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When the World Crowds In: Finding Our Footing

 

Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China, September 1994:

At one of Hong Kong’s north rail stations, my friend Sandra and I, along with her teenage son and mine, join the jostle of Asian travelers and commuters boarding the train to China. The high-backed, wooden bench seats are filling fast. My son and Sandra’s find two places together. I choose a rear-facing seat beside a window with a tiny, bolted-down table standing between me and a grandmotherly woman seated across from me. Beside me on the aisle side of my bench is a lively older man, who tries to strike up a conversation. Unfortunately, I speak no Chinese, and he speaks no English, so he turns to Sandra, who is sitting across from him, beside the grandmother. Sandra knows enough Chinese to converse a bit.

As the train starts its two-hour journey to Guanzhou, I pull my camera out of my shoulder bag, eager to snap some pictures of the Chinese countryside. But the windows are so smudged and grimy that it’s hard to find a section clean enough to provide a good view. Still, I have to try. The farmland is picturesque, the crops laid out in rows about three feet wide and mounded in the center. Only a few people are in the fields, and they’re bent over the rows, working by hand. I see no machinery except a plow pulled by a water buffalo.

Back inside the train, a hostess periodically walks the aisle, selling wares of all kinds: books of stamps, newspapers, candies, mints, gum, and boxed hot lunches (rice with meat and vegetables). From time to time, she returns with a broom and sweeps up the trash everyone is tossing onto the floor. She scoots the mound of trash to the door between the train cars and shoves it out onto the tracks. Now I know why I see trash scattered between the train tracks and the fields. Occasionally I see someone picking through it. I assume that’s where the field workers get the plastic bottles that are turned upside down, covering the young plants.

The towns we pass are full of tall, whitewashed, look-alike apartment blocks or short rows of stable-like houses. Bamboo scaffolding surrounds many buildings, as if the urban areas are growing and thriving, but I don’t see many construction workers. I do notice a few railway workers here and there, laboring manually along the railroad ties, which are made of concrete. Sandra tells me that there aren’t enough trees to make the ties out of wood.

Our approach to Guanzhou (Old Canton) takes us through miles of rice paddies before we roll into the big city with its crowds and noise and smog. As the train pulls into the station, our fellow travelers surge to their feet, and as soon as the train halts, they pour out the doors and flood the walkway in a rushing tide that sweeps us with it. Fortunately, my son is tall and blonde, so I can easily locate him in the sea of satin black heads in front of us. But that’s all I can see: heads. I notice that those at the front of the pack are dropping out of sight. It’s as if I’m rafting in a swift-flowing river, suddenly realizing that up ahead it flows in a waterfall over a cliff. We’re obviously heading toward a staircase that I can’t see, and in this crowd, there’s no slowing and no stopping. I can’t help but think of lemmings.

I also can’t help but think of news reports about people trampled to death at crowded soccer stadiums or among midnight shoppers shoving to get into Wal-Mart for the best Black Friday deals. But we’re in the middle of the crowd, and there’s no way to go but forward and down. It gives new meaning to “Go with the flow.” And we do. We flow down the stairs and into a corridor, where we shuffle forward, packed shoulder to shoulder. The crowd practically carries us along to the exit, where small turnstiles squeeze us out of the station like toothpaste from a tube. My friend’s son comments that the object of this configuration seems to be to force the greatest number of people through the smallest possible opening.

On the way down the corridor, I had noticed guards sitting on gates and ledges above the masses. Now that I’ve gone through the turnstile, I realize that the guards are not above the crowd just to oversee everyone but also to stay out of the way. Otherwise, they risk getting squeezed through the turnstiles themselves. I exit the train station with a new motto: “Whatever you do, step carefully and keep your balance.”

Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is out of balance. Work and school schedules, news cycles, issues with home, family, and friends crowd around us, tipping us one way, tilting us another as they sweep us along and squeeze us out at the end of the day. Often, the best we can do is step carefully and try to keep our balance.

Next week: What is balance? How do we find it? How do we know when we’ve found it? How do we keep it? And what does it have to do with faith?

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com and morguefile.com.

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How Can Slower Be Faster?

 

“Slow down and you’ll get it done faster.”

– Arunima Orr –

Arunima is the founder of the artists’ space where I take classes, and I’ve decided she’s right about slowing down. Well, truly, she’s right about a lot of things, but getting things done faster by slowing down is one of them. In art class, we usually apply this to cleanup, but I’ve applied it to my daily life as well, and I’ve discovered that slowing down doesn’t mean moving at snail speed. If I simply shift into a slightly lower gear, I have more traction. My movements are more precise, deliberate, and intentional. And I notice more. As my sports friends might say, my head is in the game. Life is simply easier to navigate when I slow down.

Now more than ever, the world needs you and me to be calm, clear-headed, and thoughtful. Here are some things I’ve realized as I’ve practiced living less frantically.

  • Not every answer has to be given right away.
  • Not every request or demand has to be fulfilled, and if we choose to fulfill it, it does not have to be fulfilled right away.
  • Not every task has to be tended to immediately.

That may sound like a dream list for procrastinators, but there’s a difference between procrastinating and giving a task the mental prep time it needs. I’m not suggesting that we shirk responsibility or wiggle out of a job we’d rather not do. I’m just saying that slowing down and pausing allow us to intentionally approach tasks with care. Slowing allows us to be mindful as opposed to mindlessly plowing through.

