Monthly Archives: November 2013

Help. Thanks. Wow.

In following with the month of November and trying to lead a life where its richness and depth trumps my to-do lists, and in the same vein as pursuing a life that described in this post about Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection, I’ve been trying to keep a journal for a few minutes each morning for what I am thankful for: the small things like miniature pumpkins and the big ones like my family alike.  

This morning I am thankful for Anne Lamott and also her short book on prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow.  I first read Anne Lamott ten years ago when we had to read her book about writing Bird by Bird for a class.  Randomly afterward I realized I had a handful of friends who were really into her book Travelling Mercies, which is about her faith and was such a refreshing read.  I’m thankful for a writer who can mentor me through a season of wanting to let go of my anxiety and frantic pace.

There are three sections, each dedicated to a word in the title, and she walks the reader through admitting we don’t know what to do, the art of gratitude, and the way that wonder can change us and the way we see the world.  I could subtitle this book “breathing deep through all the things,” because she describes how these prayer rhythms anchor her as a person able to face life with courage.  It reminded me what a gift centeredness can be.

So I just want to share two excerpts and throw them out into the universe in the hope that someone will connect with them as well, and feel just a little bit more full today:

Without revelation and reframing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention, we find so many sources of hidden water (page 53).  

We’re individuals in time and space who are gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found…In paintings, music, poetry, architecture, we feel the elusive energy that moves through us and the air and teh ground all the time, that usually disperses and turns chaotic in our busy-ness and distractedness and moodiness.  Artists channel it, corral it, make it visible to the rest of us.  The best works of art are semaphores of our experience, signaling what we didn’t know was true but do now (page 82).

Teen decisions: passion, idiocy, or both? Or, Character Analysis and the Prefrontal Cortex.

One of the things I’m most interested in thinking about right now is the human brain during teenage years and the early twenties.  I just completed a project for graduate school about social emotional learning and development and was amazed by all adults can do to enrich and equip the emotional health of teenagers.  Working with young people who are crossing over the bridge in development where their ability to comprehend language and speech is mostly complete into frontal lobe development is a fascinating, though sometimes exhausting, place to spend my working hours. According to Psychology Today “Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them…The brain evolved in this way for a good reason. Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence.”

Not only is this directly tied to my profession, but it has become a fascinating topic of conversation with my friends and peers in recent years as we think back and study patterns, passions, and behaviors of our own teenage years and early twenties.  For most of us, it was a time of great desire to connect with something, though the means to attain the nondescript something may have varied under the large umbrella of simply wanting to feel alive: music, faith, the outdoors, literature, sports, theater, justice.  We took risks of all kinds in order These roots remain in each of us still, and yet the highs and the depths we felt seem like distant acquaintances, or as though they have gone through a strainer of life experience, wisdom, and perspective.  My thoughts are ongoing.

Overlapping these trains of thought was my reading of The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the past few weeks.  It was published in 1992 and unbeknownst to me, a cult classic, especially among people who were teenagers or college students when it came out.  It is the story of a tightly knit group of friends at a small, private college in Hampshire.  They are privileged, passionate classics majors who shun the traditional college scene for lives steeped in nostalgia for ages past and a devotion to their father figure professor Julian.  The narrator Richard, speaking many years removed, reveals how he providentially obtained a scholarship, left home, shamelessly lied about his past and became a part of this group of friends. He opens the story confessing to the group murder of one of its own that occurred not long after he learns of the dark place their thirst for something more took them.

After doing some research I learned Tartt called it not a whodunit, but a “whydunit”: the reader knows immediately where the book is headed (with a twist or two) and along the way is able to watch the motivation, justification, and aftermath.  This book was one of those long ones that is fun to sink into–the kind where I can’t just pick up another book after completing it because I’m not ready to completely leave it behind.

What I’ve been left with as I consider  the book is a bit of character analysis through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, though I will only provide the questions as I don’t want to give the story away.  I love the line with which Julian opened their classes: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” It brought me back to my own teenage years which were ripe with the longing for something bigger, for meaning, for something to get lost in.  But, what did this invitation into the sublime do for these characters in particular? What does the sublime offer us as adolescents? As adults? What do we lose and gain as we develop?

