2020 Armchair Traveling: Norway

This week I am sharing on my blog and on Instagram about My Life in Coffee Mugs. On Monday, I wrote on the blog about New York City. On Tuesday on Instagram I posted about my hometown of San Diego. Today I am blogging about Norway…

We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with two weeks in Norway. We spent a week on the Hurtigruten, a mail delivery/cruise boat (though not the kind of cruise you typically think of), sailing along the coastline and through the fjords from Bergen to Kirkenes. The following week we flew to Oslo, took the train to Kristiansand, and then rode the train back to Bergen—arguably the most beautiful train ride in all of Europe (I can’t compare, but it was truly spectacular).

Along the way we visited my Norwegian family: my second cousins and my mom’s cousins, and we had the enormous privilege of holding a gathering in honor of my recently departed grandmother in her hometown of Lista with nine of her cousins, happy to tell stories and leaf through pictures in yellowing photo albums.

Lista Fyr, the lighthouse my grandmother considered “hers,” since this is the view from her childhood home

This wasn’t my first trip to Norway, but it was revelatory to see with adult eyes the country that grew my grandmother and my mother. Watching the cold and rugged coast drift by the Hurtigruten windows, houses improbably stuck to cliffsides, with narrow one lane roads–or no visible roads at all—I was newly impressed with the hardiness of my people.

I do not feel so hardy, rather cushy-spoiled by my SoCal upbringing, but I have renewed respect for my mom and grandma, for the stock boiled into and diluted in my blood. I differently understand their desire to be outside in all weather, their need for nature, growing things, water, green and blue–in potted plants and paintings and photographs, if that’s how they can get it.

To have a pot of coffee roasting hot from early-dark to late-night. To have tins stocked with fresh-baked cookies, and oven-fresh pastries, ready to serve to guests. To savor the aroma and relish the taste of fresh caught and cooked fish. Or to over-boil the fish and the potatoes, as well as the peas and green beans until they’re slightly gray, because high culinary status hadn’t hit Norway before they departed for the U.S.

I wouldn’t be me without my Norwegian heritage. I wonder if my siblings feel the same, or if my name, Siv, tightens my family ties. Every single time I meet someone, I have to explain my Norwegian name: “like Steve without the T,” Siv—wife of thunder god Thor—goddess of the harvest whose blonde hair waved in the wheat like the wind.

Simple and complicated. Like me.

P.S. My Norwegian cousins confirmed that, although coffee is a big deal in Norway, Starbucks is not. We bought this mug in the airport at the only Starbucks we saw.

2020 Armchair Traveling: My Life in Coffee Mugs

Along with so much else in 2020, travel has been cancelled. Good thing my coffee mugs remind me where I’ve been–exactly what Starbucks intended, right? This week, I’ll let my warm cuppa whisk me away to share a few highlights from my life.

Today is my birthday.

It’s also an ordinary Monday in an exceptionally strange year.

A year ago my family celebrated my milestone birthday in NYC. I’m not big on Big Cities, but NYC was where I wanted to wake up 50. No big party, rather a long weekend creating new memories with my loves. (Irony: we booked an AirBnB in New Jersey so I did not, in fact, wake up in NYC).

Setting aside the expected-and-unusual bumps that typically arise during travel, my last birthday was a nearly perfect day in an as-close-as-they-come perfect weekend.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kicking up crunchy fall leaves as we strolled through Central Park. The Guggenheim. A fabulous sit-down dinner (at an all-veg restaurant, so the teens would describe it differently). The Empire State Building. Gourmet ice cream to end the day.

the view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park

During our stay, we hit many of the big touristy sites–the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall (and by happy accident, Hamilton’s grave), the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, Broadway, Times Square, even Carlo’s Bakery–since we had never explored NYC as a family.

The Met was our unanimously favorite spot

But one of the highlights for me was tripping across memories of my family ties to this place:

The Fashion Institute of Technology, where my mom studied children’s clothing design at the same time Calvin Klein studied fashion.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, starting on the Brooklyn side where my grandma lived with my young mom and aunt during the years she worked as a cook at the General Motors Building across from Central Park. My parents met at a mutual friend’s apartment, I can’t be sure now but maybe in Brooklyn?