One caveat: that list above may simply be a wish list if you’re the parent of preschoolers. Someone once said that preschoolers are walking emergencies. That’s not far from the truth. With young children, some things have to be tended to immediately. Still, taking your life as a whole, not every task needs to be done right this minute. You may have to be creative about it, but where can you cut yourself some slack?

We need to pause occasionally to assess ourselves, the world we now live in, and our journey through it. We’d be wise to assess mindfully, thoughtfully, and graciously. To cultivate an open-hearted faith, we need to move forward with open eyes and open ears, listening to various voices (including those not of our “tribe”). We need to consider differing viewpoints and weigh ideas.

Consider is a key word here. It’s the root of the gracious term considerate. Our world needs considerate people, people who don’t just blindly jump on bandwagons but consider what they see and hear and believe. The old advice, “Think before you speak” is right, as is “think before you act.” When we take our time, we give ourselves the space to think and listen, to be attentive and considerate.

Slowing down and taking our time also gives us the opportunity to appreciate. The word appreciate contains the Latin pretium, which means price. To appreciate is to comprehend the value, the true nature, and the importance of something or someone. When we slow down or pause, we give ourselves the space to notice what’s of value. If we keep our eyes open for signs of grace, kindness, beauty, and goodness, we usually see them. We witness God’s touch on and in the world. We can appreciate – or value – our turn on the timeline.

A few posts back, I wrote about drawing lifelines in a class on abstract art. When I think back to the lifelines that I and my classmates drew, I’m awed at the value each one represents, and I feel a deep sense of appreciation. I’m amazed that one lifetime can hold so many swings of the pendulum: sorrows and joys, illness and health, angst and comfort, enemies and friends, failures and successes. Maybe we wish our path had been otherwise. Maybe we wish we had not been so blind. Maybe we wish we had responded differently. Maybe we wish we had been Dorothy instead of the Tin Man. But in the wide world of humanity, in the broad flow of history, each of us is on a unique journey, and each of our journeys tells a unique story.

“The blessing of regret is clear,” says Joan Chittister, “– it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continued becoming.” All of our past experiences – all of them – have brought us to where we are now. And now is a treasure. Now is the time for re-vision and discovering our path ahead.

As I’ve said before, we are always coming of age, moving to the next stage, taking the next step, growing into the future. And the future is something new. Even if we’re old, tomorrow is new. Next week is new. Next month? Next year? All new.

In my dream of now, we stand with hands cupped before us, holding what we thought were the thorns of the past. But they’ve turned into fragrant flowers. As we cradle them in our palms, something marvelous happens: the petals become wings. With one joyful toss of our cupped hands, we send them flying into the future. And as we bring our hands back down, we realize that, in spite of everything we let go, our hands are not empty; they are full of mystery and grace and hope enough to fuel our next steps.

Next week: Finding our footing on roads rough and smooth.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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What’s In Your Hand?

 

“The best camera is the one in your hand.”

Pete McBride, a National Geographic Photographer –

I photograph shadows that I find interesting, but shadows don’t last long, so I try to have a camera nearby at all times. If I have to search for a camera, by the time I return, the angle of the sun will have changed the shadow, or clouds will have blurred or blocked it completely. Catching a shadow means using the camera that’s nearest to hand.

Last week, I mused about finding meaning and purpose in life, which I suggested begins with discovering the gifts we’ve been given and cultivating them. Then we give of them graciously and generously. But that can be done only in the moment-by-moment context of our individual lives. So how do we do that? How do we know which direction to go? How do we know what our gifts are? It’s a bit like catching a shadow; it’s done with what’s at hand.

So what’s in your hand right now? (Literally it may be a phone, which could be your answer, but in case it’s not, go with me metaphorically for a minute.) That’s where we start: What do I have? What can I do? What doors are open for me at the moment? Sometimes the answer hits like lightning; we wake up one morning and simply know what to pursue. At other times, discovering our direction requires pausing and taking the time to reflect. What is in my hand?

It’s an ancient question, as old as Moses. Before he was a famous leader, Moses was a not-so-famous leader . . . of sheep. (Well, maybe he was popular among the sheep, and he was wanted as a murderer, but that didn’t look so good on his resumé.) Then one day Moses took a Time-Out from shepherding his flock to get a closer look at a burning bush and found himself standing before God (Genesis 3, 4).

Behind Moses was his conflicted past, which he knew all too well; before him lay his future, which was about to blow wide open with risk and uncertainty. But at that present moment, all he knew was that he was standing barefoot on holy ground, watching the strangest bonfire he’d ever seen, and hearing the Voice of God.

“I’m sending you to Pharaoh,” said God. “Tell him to let my people leave Egypt.”

“How?” asked Moses. “No one will listen to me.”

And God asked, “What’s in your hand, Moses?”

I picture Moses glancing sideways at his shepherd’s staff, maybe self-consciously shifting his grip a bit. His staff was a symbol of his leadership, although at the moment his only followers were sheep, and they weren’t always so cooperative. He had to nudge, guide, and sometimes even rescue his sheep. With his staff. But that was his gift at the moment. And it just so happened that at the moment, his gift was needed. Moses knew very well what was happening in his generation. Now Life was calling to him. And where was his gift? He was holding it.

