Friday, January 10, 2014

From the window seat

Flying over Milwaukee on my way back to Nashville, 1/3/14.
My idea of Heaven is an airplane window seat. It’s one of the few places that truly puts things into perspective for me. It makes clouds look close enough to touch and transforms looming cities into specs in the distance. From the window seat, I am reminded that the world is bigger and more complex than we often imagine. And isn't that essentially a good lesson? Isn't it a relief in a way, to know that we could search forever and still not find all of the answers we think we’re looking for?

 In one of my many methods courses in college, we spent 12 weeks creating art. We drew, we painted, we made cut-and-paste collages out of glossy magazine photos. Each week, I would spend the entire class period planning my masterpiece and spend hours after class trying, usually unsuccessfully, to bring it to life. When my non-education major friends found out what I was doing, they would often exclaim, “You’re so lucky! I’d love to make a sculpture out of macaroni!” or something similar. And I would just nod and toss out a little fake laugh to hide my neuroticism, as if to say, “Yeah, the fact that I spent 10 hours trying to glue dry noodles together only to end up with something resembling a dead sea creature is TOTALLY awesome!” When we shared our finished products in class, our professor would say, “Don’t worry about what it looks like on the outside. It’s the process, not the product.” At the time, I filed those words away for future classroom use, imagining that I’d eventually use them to comfort a student struggling with long division or writing the first draft of a book report. I didn't realize that it was the student inside of me who needed to hear them the most. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

On Sham Wows and Tofu

The business of this world is busyness. Our society works hard to sell us the notion that “busy is best”—after all, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right?  By the time we are old enough to watch, listen, and order infomercial products using our parents’ credit cards, we have bought into the idea that there is no price too high for some good, ol’ fashioned distraction (especially if that distraction happens to be a Sham Wow or Slap Chop for the bargain price of only $19.99 plus shipping and handling!)

Like many ambitious young Americans, I learned to master the art of busyness at an early age. School, hobbies, extracurricular activities – they filled my schedule and gave me a sense of purpose. If they also left me feeling a little exhausted and confused, that’s just proof I was fulfilling my patriotic duty! And I couldn't slow down, not while thousands of kids just like me were brandishing forks and lining up to take their piece of the pie.

At least that’s what I thought.  

The reality - or at least the reality that I've come to accept - is that sometimes we don’t need busyness. Sometimes we need quiet. Our fast-paced society generally equates stillness with laziness, silence with apathy. However, the opposite is often true. Physiologically, mentally and emotionally, we need quiet. We need the opportunity to relax our bodies. We need the opportunity to rest our minds. We need the opportunity to recharge our spirits.

So if quiet is so essential to our well-being, why are most of us afraid of solitude? Maybe because there’s a certain vulnerability in being silent. We have no entanglements to use as armor, no other voices to drown out the often uncomfortable truth. Silence shows us the truth, or at least an arrow pointing to the truth. Once we see the arrow, we can allow truth to transform our lives or we can try to pretend that it doesn't exist. Either way, we can’t go back to the way things were before.

In playing the pretending game, I've learned that the world outside us is only a reflection of the world inside us. We see the world as we are. If we choose not to face our issues and insecurities, they will continue to manifest themselves in new ways. Unless I can learn to slow down, take time to really look at myself, and accept what I see, I will continue to clutter my life with busyness. I will always be looking for other people or things to make me feel whole, and I will always be disappointed because the solution does not lie with them.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all of the answers. I wish I could say that I had this magical revelation and instantly learned to change everything negative about myself. (If that were true, I’d be selling “The Spiritual Sham Wow” on your local infomercial network and making beaucoup bucks.) Alas, real transformation takes time. But I’m working on it. I’m learning. Some days I have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay to be who I am, and other days I don’t even care about sitting at the cool kids’ table. They’re probably eating tofu there anyway.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Maybe the problem's in the spackle.

The world will break your heart sometimes; you’ll be frustrated that no one in the world seems to care like you do. And when you figure this out, it’s okay to let yourself feel hurt. It’s okay to take a break from feeling like everything has to be perfect all the time. The truth is that we’re all a little bit broken. Some people are just better at hiding the cracks.

- Journal entry, November 2010

I've spent a lot of years wishing that I could hide my cracks. I've wished that I could fix them up with the spackle of “I've got it all together” or “I don’t need anybody but myself.” After all, it’s a lot easier to function in the world without your brokenness on display for everyone to see.

But that’s not who I am.

Time has an interesting way of revealing who we are to other people, and, more importantly, to ourselves. When I can’t sleep at night (which is most of the time – hello insomnia!), I end up lying in a darkened room, staring at the ceiling. For the first hour or so, my mind goes in a thousand different directions, each of which typically leads to me replaying every decision I've ever made. Eventually though, my mind drifts back, like a buoy bobbing just above the water line. In the last 30 minutes before I fall asleep, my eyes follow the cracks in the ceiling. Though the room is dark, the glow of outdoor lights illuminates one spot. It’s a small area in one corner, about the size of a half-dollar. Though the spot was patched, it is slightly discolored and uneven. The water must have crept in during the last big storm.  My eyes follow the cracks, each one forming a jagged path that almost, but not quite, blends in with the stucco. Looking at them, I am reminded of this truth: the rain highlights the cracks in everything.