My grandma lived in Queens when I was very young, when my parents and I lived on Long Island. My dad flew out of LaGuardia as a pilot for Pan American Airlines; before they married, he got my mom a job as a stewardess, a job she loved–”when airlines still offered hospitality that meant something”–until she got pregnant with me.

When I chose NYC as my birthday weekend destination, I chose it to visit fun and culturally significant places as a family. I didn’t realize that it would also connect me to family members no longer able to share their own memories.

One of the many benefits of travel.

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How are you? No, really…

How are you? she asks, a simple question requiring an easy answer. But do we really have a simple answer?

I could tell her I’m tired, weary in my bones and soul. So weary that sleep plays hide and seek through the dark hours, slipping through my grasp each time I think I’ve caught it. And I understand, of course, that hide and seek was always more fun to play after dark. Still, I do all the right things: I go to bed at what they call a reasonable hour with a book soothing, not scintillating. I read until my eyes flicker and then, ready to slide down sloping fatigue into sleep, I turn out the lights. Timed to the flick of the light switch, my eyes snap open, staring into the dark interior of my sleep mask, which I now shove onto my forehead because I am instantly wide awake.

I could tell her I’m tired because, on those rare nights when I less eventfully hop aboard the sleep train, when its chugga-chugga forward motion lulls me into slumber and its choo-choo doesn’t rouse me, it speeds ahead of schedule to reach its destination before I’m rested. Or it breaks down with a screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks as I am knocked meanly backward into my seat, clutching the arm rests for dear waking life, desperate for the slow-and-steady rhythm of safe passage to morning.

I could tell her I’m tired from my nightly boxing match versus my comforter, not doing its comforting job–I should spitefully call it “duvet,” or less fancy and more plain-spoken “bedspread,” or even “hot mess” except that more accurately describes me–as I fling my limbs free from the tangles of its stranglehold in search of the air flow from the oscillating fan. Until my foot or knee or elbow ice over and I yank them back to center, only to fight another round, and another, the fight cycle as endless as the fan, and the minutes on the clock, oscillating through the hours of the night.

I could tell her I’m tired from not sleeping because I’m a middle-aged hormonal woman. We could shrug and laugh and oh well meshuggenah at this sleeplessness. I could also explain that my anxious mind spins all night long through the circles of aching grief hell from the losses we have suffered this year, the loss of jobs, the loss of freedoms to be out and about at the theatres and the malls and the concerts and the parties, gathering with friends and family in countless numbers since the more the merrier was always the open invitation. The loss of travel, of vacations planned and cancelled. The loss of so much that added fun and celebration and punctuated the mundane, while the fatigue mounts from trying and flailing to sprinkle sparkle over days that recur with such similarity that we have lost the days of the week, the weeks of the month, the months of the year: I keep opening my calendar-planner to March, confused…

Pause: Let us now pause to mourn the colossal loss of the freedom to grieve through the rituals that allow and support and move us through grief. We have lost the freedom to be with our loved ones who are sick and dying; we have said our goodbyes in this life through plate-glass windows and computer screens. We have lost the freedom to hold memorial services and graveside gatherings. We have lost the freedom to gather in remembrance, for Memorial Day, 9/11, and Veteran’s Day is coming right up. We have lost, and perhaps just recently regained while perhaps to lose again, the opportunity to worship together in person, to worship and praise and lament and just be in process in this moment, side-by-side, right now.

I could tell her I’m tired from the heartbreaking loss of friendships because apparently some friends were truly occasional acquaintances and, without our regular joyful meetings in our ordinary joy-filled places, the colorful palette of our once-vibrant conversations dried, faded, flaked in the plein air breeze of months we thought would be weeks, leaving behind a faintly-hued shadow I hold tight as a memento. My gut aches and my soul quakes from the loss of friends who turned toward a different view from our place on the trail and wandered away to hike with others, new friends or those who share similarly-firm beliefs that leave us behind in the dust wondering how we could have seen things so differently when we once paced so steadily shoulder-to-shoulder?