Brene Brown, game changer.

I first heard of Brene Brown last winter when my friend Lindsay told me I had to watch her TED talk called “The Power of Vulnerability.” It was a game changer for my emotional health, y’all.  Then Lindsay and I decided we would both read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and it was the perfect follow up for helping me process through what it means to live with meaning and purpose and without anxiety.  Reading the book and reflecting on Brown’s research and how it related to my life has been an incredibly powerful experience.  I’ve slowly and reflectively read this book over the past five months or so. This post is a little vulnerable, but I think Brene Brown would be in favor of me sharing and owning these pieces of my story.

My core spiritual beliefs (grace, love, forgiveness, stillness) have remained much the same over the years, but there came a time when I had to face the fact that from every angle I was hearing: strong people of faith ________.  As a high achieving people pleaser, for many years I ran without stopping in my volunteer work, my actual work, and in the commitments I made in my free time.  Sometimes despite hearing an overarching message of grace and love, I felt as though I was constantly not measuring up to what I was “supposed” to be doing, which was difficult for a perfectionist (though now I consider myself a recovering one) and felt as though I had to be apologetic for my introverted nature.  I’ve taken the past few years to redefine what a spiritual life looks like for me and to (finally) learn to be ok with the fact that it does need to look like anyone else’s.

A lot of authors have mentored me through this journey: Mother Theresa with Come Be My Light, Anne Lamott with Traveling Mercies and Bird by Bird, Joan Didion with The Year of Magical Thinking, Susan Cain with Quiet, Colum McCann with Let the Great World Spin, Eric Metaxes with Bonhoeffer, and of course the poetry and music of Over the Rhine.  What I appreciate about Brene Brown is that her book seemed to pull together all of these literary influences and helped me to redefine and find freedom in what spirituality looks like for me.

In the journey of trying to define what my spiritual life looks like now, it honestly can be easy to simply not think about it, thus avoiding existential dilemmas.  But, the anxiety that so easily creeps in reminded me that being grounded and intentional is life giving and I noticed that not having an intentional grounding in faith, I became less hopeful in general, a bit cranky, and I forgot to look for beauty.  Brown’s definition of spirituality piqued my interest because I was (still am) so tired of the minutia of Christian theology:  “By spirituality, I’m not talking about religion or theology, but I am talking about a shared and deeply held belief.  Here’s how I define spirituality: Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in compassion.  Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives” (64).

When she wrote “It’s not about denominations or dogma. Practicing spirituality is what brings healing and creates resilience. For me, spirituality is about connecting with God, and I do that most often through nature, community, and music.  We all have to define spirituality in a way that inspires us,”(74)  I was reminded of the life nature gives me and how washing dishes or walking with music centers me, and how dinner with my husband and great friends grounds and connects me.

One of the messages I have struggled with as a Christian is that “everything happens for a reason,” which I simply cannot buy into no matter how many scripture based conversations I have.  This felt really isolating, especially in the early days of this journey.  I have landed in a place of confidence and rest with this issue and others, and reading Brown’s book helped give greater clarity to me: “At first I thought faith meant ‘there’s a reason for everything.’  I personally struggled with that because I’m not comfortable with using God or faith or spirituality to explain tragedy…Here’s how I define faith based on research interviews: Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of certainty” (90).  Faith as a beautiful mystery has been one of the most healing perspectives I’ve run across.

To close, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brown discussed the fact that we can change our neurological pathways, something one of my old pastors used to talk about, too.  It is possible to physiologically change our patterns of thinking (google neuroplasticity).  I’m now living in a way where I am trying to incorporate rhythms into my life that help me feel grounded, connected, grateful, and covered in grace.  This is happening for me through reading, taking time to be creative (watercolor and calligraphy lately), cooking, looking for beauty, and  practicing stillness.  It looks different, but feels beautiful.