Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

“Joy Machine”: The Wisdom of Stephen Colbert

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I don’t read GQ very much–ok, ever–so I’m not sure how often you could use the word “transcendent” to describe one of its articles. But you can this month. Joel Lovell’s interview with Stephen Colbert is transcendent.

You can have your acerbic and perpetually indignant Jon Stewart. My love for Stephen is well known and documented on social media so I won’t elaborate on it here. (Except to say: Congressional testimony. Commencement speechBreaking character. Decent, thoughtful Catholicism.)

There are two big things that make Colbert who he is:

1. His father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.

2. He discovered improvisation as a young man and continues to thrive on it.

Those things are related.

He unpacks that in the article.

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

He doubles down on this point, quoting a letter JRR Tolkien wrote to a priest:

“‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.

What Colbert is describing is saying “Yes-and,” of receiving what life offers and building on it, which is the basic rule of improv. Sam Wells calls this process over-accepting in his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. When life deals us a hand, we can:

  • reject it (deny it)
  • accept it (acknowledge that it’s happened and live in it), or
  • over-accept it (take what’s happened and build on it, which in some ways requires making friends with it).

I don’t love over-accepting as a term, but I think Wells’s framework is right on.

Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is awareness.

Why am I so drawn to improv? It’s not because I want to join a ComedySportz troupe. I’m not really interested in performing improv at all. It’s because improv is the basic human task—to make something beautiful with what’s been given to you, and to leave life better than you found it, which is the “and.”

Colbert doesn’t connect the dots between life and improv in the article, but he nods in that direction with this quote, which is practically a koan: “The end product [of the show] is jokes, but you could easily say the end product is intention. Having intentionality at all times… The process of process is process.”

I’m also drawn to improv because it scares me. I’m really good at planning. Organizing. Anticipating several steps down the road and developing contingencies. You have to, to some extent. But life happens. Bombs drop into the lives of 10 year olds.

Monday’s blog post shared some of my struggle with saying Yes-and to a running injury–and yes, it’s a full-on stress fracture, which means 12 weeks of no running.

I could reject it: keep on running, and injure myself further.

I could accept it: stop running, rest, do what the doctor suggests, try not to lose too much ground. (I kept it together pretty well, but when the doctor said, “You’ll start running again 1/2 a mile at a time,” that’s when I started to cry.)

But I’m trying really hard to over-accept. I’m trying to LOVE it. If Colbert can use that word to describe a life without his father and brothers, I can use it to describe a silly three-month running hiatus. This morning I started a separate page on my mama runners Facebook group for those of us who are injured to support one another. I hope that will grow into something long-term. I’ll be writing about what I’m learning, maybe just for myself, maybe for a wider audience. And I don’t want to spend the next three months “not losing ground.” I want to gain ground–maybe not physically, but mentally and spiritually. I’m still exploring what that means–it will be a process.

Read the whole article. There’s a lot more there.

~

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Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt. Sit Your Butt.

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You’d think a woman who wrote an entire book about Sabbath would be sanguine about the need for rest.

You’d be wrong.

And if you read the book, you know it was a constant struggle for me to embrace this work/rest rhythm. It still is.

I’ve been laid up for the last several days with a running injury. About 10 days ago I noticed a nagging tightness along the inside of my left shin. I rested for three days and tested it with a run–pain returned. Three more days of rest, then a run–pain again.

It’s a busy fall for races. I’m supposed to run the Ragnar Relay with my Steeple Chasers in early October, then the Marine Corps Marathon with my brother at the end of that month. My other brother is coming to town that weekend for the 10K, which Robert is also running. Robert’s sister will be in town. MY sister will be in town. It’s a whole thing, you see. I don’t have time for an injury. I’m very, very busy. Booked.

But… this pain.

So I decided to go to the orthopedist last Friday, who took an X-ray and referred me for an MRI. I’ll meet with him tomorrow to find out the MRI results, but we’re hoping to rule out a tibial stress fracture. The X-ray looked fine, but these things are tricky. The MRI will show whether I have a fracture or was headed for one. With this kind of injury, there are early signs–swelling in the vascular tissue around the bone, then later, edema in the marrow–and that’s what we’re looking for, or not. Hopefully not.

That’s the way it is with overuse and overwork, isn’t it? We don’t break instantly. Your body, your spirit, will talk to you, if you listen. There are signs. You can ignore them for a while, grit your teeth, take drugs to mask the pain, but denial only gets you so far. Sooner or later, you must do something different, or there will be a reckoning.

It’s no accident that these injuries are called stress reactions. And I could’ve sworn that among the many sounds the MRI made, one of them was a peristent, mechanical voice saying, “Sit your butt. Sit your butt. Sit your butt.”

Message received, giant clanking tube.