I could tell her I’m tired of listening to and, in turn, shielding myself from the spits of anger bubbling and boiling in almost every cauldron-conversation, in person, online, on screen. The news I choose to read because the vitriol voices need no additional amplification. The pummeling lies that beat us to dust-level to sift through more and more foolishness piled up in more and more sources until, muscles sore from shoveling piles and digging mine deep, we strike a vein of truth: Eureka! Only to recognize that we will need to repeat the process, digging, sifting, digging, rinsing, hi ho hi ho, in search of diamonds and precious gems and 24 karat gold while smacking fool’s gold from foolish fingers.

I could tell her I’m tired of the ear-piecing voices that puncture the present to “get back to normal” ASAP, right this g’damn minute if not yesterday or last week already, that the restrictions meant as safeguards against which many fought and didn’t follow ever, you do you American individualism at its worst, be lifted for everyone everywhere. That theatres and malls and concerts and parties roar back to life, that workplaces open and freeways and BART trains fill up as commuters resume their daily to-and-fro trudge. That schools for students of all ages open immediately.

I could tell her I’m tired because the pandemic has worn me out, too. Just like everyone else, I’m tired of making all the meals for all the people and washing all the dishes and planning all the menus so we can stagger all the shopping trips or find ourselves again, unintentionally, offering the pet rabbit or the compost heap the produce that has gone off before we got to it. I’m tired of competing in the Pandemic WiFi Olympics with everyone under our roof and in our neighborhood on Zoom work and Zoom school all the freaking hi ho hi ho day long.

I could tell her I’m especially oh so tired of monitoring online school and emailing teachers and skirting parents who want me to agree with them, though I don’t and I can’t for the sake of my individual and particular struggling child, who likely represents more children than I or we know personally. The screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks sting my ears and burn my brain as I realize that this time I’m the one throwing the brakes and I’m the one throwing my body over my child tied to the tracks as the train hurtles toward us… We’ve finally committed and settled in to our place on this track, as we thought required and necessary, and now that we’re here we discover wide-eyed that we’re stuck and left behind while others nimbly switch tracks and the train set in motion by life and pandemic and school board and caution and all those squeaky wheels might actually mow us down.

I could tell her I’m just as tired as every other K-12 parent from empathizing with the myriad losses my son has and will experience, losses common to all our kids, the games and sports practices and dances and lunchtime rallies and spirit days and concerts and plays and gallery shows and in-class support and Scouts and youth groups and parties and budding romances and old-fashioned face-to-face friendship and, oh yeah, Halloween which shouldn’t but probably will happen anyway in 2020, as this strange school year in this strange pandemic year unfolds bit by bit, a map we didn’t chart and don’t know how to follow toward a destination on which no one yet agrees.

I could tell her I’m tired of feeling anxious about a virus we can’t see and don’t understand for which there isn’t yet a vaccine–and patients in vaccine trials keep getting sick which halts vaccine trials and maintains our place in this holding pattern. I’m tired of having to think so intentionally about how to do differently all the things that once filled our days with normalcy, like a quick grocery trip on the way home from a day at the office to pick up a fresh ciabatta loaf so we can make a Tuscan pressed sandwich for dinner tonight with the fragrant basil and glorious tomatoes growing in our garden.

I could tell her I’m tired and shattered for feeling suspicious of neighbors and friends, those same shrill voices who insist that society and schools reopen, and yet I’ve heard about their summer vacations, multiple trips in fact while so many of us followed the suggested guidelines and stayed home, and I’ve seen their pictures of mask-less hugs gathered in tight for the camera on those vacations or at those restaurants that posted policies of family-only seating. Who to trust?

I want schools to open, safely. I want on-site work to resume, safely. I want stores and theatres to open, safely. I want to see friends and neighbors and family and colleagues, safely. I want “normal” life, whatever that ever meant, to resume, or our “new normal” to commence…safely.

How are you? she asks.

Tired, grieving, frustrated, sad, lonely, I could say.

Existentially and honestly, I could also answer: I am loved, safe, housed and fed, unintentionally funny yet funny nonetheless, smart and talented and engaged, creative and creatively fulfilled, thoughtful and kind and loving.

Grateful, I could say. I am all of this, and also grateful.

How are you?

