Ambition

29 01 2015

I’ve been thinking a while about the concept of ambition.  Like most children from a privileged upbringing, I was told to dream big, to work hard, to achieve success…to be ambitious.  These were and are good things.  I was fortunately born with the type of intelligence that does well in standardized testing, and (after a stint in a program for gifted children) the kind that also fit in well with the educational style of the 1960s and 70s.  I did well.  I was rewarded for it.  I achieved good grades in high school, got into the college I wanted to attend, and was paid to go to graduate school.

All along was the idea that wherever you are, you need to push to be in a better place.  Where you are is good?  The next place could be better, with more money, more power, more, more, more.  Your relationship seems pretty great?  Are you sure?  It could be better – more sexy, more intimate, more, more, more.  Your child is well-adjusted?  Are you sure he has enough to do? Is her environment rich enough?  Have you done everything you can to encourage the growth of those early neurons?  Don’t you think you could be doing more?

I did well.  I was successful.  Decent job, good marriage, a demanding-but-otherwise-awesome son.  I made myself crazy listening to the voices telling me that none of those things were enough.  I pulled free of some of it – for instance, the Baby Weight Gaining competition that happens when you have a baby close in age to another woman’s.  “Oh, your baby gained a pound in the week after birth?  That’s great… my baby gained TEN.”  Followed by more information than you want to hear about the richness of your competitor’s breast milk, along with a self-congratulatory breast pat.  That one has “Get out while you can” stamped all over it, and I did.  Fast.

Other things I didn’t let go of, so much as have them pulled away.  My decent marriage ended with my husband’s death.  Which of course, after a period of grief, starts the push cycle again.  Are you seeing anyone? Have you been dating?  Are there any “good prospects”?

Then I was laid off from my decent job.

A lot of things came to a screeching halt right there.  The first thing I noticed, when the shock wore off, was a sense of relief.  I took some time to simply breathe, and rest, and consider what had happened.  A little while later I got a contract position… and there it was again: Will this turn into a full-time position?  You really want that, right?  Because that would be better.  You should want more than contracting.

The breathing and resting paid off.  I wasn’t in a full-time position, and realized that I didn’t actually want to be in that position full-time, because hello, corporate crazy.  My time was my own.  I could set that job down and walk away.  Sure, they could let me go at any time – and I could also let them go at any time.  It felt balanced in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  I finished that contract and moved into another one – for less money. (Shouldn’t you be making more?  You used to make a lot more than that.) Less money was more than balanced by working with people that I knew and loved.

I get it, truly.  There’s a time in your life when you are trying to build and achieve.  You’re making a family, or building a career, or studying deeply for a long time, or planning for retirement.  But I’ve come to think that we should always question what it is we are after.  Is it just more?  The bigger house, the fancy job title, the luxury car, all the activities for your children… what are they for?  It’s like we’ve misunderstood the “dream big” part of what our parents tried to teach us.

What do you actually dream of?  Do you dream of that next big goal?  Or do you dream of a time when it’s behind you, when you can stop pushing so hard to get to it?  We can make that time happen.  There should be a point where we can look at our lives and say, these things are good.  To stop adding the word “but” to every single beautiful thing we say about our lives.  Instead: I love my husband.  I have an amazing child.  I like my job.  My house is comfortable.  My life is good.

It is nearly un-American to say ambition isn’t always good.  It’s the American way – strive, be ambitious, succeed.  Never be satisfied, never be content with where you are, never rest.  I am not entirely done with that – I do still have a mortgage to pay for – but my ambition these days is for inner peace.  To not worry about whether I’m achieving enough, but to love what I’ve already achieved.

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Unexpected mindfulness

2 09 2014

I had a couple of lengthy drives this weekend.  Nothing that required overnight stays anywhere – just drives of over an hour each way, which for me is a different mindset than hopping in the car to run errands.  But really all my driving has become more mindful recently, and I’m grateful for that even though it was entirely unexpected.

A few months ago I traded in my much-loved SUV for a more practical but (in my mind) much less cool Prius.  I adored my SUV.  She drove through any weather, on any surface, and got me where I needed to go without fail; the only time she didn’t start in nine years was when a door didn’t get closed, and the dome light drained the aging battery.  She did, however, use a ton of gas.  Mileage for the kind of driving I did – mostly to and from work – hovered right around 20 mpg, sometimes a little less.  And she was getting to the age where I knew that repairs were going to start costing more.  So I traded her in.  I cried over letting her go and was grateful that I couldn’t see her when I drove my new Prius out of the lot.