The best case scenario is a week of rest, maybe 2, during which I can bike, swim, pool run, and do the elliptical. The worst case (fracture) is 6-8 weeks of rest, and no Ragnar Relay, and no Marine Corps Marathon.

Running is my community, my stress relief, my hobby, my natural mood enhancer, and (ahem) my buffer when I want to eat cookies and cupcakes without worrying over the calories. I’ll do what I have to do to get strong again, even if that means no running for a while. I may not like it. But sometimes you’re so far gone you need to rest, even from the things that bring you joy. (Maybe you noticed the semi-humorous piece about how getting away with your kids shouldn’t be called vacations–those are trips. Because kids are a joy, but they’re also work, so if they come along, work comes along. Or the classic Onion article, Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean.)

I sometimes hear people say, “But I love my work. It gives me energy. I don’t feel the need to rest from it.” Fair enough. I’m not sure I fully believe them. Maybe they’re just wired differently. Or maybe they’re not working as hard as they claim. Or they aren’t as effective in their work as they think they are because they don’t have any downtime. Or they’re having some stress reactions in places they can’t see, and are keeping them at bay through drugs and gritted teeth.

The breakdown that happens is not just physical, it can be mental. Robert came home from a run on Sunday, having been to my #1 favorite running spot, along the Potomac River near National Airport. How dare he go to THAT place! After plenty of fuming, I said, “When I was in middle school and my mother was getting in shape, she would do exercise videos at night, and every night my dad would go to the kitchen for a bowl of ice cream and eat it in front of her. That’s how I felt when you told me where you’d been.”

The minute those words came out of my mouth I realized how ridiculous they were. My husband’s running brings him joy and good health–and he supports my joy and health wholeheartedly. My dad actions were passive-aggressive and the sign of an unhappy person who would soon leave our family. Conflating these two things was a stress reaction on my part–a sign I needed to loosen up a bit.

The good news is, perspective comes pretty quickly when you’re able to STOP. As I lay on the gurney with my legs sticking into the MRI tube, I had time to think. I thought about the woman who’d passed me in the hallway, wearing a hospital gown while I got away with street clothes, because they weren’t imaging any scary vital organs, just my leg. I thought about all the stories, much sadder than mine, that had their origins in that giant machine. And I was grateful. Grateful.

I’ll let you know what tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment brings. For now, I’m trying to Sit My Butt and embrace the rest.

~

Subscribe to my email newsletter. Twice-monthly dispatches about what’s inspiring me and/or kicking my butt. Usually both.

~

Photo of Mars from the European Space Agency through Creative Commons. From the description: “The many chasms, fractures and cracks in this area are thought to have been caused by stress in the planet’s crust as it stretched and pulled apart.”

Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve.

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Note: This post was picked up by the Huffington Post and you can also read it there.

I’m reading Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right now. It’s a dissonant experience because the language in the book is exquisite, and the truth of it is tough and hard.

I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington DC in the early 20th century.

I highly recommend both books, especially if you are white. Read them with an open heart. Read them not to refute, but to understand. Read them in the spirit of Brian McLaren’s joke, “Why did Jesus cross the road?” “To get to the other.”

I hear a good bit of defensiveness from many white people when the subject of race comes up. They don’t understand why we are “still” talking about it. If pressed, they will often insist that they are not racist. They treat people equally. Everyone was nice to everyone in their high school. There was no racial tension.

All of those things may be true. But they’re not the point.

Twelve is the point.

I heard Isabel Wilkerson speak last week while I was at the Chautauqua Institution, just a few days before the anniversary of Ferguson. She began her talk by evoking #BlackLivesMatter. And I could hear some hackles rising. Do you know what hackles sound like? They begin as the sound of shifting in seats. Add some clearing of throats as people get ready to rehearse their “post racial” bona fides to anyone who will listen. It was a polite crowd, and I must say, a well-intentioned one, so the hackles simmered down. They sat and listened. And I hope they heard Isabel Wilkerson offer an offhand remark that, for me, shifts everything:

The institution of slavery persisted for twelve generations of African Americans in this country.

I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

Twelve generations.

Those of us who study the Bible know the power of the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes were God’s beloved ones. Later Jesus would call twelve disciples to walk with him in faithfulness. A woman reached out to Jesus for healing because she’d been hemorrhaging, her blood spilled upon the earth, for twelve years. And a little girl of twelve was brought to life again when Jesus’ words of liberation and empowerment filled her ears: little girl, GET UP.

For those of us who don’t read the Bible, no matter. Twelve generations is a long time.

Twelve generations of could-have-been.

Twelve generations of doctors and midwives and lawyers and writers, scrubbing floors in the master’s house.

Twelve generations of musicians and architects and sculptors and scholars, picking cotton from dawn until dusk.