Quirky and Wonder-full, YOU are the Main Character in Your Story

Think about some of your favorite TV or movie characters. What idiosyncrasies do they possess? How are they uniquely quirky? Like Moira Rose’s voice (Schitt’s Creek). Or Barney Stinson’s suits (How I Met Your Mother). Or Sheldon’s bathroom schedule (The Big Bang Theory). Or Phoebe’s off-key singing voice wailing: “Smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?” (Friends).

What makes them weird is also what makes them funny, memorable, lovable. They are each their own character. They are eccentrically one of a kind.

And so are you.

Sometimes that inner critic’s grumpamonky voice whispers demonically at me about my quirks except instead of calling them “quirks,” which sounds fun and individual, it calls them “freakish” or “bizarre” or “cringe-worthy.” It asks why I’m so awkward, why I can’t fit in better, why I have to stand out…the thumb is sore because it got whacked with a hammer and do I really want to get hurt? Those stupid, incessant whispers make me want to shrink myself down or run and hide or steal Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

Fire the inner critic and embrace your awkward self. Wear your unconventional traits proudly like an outlandishly fun hat. Everyone smiles at the person wearing an outlandishly fun hat, but not everyone dares to wear one. Moira and Phoebe would wear the hat (Moira might call it a chapeau), and we would smile and love them for it.

Be your uniquely quirky and wonder-full self. You are filled with stardust and magic and miracles. Those things you sometimes wish weren’t part of you? Those are just more reasons for us to love you.

Cover image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

When What’s Staggering Isn’t: Seeing Sad Truths

The US has now passed the staggering statistic of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths (global deaths are approaching one million).

That’s the equivalent of:
66 days of 9/11 attacks
109 Hurricane Katrinas
Almost 1,200 Oklahoma City bombings
1,450 full commercial planes, or eight plane crashes every day of our six-month quarantine
The combined US death toll from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf

If things keep going as they have been, researchers project that another 180,000 people may die by January 1, 2021, almost double our current numbers.

Our brains aren’t wired to comprehend such big numbers, especially when we’re already tapped out by all the factors involved in this never-before experience: we’re depressed from dealing with economic uncertainty, managing work or unemployment while also navigating online school alongside our children, changes to how we do all the details of life, and a volatile upcoming election amidst social unrest.

Of course it’s a lot, and our sense of shock has dulled with each new report. Add to that the reality that many of us don’t yet know personally someone who has died as a result of COVID-19, and that traditional methods of coping with grief such as memorial services have been restricted during the pandemic, and we simply don’t know how to respond.

It’s no wonder that, in the moments when the pain and grief of this unthinkable situation to which we cannot foresee an end seeps through our vulnerable cracks, we prefer to numb out instead. We downplay it, imagining it’s not that bad, or that it won’t happen here, that it won’t affect our families or our kids’ schools.

I have been extremely cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t like wearing a mask (not that anyone does) so I’ve mostly stayed home and walked the dogs. In six months I’ve been on one restaurant patio and in two stores. My husband has done all our grocery shopping.

I’m not in a high risk group. And while being a natural rule follower partly explains my response, it occurred to me the other day that I also learned early that you can be careful and still be party to unexpected, shocking results.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

During my senior year of high school I took a Child Development class with the absolute best, wackiest teacher ever. If you remember Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus children’s educational books and TV series (voiced by the fabulous Lily Tomlin), she was just as wonderful and memorable. She intended to encourage us to expand our knowledge while also having fun and learning practical lessons, so we did a lot of role playing and simulations.

For instance, one time we pretended we were medical interns doing rounds with our attending physician (Teacher) diagnosing issues related to postpartum women and/or their babies. I’ve forgotten a lot of things I learned in high school, but when my own babies were born I recalled specific lessons from that class.

That year, 1986-87, AIDS was taking center stage among major health issues, and our teacher organized a simulation to help us see up close something that felt remote to us. Because our class consisted primarily of young women, she invited the men’s choral group that met during the same hour to join us – which heightened the fun factor for sure.

We all received a slip of paper with a number on it and instructions to stand up, mingle, and exchange numbers with people we “liked.” We each wrote the other’s number on our paper to effectively contact trace, though we wouldn’t have known to call it that.

