affection-baby-826734So, with all of that lead-in complete… the story is about babies in the womb. My understanding is that this is not a biblical story, but one that exists in Jewish scholarly texts. The story says that there is an angel that comes to a baby as it grows in the womb. The angel, Lailah, provides the growing baby with all of the knowledge that it needs, in the form of the texts of the Torah. The angel also tells the growing baby about the history of her soul. Finally,┬áLailah provides candlelight for the growing baby so she can see from one end of the world to the other. (You can find a very accessible version of this story here.) The rabbi presenting the story referred to this knowledge transfer from angel to child as the light. The angel puts the light inside of the growing child. And then, just as the child is ready to be born the angel touches the baby’s face (slaps in the old texts) just between the lip and the nose, causing the baby to forget all of that knowledge and leaving a little dent on the skin.

What?!

The idea here is that as the child grows and encounters these ideas, these concepts, the light, the child will recognize them, remember them; the light will be more meaningful and held in a more sacred place because of that recognition.

What?!

This idea is so interesting to me because it clicks in with some other things I know and believe.

When I was studying to be a teacher, one of the things we learned is that students need some internal architecture, an intellectual framework, for deep learning to occur. One text referred to this architecture as “hooks,” places to hang new knowledge. One way to develop hooks was to tap into things students already knew or maybe had learned at one time and forgotten. I’ve seen those principles in action and know them to be effective. There is no denying that we learn better in the second, third, fourth exposure to an idea – once we have some hooks, categories, a framework for information.

I add to that my own recent personal growth, which feels a lot like a remembering: remembering who I was before I got completely lost in parenting twins, remembering who I was before a long battle with infertility damaged my sense of hope and wonder, remembering that (despite whatever flaws I might be seeing in myself at any moment) I am pretty freaking miraculous, remembering what it feels like to believe that I am never alone and that who I am matters. Remembering those things feels like finding a light, at first a small flame, maybe like a candle. And as I sit with those ideas, as I allow myself to question some of the thoughts that have kept me “safe,” I feel that light getting bigger, shining into the corners and and onto the cobwebs, bringing a warm glow.

This idea of Lailah imparting the light so you can remember it later feels very real right now, and I touch my philtrum (that’s the super weird name of the dent above your lips under your nose – words are so cool) to honor my own remembering.

The rabbi followed the tale of Lailah with an additional story about an angel, and here’s where I am really off-roading it because the lecture was outside and there were dogs and butterflies to watch. I got a little distracted. I don’t know if this second angel is from Jewish texts or if it is an idea of Rabbi Cohen’s. I did a quick search on the Googles, and didn’t find anything to clarify things, but I’m going to proceed to share anyway because I think the idea is instructive no matter what its origin – just wanted to be honest about my lack of knowledge, and about the fact that my attention span has limits.

This angel (same angel – don’t know – see previous reference to dogs and butterflies) greets us at death.

afterglow-backlit-bokeh-556658And the angel asks us two questions: 1) did you see the light I put into you, and 2) did you share it?

Rabbi Cohen’s focus is on living a life that is meaningful, and these questions really get at the heart of that. Did you figure out who you are and what you believe in? Did you let other people see that? Did you find ways to be seen and heard as your true self? Did you engage with the world in ways that upheld and demonstrated your deepest beliefs?

Did you see your light? Did you share it?

Do you see your light? Will you share it?

Would you like to?

With so much love and nary a slap on the mouth,

julia

Deep Authenticity

It’s been said so many times that it has nearly become meaningless. For the last few years I’ve heard lots of people talking about being “authentic.” And it is a fine conversation in the sense that none of us really likes someone who is phony and fake. We generally appreciate people who are straightforward in their dealings with us, whose motives are transparent and intentions are clear. So we strive to be more authentic and we seek out others seeming to do the same.

We try to say more of what is on our hearts and minds, without editing too much to please people. We try to relax and be ourselves around others. We maybe take risks in clothing choices that more accurately represent who we are. We try to become more careful custodians of our time. All of these are worthwhile, and can be challenging, but I would suggest that this is a shallow understanding of authenticity.

Wanting everyone to be authentic?Within the confines of shallow authenticity, I can still ignore a whole lot of my own personal experience and the world, because shallow authenticity focuses on my expression to others – literally how I express myself to others. I can be authentic. I can say real things. This requires things of me. It requires dropping shields. It requires accepting vulnerability. This requires courage. So, when I call it shallow, please don’t hear that as easy or cheap. All shallow means here is that there is another layer – there is a deeper understanding and practice of authenticity that we can aspire to and reach (with practice).

Deep authenticity requires us to face reality within and without. It cares less about our expression in the world and more about our acknowledgement of what IS in the moment. What does it take to practice deep authenticity? It takes a willingness to see that there is good and bad everywhere. It takes a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own ability to impact every situation. It takes a willingness to admit that our own existence will be filled with moments that can’t be scrubbed clean with a positive affirmation. It takes a willingness, and you have to know this was coming if you’ve been following along, to feel all of our feelings, to stop resisting the dark ones and making them far worse than they are through that resistance. It takes accepting that the dark moments provide us with insight, prompts towards growth, and the motivation to do the work to get where we want to be. It takes accepting that no matter how much we improve ourselves, we will still feel bad sometimes.

Deep authenticity requires us to be honest with ourselves and accepting of reality (which is not the same as not wanting to make the world better, by the way). When we can do that, when we can live in deep authenticity, we are far better prepared for authenticity in our interactions with others. If I can face my fear of being rejected and feeling lonely, I don’t need to hide who I am. If I can face my fear of looking foolish in front of people I admire, I can be vulnerable in front of peers and mentors who can help me get where I want to go. If I can accept that some days will just feel bad, I can let that feeling in and STILL do what I want to do in the world without being phony, just being in a bad mood but productive.

Shallow authenticity seems like an easier place to start, because it allows us to demand the same from others: be real with me; tell me the truth; let me get to know you; let me help you. Deep authenticity means we drop our demands from others because we recognize our shadows in them. Deep authenticity means we believe they should be who they are, their real selves, which may mean that they don’t give and share as much as we want. Deep authenticity means we connect with ourselves and our own spirits so we feel less of a need to make demands of others and worry less about how they receive us.

The truth is that no matter how you slice it, if you live in the world, you’re going to see some things that aren’t beautiful and amazing. You’re going to see some things that are disturbing and dark. The question is whether or not you will engage. The question is whether or not you’re ready to meet those things with the depth of authentic feeling that you are capable of having. The question is whether or not you’re ready to be fully you even when its not pretty.

Deep authenticityDeep authenticity is not a small challenge, and it’s not something that many of us are taught. It is inconvenient and uncomfortable. But through that deep authenticity comes freedom: the freedom of being firmly grounded in reality, the freedom of knowing who you are and being able to follow your inner guidance, the freedom of not being afraid to feel any feeling and be yourself.

If you find yourself craving honesty and connection from others, if you sense that there’s something you want to express in the world but can’t quite put your finger on it, maybe it’s time to be with ALL of yourself. I’d love to help.