Just as we’re all a little bit broken, we’re all doing our best to hide our cracks. Self-deprecating humor, feigned apathy, ruthless perfectionism – they’re all spackle that we use to try and cover up the broken places inside of us. Depending on how long we've spent applying that protective coating (for most of us, probably the majority of our lives), it can do a pretty good job of masking things. But when the rain comes – times of suffering, echoes of self-doubt, pangs of loneliness –  it has a way of stripping us down. Just like that old ceiling, the rain makes us vulnerable. It illuminates our cracks.

After more than a decade of trying to hide my cracks, I’m beginning to realize that maybe they aren't the problem. We’re all broken after all, and to quote the great Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”  When we realize that we don’t have it all together, when our foundations are shaken, we begin to take notice of things we never took the time to see before. Our blessings become silk strings we grab onto for dear life; the little things we took for granted become the big things. And while our cracks help us to soak in the everyday light of being alive and in this world, they also enable us to let our light out. When we acknowledge our struggle – maybe we love too deeply, jump too quickly, trust too easily  – the same light that highlights our cracks illuminates the way for other people.  I learn to see myself as a cracked, imperfect, complicated, beautiful wonder and you learn to see yourself as a cracked, imperfect, complicated, beautiful wonder, and we look at each other and say, “Seriously, you too? I thought I was the only one.”  I think that’s what the bond of humanity is, in a nutshell. 

Without the cracks, we wouldn't have any of that. No humanity-sharing, no wonder-finding. So maybe the problem isn't in the cracks. Maybe the problem's in the spackle.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The power of a spark

These days it seems like everybody is looking for a sign, for some reassurance that they are on the right path. We look for signs to tell us whether we should stay the course or head in a new direction. We look for signs in nature, in religion, in potato chips shaped like the faces of famous people. And while the fact that a misshapen potato chip resembling Jay Leno sold for $2000 on eBay may be surprising, our fascination with signs is anything but. Since the beginning of time, people have been searching for signs, and it makes perfect sense. It’s natural to want to know where you’re headed, to have some means of navigation on a long journey.

On the crazy, unpredictable, beautiful journey that is life, there are few things more miraculous than a sign. After all, the purpose of a sign is to capture our attention, to point us to something else. A miracle does the same thing. It is something so unusual, so out of the ordinary, that it makes us pause in awe. Whether they confirm our beliefs or make us rethink what we thought to be true, miracles grab our attention. For this reason, I've always thought of miracles simply as incredible signs, the kind with neon colors and flashing lights, the kind you just can’t miss because they blind you with their brilliance.

In this new season of life, I've been desperately searching for one of those incredible signs. I want a sign that I’m on the right path, that I am where I am supposed to be. I guess you could say that I've been a mad explorer searching for a flashing neon miracle. And if I've learned anything about the mad explorer life, it’s all about going to uncharted territory (unless you’re Christopher Columbus, in which case you can steal someone else’s territory, leave them with disease, and have a day named in your honor.) 

In my case, the uncharted territory of choice was Aldi on new shipment day. For those who haven’t experienced the world of Aldi on this momentous day, allow me to enlighten you. Dozens of overly zealous grocery store shoppers pay a quarter for a shopping cart and line the aisles in hopes of getting the best deals on new produce. You really haven’t lived until you've seen two middle-aged women fighting over the last ripe bunch of bananas. Weeping, gnashing of teeth, insults hurled in a variety of languages. Aldi on shipment day is the grocery store version of Maury.

Aside from an almost fist fight in the produce section, my shopping experience was uneventful. I grabbed a few things, made my way to the checkout, and exited the store before the bloodshed ensued. Just as I was putting my 25-cent shopping cart away and feeling disappointed about the lack of flashing neon miracles, a man approached me. “I’ll take your cart,” he said, extending a quarter in my direction. “Here’s for your trouble.”
“No, no,” I told him.  “It’s fine. Keep the quarter.” “Really?” he said. “Are you sure?” I passed the cart to him. “I’m sure. Have a great day.” He looked at me and smiled. A genuine smile tinged with wonder. “You too,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

After my encounter with the stranger, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. It’s funny how sometimes the smallest things can bring a change in perspective. As I walked to my car, I wondered many small sparks of light I had I missed while looking for my flashing neon miracle. How many opportunities had I overlooked? Opportunities to offer a simple gesture— a smile, a hug, a shopping cart on a cold November day. None of those things, in isolation, seem particularly noteworthy. They’re certainly not huge, God-appeared-in-a-thunderbolt miracle material. But each small spark has the ability to ignite something bigger. For me, it was the reminder that direction doesn't always come from a flashing neon miracle. Sometimes all we need is a spark.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Life begun anew

Fall is a season of change. The winds shift, the weather turns colder, the days become shorter, and the leaves show one last burst of brilliant color. I have witnessed this yearly cycle many times, but this year the changing of the seasons has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  Maybe it’s because I am changing too. 