There are some philosophical changes I had to make in changing from the enthusiastic V-6 of the SUV to the smooth and quiet hybrid.  The biggest one was that I was no longer going to beat anyone away from a stoplight.  I didn’t realize – until I couldn’t do it any more – how much energy I had spent in maneuvering into positions where I could “get ahead” of traffic clumps.  I was constantly calculating in my head which lane was moving faster, how I could be behind the fewest cars at a stoplight so that I could be faster getting through.

Drive a hybrid and those decisions are largely meaningless – yes, you can still punch the engine and get a surprising kick of acceleration out of it, but that takes a lot of fuel, and efficiency was one big reason I wanted this technology in the first place.  So driving in a fuel efficient way meant breaking those old habits.  It meant learning to accelerate smoothly and evenly while other cars tore away from the lights.  It meant braking smoothly and evenly to capture that braking energy – while other cars zipped into the space in front of me to get that coveted spot as far up as possible at a stoplight.

And oh my, cars got ahead of me.  They got away from lights faster, they pulled ahead of me, and by my previous V-6 standards they were winning while I was losing… and I stopped caring.  Driving a Prius took away my ability to compete on the road, and I hadn’t even realized that I had been treating driving that way.  And I certainly had no idea of the mental ravages of going through this competition every time I got behind the wheel.

I’ve been driving Lily for almost six months now.  There are days when the driving is rough because holy cow, do the competitive drivers bring it some days, and it’s all I can do to stay out of their way.  But mostly?  I have found a much more peaceful means of getting around.  I’m not in the competition any more, and suddenly the drives are… nice.  Lovely, in fact.  I see the things around me – fog hovering over a field in the early morning, deer lingering in the dawn, sunsets on a stormy day.  I decide what music to listen to while I’m driving and I actually hear it.  And nearly every time, I get to my destination and think, that was a lovely drive.

I know.  I could have been driving mindfully this whole time.  And technology isn’t the answer to all our life problems.  But I wasn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been strongly pushed in that direction by new (to me) technology.  That wasn’t why I decided to buy a hybrid; I was entirely motivated by economics when I made the decision.  The benefits turned out to be much greater than I expected.





Gratitude

22 05 2013

I started off with a different title. My thought this morning was, that’s just about enough of that attitude, young lady – along with all the times as a child when I was informed by my mother that I had fifteen minutes to go into my room and come back out with a smile on my face. Which led to the words “attitude of gratitude,” and as much as I appreciate the idea, it has the whole evangelical Up With People vibe, and just…no.

But gratitude itself? Yes.

I’ve been torturing those who love me for the last three weeks. Functioning normally at work, and nobody there would know that there’s anything going on. But home, chorus, relationships – they’ve all had to deal with Katherine During May. I don’t even want to deal with Katherine During May. Especially this May. How many times I have burst into tears in the last few weeks because I’m coping with challenges A through E, but then then a totally piddly problem F comes up and I am utterly undone. I mean, really. It makes perfect sense from in here, but I think those who love me have had to put up with an irrational and unpredictable storm system – lightning strikes and cloudbursts that appear to happen pretty much at random.

That’s just about enough of that.

The focus needs to move – WILL move – from inside my head to the rest of the world. Making lists of things you’re grateful for can seem contrived. Nonetheless, the tool works. Here’s what I’ve seen, and yet somehow didn’t see, because my vision was so inwardly directed:

• A tomato plant that started putting out flowers. I put plants in the first weekend in May in a fit of probably-foolish optimism. The cool spring this year has kept the plants from bounding out of the earth with their usual enthusiasm, but I have one plant that isn’t going to let silly things like dramatically below-normal temperatures slow IT down. It’s only about eight inches tall. But it has flowers.

• The pepper plant next to it, all of six inches tall, has apparently been inspired to do the same thing. There’s something very brave about a plant that small thinking that it’s ready to start bearing fruit.