We pretended to be college students at a party deciding who we would hook up with. Insightful teacher that she was, she anticipated that the good little church girl would be disinclined to swap numbers, so she specified that everyone had to exchange numbers at least once. Unbeknownst to me, she also designated me Patient Zero, a recipient of bad blood.

Within the simulation, my one-time number swap led to a substantial percentage of my classmates becoming “infected” with AIDS – at that time a certain death sentence that also carried significant social stigma. Something inside me crumbled as I looked around to see how many people would have died because of me had this been a real scenario; I wasn’t the only one stunned to silence for the rest of the day. Her experiment created a vivid picture of how quickly diseases might transmit even when we’re careful.

Our actions have consequences. Even as I stay home to mitigate risk, I realize that I’m still not safe. That one patio meal might have been the place and time that I contracted COVID-19. Today’s trip to Costco might be the place and time that my husband is exposed. Though we may be careful to lessen the probabilities, no matter what we do, we can’t prevent all risk – nor would we want to. Risk remains a necessary part of life, and some risks are absolutely worth it. We have to live, after all.

Still, as this pandemic pause continues, I maintain my commitment to caution – to stay home as much as possible, to wear a mask, to avoid crowds, and to exercise good hygiene – because if I, if we, do become exposed, I don’t want to give it to you. I never want to be Patient Zero again.

Note: I cited several articles in this post and particularly recommend the article from National Geographic on why our minds don’t compute these staggering numbers and how we can remain sensitive.

Cover image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Clinging to Trust as a Lifeline

Four years ago I stopped watching the news. For most of my adult life, I had been in the habit of watching at least the first twelve minutes of the 10 o’clock news before getting ready for bed. Until I realized that images from the news creeped into my dreams, resulting in fitful sleep and occasional nightmares. The volatility of the world, the anger and division in our country, and local crime combined to inflict tiny paper cuts in my heart, each more shivery-painful than the next.

I began reading the news instead, looking to various sources in order to get a fuller picture than any one outlet would present. A simple change, and it helped in many ways: better sleep, better informed, less heartache.

Four years ago the world seemed in a bad way. Four years later, it’s inconceivable. What simple change can I make now that will prove as helpful?

image by Morgan Harper Nichols

I’m clinging to TRUST, my one-word lifeline as this year keeps dishing up bad news like overcooked casseroles at a church potluck: think green bean casserole, iguana green, limp and milky. In so many ways 2020 has been gross like that.

So, trust. I trust that there will always be moments of beauty, no matter what, like flowers blooming in sidewalk cracks. I trust that if we look for beauty, we will find it. Mr. Rogers taught us to look for the helpers. From now on, let’s trust that we will find ways to be the helpers.

I trust that God is still in control on bad days as well as good. I trust that God loves me, and you, and the whole wide world He made and redeemed and is redeeming – the latter being work in which we get to participate.

In just 45 days, we have the opportunity to make a difference. I want to trust that Americans are going to show up to do the right thing, to elect leaders who exhibit compassion and common decency, and who above all will consider the needs of all of their constituents and not just those who possess wealth and power.

As RGB modeled for us, we get to fight well – not scrappy-mean, but with dignity intact on every side – for things that matter. Hildegard tells us that we will “rise vigorously” toward justice for the things we love.

Watching the news hurts my heart because I love my community and my country. I love this fantastically diverse planet and its diverse inhabitants. I believe we can be better and do better. We need to take a collective deep breath, hold our tongues, open our ears, and for God’s sake, take our fingers off the trigger. We can choose to breathe out animosity and breathe in love…and more and more love. I trust we can if we try.

It Takes Courage to See Eye-to-Eye

In this fast-spinning gyroscopic world, society clings to hard-and-fast categories.

Black or white
Red or blue
Foreigner or citizen
Us or them

Categories give us a handhold to grip, something to steady us as we try to make sense in the dizziness. These days, we’re holding on for dear life.

Not for their dear lives, mind you, but for our own.

We should recognize, though we often don’t, that people don’t precisely fit into categories. Individuals fit into multiple categories all at once. We are all of us out-of-the-box, bursting through barriers, blurring the edges. No one neatly fits the stereotypes. Labels itch in the wearing; the only accurate one-size-fits-all = HUMAN BEING.