Since graduating from college five months ago, I have found myself in what seems to be a constant state of change. Sure, things changed while I was in college. I found different classes, different friends, different passions and perspectives. But in the midst of those changes, there was still a cocoon of familiarity in which I could envelop myself. I knew the buildings on campus, the names of my professors, and what it would take to finally experience the weight of a college diploma—surprisingly light for the cost—in my hand. So while things certainly changed during those four years, I was able to take refuge in the things I had come to know and expect. I was a glittering elm at peak season, preparing for the imminent, inevitable change and trying to avoid it at the same time.

One of the most intriguing things about change is the way in which it comes...slowly, and then all at once. One day you're basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and the next you're digging out your winter coat. If 22 years in the Midwest taught me anything about meteorology (and life in general), it's that those initial winds are brutal. In the months since graduation, I have moved to two different states, found my first post grad job, left my first post grad job, and watched the winds of change sweep far and wide. Like the elm tree outside my window, I have seen my leavesthe once-familiar things in which I found refuge—fading and drifting away. But even as this season strips me bare, it brings with it a sense of empowerment. In the midst of the unfamiliar, the scary, the new, I find something as unexpected as it is powerful: the arrival of a new season and new beginnings. I find the heady joy of life begun anew.  

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hunting for arrows

I started this blog a few months ago as a way to share my innermost thoughts with random strangers.
I started this blog a few months ago as a way to shamelessly promote my perspectives.
I started this blog a few months ago as a way to prevent myself from ever being elected to public office.

Actually I didn't really start this blog for any of the above reasons, but they’re probably true.  I've loved the concept of blogging for awhile. To me, blogging is the 21st-century version of a diary where you give the ENTIRE WORLD a key. What’s not to love?

Anyway, in the spirit of THE NATIONAL BLOGGING MILLENNIUM (National Blogging Month just sounds super lame), I decided to revamp the blog and get back into the swing of things. I've also renamed it because 1) no one was really reading the old blog anyway and 2) the whole name change thing seemed to work out for Miley Cyrus. And BeyoncĂ©. Sasha Fierce, anyone? But I digress…

Like all revolutionary ideas, Hunting for Arrows was inspired by an ambiguous quote I saw on Pinterest: “Follow your arrow.” Obviously it’s great advice to follow the guiding point that will lead you to where you’re meant to be. But in order to follow your arrow, you have to find it…and that’s the toughest part. I think that journey, the search to find meaning in a world that rarely makes sense, is what connects us as human beings. We’re all hunting for arrows. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A year with Ronan


It seems natural to me to write to you, maybe because that’s the way I met you – through your mama’s beautiful letters. Today - September 7th- marks 365 days since we were first introduced. Exactly one year ago, I was sitting in front of the TV watching the Stand Up To Cancer telethon. Exactly one year ago, I watched Taylor Swift take the stage to sing the song she had written for you. And exactly one year ago, I looked into a pair of old-soul blue eyes, your eyes, and felt as if I had known you forever. That feeling led me to a blog you know well——where I read every post, every word that your mama had written to you and for you, over the course of your journey together.  In reading your mama’s blog, I felt that my world had shifted in a way that I couldn't completely describe – I felt that I had no idea where I was going and was exactly where I was supposed to be at the same time.  This experience is what I refer to now as a “line in the sand moment,” one of those rare, life-defining moments that makes you realize that life as you know it no longer exists. I’m sure you know better than anyone what that feels like.

After that line in the sand moment, my emotions were jumbled—I felt meeting you had given me new purpose, but was unsure of where that purpose would lead. Searching for clarity, I went back to your mama’s blog and read the entries she had written after your death. They were drenched with raw, unfiltered emotion—anger, grief, confusion, a soul-wrenching mother love—and an incredible honesty, the kind that is only born from desperation.  In reading her recent entries, I saw her struggling with the devastation of losing you, seeking purpose in the midst of an unimaginable loss, and trusting in your connection with her to lead her in the right direction. If she, a grieving mama who had suffered so much, could find the strength to make a difference for you, I knew that I could too.

In the year since meeting you, Ronan, many things have changed. I have learned that life is too short to love half-heartedly, to live only for yourself, or to listen to people who tell you that your dreams are too big.  But in this world where so much has changed for me, I still believe that everyone comes into our lives for a reason, Ro. All of the courageous kids I’ve met, all of their families, all of the beautiful Ro Lovies out there, all of the kickass people determined to find a cure for this bastard called childhood cancer, there’s a reason why I’ve been lucky enough to have them enter my world.  And you know what, Ro? You’re that reason. I have you to thank. You’re the one who helped your courageous mama to write those deeply honest words, words that moved a girl named Taylor to write the song that introduced me to you. You’re the one who helped me to recognize a purpose beyond myself. You’re the one who reminds me to stay grounded, and hopeful, and forever fighting for a cure for kids like you. So, when people ask me why I won’t stop until there’s a cure, I will tell them you’re the reason. With blurry eyes and a determined heart, I’ll explain to them how my life changed in a year.  A year with Ronan.

September is pediatric cancer awareness month. If you’re inspired by Ronan’s story, please download “Ronan” on iTunes and donate to The Ronan Thompson Foundation to help us fight cancer for kids.