I’ll Be Gone (for Chester, and all)

In my lifetime so far, there have been two celebrity deaths that hit me on such an inexplicably personal level of pain that I actually had to stop and cry:

1. Madeleine L’Engle (1919-2007): author of A Wrinkle in Time and so much more.
Madeleine L’Engle made me want to write, to fly, to make space travel small by skipping over the fourth dimension, and to explore the vast depths of mitochondria by riding on the back of a star.  She made it okay to be both a believer AND a scientist, and called out “Christian art” for the redundant nonsense that it is.  She was and continues to be my hero.

My Most Prized Possession
See the inscription? This is not just a note TO Sandy; it’s a story FOR Sandy.

2. Chester Bennington (1976-2017): lead singer of Linkin Park and so much more
Linkin Park got me through my divorce, it’s as simple as that (favorite albums here and here).  Their music  was and is therapy,  the sound of my feelings – vulnerable rage, cerebral angst, disappointed perseverance – and Chester Bennington’s voice was a huge piece of that.  I often found myself worrying that he’d lose his voice to age and overuse because of his intense, sustained screams; I didn’t know to worry he would lose it to suicide.

How do you mourn someone you didn’t even know?  How do you honor and reconcile the memories of people who shaped your life despite never actually meeting?

The predominant emotion I’ve had to wrestle over parting with both of these dear ones is regret, precisely because they didn’t know they were dear to me.  I never told them.  I spent years receiving life from them and never took the time to give anything back…and now I never can.

So now I think the best way to honor the departed is to appreciate those still present.  I have other people in my life – relatives, friends, artists, and even a few scoundrels – who don’t know their worth to me.  It doesn’t really take much to set that right.  A tweet here, a link shared there, even the occasional actual handwritten snail mail, all of these can push back the dark with a show of gratitude.

I’m going to make it my mission for the rest of 2017 to reach out to everyone whose light has brightened my path and just offer my bit of thanks.  Will they receive it? Who knows?  But better to put it out there and know I tried than to see one more beloved light extinguished without so much as a spark in answer from me.

Join me, yeah?

P.S. If you have ever considered suicide, wrestled with invasive thoughts, or generally believed people would be better off/unaffected if you were gone, get in touch with these guys.  Just so you know:

 

 

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We Are All Luke Skywalker

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…sunset-luke

…there was an aspiring young man named Luke. Luke didn’t know it, but he lived a very sheltered existence. His family kept him close, his farm kept him fed, and a silent warrior in hiding kept him safe. Amidst this bounty of provision, unfortunately, Luke managed to indulge the most dangerous feeling in human existence, he became bored.  Yet in his boredom, he discovered a valiant dream: He wanted to become a pilot and fly away to grand adventures and noble deeds. Little did Luke know that the fulfillment of his dream was about to come literally crashing into his world…

Luke Skywalker has gotten a bit of a bad rap over time. Since the release of The Force Awakens, young Luke has become the butt of several memes and an object of considerable derision. He whines about doing his chores, he’s usually the last to understand what’s going on, and even though his life’s dream is to leave home to do something great, when the opportunity is handed to him by a wise sage and friend, he makes excuses and wimps out. Doesn’t much seem like hero material, right?

Actually, I’d say it’s exactly the stuff a hero is made of.  Young Luke is sheltered, yes, but he’s not weak. He has an idealistic vision of what it means to do great things, without the experience of ever enduring more than mild resistance. He knows there is a war and that the Empire is evil, but it’s not until his family and farm are cruelly destroyed that he truly understands what war and evil are.  He decides to become a guardian of peace and justice in the galaxy before he ever encounters more than a tiny fraction of the citizens he’s swearing to protect. He’s naive, yes, but far from stupid.

sw-sibsIt doesn’t help, either, that Luke’s as-yet-unknown sister is the epitome of a hero fully realized. Much is made of the fact that, while he’s whining about going to Tosche Station for power converters,  she manages to endure watching the destruction of her home planet with only the slightest hiccup…but then Leia was raised in the heart of the conflict and has seen the war up close her whole life. She knows what’s at stake and how to fight and rebel with power and purpose; Luke only knows what he imagines from the scuttlebutt he can pick up in town. It’s a completely different set of equipping, and Luke has a great deal of catching up to do…but he does it.