It takes courage to look into someone’s eyes and see them for who they are rather than who you think they should be. Face to face, eye to eye.

We say “eye to eye” to describe our agreements, when we and others see issues from the same perspective. But how often do we actually look someone in the eyes? Especially someone with a different background, or someone with whom we disagree, or a stranger?

How long do you think you could sustain eye contact with anyone, even a loved one?

A 2016 study at Stony Brook University discovered that four minutes of sustained eye contact increases intimacy. Amnesty International recreated the study in Germany, arranging strangers, many of them recent immigrants, seated across from native Europeans. The results feel tangible. I dare you to watch it without emotion.

I asked my husband to sustain eye contact with me. I set a timer on my phone and for four minutes we sat facing each other on the edge of the bed. Even after almost three decades of marriage, those four minutes felt strangely, uniquely, intense. I chattered like a talkative preschooler almost the whole time (I didn’t read any rules about not talking, and I couldn’t help myself). Even with the safest, most loving person in my life, it took uncommon courage to intentionally look into his eyes.

No wonder we prefer categories, boxes, stereotypes. Eye contact fosters intimacy and intimacy requires courage. Intimacy requires more from us; it might ask us to change.

Most of us prefer to view others from a safe distance. These days, that distance has gotten wider, so much greater than our newly-required six feet. We’ve physically and emotionally entrenched ourselves…and others.

Obviously it would break all social norms to recreate this study throughout our days with each person we encounter. Talk about awkward.

But what might change if we made it a point to always look people in the eyes?
What might we do differently, practically during these days of pandemic panic, to increasingly look through the eyes of others?
How might our perspective change, shift, alter?
How might we see others, and the space of the planet they inhabit, differently?

In movies I’ve heard the battlefield order, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” In other words, don’t react too early. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all put down our weapons and looked into the eyes of those we suppose to be our enemies?

Brene Brown continues to remind us, “Courage is contagious.” It seems to me, especially now in this increasingly divided world, that contagious courage is exactly the virus we need to spread.

In the comments, share one practical way you have or will look someone in the eyes. Let’s enCOURAGE each other!

This is Day 3 of a 7 Day Writing Challenge with Hope*Writers. Follow me on Instagram for more.

Cover image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

Reminder: YOU are Essential Even if You’re Not an Essential Worker

Essential: s·sen·tial
/əˈsen(t)SHəl/
adjective
Definition: absolutely necessary; extremely important.

Who knew the word essential would take on such significance in 2020?

At midnight on March 17, 2020, Californians were suddenly under lock-down orders due to an unprecedented pandemic. Everyone but essential workers would stay at home, leaving only for exercise (and that on foot or bike) or essential needs like picking up groceries or prescriptions.

Essential workers are those on the front lines: health care workers and first responders; government officials and those employed to maintain needed infrastructure like water, electricity, transportation; grocery workers and minimal restaurant staff; mail carriers and delivery people; and a few others somewhat randomly defined. Yet even essential workers were asked to work from home whenever possible.

My Guy’s a pastor. Pastors inspire hope, essential (anytime and) in a pandemic. He works from home for all but a couple hours each week when a very few people gather to record elements for the now-online services.

Pre-pandemic, I worked at a wine bar. While some might argue that wine is also essential during a pandemic, you don’t have to go to a wine bar to get wine. Our bar closed. Guy can work from home; I can pour wine at home all I want, but I’m no longer paid for it.

He is considered essential; he can continue to do his job. I am not considered essential; my job can’t be done remotely; I can’t do my job. 

That right there is the fly in our ointment: essential and essential worker have gotten mashed up-messy like mud pies. Just like we’ve mashed up our occupations and identities since forever. Guy’s job may be that of an essential worker whereas mine is not; however, we are both essential. We are essential because we are.

You are now and will always be essential even if your work is currently not that of an essential worker.

Your occupation occupies a lot (or, currently, little to none) of your time, but what you do is not who you are.

You are who you are; you are not what you do.

Who you are matters regardless of what you do.