And—it must be said, and was said by Isabel Wilkerson—twelve generations of white people who wouldn’t let the doctors heal, wouldn’t let the architects build, wouldn’t let the sculptors create. When you’re keeping a race of people down in the ditch, she said, that means you’re down in the ditch with them. Our history diminished all of us.

That’s why this conversation matters. That’s why we have to talk about it. If you’re not a racist, congratulations. I’m not going to argue with you, because it’s not the point.

Twelve is the point. Twelve is the point.

How long do you think it should take to dismantle twelve generations of racial oppression, not to mention Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its aftermath? Should we be “over it” by now? Ask my friend, who couldn’t get a job interview until she removed her “black-sounding” name from her resume, whether it’s over. Ask the black men in our communities, who are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, whether it’s over.

My mother has an expression, “When it’s on you, it’s on you.” I didn’t ask for it to be on me—the privilege that comes from being white—but it’s on me. And I’m fooling only myself if I try and insist otherwise, just because we passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black President.

It’s not about guilt. Guilt is a distraction, a side show, a dead end. My people did not own slaves. But the state of my birth fought under the Confederate flag. And contrary to popular belief, my white children will be more likely to receive a college scholarship than their friends who are people of color.

When it’s on you, it’s on you. And now it’s on all of us to talk about it—and also to listen.

~

During World War I there was a great migration north… painting by Jacob Lawrence.

All the World’s a Stage

Who lives like this?

Who lives like this?

As many of you know, we’re preparing to move a few weeks from now. We’re moving within the DC area, closer to my husband’s job. Then we have to sell our current house. Thankfully we’ve arranged things so we can move out before that happens—it needs some work to get it ready to go on the market.

We haven’t bought or sold a house since 2003. Sometime during those intervening twelve years, staging became a much bigger deal.

Back then, I remember our real estate agent giving us a few tips on making the house look good. Did you know there’s a proper ratio for how much dining room chairs should stick out from under the table? That sort of thing. I also remember walking into some homes that looked showroom quality, even though it was clear people were living there. I wondered what their secret was. I wondered where their clutter was. Now I know: staging.

These days, the real estate agent will hire a stager to take a close look at the home and put together a plan. The goal is to maximize bang for your buck, so the stager will rank and prioritize the tasks. Kitchens are important. So’s the placement of furniture. We’ll be leaving some pieces behind once we move, to help people visualize the space as well as possible.

Colors are also a big deal. Our stager gave us specific Pantone numbers to paint various rooms. Which suits us fine, frankly. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.

While we were going around looking at houses, my husband remarked how similar staging is to curating an online persona on social media. You can’t change the raw materials you have to work with. Your life is your life; your house is your house. But you go through a careful process of putting your best foot forward. We all do it to some extent, though some are more meticulous about it than others.

The problem comes when we compare our unstaged life to everyone else’s staged life and feel inadequate for falling short.

I was nervous about the staging thing at first. It’s hard not to feel judged for your design choices, and I pictured a snooty woman wrinkling her nose as she beheld our aging IKEA furniture. But our stager was great. And she won me over when she said, “You know… my house looks like a regular house—a house people actually live in. When I walk into a home that doesn’t need staging, I think ‘these people need therapy.'”

It’s a bit of a game. And naming that is important and healing.

I’m glad for the stager. We’ve made good memories in our home. That means displaying it in the best possible light so other people will see the potential for their own memories to be housed there.

This summer, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve seen friends post their vacation photos to Facebook. In the past, those pictures used to get me down sometimes. The beaches were so pristine, you see. The kids, so adorable, clutching their ice cream cones, barefoot in the perfect slanting light of dusk.

This summer I haven’t felt that way. This summer I have welcomed every photo, even living vicariously through them. A friend and I were laughing that I wasn’t bothered by the photos because I’m not working right now! That’s part of it, I’m sure (and I am working, though not full time and not in the church). But also, I recognize the rules of the game. Facebook is not reality. I sincerely hope my friends had great vacations this summer, but I also see the perfect photos for what they are—a representation of life that’s not entirely accurate.

Like my mama used to say, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Studies have shown that people can be dragged down by other people’s perfectly curated online personas. But I wonder if that will change as we “grow up” with this technology. I wonder if we are becoming more savvy about social media and the rules of the game. What do you think?

Lessons on Life and Improv from The Martian

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I just finished the audiobook of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’d been looking for a book I could listen to while doing home stuff in preparation for the move, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s an exciting and fascinating story of an astronaut who accidentally gets stranded on Mars after a tragic accident. His crew evacuates the planet after presuming him dead. We see Mark Watney’s struggle to survive, but also the incredible effort put forth by NASA scientists and his fellow crew members to save him—once they realize he’s alive, which takes a while. In addition to being very suspenseful, it’s quite poignant.