But to figure that out, Moses had to take a Time-Out. Seth Godin has said, “[S]ilence used to be precious, it used to be at the heart of our joy and our humanity. . . The silence of sitting and wondering. The silence of ‘what happens next?'” Sometimes we don’t slow down long enough to notice the burning bush. Or to listen for the Voice. Or to discover the gift that was in our hand all along.

The fact that we often call slowing down “taking time” hints at the need to be intentional about it. We can take time. We can look for it, grab it, and spend it purposefully and meaningfully. That may require setting aside our devices for a while. I’m on social media, and I’m grateful that the internet connects me to information and networks me with a variety of people, but I’ve also experienced the way it cuts into my time, lures me in, and lulls me into pursuing the next story and the next. Link, link, link. Eventually links make chains, and some of those chains are awfully hard to break.

Author Matthew Crawford points out that when we live through and on screens, we’re “encountering the world through manufactured experiences” and we’re more easily manipulated, because those encounters are mediated. It’s worth asking what we might be losing with 24/7 connectivity. Could we benefit from a Time Out?

In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett quotes Ellen Davis of Yale Divinity School as saying, “. . . anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued.” Why? Because slowness and stillness is the state in which we cultivate calm and inner peace. Slowness and stillness can help us notice the sacred space within us and the touch of God in the world around us. Slowness and stillness can nudge us toward appreciating what we have rather than racing toward what we don’t have. Slowness and stillness can nurture gratitude rather than greed, contentment rather than cravings.

Jonathan Swift said, “May you live every day of your life.” He obviously meant more than simply breathing and having a heartbeat. Swift’s way to live requires being intentional and aware, and that often means slowing down. When we speed through life, it’s hard to gain more than just a fleeting impression of people, places, and events. But when we gear down our minds and bodies, we give ourselves a chance to be present and to witness life.

We also give ourselves a chance to discover the specific how-when-and-where of our gifts, which, like Moses’s gift, can be found only in the context of our time, our era, our generation. Are you a baby boomer? A Gen-Xer? A Millennial? How is your life calling to you? What is your time, your era, your decade asking of you right now? What’s in your hand?

Next week: a bit more on taking time.

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Shadow photo and Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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An Adult Time-Out

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

– an ancient proverb –

At the end of last week’s post, I nudged you to treat yourself to a grown-up Time-Out. I hope you got to ease back from your schedule at least once. A few years ago, if someone had suggested that I take a time out, I would have balked: “A time-out? How? When?”

Good questions. There’s work to be done, or shopping, or any of a thousand things clamoring for our attention. At one time, I was so busy with kids and commitments, I would dash home after teaching writing classes, run upstairs, toss down one bag, grab another, and rush back out to the car, hoping to make it to the next event on time. Even the daily Quiet Time that our church leaders encouraged us to observe became another line item on the daily To-Do list, and one I felt guilty about skipping. In reality, I was too busy for my own soul’s good. I learned that if I don’t control my time, it controls me.

But time is often too precious a god for busy people to ignore. At the core of busy-ness, a hidden heartbeat drums, What do I need? I must provide. What do I want? I must provide. I must provide. I must provide. Not only was the original concept of the Sabbath a grand Time-Out, but it was also a sign of trust in God as Provider. It’s amazing how hard it is to trust God to provide for what we might miss by taking a Time-Out. Yet it’s in the Time-Out, settling into the present moment, that we connect with the day, with our tasks, with each other, and with the Divine Mystery.

I realize that some of us would love to carve a moment or two out of a full schedule but truly believe we can’t. While it’s true that at times the road on our life journey is crowded with people and events making demands on our time, that’s all the more reason to make an effort to establish a habit of stillness. I’ve touched on the issue of pausing and finding stillness in previous blog posts, but it’s an important key to opening our spirits, to finding Eternity in the Now. So I’m picking up the thread again for a few minutes to look at it from the angle of time.

“We fail to notice because we’re busy keeping busy,” wrote Seth Godin. But we don’t have to take the grand all-day Sabbath Time-Out in order to notice the present and the eternal. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to slow down. With just a heads up, a breath in and a breath out, we can ease back from a frantic pace to a deliberate pace.

A time-out can be as brief as thirty seconds: pause, inhale, exhale, while using as many senses as we can to notice one specific object nearby, something to be grateful for – a leaf, a dandelion growing from a crack in the sidewalk, the texture of a brick, the flow of air from a fan, the scent of popcorn, the sound of one voice or a hundred voices, the marvel of a human hand. Capture the pleasure, the calmness, the gratitude of that specific moment, and then carry that calm into the rest of the day. Do this thirty seconds, once a day. Then make it twice a day. Then a dozen times a day. Then sixty seconds at a time. Then fill an entire coffee break noticing the gifts of the present moment and being grateful for them. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” says poet Mary Oliver. Being present and noticing life can become a sacred, soul-enriching habit.

Ram Dass, a Hindu spiritual teacher, said, “Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW . . . so you stop asking.” That’s a beautiful thought, and it’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go past Now. I suspect that Ram Dass is trying to say that Now is all we have, and Here is the only place that the present moment encompasses or can even handle. He implies that if we ignore or overlook the Now, we’ve ignored and overlooked life itself, because life is lived moment by moment. That’s true. God is not accessed in a future that has not yet occurred, nor is God accessed in the past, where events have come and gone. The live connection is in this moment. In the Now. However . . .

