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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Loose Change

A colleague of mine owns a number of rental properties, and over the years has postulated an interesting theory. Whenever possible, he makes an effort to meet with prospective tenants at their current residence, and if he sees loose change laying around, he believes they are careless with money and therefore at a greater likelihood to default on rent payments. He's been testing this theory for over twenty years and swears by it. He's even declined renting to people as a result of his hypothesis. He calls it the "loose change theory." I can't say I agree with it, but I find it intriguing nonetheless.

Life would be easier, though presumably less interesting, if we could so precisely categorize people based on their simplest subconscious behaviors. But the reality is, we all have a little loose change in our life. Not the silver or copper kinds of change we have in our pockets, but the kind of change that has to come from the heart and soul. The kind of change that can be difficult to approach, let alone achieve. The kind of change most of us need to make on one level or another.

What is my loose change? Well, that's an easy one to answer, but one I won't answer for just anyone. Like most people, my loose change is a closely guarded secret, shared only with those I trust the very most. It is the demons I have lived with for many years, the insecurities that still haunt me as I approach my very, very late 30s, and the things I just really think could make me a much better me. My loose change can be as obvious as the sun glinting off of a glass building, or as subtle as the breeze on a warm summer night. Who gets to see it is up to me and only me; who gets to challenge it and set forth a chain of motion in a better direction is a different story altogether.

I've got some loose change, but I will say this: I've got a whole lot less than I used to have. I've still got a ways to go, but I believe I now have every resource I need to get there. Most importantly, I have love. Love for myself, and love from another who matters. Love that won't allow me to be complacement and continue to ignore the loose change in my life. Love that cares enough to take note, identify, and get me headed in the right direction.

We should all be so lucky. Lucky enough to have a little loose change laying around, and lucky enought to have the gumption to do something about it. Lucky enough to have somebody who is willing to make the investment in you, and lucky enough to have the chance to get there in the end.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Grilled Cheese

I love grilled cheese sandwiches. A lot. They are kind of like my version of penicillin. Except for the part about accidentally discovering them compliments of post-nasal drip in a petri dish. That part clearly does not apply. But in every other way, they are my pencillin, for they are capable of curing all that ails me.

You see, grilled cheese sandwiches are always there for me. There has rarely been a time in my life where I didn't have the three necessary ingredients required to make myself a delicious, melty, warm and toasty grilled cheese sandwich. They are so simple, yet so delightful--so basic, but so rich. They are an enigma, wrapped in a shroud of mystery, tied up in a bundle of joy.

I also love grilled cheese sandwiches because they have never let me down. Grilled cheese sandwiches would never harshly criticize me for getting one A minus on my report card (when the rest were all A's, no less!) Grilled cheese sandiwches would never call me a slut for merely kissing a boy in the driveway. Grilled cheese sandwiches don't tell my family that I am stealing from my sister's college trust fund. Grilled cheese sandwiches have never betrayed me by giving my cat away to their ex-girlfriend in Minnesota. Grilled cheese sandwiches don't send hate mail to my Uncle Tom just because he's gay. Grilled cheese sandwiches might add on some extra pounds over time (if you eat too many), but they would never, ever point out the extra pounds.

The fact of the matter is, people let us down Most of the time they are great, and usually we want them in our lives. But other times, they just downright suck. They are human, and they are inherently flawed, and therefore sooner or later they are probably going to disappoint us. Sometimes to a degree that we just can't understand, sometimes to a degree we assuredly do not deserve.

When this happens, I think it's best to just say the hell with people, and go straight to the fridge for some butter, some cheese, and some bread. Three simple ingredients, and no more than three minutes, and you've walked right into a little slice of heaven. The world is pointed toward right once again.

Godspeed to you, and your next grilled cheese.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jump Start

Being the independent gal that I am, I am a long-standing member of AAA. This is because I know just what the AAA website claims: "Each year, millions of motorists are stranded due to a dead battery." That's right, millions of them. (Now that I read that, it occurs to me they may be exaggerating just a bit.) Anyway, I don't want to be counted amongst those purported millions, because stranded just isn't my gig.

During ridiculously cold weather like this, the number of stranded motorists due to dead batteries increases exponentially. It's easy to get frustrated by these little annoyances in life, because it feels like they slow us down, throw us off track, delay us from our goals. Afterall, we have places to go, and people to see! But I think it's worth reflecting on this a bit, because everybody needs a little jump start once in a while.