The recent political events in my country and community have made me realize that we are all Luke Skywalker at some point. For myself, I have long resolved to take a stand for racial equality, but it wasn’t until I saw 13th last Monday that I began to see how deeply ingrained the problem is in the system I blithely navigate daily, how very much people of color have suffered and are suffering now beyond my borders of experience.  And that’s just one aspect of the conflict.  Human trafficking, labor abuses, political corruption, sexism…the Empire’s reach goes on and on and the more I learn, the more I realize I know nothing. I am Luke. I intend and envision far more than I understand or affect.

If you’ve ever had a plan or a dream that was bigger than you are, you’ve been Luke Skywalker.

If you’ve ever backed away from an opportunity out of fear or a sense of obligation, you’ve been Luke Skywalker.

If you’ve ever missed an opportunity because you were occupied with shopping or entertainment, you’ve been Luke Skywalker.

If you’ve ever believed you understood an issue without having an in-depth conversation with a friend who is directly affected by it, you’ve been Luke Skywalker.

And if you’ve ever suffered or been shocked by the truth of a conflict, yet still took up arms and stood in defense of others anyway, you’ve been Luke Skywalker.

The point is not to condemn ourselves for our likeness to Luke, nor to elevate others in an unrealistic comparison to our Leias. The point is to see ourselves humbly and authentically, then to get wiser and stronger as we take our place in the fight. It will NOT be what we’ve imagined or expected, and we will be challenged to quit at every turn.

But it will make a GREAT story.

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Giving 2016 the Sendoff It Deserves

falling-shortI woke up this December 26th with one thought clearly on my mind: Okay, Christmas was awesome but now it is over; let’s bring on the New Year already!  Thus inspired, I began almost immediately to set my sights on resolutions, reading up on whatever productivity tips, nutritional research, and other “new year, new you” ideas the Internet decided to throw at me.

Sounds pretty positive, right?

Of course, I’m aware that this waking thought of mine was not an original one. Fully half of my friends have been calling for the cessation and demise of 2016 since round about the time it took David Bowie from us.  For the last two months at least, every time something bad has happened, a fresh clamor would arise to curse this year and implore the next one to be more kind.

But is that really fair? Not to diminish in any way the feelings and struggles that have arisen this year, but I know deep down that 2016 itself is not the problem. 2016 is just an unfortunate grouping of accumulated time during which the true problems have coincidentally occurred. To curse 2016 is for me to focus on a false, nebulous enemy that I am powerless to affect – TIME, of all things! – while the real problems that I can stand up to – greed, discord, prejudice and the like – run amok in the midst of my resigned inaction.

The new year cannot save me, but growth and movement can.

Here’s the thing: I still have several days left before 2017 sheds its shiny, clean light on my expectant face…more than 100 hours of untapped potential and opportunity. Why am I so eager to cast them off without a chance? What do the new hours of 2017 have that these hours don’t. (Hint: nothing.)

I am not proud to count myself among the majority of other humans who failed at my New Year’s resolutions for 2016; truth be told, I can’t even remember what most of them were. So, okay, I can’t scramble and put myself together and manage to achieve perfection with these few remaining days of 2016 …but I can achieve something.

female-runner-victorious-at-the-finish-line-in-a-track-raceMaybe I can’t hike 1000 miles this week…but I can knock out one or two each day.

Maybe I can’t take back a year’s worth of falling off the nutritional wagon this week…but I can eat my full allotment of vegetables each day.

Maybe I can’t compose the great American novel this week…but I can get a couple thousand words out of my head and onto paper.

2016 still has a lot to offer. There’s still time to eek something good from it, to give it the happy ending that it deserves – or at least, that WE deserve.  I am resolved to reclaim what’s left of 2016 and finish it well.

What’s your old year resolution?

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Cap vs. Thor: A Lesson in Epics

When Marvel first dreamed of bringing their vast Avengers / Phase I scheme to the big screen, they had two rather formidable obstacles in their way, namely Captain America and Thor.

In the beloved comics, both men not only are rooted in times long past, but are so squeaky clean as to be unrelatable (the same problem that recent adaptations of Superman faced, with varying degrees of success).  Blonde, beautiful, and beefcake-y, these mythic giants are possessed of an ethos that is so pure, so lofty that we may aspire to it but never fully expect to achieve it.

Eight years and billions of dollars later, we are in the dawn of Phase 3 with several more installations to come (not to mention an undetermined number of future phases!) and no ceiling for success in sight.  As for the “problem” of Cap and Thor, it would seem the Marvel geniuses solved it with aplomb.  The characters have enjoyed approximately equal success with one another both in the box office and in fan response, and are just as established and beloved as anchor members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Avengers as their original print counterparts.

Yet I personally continue to be far less satisfied with the Thor adaptations than with Cap’s, and it wasn’t until the credits rolled for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I could fully articulate why:

Thor makes me root for him to overcome and be better, as every standard hero should. 
Captain America makes me want to make myself better.

This is not to disparage Thor as a character, nor his value in the Marvel machine.  He is a perfectly likable protagonist and follows the hero’s journey structure well.  An incorruptible paragon of virtue, he never shies away from conflict or personal sacrifice in order to protect the realms and loves of his life.  He was also brilliantly set up by Joss Whedon as the only true match / neutralizer for Hulk, a major feat and pivotal role.

gifHe’s just so distractableThe big mistake they made in adapting Thor’s story was overemphasizing his romantic affections (even going so far as to create an insulting love triangle in Thor: The Dark World that only served to diminish Lady Sif and make Thor wishy-washy).  In truth, Thor’s weaknesses have only ever been arrogance and, of course, Loki.  (Thank God for Tom Hiddleston, the clear anchor of Thor’s whole franchise and without whom, Thor might devolve into an inconsistent, incoherent action figure.)

Meanwhile, Captain America is so firmly grounded in honor and truth that his greatest weakness is not having enough of himself to go around – the fact that he is, actually, mortal.  Yet when I look at Cap, I do not see an impossible standard.  I see who I wish I were, who I want to become.

CA gifCap’s heroics aren’t limited to combat and shield-wielding and running thirteen miles in thirty minutes (although those are all supremely fun to watch).  He also protects the innocent and confronts injustice and takes care of old ladies and throws himself between his team and harm.  Most of all, he is always the one who says, in the midst of the most horrific and lonely and hurtful of circumstances, “I’m not leaving you!”

This inevitably reminds me of Someone else I studied this weekend, One who took the worst I had to offer and still threw Himself between me and certain death.  And after He did so, He assured me that I can accomplish even greater feats when I allow myself to believe and try.

Thor shows me who I am.  Cap shows me who I want to be.  Lord, help my unbelief!

Is this the real life?

snow-dayAs we round out the first month of this shiny-if-not-still-perfect new year, many of us have had the opportunity already to enjoy multiple vacations. Some were on purpose over New Year’s Day and the holidays, and some came as a pleasant surprise, thanks to the widespread blanket of snow provided last week by Winter Storm Jonas.  We have seen parties, pajamas, pancakes, and about a million snow selfies thanks to the modern marvel that is social media.

Now the other shoe drops.  As the snow is clearing and the breaks are coming to an end, I keep seeing the same sad message posted over and over again: “Well, back to reality…”  But is it, though?  Is our normal routine the true definition of reality, or could it be that daily life itself is the illusion?

Let’s have a closer look at Snow Days vs. regular days and see how they match up.
(Note: Gross generalizations follow; feel free to replace them with your own experiences.  Also, weekends don’t count as regular days, in case that had to be said.)

Food
snow day foodOn a regular day, food is what happens between activities and obligations.  We grab drive-thru on our way to work, toss some processed and pre-formed freezer meals or (God help us) Lunchables into a bag for midday, and throw together whatever is quickest and least guilt-inducing for supper – not to mention all the caffeine we keep infusing just to make it through on pace.   Sure, we have phases of entree salads and crock pot meals, but I’d say those are balanced out by the days when we just can’t, so we eat out for all three meals.

snow day frenchtoastOn a Snow Day, food is an act of love.  As evidenced by the empty aisles at the grocery store, we prepare for every possible nutritional need or desire on a Snow Day.  French toast with bacon and strawberries, heaping pots of chili that simmer for hours, s’mores and piles of homemade sugar cookies…nothing is too good for our loved ones and ourselves.  The kitchen becomes a veritable playground for reviving old traditions, trying new things, and turning nutrition into an art form.

Family and Relationships
snow day 3On a regular day, relationships are something we dream about or long for or miss. 
In order to pay the bills or build the career, we are often leaving behind someone else we’d rather be with.  Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by secondary relationships with others who are forced into our circles by circumstance and equally wish they were home with someone else.  We’re all just trying to smile and make the best of it and love the ones we’re with.

Black-Family-in-SnowOn a Snow Day, relationships are right there in our faces, whether we like it or not.  We wake together, eat together, build snowmen together, go through our entire TiVo library together, get bored together, get irritated together, sleep together…  Okay, it’s a lot of togetherness, maybe too much after a while.  But the thing is, we’re connected.  We know what’s going on with each other, and we have the time and opportunity to share if we want to.  Plus, we can’t run away from each other when it gets difficult.

Fun
no funOn a regular day, we don’t have much fun; we function.  
We’re busy.  We’re worried.  We’re doing the grind and bringing home the bacon and recovering from doing the grind and bringing home the bacon.  Maybe we catch a good song on the car radio, make a silly face over dinner with the kids, or divert our attention with a little Facebook, and those moments are nice but they’re truly not enough.

 

snowday2On a Snow Day, we can barely function because we’re having so much fun!  Want to take advantage of the day off and sleep in?  Can’t, because the kids are jumping on your head to go look at the snow, play in the snow, take the animals out in the snow!  Need us to shovel the driveway?  Okay, but we’re totally just going to snowboard back down it when we’re done – or even before then!  Think you’re going to catch up on some work or chores?  Can’t, because there are piles of snowy outerwear strewn all over the house!  It’s a soggy, beautiful, mad mess all the day long.

Free Time
On a regular day, free time is…wait, free time? 
What is that?

snow day sabbathOn a Snow Day, we are given the gift of a mandatory Sabbath.  We’re stopping to look at the sky.  We’re getting outside and appreciating nature.  We’re taking time for the things that energize us and the people we love.  Our routines are broken, our fallbacks are shaken up, and we only have ourselves and whatever we brought with us into the day.  We are at rest…if not well rested.

On a regular day, we do what is necessary.
On a Snow Day, we do what we were made for.

THAT is the real life.  It’s okay not to want to leave it.

new year, new…weeds?

weeds-for-saleAs part of our 2016 New Year rituals , my family decided to spend our final day of winter break this week in the garden.  We made this plan expecting to uproot and discard leftover dead growth from last year’s harvest, and to cover the newly bare earth with a blanket of leaves.   Sounds perfectly lovely and symbolic, right?  What we did not expect was encountering a large distribution of healthy, deeply rooted green weeds that we would have to spend fully two-thirds of our morning digging up  – in January!

How do you think we responded?

Did we hunch our shoulders and give up on the task entirely in disgust?  Proudly, no.

Did we smile, inhale deeply, and plunge into the fresh challenge with optimism, gusto, and a deep appreciation for the character we were about to build?  Not exactly, though we may choose to remember it that way.

Did we procrastinate a little to assess and discuss the situation at length before digging into the unavoidable with a mild air of resentment?  Maybe some of us did…a little.

Here, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a composite outline of my mature and deeply spiritual thoughts as we bravely took back our land from the encroachers:

Not fair!  This is not okay.  Weeding is a summer activity, not a winter one; don’t you know that?  It’s January and this is ridiculous and I shouldn’t have to do it.  No.

Rats.  My kids are watching.  If I quit this, I will never get them to finish a chore ever again.  Where’s the stupid rake?

Sleet?  Really?  NOW comes the cold, dry, weed-prohibiting weather?  Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

Hey, that sleet is kind of pretty in our hair.

sandhill cranesWow, sandhill cranes At first I thought they were geese flying overhead, but that’s wrong because their calls sound like a cross between domestic turkeys and Julia Child.  They are really beautiful.  Happy travels, cranes!

How do I not have all of these weeds out yet?  I rake and I rake and I pick and I pick and still there are clumps, usually stupid tiny ones hiding under the rake marks, impervious to my might.  Get out, get out, get out already!

Aw, my girls are working so well together.  Look at them, filling that wheel barrow and encouraging each other and making jokes.  They’re going to do so great on their own someday.

-“All right, you guys, knock it off!”  Will they never develop the people skills to get through ONE DAY without arguing or having any meltdowns?  They’re never going to make it on their own.

Oregano is the devil.  It has overgrown the entire herb patch and I am going to break this rake getting it out of the ground.  Burn in hell, Oregano!

-[holds giant, basketball-sized Oregano root ball to the sky]  I did it!  I got it! I have emerged victorious from the trenches of war!  Away with you, vile foe, never to darken our dirt again.

That was fun!  Let’s all hug and go inside and chow down on some chili.  Maybe later, we can clean out the closets!

garden 01.16

 

the 5 stages of reading A Walk in the Woods

AWITWA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, has been one of my favorite books for almost a decade now.  Since that time, I have read it twice and recently commenced a third go-around in honor of the movie.  I am enjoying it just as much this time as I did the first, and find myself experiencing the same five distinct emotional phases as I go:

Stage 1: Hilarity
Bill Bryson is a master of dry, deadpan, hapless humor.  I cannot read this book in public except on days of high self-confidence, because my inevitable loud outbursts and beverage snorts are certain to draw attention.  A few of my favorite lines:

“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally sh– myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties – I daresay it would even give a merry toot – and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

“Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters…”

“Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused…unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion…For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state.”

Priceless.

AT signStage 2: Ambition
I could do that.  I could walk the Appalachian Trail.  The whole thing.  In fact, I think I will.  That’s it; I’m going next Spring…Mt. Katahdin or bust!!!”  This is my train of thought every time I read the first two chapters.  There’s something about the undiscovered (at least, by me) country, the open woods, the radical simplicity of being unplugged for so long…It calls to me, makes me feel like if I do this, I will be a real American, a real wilderness ally, a real woman.

I am not alone.  The number of thru-hikers (those who complete 2000+ miles of the AT) has increased by 78% since the year 2000, and I cannot help but believe that Bill Bryson’s story – published in 1997 – is a major contributing factor to this growth.  Attendance is only expected to grow in the wake of the movie’s debut, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has scrambled to create a program of awareness for protection of the trail amidst all of the new traffic.

(Please, if you find yourself so inspired, educate yourself, and include the ATC’s preservation techniques into your repertoire of preparation materials.  If you don’t find yourself chanting “Leave no trace!” at least three times a day, you need more study time.)

bear warningStage 3: Trepidation
Bryson spends most of chapters two through four recounting the perils and disasters associated with the AT.  At first glance, his fears are purely amusing (the dissertation on bears alone leaves me gasping for breath), but after a while, I start to wonder.  Wildlife, poisonous plants, diseases, the natural elements…How does one truly survive it all?  And why?

That’s when the rationalizing begins.  Maybe I’m not really cut out for this.  What in the world makes me think I’m qualified to go traverse the wilderness?  In fact, maybe no one should.  Maybe it’s actually irresponsible and selfish to leave the world to fend for itself while I go out strolling along, not a care or commitment in the world.

What was I thinking?

smokiesStage 4: Balance
But no.  While slightly comforting at first, the notion of giving up completely leaves a gnawing hole in my gut.  There is something in all of us that yearns to do great things, a divine spark that rallies and resists and begs to stand out.  We are not satisfied to sit at home bingeing on food, media streaming, and gossip for a reason…there is more.

Everyone’s more is different.  Some people will invent, some will create, some will build, and some will blister our feet to go witness and fall in love with this vast yet relatively small piece of the world as it was always meant to be.  I don’t know yet whether the AT is a means or an end, but I know it burns in my heart and I must follow the flame.

With three daughters and a new business in progress, it would be absolutely devastating for me to go off the grid for six whole months or more… but I can start with something.  Instead of dropping everything for an impulsive thru-hike, I will plan carefully and take the trail in small, attainable sections at a time.  Ultimately, I will either cover the full 2,000 miles cumulatively, or build my strength to do it all at once at a later date.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

awalkinthewoods_courtesy_onlineStage 5: Casting Katz
Rumors of an AWITW movie began to circulate not long after I read it for the first time, and of course I began to try and cast the characters.  Stephen Katz, Bryson’s faithful if colorful trail companion, is a linchpin of many of the best scenes, so it was essential that they get him just right; when I learned of the pairing of Nick Nolte with Robert Redford, I knew it would be perfect.  They did not disappoint.

Not long after the movie, I began thinking about the Katzes in my own life. I had one person in particular who was really on my nerves, and I couldn’t help equating our relationship to being on the trail with him – this lumbering, inappropriate trail mate who is supposed to help but instead doesn’t know what he’s doing and complains and slows everything down.  Woe is me, right?

I was super gratified and self-righteous about this for about a minute…until I realized that maybe it was the opposite.  Maybe I am actually someone else’s Katz.  That’s a hard perspective to consider.  Perhaps I would do better to watch my own steps instead of resenting the limits of the company.

There’s danger enough out here on the trail without us turning on each other.