I’ll admit, it’s been a struggle. Guy’s done a lot of what he’s always done, plus a few newly-related things, just differently. Meanwhile, now and again I’ve floundered trying to figure out what to do next.

What you do matters, but it doesn’t make up all of you. It doesn’t create your identity. Purpose and Meaning are different.

For example… Purpose: my job required me to pour wine for customers; Meaning: as I poured wine I also offered generous hospitality and, when invited, a listening ear. I made customers happy not just by doing what I had to do but by serving wholeheartedly.

Currently unemployed, I spend a lot of time doing stuff for my family. Most moms know that can be a thankless job but it depends on not just your purpose, the activities that fill your day, but also the meaning you give to those actions. I do dishes and laundry, I cook and clean. But what I’m really doing – the meaning in the purposeful actions – is providing tangible care for the people I love.

Payment doesn’t provide meaning, either. A paycheck doesn’t equal value. I don’t get paid to care for my family. I’m also not getting paid to write these blog posts. But I write because it’s who I am, how I process the world and my place in it, and I hope that my writing extends hope to others. Purpose: I write words. Meaning: I write words that offer hope.

Please remember: You are essential. Whoever you are and whatever you do, you matter. You have purpose (your to-do list, whatever that looks like these days) and meaning (the why behind it). You are unique, one-of-a-kind, with strengths and gifts to offer to a waiting world that needs you. You are absolutely necessary and extremely important. You are loved.

Cover image by Jessica Joh from Pixabay

Challenging the Challenge: Why I Passed on the #challengeaccepted

When Instagram began to fill up with black-and-white photos of women tagged #challengeaccepted, I googled it. The lead article mentioned some female country singers promoting natural beauty – no makeup/hair, no special lighting or filters, no glam, just women being themselves. Women supporting women being real women.

But that wasn’t what came across my Instagram feed. Instead, I saw superstars coiffed and posed. Even among friends, I’ve seen very few “just being me” photos. Oh sure, I’ve smiled back at the great smiles on faces of people I know and love. But really, why would anyone risk a natural shot when the # had morphed into something glamorous?

People simply follow suit; my friend posts a B/W selfie and challenges me, I’ll just do the same. Right? Except I didn’t.

When my friend challenged me, I passed. Good friend that she is, she asked why. I am all for women supporting women, but how do B/W selfies support women, exactly?

On the surface, the words sound right. Women should support women. We should challenge each other to grow, to be and do more, at times to do less in order to care for ourselves and others more. On the surface, there is certainly nothing wrong with women posting beautiful pictures of themselves – one of the hallmarks of social media, obviously.

But just as selfies are superficial, I’m digging down below the surface to clarify two things bugging me: inclusion/exclusion and competition/comparison. “Supporting women” means challenging them to post a selfie, and then the selfies themselves become an online beauty pageant? C’mon, ladies, we all know that we do and can do more to support one another in meaningful ways.

Playing tourist with the Strong Girl statue in NYC

Going way back, it reminds me of slam books in elementary school, handmade books with questions like, “Who is the nicest person in our grade?” or “Who is the cutest boy in our class?” You felt a secret thrill if a friend passed you their book and you hurriedly scanned the pages for your name scribbled there. You felt great – or, more likely, not – if you found it.

Our teachers had good reason to confiscate and trash those books: they tended to salute those already on top while confirming for the rest of us that we were as gross as the dried up chewing gum stuck to the bottom of our desks.

Another google search turned up indications that the # might be related to interpretations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful rant against the sexist comments made to her on the Capitol steps (talk about a strong woman; now she’s inspiring!); or a years-old cancer awareness campaign (that makes no sense); or a Turkish campaign against femicide (more logical if yet ineffective).

The friend who challenged me was herself challenged by someone who is “competition” in her professional field. However, that challenge was intended as encouragement that they are both members in a professional community with a common goal. My friend also recognized that, as it’s not her typical style to post pictures of herself, posting a self-portrait was an actual challenge nudging her beyond her comfort zone (okay, that helps; I relate). And, as photographers, showcasing their skills is also a professional move.