Nobody ever got a jump start when things were running fine, or if they did that was really stupid. When things are running according to expectations, it would seem obvious that there is no need for a jump start. But in fact, over time our battery may be ever so gradually dwindling in power, slowing down and losing its charge without us even taking notice. And it takes a really significant event to grind things to a complete halt. It's then, and only then, that we seek out that jump start.

Once we get that jump start, it's like, "Wow!" There is a new sense of appreciation for what was temporarily lost, but there is also a burst of energy that results. It's like you didn't even pay attention to how poorly things were running or the preventative maintenance that was needed until the catastrophic event came along. Once that happens and the jump start is completed, it becomes ever so clear how things were really intended to run all along.

Batteries aren't the only thing that need the occasional jump start, life needs them too. Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we are fully charged and right on track, when in fact we are not. That's complacency, and everybody does it sometimes. It is usually then that it takes something getting in our path, hitting us up side the head or even taking us down for a minute before we realize what we really need. A jump start, of course.

AAA offers a full menu of services for its members to help keep things running smoothly. For those of us who are lucky enough, our lives have an equally valuable array of resources available to us. We have big brains to identify solutions, financial resources to fund the results, friends and family who will fill the gap until we make those solutions a reality. And let's not forget...we also have the patience and wisdom to help us transcend the current set of circumstances when we need to.

I've got my AAA card, and I've got everything else I need for my road trip of life. Do you?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Little Lessons on the Prairie

The Wisconsin prairies have entered my consciousness in recent years compliments of a friend who is a self-proclaimed prairie enthusiast. You might think such folks are few and far between, and perhaps they are, but they are a committed group of folks who have a vision for their contribution to the world. The prairies, which once covered nearly all of our midwestern states, are now sparse and rare to find. Prairie enthusiasts know that a return to this form of sacred land has much to offer our world and our future generations. Not only is it preservation of history, it enriches our environment and raises our human understanding of days that long preceded us.

The prairie is a place of peace and harmony, life and vitality. The tall grasses sway gracefully in the wind, and the plants bloom all throughout the season like a perfectly synchronized symphony of color. The birds make serene yet sturdy home, and the grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas sing joyfully, as though the prairie is the stage built just for the opera they themselves composed. The butterflies breeze in and out and all around, abundantly surrounded by the nectar produced by the wildflowers, willfully carrying pollen to our Creator's intended destination.

And while this scene is placid, rich in nourishment and even definitively divine, it is actually much more complicated than that. By way of God, the prairie has had to learn over and over again that the only way its beauty can be attained is through the occasional burn to the ground. By history and by chance, prairies often started on fire from lightning. As man has made efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state, it has become understood that this ceremonious spring burn is in fact essential to the health, vibrance and longevity of the prairie. The burn chokes out the weeds, and the rich, blackened ground adds to the nutrients in the soil to replenish the plants. This welcomes the sun to drench the earth in a warm blanket, inviting and encouraging the grasses and plants to grow back in the quickest, most robust and healthiest way possible.

It is interesting that such beauty must be tormented by such searing pain in order to truly thrive. It seems this is perhaps symbolic of the human experience, and what we need to thrive as well. Often in life, things are humming along beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that we may not even take notice of the abundance with which we have been blessed. Taking it for granted, it is often called, and it is something that seems to be inherent to the human experience.

Grief has been the spring burn in the prairie of my life. I've had my share of loss, and at times it has been the source of incredible pain. Death of my parents, loss of friendship, failure of a marriage. Most recently, it was having to make the decision to euthanize a cat who shared her life with me for fourteen years. Regardless of the loss, the experience and the outcome has always been the same. It has been pain so blistering that it forces me to revisit every bout of loss that predated the one I am currently experiencing. That being said, it has also provided me with a cleansing of sorts. A way to feel the burn, and really let it dig down deep in my soul. A way to let my tears wash over me and drive the cumulative toxins out of my soul. A way to remember that I am human, and only human, at the end of the day. And at the conclusion of each new milestone of grief, I am able to brush myself off and move on triumphantly with life...with a renewed reminder of all that really matters.

River City

Sometimes it is people we attach to, but sometimes it is places. I have a few places on this great earth that are near and dear to my heart, and as it turns out most of them include water. From ages 4 to 18, there was a mighty river known as the Wapsipinicon where I spent good portions of my time and had some experiences that lasted me a lifetime.

The "Wapsi'', as it was affectionately known, was a river that ran abutt to our farm property. It was about a third to half mile back from the portion of the land we used with any frequency, but its presence was rarely forgotten. This was no creek, nor was it a delicate, meandering stream. This was a River with a capital R. It was a force to be reckoned with, a constant reminder from Mother Nature who was really in charge. Unless there was a drought, you could count on the Wapsi to charge through our acreage with force and determination. Oh yes, the Wapsi would ruthlessly take the occasional life, but on its best days it danced and popped and shimmered with life.

The Wapsi was a proud and dignified river, but also one of overabundance. Some rivers flood only once every ten or twenty or hundred years. Not the Wapsi! Nearly every spring thaw of my formative years, the Wapsi would swell and exceed its steep banks by literally hundreds upon hundreds of yards. At least four times in my recollection, the Wapsi flooded to such a degree that it made its way the nearly half-mile trek up to our barnyard, leaving the poor horses standing knee-deep in sloppy mud and water until we got them moved to higher ground.

But the Wapsi was otherwise more like an old reliable friend. I was never allowed as a child to go anywhere near it on my own, but my dad and I spent a fair amount of time down by the river. It was an oasis of sorts, a place where we could talk and laugh and share our dreams. Dad always had pie in the sky ideas and sometimes we would even make our own kites (dubbed "The Swearingen Special") and run along the banks of the river in an attempt to fly them. Other times, we would spend a lazy afternoon fishing for the perfect catch. I only recall one time we actually landed that "perfect" catch--a 20 pound catfish that was so heavy we had to pull it out with a garden hoe borrowed from an ogling bystander who was a fellow river-loving visitor. As a ten year-old, I can assure you that catfish felt like a Marlin to me.

One memory in particular that has always remained with me was a time that Dad and I were again attempting to go fishing. Apparently Dad's exuberance got in the way of things, and he didn't have the patience to wait for the heat of the summer to dry out the riverbanks. About 200 yards from our starting point, my feet got stuck in the mud. I remember how panicked I felt, because Dad was far ahead of me and I could not move. I was paralyzed with fear and screaming out for Dad. He finally came and rescued me by lifting me right out of my shoes. The shoes stayed stuck in the mud forevermore, but I was carried to safety. I've often reflected back on that moment, that moment of sheer panic in which I feared nothing more than being stuck and being abandoned. I've had both experiences numerous times again in the years that followed, being stuck and being abandoned, and I think that fateful day in the muddy banks of the Wapsipinicon and the assurance that followed were hallmarks in my development.

As a teenager, the Wapsi took on a new level of meaning for me. It was a perfect place to engage in the throes of teenage debauchery. Boring summer days often resulted in going "tubing" down the river for a few miles, scorching our tender skin beyond recognition. We often had parties by the river, and nothing good ever came of them. And it was in this very river that, on a dare, I made my first and only attempt at skinny dipping. A few rites of passage, or brushes with danger and stupidity at least, and the river was lovingly standing by, watching me grow up and learn to make right choices by making the wrong ones first.

The Wapsi is permanently stored in my psyche. I think this is because it was one of the few constants in my life during that era. Even today, I often have dreams of this river. I have a recurring dream where I am on the farm but have misplaced my red sports car, and in this dream my first thought is always, "Oh, I bet I parked it by the Wapsi!" I have dreams and recollections and fond, warm memories of this special place. It is literally etched in my heart.

Joan Didion wrote, "You can't step in the same river twice." I have always loved that quote, because I find it to be so remarkably true. You can return to the same place, with the same expectation, but the reality of life is such that both you and the place will have undoubtedly changed, so that the experience you harken back upon cannot be precisely duplicated. Such are the dynamics of life. As badly as we sometimes long for it, we simply can't go back to the times and places that were easier, more pure, less adulterated. Armed with that knowledge, however, we simultaneously have no choice and every choice in the world to become a river of our own, flowing freely, confidently, and occasionally a big jaggedly, toward the destiny that is uniquely ours.

The Power of Subtraction

In our society, people are often obsessed with what they want to gain in life. Gaining power, gaining money, acquiring status and wealth and possessions. But what people often fail to see is that the seemingly simple arithmetic concept of addition may be where they are missing the boat. Subtraction needs its props, too.

I never really thought of this much until the last four years. As I went through the pains of divorce, recognizing that most of the pain I was experiencing was self-induced only made the pain that much worse. Pain of the realization I made a wrong choice to begin with, then failed to listen to myself and my body as it violently protested to my choice, then failed to keep the commitment I made to the wrong choice. A series of bad choices and failures, and voila! I had lost everything I never wanted to begin with but didn't quite know how to live without.

But as the gaping wounds of shame, loneliness and guilt began to heal, I came upon a stunning revelation. By subtracting something from my life, I actually gained. I gained true happiness and bliss for the first time. I gained passion and peace and serenity and self-assuredness. I gained recognition that indeed, I can be enough if that is how it needs to be. And I gained a comfort that I now know myself well enough to avoid repeating my mistakes. Next time, at the very least, I knew that I would listen to me.

The very definition of subtraction is that you are removing a part from the whole. But this implies that the "whole" was verifiably true and understood at the outset. Perhaps, as human beings, we fail to recognize that in order to be whole, we have to have some pieces missing in the first place. The pieces that will magnetize us to the others who can gently and lovingly fill those voids for us, thus creating a bond that is sanctified by the cosmos. Maybe, just maybe, the quest is not to keep adding to our lives in an effort to make ourselves whole, but rather it is to subtract from our lives until we can really see and focus upon our purest selves. Perhaps then, and only then, are we ready for all that awaits us and all that we are meant to be.


I've always loved math and growing up it was my favorite subject. This set me apart from a lot of people who found it to be daunting, but it was a subject I really enjoyed to no end. I think the reason that I loved it so much was that the answers and the numbers brought order to my sometimes chaotic world, or at least that was my perception of it. It also satisfied my need for the healthy dose of frustration that must be involved in any situation in order for it to be be truly enjoyable to me. Of course, I liked algebra best, but a close second was geometry. I especially loved doing geometric proofs, where you had to use logic and find the trail all the way to proving the theory. I loved math so much that sometimes, if I was stuck on a problem, I would go to bed early and the answer would actually come to me in my dreams. When I woke up, I would run down the creaky stairs of our old farmhouse and finish the problem no matter what time of night it was. Kind of weird, I know.

But I must say that in my adult life, numbers have not always had the same sense of order nor have they brought me the serenity that I found with them in the confines of a classroom. I was anxiously thinking about numbers all day because I have to complete an $11 million budget for 28 programs in the next 3-4 weeks. Did you see that? Three sets of numbers in one sentence, that combined feel like a chemistry experiment gone awry. And even though I have a long-standing love affair with numbers, today they don't feel like my friend. Today they feel like a 400 pound gorilla that is locked in a cage with me.

I have learned throughout my life that numbers have power. In my own life, numbers have at times been elusive, they have sometimes let me down, they have been the occasional source of conflict, they have even been downright scary at times. As adults, we seem to attach numbers to just about everything, as though life has to be quantified in order for it to make sense to us. And yet in so doing, we all seem to be haunted by at least some of these numbers that we attach to our lives.

For some, it's a high cholesterol reading that looms over one's head, promising an early death. For another, it's a dress size or number on the scale that chips away at their self-esteem. It may be the seemingly low balance in the checkbook that is believed to be holding them back from their dreams, dreams so far in the distance that they can't see the greatness that is right in front of their eyes. For many, it is the rightful salary that is believed but never achieved. Some refuse to acknowledge the number of birthdays passed, as though it is a dirty secret never to be shared. Still others tally the number of sexual conquests to make themselves feel whole, but in so doing callously toss away part of their soul with every new addition. If you think about almost every major component of an adult life, you can attach a number to it in some way.

I can guarantee you that those very numbers have brought nearly all people disappointment or angst or full-blown panic attacks at one time or another. How many people do you know who think they will have found true happiness if only they could lose ten more pounds, make $20,000 more a year, take five years off their face through cosmetic surgery or get a car one model more expensive than their own? The world is filled with this kind of thinking, and yet as every goal is reached, a new one--with a new number--is just as achingly longed for. The number changes, and the promise of happiness remains as elusive as chasing a ghost or herding squirrels.

It has occurred to me that in the one place in life that matters the most, numbers don't count. Our creator is not keeping score, and there is no real way to quantify one's spirituality. In a spiritual sense, there is no magnitude or degree or severity or balance attached to love, regardless of the type of love it is. At the end of the day, love is love. And even though it has the capacity to grow, it has no numbers attached to it. It's no wonder that love, in all its forms, is what everyone seeks for solitude and true fulfillment.