NOW is always slipping into NEXT. If Time is like a book open to a double-page spread of Now, then we are always turning to the next blank page as we journey through life. Sometimes the journey feels purposeless; sometimes it feels purposeful. Sometimes it seems meaningless; sometimes it seems meaningful. Maybe that’s part of what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson meant about feeling either integrity or despair in older adulthood. We feel integrity if we sense that our lifeline has purpose and meaning; we feel despair if we don’t sense or see the meaning.

The existential question, “What is the meaning of life?” was asked so often in the 1960’s (often with awed voice and glazed eyes) that the question soon became a cliché and, of course, a staple of jokes:

“What is the meaning of life? All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

“What is the meaning of life? To find out if you have one before you have none.”

“Every time I find the meaning of life, they change it.”

And from cartoonist Mark Ishikawa: “The purpose in life is to find a purpose in life.”

But the question is a serious one: What, indeed, is the purpose of our time here? What gives life meaning? I’ve said before that I believe our whole purpose is to learn and practice love. If we dig a bit deeper, we find that practicing love involves both receiving and giving, both gratitude and generosity. Meaning and purpose begin, then, with discovering the gifts we’ve been given and cultivating them. Then we give of them graciously and generously, expecting nothing in return. Appreciated or unappreciated, we give.

But if we’re going to give generously, we have to continually refresh and refill ourselves; we have to continually nurture our gifts. Where do we find that nurture and refreshment? Sometimes from others who are living generously. Sometimes from nature. Sometimes from silence and stillness. And always by gravitating toward where we find love and grace and life. Because, as I’ve said before, where we find love and grace and life, we’ll find God. That’s the well where we receive, the well we draw on when we give.

It’s easy to advise “discover your gifts and cultivate them.” But how do we do that exactly? In the next post, I’ll be a bit more specific about the way I look at it.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Where Time Touches Eternity

“Each of us has our own hard won perspective, built by our individual past,

which created our own unique way of seeing things.

In other words: each of us has our own decoder ring.”

Lisa Cron

Remember secret decoder rings? You could send off for them if you had bought Ovaltine chocolate drink mix or Kix cereal or other products, and sometimes they were actually inside the package.  Using a simple substitution cipher, the ring allowed you to decode a secret message. (I don’t remember what the messages were, but I can guess that they were along the lines of “Ovaltine makes strong bones,” or “If you like Kix, try Trix.”) What Lisa Cron is saying in the above quote is that our past is the code by which we interpret ourselves and the world around us. But what if we don’t like our decoder ring? What if the message it decodes is despair? Can we change it?

Another type of ring became popular in the 1970’s: mood rings made of crystals that changed color with fluctuations in the temperature of your skin. Occasionally, changing our outlook is just that subtle. Small questions, an overheard comment or a helpful hand from a surprising source can color the way we see things. Or to switch metaphors, minor drips can wear away hardened beliefs little by little.

But frankly, subtle and easy don’t usually work. As Seth Godin points out, change often doesn’t happen until we’re thirsty enough. Usually to change our view, we have to be shaken by a major event – a wedding, a funeral, a birth, a relocation for school, a new job, a major health crisis, or a milestone birthday.

No matter what triggers the look back over our shoulder, when we see our own tracks, our own personal lifeline, we deserve a moment to indulge ourselves and wonder what if. It’s even okay to admit that we wish our prologue had been different. But we can’t drive forward with our eyes always on the rearview mirror.

It’s not helpful to set up camp in the “if-only” frame of mind. David Brooks, in The Road to Character, quotes Samuel Johnson on the subject of sorrow, which Johnson calls “that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something was otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession we have lost.”

Our thoughts seep into our pores. Some heal us; others poison us. We can do without the torment of wishing the past had been otherwise. We’re healthier to admit that, yes, the past has been mapped in permanent ink, and it may look like a roller coaster or a dive off a cliff, but it’s the road life has taken so far. However, the past is past. We’re not standing back there now. Lisa Dale Norton, in her book about writing memoir, encourages writers to look back at the events of life and “line them up in some pattern that offers grace for all involved.” We don’t have to write a memoir to do that. When we look back, we can choose how to line up the memories. We can choose a view of grace. Isn’t that what we’re to be about – grace for all involved?

We can draw a box at the leading edge of our lifeline and put an X in it, like a mall map: You Are Here. You’ve made it this far. What life comes down to now is: Where do your feet stand at this moment?

The next question is: Which direction will you point your toes? That is something we have some control over. Here is the only place and now is the only moment when we can decide which way to go. Time may be long, spanning far behind us and stretching an unknown distance ahead, but now is all anyone ever has. We can mentally relive or prelive our lives. But the now is where we exist.

Now is when and where we make our choices. This is where we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. This is where we decide how to walk forward – in despair or integrity. Realistically, we’ll experience a bit of both as we journey on, but we can tip the scale in favor of integrity. When we do that, according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, we gain the strength of wisdom.

