Less Head Time, More Streudel

News flash for the week: my perceptions are not reality. Shocking, I know. Go ahead and sit down—that was probably a hard one to absorb since you thought I had this whole existence thing figured out.

For example, I tell myself a story about a group of people at work. It goes like this: they tolerate me because they have to, but I always get work to them late, I constantly tell them they can’t do things they want to do, and I don’t offer them as much support as they would like. So imagine my surprise when at a meeting last week they told me I was a joy to work with.

I don’t bring this up to brag (OK, maybe just a little) but because based on this headline in The OnionReport: Today The Day They Find Out You’re A Fraud—other people might tell themselves these stories, too. People who are a joy to work with are walking around not knowing it, and these people might be you.

So of course we’re all going to implement a radical perception shift, and these thoughts will disappear by the time you finish reading this blog. If you figure out how to do that, let me know. In my experience, this type of shift doesn’t happen at warp speed, and if it does, there’s a lot of pain involved.

Pain is not up there with cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels on my list of favorite things, so instead I’m going to practice remembering that the voice in my head lies. And I’m going to get some apple streudel and share it with the people who bring joy into my life and tell them that they do so that they have a little evidence to present to the voices in their heads.

Here’s a poem by C.K. Williams about a moment that broke through the cloud of misperception. One cool, nerdy thing about this poem—it is all one sentence.

The Dance
By C.K. Williams

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and
somewhat stout, to be more courteous still,
but when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man
she’s with get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained
but confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and
moving him with effortless grace
into the union she’s instantly established with the not at all
rhythmically solid music in this second-rate café,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some
sad conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we’d ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we’ve never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we misbe-
lieve ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which
sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.

from Repair by C.K. Williams, reprinted in Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

Joy Hovers

A hummingbird has been trying to tell me something this week. He hovered outside my window for a few seconds one day, expending probably hundreds of his precious heartbeats to make sure I’d notice, then zoomed away only to return several times during the morning for a repeat performance.

According to a book I once read on Native American understanding of animals, hummingbirds bring joy and the nectar of life. The first day, I went outside to see if something remarkably joyful might bump into me. A tree had opened up the first of its delicate white blossoms, but that didn’t quite seem to be it. I stood under the tree waiting for a long-lost friend to happen along, but nothing happened.

The next day I was still trying to figure it out—I had a blog to write after all—but I wasn’t making much progress. Then he came back and hung out so close to the window it looked as if he could tap his beak on the glass.

I confess I wasn’t doing a great job of practicing joy on these days. Most of my practice consisted of self-imposed stress and feelings of inadequacy. Not everything that happens in this life is joyful. There’s more than enough pain and grief to go around. But I know there are plenty of opportunities for joy that I don’t take, that it’s not regularly my baseline approach to the day.

As I was driving home that second day, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s nothing to figure out. Joy is there waiting for us and all we have to do is open the window.

Let’s Play!

The answer to the world’s problems might be a good game of tag.

Everyone who walks into my office comments on how good the view is. It takes in our shiny new science building, the nearby volcanic peak, and a range of hills farther off. Earlier this week, all that was eclipsed by between fifty and a hundred grade school kids running around on the lawn outside the building, playing tag and laughing.

It looked like so much fun just to chase someone. College students don’t do that, and neither do university employees. Which I think is mostly too bad because joy was spilling off those kids. (OK, a friend and I chased each other down a hallway in the new building before it opened, and it was awesome.)

I think that would be one of the great gifts of parenthood—the excuse and the opportunity your child gives you to play and be silly. I don’t think we stop needing to do this as we get older, but sometimes we forget we need it.

Play renews us. It loosens our hearts and spirits and helps us take everything a little less seriously. There are plenty of serious things in this world—disease, the loss of a job—but there are many more things that we blow out of proportion. I suspect that many of my catastrophes would melt away after chasing someone around the yard, having a tickling match, or jumping on the trampoline.

It’s so easy to forget the importance of having fun, and I am grateful to those giggling kids for reminding me that running can be much more than exercise, that life is more fun when we’re not worrying about who’s watching, and that joy is as easy to find as a game of tag.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.

My friend Mary Ann may be dying. It’s hard to tell because she is still so filled with joy (see Just Marvelous).

When my grandmother was dying, I found it difficult to be in her physical presence because the changes in her body so clearly spoke of death. On the way to visit Mary Ann, I worried that I’d have the same reaction.

magnolia treeMary Ann wears a wig, which I had never before seen her without. Her natural hair is short, sparse, and gray. She sat amid multiple afghans in a partially-raised recliner, and her legs had some bruises. I prepared to grit my teeth and be uncomfortable, but then she saw us and lit up.

This astonishing burst of Mary Ann-ness came pouring out of her. She was delighted to see my mom and me even though she may not have known who we were. Even in ill health and loopy on pain meds, she still manifested an incredible optimism and enthusiasm for life.

She almost immediately said, “God is good.” This is not always my favorite phrase, but when uttered not as a saccharin-sweet coating but with all sincerity by a ninety-year-old with a broken pelvis, it’s hard to argue with.

Mary Ann wasn’t slipping away as I’d feared; she was distilled down to the radiant heart of her being. It made me wonder what my essence is, what I would emit in a similar situation.

Shortly after finding out Mary Ann had taken a turn for the worse, while standing in front of a magnolia tree with only two pink blossoms left, I felt this surge of joy, and I thought, if I’m going to send Mary Ann anything, it should be this feeling. She sent it right back.