I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns. – Maya Angelou
Too often, I think: I know this. I’ve got this. I’ve done this. Too often, I think: I’ll never do that. I’m not smart enough. I’m not creative enough. Too often I see death as much closer than birth. Too often I dwell in my limitations.
And then in mid-May I walked into a correction facility in Southern Oregon and talked with young women who seem full of sass and spunk. One girl told me about writing for a homeless newspaper and another 16-year old announced, “I’ve written a bunch of books [gesturing to an invisible stack]. How do I publish them?” I met a girl with a hippie name and a hippie sensibility — let’s call her Juniper. As I picked up, she swept the paper scraps from the floor that had been created during the personal manifesto collage exercise. Hers had a great aesthetic, an awareness of color and form, and was anchored by an image of Winnie the Pooh. Another girl developed this manifesto: “I’m going to be an AIDS nurse and a foster mother.” Both humbled me – to maintain beauty and hope in a world so confined is an amazing skill.
I’ve thought about Juniper every day since, wondering what she possibly did to be locked up, her childhood on the other side of the barbed wire fence, no one there to hold her or believe in her. I’ve said a short prayer for her each day, hoping that she can not only leave the corrections system, but nurture herself well beyond it.
She was on my my mind a week ago when I witnessed my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Poised and graceful, Bella stood in front of the room of nearly 100 family and friends and for two hours led the service. She and the rabbi joked and made each other laugh. It was delightful to watch a 13-year old girl and a 60+ year old man (I don’t want to presume the rabbi’s age!) crack each other up, to be teacher and student but also to operate from a place of friendship. How amazing to have a daughter who could give speeches and publicly tell her brother how much she appreciates and loves him. Who thanked her swim coach and hugged her parents again and again. How I wish Juniper could have been there and soaked up even a sliver of that love and confidence.
When I was 13, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. By high school, I was less sure. At the end of college, all I knew was that I was pretty good at reading books and writing papers. I cranked out 60 of them in one semester alone. I signed up for graduate school largely because it was the only path I could imagine. I left my PhD program midway after looking around a lecture one day and confusing some of my fellow students with some of the faculty; they all looked essentially the same in their tweed pants and dark turtlenecks. It felt too insular. And though I escaped a life that would not have served my imagination, would not have taken me to Kripalu or into the world of Dan Eldon, that escape did leave me with one wound: an outsized sense of failure. I had not been smart enough to finish the PhD, I told myself; I lacked persistence. It’s a story I’ve acknowledged as just that – fiction. Yet it’s stuck with me.
For the last days of this crazy, packed month, I helped facilitate a seminar for faculty members who were thinking about how social entrepreneurship could inform higher education (and vice versa). It was a great group of curious people. What I saw as they grappled with a new topic in a place wholly outside their usual locale –downtown Vegas — is that we all possess different kinds of smarts. And though I cannot quote Derrida, I know when people need some quiet. I intuit shifts in energy. I know a little about a lot of things that can be applied here and there to help move along someone’s understanding. I can mindfully connect dots. It’s a knowledge gained through mothering and writing, yoga and a myriad of jobs. And I can appreciate these attributes – while pushing them further – via this kind of work. This prison workshop-meets-Vegas-faculty-seminar-interspersed-with-mother-of-the-bat-mitzvah. The kind of work that you can only find if you keep going out and asking for more and different things to be put on your plate.
I haven’t written here for a few weeks and this entry feels awkward and not at all pretty. But I want to get it down, to practice and think out loud. One thing we didn’t get to during the session in Vegas was about manifestos. I’d done a simple manifesto creation exercise with the girls out in Oregon, using Dan Eldon’s manifesto as a starting place, but I was eager to go through someone else’s exercise. I wanted to dive deep. It seems a good time in my life for this kind of clarifying work; I turn 48 next week and have already spent the last year preparing myself for 50. Chewing now on a possible manifesto – or perhaps a possible job description for the next stage – I can imagine posting this on a sign in my front yard: Seeking curious and joyful collaboration, purposeful work, journeys big and small, comrades-in-arms, introspection and noisy celebration, opportunities to be heard and to listen. Life, if you have more of this, bring it on!