Still, I’d rather see real women being themselves. I’d rather see women doing what they love, being strong, achieving or learning something, engaged in a favorite hobby, taking risks to grow. I’d love to see action shots that will inspire my own action. I’d rather see women truly challenging, supporting, and inspiring women. Wouldn’t you?

In the spirit of women supporting women, please check out the links below:
This may be one of the best #challengeaccepted photos I’ve seen – she’s doing something active, demonstrating her strength and sense of adventure; plus, she writes some stellar words about women supporting women.
And my friend who challenged me and then listened, my favorite creative collaborator has inspired me yet again this summer by redoing her beautiful website to showcase her immense talents.

Cover photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Who Will Be the Good Samaritan?

When someone tells you they’ve been hurt, you wouldn’t tell them they haven’t.
When someone shares with you about their experience, you wouldn’t tell them that can’t have happened because you have a different experience.

When a whole group of people tell us they’ve been hurt, a compassionate response involves listening.
When a whole group of people share their experience, a compassionate response involves trying to understand how and why that happened to them.

An appropriate, compassionate response does not include setting about to prove them wrong, declaring that that can’t possibly have happened because it hasn’t happened to you. They must be wrong, right?, because what they’ve described seems so wrong.

If I tell you I’ve been hurt, and you tell me I haven’t; if I describe my experience and you tell me I’ve misunderstood what happened to me; if you choose not to listen and try to understand, not to bear my pain with me but instead to defend those who have hurt me, I will not trust you. In aligning yourself with the one who hurt me, you have added insult to injury. I will call it like it is: you have heaped additional abuse upon the abused.

And if you don’t listen but instead want to tell me to buck up, that God loves me and God will take care of me if I just trust Him more, I won’t believe you. Because we know of God’s love through the ways we are loved, and you haven’t loved me.

We cannot love well unless we listen well. And once we’ve listened, we have to be willing to do something. We have to be willing to lean in and shoulder the pain with those who’ve been hurt. It’s time to stop defending the abusers, even though they may be us.

Jesus told a story about a traveler who got robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the roadside (Luke 10:25-37). One after the other, some VIP’s passed by on the other side of the road. Jesus doesn’t explain their excuses but it’s not a big stretch to imagine that it might have had to do with ceremonial cleanliness–they couldn’t afford to get blood on their blouses since that would mean additional time to ritually purify themselves before they could get on with their very important business, ironically (or not) of helping others come close to God.

The story’s good guy is the least likely of the passersby to stop and help. Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix. The Samaritan should not have wanted to help a Jew, and the Jew might not have accepted the help if he had been aware enough to have an opinion. At this point, though, it’s pretty clear he needs help or he will die.

This Samaritan allowed himself to be moved by pity for their shared humanity. He got on his knees in the dirt to do roadside triage. He examined and then treated the man’s wounds, cleaning and anointing them to prevent infection. He put the man on his donkey and took him to an inn. He spent the night caring for this stranger when surely he should have been on his way to his intended destination. When he had to move on, he made sure the injured man would have continued care; he paid the expenses and promised to check back in and cover any overages.

The Samaritan went so far out of his way and then some. Clearly the story tells us that he didn’t have to. He could have kept on going like the others. Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have expected the Samaritan, of all people, to stop. Yet the Samaritan who showed mercy has become the Ultimate Example of what it looks like to love your neighbor.

You know, the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. The two basics of living in God’s kingdom, the non-optionals above all others for what it looks like to follow a God who defines Himself as Love (1 John 4:8).

Our brothers and sisters of color have exhausted themselves trying to get us to hear and understand that they’ve been hurt. They’ve been beaten and left for dead. And so many of us have crossed the street, looked away, held our noses to avoid the stench of blood. We’ve said we’re too busy, the problems are too big and they’re not our problems. We’ve said that there aren’t any problems, that they’ve misunderstood their own experience, that they’re bringing the problems on themselves. It has nothing to do with us. We’re good people, and we’re not racists. Obviously we would never beat someone up.

Obviously. However, if we haven’t been part of the solution, we have been part of the problem. We are complicit if we walk on by with our heads full of excuses held high. Getting involved will be costly. So I ask: who will be the good Samaritan? And what will that look like today?

I’m listening.

Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay