On Being (A Little Bit) Courageous

Our eleven-year-old son still likes being read to at bedtime. Right now he and I are making our way through The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. I’m a die-hard fan of the movies—various scenes have made it into countless sermons and writings over the years—but I've never made it through the books. Last time I tried, I got mired somewhere in The Two Towers. We’ll see how it goes this time.

We’re still pretty early in the story. Frodo has barely made it out of the Shire on his epic quest when he encounters a group of elves, including Gildor Inglorion, a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. Frodo and Gildor spend the night discussing the journey ahead and the perils that are sure to come. Gildor says:

I do not think the road will prove too hard for your courage.

Such a beautiful statement! On one level, it’s a flowery way of saying, “You have what you need.” (I wonder how to say “You’ve got this!” in an Elvish language?)

But I’m also thinking about it from the other direction: 

If the road you’re looking at seems way beyond your courage, maybe it’s a sign that it’s not your road. 

I don’t think I’m being overly partisan when I say that we’re living through a very challenging age. Climate change looms largest in terms of high-stakes emergency, but I can easily think of a dozen runners-up to it. Everything feels urgent to me right now, and way beyond my capacities. 

As I continue to ponder my trip to Israel/Palestine, I keep thinking about the people I met doing justice and peace-building work. Like Suhad Jabi Masri, the Muslim woman whose organization serves several hundred children living in Balata refugee camp, a space designed for 7,000 in which 30,000 currently reside. Or Mitri Raheb, the Lutheran pastor who went from small-church parson to running a college that trains artists and leaders under occupation. Or Gerard Horton, the former Australian lawyer who now tracks and advocates for the rights of Palestinian children being detained by the Israeli military. (Read also about the Nassar family, whom I highlighted a few weeks ago.)

I’ll be honest: I felt pretty small, even cowardly, in the presence of these people. My faith—my courage—feels so paltry next to their example. They would probably hate this, for at least two reasons. First, because I suspect they don’t see themselves as heroes. (As Dorothy Day is quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”) But second, the people we met have been at this for years, if not decades. They didn’t start out with fully-funded NGOs and daring, well-developed vision statements. They simply saw a need, and a road toward meeting that need in ways that were probably small and modest at the time, but that flourished once the journey got under way. Once their capacity for courage grew.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer has a podcast with singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer called The Growing Edge. I was struck by this great image from Parker a few months ago:

“They say, ‘Don’t run ahead of your breath,’ or ‘Don't get ahead of your skis.’ My growing edge is full of potential. But if I try to go beyond it before I’ve grown there, before I’m ready to be there, I’m gonna start doing some damage to myself or other people, because I don’t belong there yet.” 

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The problems we face seem so large, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I suspect many of us would benefit from “right-sizing” our work: to find those tasks that scare us just enough to energize us, but don’t scare us so much that we never get started. To find the roads that are just right for our level of courage.

I laugh every time I pass this sign on one of the trails where I run. It’s so… sensible. So antithetical to the Lean In, Just Do It mentality that permeates our culture. But it’s wise. As André De Shields said in his acceptance speech at the Tonys this week, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”

This may sound like a bummer of a post. Be courageous… but not too much! Don’t dream big, dream small! But I think Gildor is on to something. The road Frodo took was incredibly hard, but it turned out not to be beyond his courage… partly because he started simply and slowly. Right now, he’s just trying to get to Bucklebury. From there, who knows?

What might your courageous road look like?

Ten for Tuesday

A compendium of stuff that’s been interesting/inspiring/challenging lately:

DO LESS STUFF

The Case for Doing Nothing

The Atlanta Nap Ministry preaches the liberating power of rest

I’m working on both of these things! Or should I say… I’m playing with them.

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BEAUTIFUL THINGS

Music Therapy In NICUs Can Help Babies Get Home Sooner

My eldest is considering a music therapy major in college. This story made us happy.

'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

Not a big Petty fan, but I have a new appreciation for this song after reading this article.

Garbage collectors open library with abandoned books

#Improv!

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HARD STUFF

Angry? Depressed? You Could Be Grieving Over World Events

Be gentle with yourself.

Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got “Greedy.”

How America’s obsession with long hours has widened the gender gap.

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THINGS THAT MAKE YOU THINK

Congratulations on Your Opinion

On opinions v. reactions. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can’t stop thinking about this article. I’m connecting it with Brene Brown’s work on courage and being in the arena, and how we all need to figure out whose opinions (reactions?) should matter to us.

Why No One Cares about Your Travels

Or, one of the reasons I haven’t posted much about my trip to Israel/Palestine. Do you agree with this article? I kinda do. I like seeing pics of places I might go, or places I’ve been. Otherwise it’s hard to find a foothold.

Borough mayor is knitting to prove men speak too much at meetings

A scarf that changes color depending on who’s talking. If you don’t knit but would like to be mindful of gender dynamics in meetings, here’s an easy webpage to use.

We Refuse to Be Enemies

I returned yesterday from a week-long pilgrimage throughout Israel and the West Bank, sponsored by NEXT Church. It was an unforgettable experience. We visited a number of the traditional Christian holy sites, of course, but more significantly, we got to know people living in the region, including a number of folks working for NGOs that focus on peace and justice work. We visited places as varied as Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial), the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, Hebron, and the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Shiloh, including a Q&A with an Israeli settler that was, in a word, jaw-dropping.

I’m only beginning to get my mind around the trip and what it all means. It’s certainly too soon to even think about writing coherently about it. In the meantime, I will share a little bit about Tent of Nations, an initiative of the Nassar family—Palestinian Christians who have lived on their land for more than 100 years (and have the papers to document it). They are surrounded by Israeli settlements and have been pressured and harassed to leave their land so the settlements can expand. Roads have been blocked to limit access to the property. A few years ago, some 250 of the family’s trees were cut down.

In response, the Nassar farm has become an education center and camp as much as a working farm, teaching non-violent resistance and seeking to model a different way of engagement with one’s neighbors. Their motto is emblazoned on a rock near the entrance:

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We refuse to be enemies.

As they wrote recently in an Easter message:

We are people of the resurrection, we are people of hope, we are people of light. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but our call will remain to change hearts even in times when we feel that we are still in the dark tomb.

Here’s a short video about Tent of Nations featuring Daoud Nassar.

Incredible people. Difficult challenges. Beautiful region.

Ten for Tuesday

Away we go!

This Guy Noticed Jigsaw Puzzle Companies Use The Same Patterns, So He Made Some Mashups

I remember having some Sesame Street puzzles as a child and doing the same thing! Fun. My favorite, the church carnival:

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The Rewatchables

I am obsessed with this podcast, in which the panel discusses a rewatchable movie and lovingly dissects it. The Field of Dreams episode made me cry a few times…

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Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain

Working on it. So glad Apple has introduced Sreen Time—it has helped me rein in the dumb-dumb time I was spending on my phone.

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The Bible does not condemn “homosexuality.” Seriously, it doesn’t.

It doesn’t.

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As I worship on Easter, I'll wrestle with the same question: How do I keep believing this?

How indeed? Great reflection (and hey, Easter is over but we’re still in Eastertide…)

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Intuition is the Highest Form of Intelligence

“If all you do is sit in a chair and trust your intuition, you are not exercising much intelligence. But if you take a deep dive into a subject and study numerous possibilities, you are exercising intelligence when your gut instinct tells you what is - and isn't - important.” Good stuff in a complex world.

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The Uninhabitable Earth

UGH this was a tough read.

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The War Photo No One Would Publish

When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.

Gut-dropping image. War is hell.

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Why We Spend Our Brief Lives Indoors, Alone, and Typing: Or, how I justify teaching my students the dying art of writing

I hope writing isn’t dying, but… yes.

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You’re not getting enough sleep—and it’s killing you

This is something I’m really working on… and it’s So Hard. I can’t wait to watch this TED talk!

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Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company

A wonderful article about Yes-And in business.

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What are you reading lately?

The Freedom of 50: Ultramarathon Thoughts

In 115 days, I’ll be running my first 50-mile race, the Marquette (Michigan) Trail 50. 

It’s an 11-mile loop, followed by a 20ish-mile loop run counterclockwise, then clockwise. The race features beautiful views of Lake Superior, which you can see from one of the four mountains you climb… twice.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain

Just typing that makes me want to lie down.

I’m also really, really excited about it.

I signed up for Marquette on the suggestion of a friend during a very stressful time in my life, when all I could see was the situation I was mired in. Running 50 miles seemed impossible to me—it kinda still does—but it felt important to hit that Registration button. It felt like an act of hope that life would not always be consumed by the crisis at hand. And even if things were still unspooling in that part of my life, signing up was a kind of stubborn defiance: as important as that situation was, and is, I refuse to let it consume my entire life. I need something that is just for me. Many people say not to make any major life decisions when you’re in the midst of extreme stress or grief. For me, the grief was a major factor in the decision. Have you read Mary Oliver’s The Journey? There was this wild sense that in signing up for this race, I was saving the only life I could save.

After I committed to Marquette, I realized I should probably do a shorter ultramarathon before tackling a 50 miler… and yes, I get the humor in the phrase “shorter ultramarathon.” So this Saturday, Lord willin’ and the Potomac don’t rise, I’ll be running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K here in DC. 