• I put a birdbath in the garden in back – a pretty glass one, and I didn’t spent a lot of time thinking about placement because garden design? Not really a strong point. I found what looked like a decent empty spot and put it there. I noticed yesterday that in the afternoon, a luminous and shimmering reflection from the birdbath shows up on my kitchen ceiling.

• A couple of days ago I got a SCOBY from a friend in Washington. I’ve never met this friend. We found each other on a now-defunct social networking site, and then when that went under, we found each other again on Facebook. She is earthy, sensual, and generous – and she sent me a SCOBY. So last night I started my first batch of kombucha. In a flower pot, because the largest glass vessel I have is a vase that holds a little over three quarts. Is it weird to ferment in a flower pot?

• My songbird feeder – the one with the black sunflower seeds that squirrels theoretically don’t like – empties in a matter of a couple of days. I’ve had the chance to watch what happens. The birds decide which of the identical seeds looks tastiest, and the others fall to the ground. Where the squirrels eat them. And what the squirrels don’t find, the chipmunks do. Sitting on my patio, I’ve watched several of them run past me, cheeks so packed that their heads are the size of the rest of their bodies. It’s possible this should irritate me. Instead, it tells me that A, I need a different feeder design, and B, squirrels and chipmunks are flexible and inventive. I have to admire those qualities.

• The world is still here. In spite of me curling into an emotional ball and doing the equivalent of la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you, the world kept going and welcomed me back. I’m grateful to be in it.





Easter

2 04 2013

If you see Jesus’ death as part of the divine plan, as part of the will of God, that suggests that God required the suffering of this immeasurably great man. It is never the will of God that an innocent person be crucified, and to suggest that is to suggest something horrible about God.

If, on the other hand, we understand the language of Jesus’s being the sacrifice for sin as a post-Easter interpretation of his death that emerges within the early Christian community, we can then see that, metaphorically, it’s a proclamation of radical grace. The connection is this: If Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice for sin, understood metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God’s already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.

—Dr. Marcus Borg

I spent most of my life in what I thought was a mainline Protestant denomination.  The church was nominally part of the Presbyterian Church – USA, which overall wasn’t nearly as restrictive as, say, Southern Baptists.  We could drink, we could dance, we could play cards.  Over time I got a sense that my congregation was on the rightish edge of PC-USA, but I figured there was enough theological wiggle room to make it work.

I’ve written before about the crisis that finally forced me out of that church, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here.  The pain of that parting was intense and lasting, and it has kept me out of organized religion for the last year.  But it has also freed me to find my own way to God, to reinterpret  what the church told me for years.  And it has given me the freedom to reject completely the theology of guilt and fear that I accepted as a given for most of my life.

For much my life I accepted the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the idea that man was so evil, and God so unbendingly “just” that someone, somewhere, was gonna get it for all that sin.  It was presented as almost out of God’s hands, that the biblical (and therefore godly) definition of justice meant that someone had to pay.  And because mankind was so irredeemably rotten, Jesus was the sacrifice, the utterly innocent atonement for all our sin.  As a child, it made sense; as an adult and more importantly, a parent, it fell apart.  I couldn’t (and still can’t) fathom the idea that someone completely undeserving of the fate was pretty much created and born just so God could get His vengeance on.

That doctrine leads to fathomless guilt – “Jesus SUFFERED and DIED for YOUR SINS!!!!”  I heard again and again that I had to rely on grace, because my own sin was such an integral part of me that I could never, ever be good enough – but that didn’t let me out of the obligation to work harder, strive more for holiness, even as all the effort was utterly futile.  The same people supposedly proclaiming the grace of God were handing out a list of rules for how to be more godly, and at the same time telling me that nothing I could do would ever get me there.  None of it would ever be good enough.  Grace was necessary, but not sufficient, and it came filled with hooks.

Last year, in one of the few times that I attended a service post-crisis, the minister preached on grace.  But what she offered was real grace, true good news – that Christ’s act in going willingly to the cross was enough, sufficient for all of humanity, and that grace flows in abundance for all of us.  Grace washes over us like a river – all of us, whether we reach out for it or not, whether we profess belief in Jesus or not… grace is simply there, as God’s overwhelming love for the creation and all the lives in it.

And I realized, after five decades as a Christian, that I had never really heard the good news.