Here’s where the faith cycle that began in infancy comes full circle. The sense of integrity found in healthy older adults contributes to the trust that should develop in the young child, because trust, according to Webster’s, is “the assured reliance on another’s integrity.” Erikson links the trust of childhood to the integrity of adulthood, saying, “[H]ealthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”

Someday our now will be our last moment, at least on this side of time. But every present moment of now is a point at which time touches eternity. Eternity describes a sacred quality of life that’s accessed and lived in the Present. I picture earth time as a thick book suspended in a vast expanse of eternity. At this present moment, the book is open to the double-page spread of our current place on the timeline – yours and mine. As we live each day, we’re writing our stories, drawing our lifelines, taking our turn onstage. It’s one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories. And those choices are not made in the Past or the Future; they are made in the eternity-rich Present.

Once we get past the Past, we can become aware of the Present. I drafted this post as a chapter in a new book and began writing it at Advent, when we were being reminded at church that Advent is a season of emptying ourselves in order to receive the incarnation, opening ourselves to receive what gives us life. Most of what gives us life is found in the Now. Scents, flavors, textures, colors, shapes, sounds – we experience all of these in the present moment.

I suspect that was Jesus’s point when he said, “Become as little children” (Matthew 18:3). Children live in the moment, open to and aware of what’s right in front of them. Parents and caregivers of young children have the advantage of seeing through a child’s eyes and tapping into time as experienced by a child. If we’re open to children, they constantly show us life’s wonders through the sensory-filled world of the present moment.

We adults would do well to give ourselves a childlike Time-Out now and then, intentionally stilling ourselves for the purpose of absorbing the present moment, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. The original concept of the Sabbath was a grand Time-Out, ceasing business as usual – or busy-ness as usual – and settling into the sacred moment of Now, where the Present touches Eternity. In fact, the Present is the only place where we can experience Time touching Eternity.

Treat yourself to a Time-Out this week, and as you settle into the Present, become aware of time touching Eternity.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Decoder Ring photo courtesy sobebunny

Mood Ring photo public domain

Other photos courtesy pixabay.com.

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What If . . .

“What’s past is prologue.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest –

The mysteries of time have always challenged philosophers, physicists, and novelists, too. Since 1895 when H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was published, the human imagination has played with the possibility of time travel. It may be the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi, but we do a type of time traveling every day. We go back in time when we read history or novels set in the past or even the news of what happened last week or yesterday. We go forward in time when we imagine how next week’s committee meeting will go or anticipate our vacation next summer. We go back in time when we peruse old photographs and memories. We also go back in time when we imagine what life might have been like on the “road not taken,” that “what-if” of choice and chance bypassed on paths that we’ve already traveled.

Unlike the trail ahead of us, which is unmapped, the trail behind us is full of the tracks we’ve left behind. It’s a time line of our lives. In an abstract art class I once took, our instructor directed us to create our own abstracts starting with a single charcoal line drawn across a large piece of paper – one line that represented our life. Then we took turns telling, in general, how the lines we drew symbolized our lives. One woman’s line wandered all over the paper. Another woman’s line spiraled. Another student had drawn smooth curves interrupted with jagged, mountainous sections. It was fascinating to hear my fellow students explain this zig-zag, or that curve, or the dramatic, bold line that looked as if it fell straight off a cliff.

My abstract looked like a roller coaster. As novelist J. Courtney Sullivan said of one of her characters, “She had made a choice and then she had made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” My choices had added up to a life. As I stood there studying my lifeline, I found myself thinking about the negative space, the white space around the line. That empty space was a powerful symbol of roads not taken. I couldn’t help wondering “what if.”

 

I suspect that my fellow artists were posing the same question about their own lives. When we look back at our past choices, “what-if” is hardly something we can avoid. But it can be risky. “The thought of what could have been eats at the center of the heart,” writes author Joan Chittister. “It pretends to be reflection, a kind of tally of the years. But . . . [r]egret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present.”

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that in older adulthood, we find ourselves living in either integrity or despair, depending on how we look back on life. The life road we traveled may have been steep or rocky, fogged-in or full of switchbacks, but if we view it as our path to wholeness and maturity, we’re able to feel a sense of integrity, integrating the various aspects of life into the whole.

On the other hand, if we view the past with regret and remorse, we’re likely to feel a sense of despair. In The Spirituality of Age, psychology professor Robert Weber says that in older years, despair results from denial, which comes from a place of self-protection. We’re hiding, he says, from guilt or shame instead of facing it, admitting it, and unburdening ourselves. If we dwell on if-only and roads not taken, we feel a sense of despair.

 

 Of course, older adulthood is not the only stage of life when we’re subject to pining over if-onlys and roads not taken. We all see unexplored paths when we look back. We’re all aware of lost opportunities, missteps and failures, and decisions made too quickly or in the heat of emotion. It’s human nature to assume that the road not taken would have led to a life that’s better, healthier, and more satisfying than the one we have now. But would it have? That “what-if” has no answer. The truth is, there are hundreds of paths we didn’t take. Another truth is, the journey is not yet done. Going forward, we can prevent a lot of despair by refusing to dwell on what-ifs and if-onlys.

In one sense, Shakespeare was exactly right when he said that the past is prologue. And from what I know about writing novels, I can say with confidence that the only prologue worth including is one that’s essential to understanding the story to come. In real life, that’s all of it. As Isabel Allende said, “I am now the sum of everything I have been before.” Our past is an essential part of who we are now. Acknowledging that can help us understand where we currently stand on our own timeline and where we’d like to go in the future.