The Potomac Heritage Trail

The Potomac Heritage Trail

That K makes a big difference. I mean, 50K is no stroll on the beach, but it’s 31 miles, not 50. Once you’ve run 26.2 a few times, you can kiiiiiinda get your mind around running 5 more. Still, these two races are the first things I’ve signed up for that I can honestly see myself not finishing for some reason or another. I could get injured. I could hit the wall. I could have tummy troubles, or botch my hydration. I could simply go too slow and not make the time cutoffs—ultramarathons have strict cutoffs along the way, and they will pull people from the course who aren’t keeping the minimum pace. This is probably the biggest risk for me. (A Boston qualifier I ain’t.) I have many friends, good runners all, who’ve had these things happen.

To all of that I say, “Bring it on.” There’s something invigorating about striving for something that’s potentially out of reach. 

People often say about marathons, “Respect the distance.” You can train and prepare, but the marathon will do what it does and you are not in control. This is even truer at ultra distancs, and especially on trails rather than roads.

I need the reminder that you can get ready and trained up and do your best, and what happens next is not entirely up to you. And if things go haywire, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did it wrong or weren’t good enough. It’s just the way life works sometimes.

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You may know the number 50 as the number of jubilee in scripture, the time every fifty years when debts are cancelled and enslaved people set free. I got a bit obsessed with this numerology—50K, 50 miles—to the point that I made Freedom my word for 2019.

On one level, it seems contradictory. Where is the freedom in getting up early, sacrificing leisure time, running up to 50 miles in a week? Isn’t there freedom in letting go, doing less? True. This is a major time commitment, not just for me, but for my family. The training has been hard, harder than any other training I’ve done. I’ve fallen multiple times. I’ve stumbled on roots. I’ve gotten muddy and (temporarily) lost. I got bitten by a dog on the very route I’ll be running in a few days. I rolled my ankle a week ago. 

But it’s also beautiful out there. There is freedom on the trails. You have to stay loose and flexible, yet focused at the same time. 

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When you’re running, you can’t be managing the family calendar, or finding someone’s lost sunglasses, or emptying the dishwasher, or working. You can only do one thing: relentless forward progress, fueled by one’s breath, mile after mile. There is freedom in that—freedom from multitasking, or performing; freedom from doing anything other than an activity that brings mental and physical well-being to so many of us. 

By saying yes to this, I’m surrendering to a mystery that’s beyond me. And while the falls and the bites and the bad stuff happened to me, none of it defeated me.

I’m reading one of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels (a current favorite) and ran across this quote:

“When a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

Yes. This is a pilgrimage.  

Maybe the ultimate freedom isn’t in what we pick up along the way. It’s in learning what we can do without. I have this feeling, this hope, that that freedom is waiting for me out on the trail this weekend.

Saying Yes-And... But Not Yet

Last Monday, I was finishing up a trail run along the Potomac River when I came upon a man with two dogs on leashes, sprawled across the trail. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I paused my music, approached slowly, and asked if he was OK. He said, “Yes, I’m trying to get a photo.” Then I saw his phone and understood the weird angle—he was taking a closeup. And yes, the blue bells are lovely right now. 

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I was so focused on the man, I didn’t even register that the smaller dog was yapping at me. As I ran around them, it had enough slack in the leash to leap up and bite me on the leg through my capris. 

It didn’t hurt much, so I knew it wasn’t a bad bite, but it did startle and infuriate me. I stopped briefly and said to the owner, “Your dog bit me!” 

The man, still prone, responded, “Oh.” 

It may have been followed by a “Sorry,” but it was the kind of sorry you’d say when brushing by someone in a crowded hallway. And again, I may have supplied the apology in my imagination, because what kind of person doesn’t even say Sorry?

I was so shocked by the bite, and the man’s non-reaction, that I just kept going. I also had a sense that a man who left it at “Oh,” and perhaps “Sorry,” wasn’t a man that a woman wanted to confront on a deserted part of the trail. (This is something many men won’t get, and almost 100% of women will. No, we’re not paranoid.) 

A little further down the trail, I inspected the bite. The pants weren’t even torn, but the bite broke the skin. Dammit. 

So I went back to see if I could find Oh And Perhaps Sorry Man and find out if the animal had had its rabies vaccine. I’ve been bitten before, lucky me, so I know the drill. I was in high school, riding my bike home from a babysitting job. A dog charged me from behind its house, tearing the skin at my ankle. Thankfully I knew which house it was, and Animal Control did its thing. No problem.

Unfortunately, when I doubled back, Oh Perhaps Sorry Man had left the premises. Of course he did.

It probably would have been fine to leave it alone. Rabies in dogs is exceedingly rare. But as a friend put it, it’s 100% fatal and 100% preventable. I’ve never been a gambling woman, and my life has enough uncertainty as it is. 