I cried through that sermon.  My eyes fill again when I think of it… remembering how my heart rose up and finally said yes, this is truth.  Saying that God is love is not some remnant of the 1970s Jesus movement, but instead a powerful statement of absolute truth.  God so loves humanity that God became incarnate – actually put on flesh and blood, and signed on for several decades of sweat and smell and desire and frustration, just to understand our existence fully.  That’s how enchanting we are to our creator, how much love we’re bathed in.  And that isn’t a God who creates a perfect sacrifice just so He has someone worthy of smiting.

So, God is no distant deity in some pure heaven far away. God is with us on earth in our horror, our terror, our violence, and our suffering. God refuses to add to the evil and violence, but instead responds with vulnerable, compassionate love. That’s how God wins. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression, and vulnerability overcomes power. Jesus invites us to put our trust in God, even in the face of horror, oppression, cruelty and death. God is with us. God feels and suffers deeply with us. And, what God does best is to bring life out of death.

—Lowell Grisham

The Creator loves you.  Infinitely.  Freely.  And what you are, right here and right now, is enough.  Because when Jesus whispered “It is finished”… he meant it.





One moment in time

8 11 2012

I ran into a question the other day about when I first realized I was a feminist.  And at the time I thought, gee, I’ve always been a feminist.  Then I started thinking about it.  I was raised in a very traditional 1960s home, with a working father and a mother who stayed home.  It was the early years of the space program – before landing on the moon – and I told my friends that I wanted to be an astronaut.  The little boys in the neighborhood informed me with complete certainty that I could do no such thing, because only men were astronauts.  My examples of accepted womanly professions outside the home were nurse and teacher. 

Things busted open in a big way over the next ten years or so.  I watched my aunts both go to college and get degrees, over the objections of my grandfather; my grandmother worked to send her daughters to school.  My mother spent a couple of difficult years figuring out a role for herself that didn’t use other people (parents, husband, children) to define her.  She came out the other end of it with the determination to do something different, and when I was in high school, she went to work as an industrial welder.  When she decided to change the paradigm, she went HUGE.  And I know, without question, that she is my single strongest feminist influence.  Her work paid for my college and for the survival of our family when my father died my junior year.

I wore a fairly comfortable feminism label in the 1980s.  I wasn’t angry, I had some passing familiarity with some issues, but for the most part I thought that women had fought the battle, and won.   Now we could all get along and talk about bigger things than women’s rights.  I married a good man.  We had a child together.  We got involved in church and community.

And somewhere in there I started noticing things.  I started noticing that there were real differences, not just charming little variations, between what I believed and what my church was teaching.  I saw women with tremendous professional skills jeopardizing their careers and their health trying to balance the impossible requirements of their lives.  And I really saw that there were large swathes of society – example, the successful white men in my life – that were blissfully unaware of what women were dealing with.  They didn’t know.  They didn’t want to know.  They paid lip service to the nobility of mothers, but as far as actually doing something to make women’s lives more livable?  Not so much.

During this time, my husband’s best friend since high school became a very conservative Christian.  After finishing law school, he moved back to our neighborhood, and in 1993 we ended up living a mere two blocks from each other.  The 1990s were the early years of Promise Keepers, a conservative Christian men’s ministry, and the friend was all over it.  When the Promise Keepers decided in 1997 that they were going to Washington DC to pray, the best friend was one of the first to sign up for it.  And he excitedly told us that it was so important for the Promise Keepers to be there praying, as they were going to be opposed by feminists, lesbians, and witches.  My first impulse was to hork my drink straight out my nose… until I realized:  He’s serious.

There’s your crystallizing moment, right there.  After the friend left, my husband and I had a, hmmmm, terse discussion about the nature of the Promise Keepers and what they meant for women like me.  What this friend had just said about me and the things I held true.  “But it’s just a prayer meeting!” said my husband, “Just an expression of faith!”  Then I suggested that if the Promise Keepers really wanted to have a prayer meeting without it being a political statement, perhaps they could hold it in St. Louis.  Or Minneapolis.  Not the nation’s capital. 

Feminism got a lot less comfortable that day.  And also exponentially more meaningful.  It’s been a process of a lifetime  to reach where I am now, and I am far, FAR from done with the work I need to do.