 Next week: Where Time Touches Eternity

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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The Mystery of Time

Kårvikhamn, Norway, July 2011:

It’s almost midnight, and I’m hiking down a coastal highway north of the Arctic Circle with seven friends, new and old. I don’t normally hike down highways at midnight, but my son is going to marry his Norwegian girlfriend this week, and her father wants to show us the midnight sun.

Actually, a midnight hike is not such a big deal here. My son’s future mother-in-law treks into the hills at two in the morning to pick cloudberries – which you can do easily this far north in midsummer, because at night, the sky at its darkest is only twilight dim.

So here we are, hiking down the highway. At this time of night, there are no cars on the road. In fact, except for our soft, padding footfalls and quiet conversation, the world around us is settled and hushed. A dreamlike, dusky light softens the landscape. To our left, tall hills rise, steep and shadowed. To our right, fields of wildflowers stretch to the water’s edge, where gentle waves lap at the shoreline.

Our destination is a spit of land that curves out from the shoreline like a finger pointing toward the horizon. The ground there is tumbled with large stones, and each of us chooses one to sit on. As I pull my sweater closer against the chill, hot drinks are passed around – coffee and something stronger for those who want it. I cup my steaming mug in both hands and look to the horizon. We’re just in time to watch the sun slowly lower itself into the sea. After barely dipping below the line where water meets sky, the sun rises again. It’s a new day.

Here on this shoreline, time feels mythical, slanted like sunbeams at midnight. And in this moment, sitting on a stone as the world tips from one day into the next, I am filled with awe at the mystery of time.

* * *

Occasions like weddings, funerals, and births seem to sharpen our focus on what truly matters. At these milestones, we often sense the cosmic nature of our life journey and remember that we’re only a small part of what goes on in this universe. We become aware of a truth: from beginning to end, our time on this earth is very, very brief. I’m awed to think that while I was busy doing who-remembers-what, my toddling sons grew into men with strong strides who now have toddlers of their own.

Human life is a relationship with time. In a sense, time is a god. We’re ruled by it, bow to it, and rely on it as we consult our calendars. Time is a currency – we “spend” it. In fact, we’re rich with it. You and I literally have all the time in the world; no one else owns more minutes than you and I have.

Time doesn’t ask if we want to go for a ride; it just picks us up and carries us along. More than once I’ve remarked, as most of us have, that with every passing year, time seems to go faster. (My older son pointed out that, in a way, that’s actually true. When we’re five, a year is long – one-fifth of our lifetime. When we’re fifty, a year is much shorter – only one-fiftieth of our life.) We measure our presence on earth by time. And some people say of death, “When my time comes . . .” There’s something beautiful about that expression. After death, I guess, we are out of time in every sense of the phrase. We run out, and we are out. Out of time’s confines. Out from under its rule.

I’m approaching time here from a philosophical rather than physics-oriented view in which, according to physicist Carlo Rovelli, time does not truly “flow” but is a “single block of past, present, and future.” The possibilities of that are amazing. The God-possibilities are astounding. But to most of us, time feels like it flows ever forward.

So . . . looking forward, next week, I’ll post more on the mysteries of time and the lifeline I drew in an abstract art class.

 

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Text and Norway photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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The Failure of Success

“All of us make mistakes, and the wisdom from these mistakes is often more valuable than advice from the supersuccessful.”

Skip Prichard

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve suggested a few ways to deal with failure, including honoring it, recasting it, lowering expectations, and even quitting. I have one more suggestion: Collect words of wisdom that you find personally encouraging. No doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve quoted lots of people in my previous posts. I’ve let these people speak, because each of them is considered to be successful, and yet it’s obvious that they all deal with failure. In fact, we could say that they’re experts in the subject. Some people consider me to be a success, but the truth is I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. Every day I’m tempted to quit writing. Every day. So I collect encouraging quotes and place them in a file labeled, “Creative Courage.” When I get discouraged, I open up my “Can of Creative Courage” and read some of the voices that encourage me most. You’ve probably figured out that you’ve been reading some of my favorites.

But let’s flip the coin to the success side for a minute. Failure may be an essential part of success, but even success can be disappointing. As Lao-Tzu said, success is “the lurking place of failure.” G.K. Chesterton, in his droll way, pointed out that nothing fails like success. It’s certainly not guaranteed to bring us happiness. But people don’t often talk about the letdown we can feel after the initial euphoria of success wanes and our fifteen minutes in the spotlight is over.

Sometimes the process of working toward success is so exhilarating that after the initial celebration of reaching it, we crash. It’s easy to feel an absence of purpose, at least temporarily. That often happens to authors. I know I experienced it with my novels. A great deal of time and work go into preparing a book for release day (the day the book is on store shelves, available for purchase). For me, as with most authors, the excitement began building on the day my agent said an editor wanted to publish my novels. We then entered months of editing, finalizing the book cover, doing pre-promotion, and setting up publicity. Finally release day came!

The silence was deafening.

Release day was a normal day at home and passed by completely unnoticed by everyone except one of my writer friends who had been-there-done-that. She arrived mid-afternoon with a bottle of champagne. Bless her. She knew what a letdown it could be.