It’s also full of lessons about the power of improvisation as an orientation, and a set of tools for surviving when The Plan gets shot to hell. Watney’s situation is an extreme one, to be sure. But sooner or later, every last one of us is going to get hit with the confusion and desolation that comes when the life we thought we’d live, the existence we’d planned for, goes up in smoke. What then?

We often think about improv as being about performance or entertainment, but improv is applicable to a number of disciplines, including engineering. I explored some of this after watching a NOVA episode about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can read my thoughts in the post, Solving the “Trouble with Hubble”.

The improvisational elements in The Martian center around the practicalities of survival—how to grow food on a desolate planet, how to communicate with Earth. But they also deal with the psychological work of moving forward without losing hope. Here are a few thoughts that came to me while listening to the book. [Very light on the spoilers here.]

Improvising isn’t the same as winging it. Watney’s tale of survival is a feat of ingenuity and imagination—rationing, repurposing, and recalculating. We think sometimes that improv is this free-form practice that emerges out of nothing. But Watney had trained. He had prepared for scenarios 1 through 1000, so when scenario 2,253 happened, he had some tools at his disposal.

When I was preparing to have a baby, my childbirth educator encouraged us to “worry” about the various scary scenarios. Instead of trying to pacify us with “it’ll be OK” platitudes, she said, “OK, what if you do need an emergency C-section? What happens then? What if your child has to go to the NICU? How will you handle that? What resources do you need, what questions do you have?” And then she got us the information we needed.

There was no way to think through every worst-case scenario in my head—yes, I’m pretty creative, but life is even stranger than the catastrophes I can dream up. But by thinking through lots of possible outcomes, I had the confidence to be able to handle whatever might happen.

The truth is, we are not in control of our lives. Things happen. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Our call is to use the resources we have to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had hoped for, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whatever’s on hand.

Let yourself freak out. Then move on. There are numerous instances in the book of Watney confronting some bleak new situation and falling into despair. He makes a mistake that could be potentially fatal to him. He makes two steps forward one day and three steps back the next. In each instance, he lets himself feel those things. Then he takes a deep breath, gets up, and does what’s in his power to do.

Many of us get stuck in the freakout and never move to action. Others of us move straight to action without letting the full weight of what’s going on hit us. Watney models a good balance. As Admiral James Stockdale has said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Focus on the next thing. Watney comes to consciousness after the accident and realizes he’s completely alone and 140 million miles from home. He has no clue how to contact Earth or his crew, how to even think about rescue. But none of that matters at that moment, because task #1 is figuring out what he’s going to eat. So he focuses on growing food. This struck me as very wise. The novelist EL Doctorow died recently, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Whether you’re building a novel or an improv scene or a life, you don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out. Which is good, because you can’t know. But by taking the next step, you will get there.

Use it all up. [minor spoilers here] Watney spends much of his time in a temporary habitat, the HAB, and at the end, he must leave it to make a long journey in a rover. He’s jury-rigged the rover in all kinds of crazy ways using stuff from the HAB, and when he turns around to take one last look at it, he sees it as the decimated shell that it is. He’s picked it clean, left nothing behind that could be potentially useful. Which means there’s no turning back.

This is a perfect embodiment of Annie Dillard’s wisdom about writing and life: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.”

In my limited experience with improv, I’ve found it to be a very now-focused practice. If you have an idea, use it, don’t save it. If you have an impulse to act, do it. I guess there are some of you out there who come by this naturally and maybe need to learn to restrain yourselves more. But I bet many readers of this blog are like me, wanting to keep a little bit of life in reserve because it makes us feel safe. That hoarding comes at a cost.

Life is relentless. I mean this in multiple senses of the word. Watney’s situation was unrelenting, requiring constant activity—planning, executing, testing, retrying. He had to be a botanist, a mechanic, a scientist a carpenter. He had to be vigilant against an alien planet that seemed determined to kill him. He could not stop.

But I also mean that the impulse toward life is very strong. The basic rule of improv is yes-and—to accept what the world offers and build on it. Even when he has no idea how he could possibly be rescued, Watney is determined to LIVE for as long as he can.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Watney talks about taking samples of Mars rocks and soil, labeling them, and storing them where he hopes they’ll be found someday.

Here’s a man who knows his chances of personal survival are slim. But he’s part of something beyond him. And he trusts and hopes that someday, people will return to Mars. It’s his duty and his honor to be a a part of that relentless lurch into the future, to the extent that he can.

Did you read The Martian? What lessons did you learn from it?

~

Subscribe to my email newsletter. Twice-monthly dispatches about what’s inspiring me and/or kicking my butt. Usually both.