So as of this morning, I’m one week into a two-week course of post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies. 

[Obligatory questions answered: the first treatment involves several needles, but there are no shots in the abdomen, unless that’s where you got bitten. The follow-up shots are singles in the arm, and are no worse than a flu shot. The treatment is expensive, even with insurance. And yes, I could have taken up to 10 days to try and identify the dog and its owner, and animal control can help with that, before starting treatment. But it’s not like I ran past a particular house, or even a small neighborhood park. Riverbend Park is a big place. There was very little chance we’d find this guy.]

I was unpacking all of this to a mentor/friend of mine a few days ago. I laughed a little as I told the story, admitted how hard it had been, but also reflected on some deeper stuff as I moved forward with it. Churn and learn. Grist for the mill. The moral of the story. Three points and a poem.

She said, “Yeah… It’s good to reflect and learn and all that, but can we just pause for a minute and sit with the fact that you were assaulted by a dog on the trail, and that now you have to go through this inconvenient and traumatic treatment for it?” 

Oh. Yeah. That.

She’s right, of course. 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of God, Improv, and the Art of Living, it’s been so fun and gratifying to share that work with groups, and to hear from readers how it’s impacted them. People get the power of Yes-And. It’s how we’re wired—to find the hope and the redemption, to write the next chapter, even mid the most dire of circumstances.

As I write this, Notre Dame Cathedral is still smoldering, and the damage being calculated, as if such a thing could be quantified. Is rebuilding even possible? So much has been lost; I don’t know. 

But I do know this. People sang hymns on their knees as Our Lady burned. The people of God will continue to worship; if services were planned there this weekend, those prayers and readings and songs will be shared in other places instead. To say nothing of the members of African-American churches in Louisiana, whose worship spaces were also consumed this week, albeit in the fires of hate and white supremacy. Will those saints sing praise to the resurrection, and life out of death, and love being the last word, this Sunday on Easter? Hell yes they will, because that’s what we do

All that being said, I always try to offer this caveat to people: Yes-And on stage, in comedy improv, usually comes very fast and furious. But in life, it unfolds more slowly, deliberately, with discernment. And it’s OK to take your time getting to the And—and maybe even awhile accepting the Yes.
It’s OK to sit with the suck for a while. 
It’s OK to sleep more than you normally would. 
It’s OK to eat the comforting stuff you normally dole out thoughtfully in normal times, because taking care of yourself is always important, but taking care means different things at different moments. 
It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself for a while. 
And it’s OK to lament. It’s OK to sing hymns on your knees, for a long time perhaps, before taking up the cries of “we will rebuild.”  

Yes-And is powerful, but I try to remember to offer that caveat to others… and sometimes I need others to offer it to me. Thank you, M. Message received. 

So… yeah. Some day it’ll make a great Moth story or book chapter or article or something. Some day. Or not. But right now… I’m sad. And mad. It’s been an exhausting week. 

I’ll Yes-And it, but not yet. And that’s OK.

Ten for Tuesday

Lots of links to clear out today.

But first, a bonus: Have you checked out my Living Improv conversations on YouTube lately? Two new short videos every two weeks! The latest deal with improvising through illness, and listening for what people really want and need, rather than what you think they do. Watch ‘em! Use the discussion questions with friends! Etc.!

And away we go!

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1. I had an improv teacher who would send a weekly email, prefaced by a link to a song with the note, “Please listen to the following as you read to enhance your email experience.” In that spirit, here’s New Order’s “Blue Monday” played on 1930s instruments. *chef’s kiss*

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2. Speaking of improv, I love how empowering it can be. Read about this recent administrative mistake that turned into a gift, courtesy of Washington Improv Theater. Kudos to that courageous improv student!

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3-4. We have a high school sophomore, which means we’re just at the beginning of the college conversation. These two Reddit threads, written by young people in college, have been very instructive.

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5. On the topic of young people, the Washington Post reports on a Maryland school in which Teen boys rated their female classmates based on looks, and the girls fought back… In a really great, empowering way, it should be said.

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6-7. In the What Really Matters category, these two are deep reads but worth it: The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore (Jenny Anderson, Quartz) and Three Magical Phrases to Comfort a Dying Person (Jenny Harrington, Medium).

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8-9. How about a few badass ladies? This article made the rounds recently, about two sisters who would seduce Nazis in bars and lure them to the woods where they would summarily execute them. I’m not a fan of vigilante justice, but I make an exception for bona fide Nazis.

And I love this amazing photo of two Scottish women, rock climbing in the 1900s in blouses and ankle-length skirts:

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10. And finally, a linguist who argues why we all need to start using y’all. Way ahead of ya, dude!

Onward.