Reaching our goal is not our destination. It only sets us up for the next goal. Writing coach Lisa Cron says, ” [I]nstead of making my life easier, [success has] made it harder. . . it’s given me no choice but to deal with unavoidable change.” One of the changes is seeing another goal ahead. The end point of this climb is the starting point for the next climb.

Sometimes success is such a high that once the momentary euphoria fizzles, we’re hungry for more. We want a greater high. Or one that’s longer lasting. On the other hand, we may look back and realize that while we succeeded, we paid a high price. Success in one area sometimes leaves us with regrets in another.

Then there’s the strange effect of celebrity culture that elevates the “successful” person to a position separate from the masses. It can be a lonely place to live unless we have close friends who know us for who we are and don’t buy into our over-hyped image. (It also helps not to buy into our own press.) Often people who admire our success build up their own assumptions about us, their own stories of who we are. In other words, they think we’re something we’re not and often expect us to continue with the same level of success or to climb even higher. It’s tricky to navigate that path well. Ray Connolly, in his biography of Elvis Presley, says that toward the end of his life, the mega-star said, “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.”

If it’s true that nothing fails like success, it’s also true that nothing succeeds like failure. Failure succeeds in opening our eyes, humbling us, narrowing our choices toward the achievable, and directing our path. I can’t help but compare it to revising a novel. The first draft is always a disappointment. Technically it’s a failure, because I failed to express on the page what my mind dreamed, what I envisioned, what I wanted. But it’s also an opportunity to revise. Revision, re + vision, means seeing again. Gaining a new vision for the story. Or in the case of life, gaining a new vision for the future.

Life is an overlapping series of explorations and discoveries in which the failure/success experience is essential. It’s essential as we continue to come of age. It’s essential for a living, growing faith. It’s essential for becoming whole and fully human. It’s essential for opening our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished,” wrote novelist Louis L’Amour. “That will be the beginning.”

Next week we’ll begin exploring time and choice. Mentally, we can relive our past choices or pre-live what we imagine to be future choices, but now is when we actually make our choices. This moment is when we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. Join me for more next week.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Why It Might Make Sense to Quit

We’ve all heard the adages:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“Quitters never win.”

And from one of Winston Churchill‘s famous speeches: “Never give in. Never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in . . .”

Ah, but Churchill didn’t end there: ” – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Like they say out West, “When your horse dies, it’s time to get off.”

When the great depression hit in 1929, my grandad (that’s a photo of him) had a wife and a baby (my dad). Jobs were scarce, so Grandad traveled around the South, as he said, “feeling the country out, you know – for a job.” For a while, he loaded trucks by hand. Then he shoveled gravel, earning a dollar and a half a day. The family was poor, but they got by. As the years passed, Grandad worked hard at whatever he could find to do. Eventually he became a successful businessman and rancher. But on the way, he failed a lot. He bought a hotel. It failed spectacularly. He bought a dairy farm. It didn’t work out. He started raising sheep. No go. But Grandad always shook it off and moved on, saying, “Well, I learned what not to do,” which in his view was just as valuable as learning what to do.

I don’t know what it’s like in other careers, but within the writing community, an abundance of social media voices cheer us on. “You can write a novel! You can get published! Don’t give up!” Hundreds of writers and writer-coaches encourage us daily to stick with it, don’t drop it, stay in the game. I suspect that whatever your aspirations, writerly or otherwise, you can find plenty of motivational blogs and books ready to plump up your courage, inspire your vision, and help you persevere until you succeed.

All of this can make it hard to quit. If, in spite of the cheering voices, we do quit, we may feel deeply ashamed. Because quitters never win, right?

But “Quitters do win,” tweeted author Meg Cabot. “By quitting what you know isn’t working, you’ll have time to discover new things you might love.” By the time I saw Meg’s post on my Twitter feed, it had been favorited by 168 followers and reposted by 125. I clicked on the heart symbol too, thinking yes! Finally, someone had the sense to expose the wrong-headedness of the blind belief that quitters never win. Someone had the courage to give us permission to quit.

We may have to be honest with ourselves and admit that our chances of success hover at or below zero. Once we’re at that point, we can go one of two directions. We may decide it’s a not-yet situation, so we take what we learned from the failure and try again (and again and again), improving until at last we find success. After all, the dance is learned by stumbling. Or we cut our losses and move on. Ironically, admitting defeat may be a form of success. Learning what not to do is immensely valuable.

Whether we stay the course or quit, the experience we’ve gained by failing can actually help us find our way. Randy Pausch, who was a professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon famously said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Sometimes that experience tells us that we’re on the wrong path. We can’t start looking for the right path until we accept the fact that we’re on the wrong one to begin with.

“There is nothing finer than being able to stop what ought to be stopped,” wrote Eric Maisel, a psychologist and creativity expert. There may also be nothing more difficult if our own expectations – or someone else’s – are invested completely in success. But as Tim Farrington wrote in The Monk Downstairs , “There is that lightness that comes when you realize that you’re not going to be able to make something work, no matter how hard you try. When you finally let go.”

Of course, the flip side of failure is success – and, frankly, nothing fails like success. But that’s next week’s topic.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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10 Ways to Succeed at Failure

“You may be disappointed if you fail,

but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

Beverly Sills

Failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

  1. Grieve. That may sound strange, but some failures are a type of death – the death of a dream, the death of a relationship, the death of a business venture. Sure, these are nothing compared to the death of a friend or family member, but if we feel the loss deeply, there’s no shame in admitting it. I can say from experience that when a writer puts time and energy and creativity and emotion and hope into a manuscript, it hurts to have it rejected by agents or publishers. It feels like a major failure. We writers often have to give ourselves time to lick our wounds and grieve.

 

2. Forgive yourself. This is related to grieving and, in fact, may be part of the process. Author Ann Patchett wrote, “I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.” (I would add: or achieving any other heartfelt goal.) “Forgiveness, therefore, is key,” she says. “Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

So the next time failure hits hard, try a writerly response. Give yourself a period of time to feel and process the rejection (aka the failure). A morning in mourning. A night out. A day of self-care. Forgive yourself if you need to. And when that self-imposed period of time is over, try to set aside the weight of failure and get back to work. Or as my Texas forebears might counsel, “Get back in the saddle.”

 

  1. Avoid using someone else’s life as the measuring stick for your success. Comparing our failure to someone else’s success can easily lead to one of two unhealthy extremes. At one extreme, we who fall short disparage those who succeed. This is so common it has a name: “tall poppy syndrome.” Anyone who rises above the crowd gets cut down. At the other extreme, we who don’t “make it” idolize those who do. They become almost mythical to us. Both extremes rely on the assumption that the successful people are somehow different from us. Creative consultant Dan Blank points out what’s under the surface: “What you don’t see is the thousands of decisions . . . made over the years. The thousands of negotiations. The thousands of little failures. You don’t see the late-night worries. You don’t see how they had to stick to their guns with some difficult decisions and compromise on others.”

Poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, “Losing is no shame, nor does it make you less than others. It’s being less than yourself that mars you.” I’ve heard similar advice given to young athletes: Compete with yourself and simply try to better your own personal record.

  1. Honor your failures. Remind yourself that at least you had the courage to try. A lot of people never even get that far. The irony is that while failure often feels like a step backward, it’s actually a step forward, maybe in an unexpected direction, but forward just the same. As a popular saying goes, “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

 

  1. Recast the purpose of your initial efforts. I recently emailed my older son, who lives in Japan, to give him the latest family news: My younger son passed the bar, which means he may now practice law. I remarked that it’s strange that we refer to the business of lawyers and doctors as practice. My older son responded, “[I]n Japan it takes 10 years to become respectably proficient at anything. It’s part of the code of honor. If you’ve been working your job for less, you would refer to yourself as in training. And once you achieve the ten-year mark, you pursue improvement. The code applies to everyone from ramen chefs to doctors.”

We tend to look at success as an endpoint, a terminus. But what if we recast our efforts, redefining them as part of a process? In a blog on writing, author John Vorhaus posted, “When you’re trying a hard thing, you’re not doing it to succeed. You’re doing it to improve.”

 

  1. Lower your expectations. Okay, I can hear the gasps. You don’t tell people to lower their expectations, right? We’re supposed encourage each other to dream big, shoot for the moon, hitch our wagon to a star. And there’s nothing wrong with having a grand goal – unless we stake our personal value and happiness on achieving that goal. In that case, failure can feel like a personal disaster. So lowering expectations could make sense. Is there a smaller goal to achieve first? Something more within reach? Is there some lower hanging fruit that we can pick on the way to the bounty at the top of the tree?

We tend to see success as the big stuff and overlook small successes along the way. But in reality, most goals are reached in increments, two steps forward, one step back (or maybe ten back). Seth Godin once said in an interview that the goal is simply to do well enough today to be able to do it one more day.

  1. View failure as the valuable flip side of the success coin. I’ve heard that the process of building muscle by weight lifting actually involves tearing down muscle in order to rebuild it stronger. I know that getting a car out of a rut often entails going backward before you can move forward. You get it. To succeed, you have to fail first.

“Seeming failure is often necessary to push our work into unexpected terrain,” said writer and teacher Louise DeSalvo. Notice her subtle nudge: seeming failure. What seems like failure may be exactly what’s needed to position us for success. Author/illustrator Gregoire Solotareff said, “I find that failure is more useful than success. [I]t makes you question yourself. When you are successful the first time around you tend to repeat yourself.”

 

  1. Interpret failure as not yet. In an interview, Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and author of Mindset, tells about a Chicago school where teachers choose to give a grade of ‘not yet’ instead of the dreaded ‘F’ when students didn’t pass a subject. “And I thought that was fantastic,” she says, “because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘not yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” ‘Not yet’ is often an accurate way to look at failure, because ‘failure’ is usually a temporary setback. Sarah Lewis, author of Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, put it this way: “We know that something that looks as if it’s final, winter’s deep freeze, will eventually result in spring. Life is the same way. Failure for me is an equivalent to that winter period.”

 

  1. Be tenacious. “[K]nowledge combined with experience and tenacity is the key to success,” says painter Zoltan Szabo. Failure may simply be what happens when we give up too soon. But how do we know when to keep trying and when to stop? It’s a judgment call. Which is why the next point is . . .

 

  1. Quit. Oops. Did I say that? Yep, I did. And that’s where I’ll start in next week’s post.

Until then, try-try-try again or, you know, . . . give it a week.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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