Sugar Cookies at the Pentagon

Flowers floating beneath one of the benches at the Pentagon Memorial.

“Get over being a sugar cookie.” That’s what Admiral William H. McRaven says in his book, Make Your Bed. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL and his simple book of truisms about living rang in my ears this September 11 as I stood in front of the Pentagon staring at the point of impact from Flight 77.

An American flag marking the point of impact on the Pentagon.

Life isn’t fair. In SEAL training you are “called out” for no apparent reason and required to dive into the ocean and then roll on the beach until every inch of your body and uniform is covered in sand. Then, you spend the rest of your day with those annoying grains itching and poking at you. That’s a sugar cookie.

On business trips to Washington I always take the Metro from Reagan International to downtown D.C.  I hear the Pentagon stop announced over the speaker each time, never giving it much thought. I gave it a lot of thought as I rode the train this September 11. And I got off.

Life is short. And it’s not fair. So I stopped.

The date and time of of the plane crash mark the zero line. The first bench is for the 3-year-old that died on the plane.

The Pentagon Memorial is a collection of swooping benches. One for each of the 184 people that died that day. The benches swooping toward the building are for those that died on the plane. The benches swooping away from the building are for those who died in the building. Fresh flowers adorned the seats and floated in the small pools of trickling water beneath each bench.

The fanfare of the morning ceremony was being cleaned up when I arrived. Workers were wheeling away speakers and stage gear. I wandered among the age lines marking the year of birth for each victim. The youngest was 3. The oldest, in her 80s.

A woman approached me and asked if I could help find Hilda Taylor, a sixth grade teacher, and her friend, who had died on the plane that day. I asked her what year Hilda was born and we walked to the appropriate age line to begin our search.

As we sat together on Hilda’s bench, her former teammate dug in her purse and pulled out an article written about Hilda for me to read. She filled in between the lines and told me about the real Hilda…the one with spunk…the immigrant from Sierra Leone who always spoke her mind…the one who loved her students.

As I heard her story unfold for the next 30 minutes, the benches around me all became people–each with a story and a life worth remembering.

All the survivors I saw and met that day had to roll in the unfair sand and move on, just like we all do when tragedy strikes. They have to live with being a sugar cookie, as those annoying grains poke at them again today on September 12…and every other day.

Communing with Goats

I hear the term “communing with nature” a lot. But I never really thought about what it meant until last week when I had a conversation with a mountain goat. My walks and bike rides in nature are more than exercise for me. They always have been. They’re spiritual. But I’m not sure I can say I commune with rocks,  mountains, and trees. I would call that more deep awe and appreciation of the world, as I commune with God.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone or something), especially when the exchange is on a spiritual level.

But last week on the top of Peak 9 in Breckenridge, Colorado, I communed, with nature itself. As I neared the summit, a mountain goat was also ascending. He took his place at the summit and stood his ground.  Though at the top, I was not at the true summit. He stood where I needed to be to finish my goal. About 12 ft from me, we stared at each other along the ridge. He began moving toward me. I put my head down, acknowledging it was his mountain and stepped to the side of the ridge, offering him a path to walk by me. As if he knew my intention, he walked right by and stood at the other end of the ridge, waiting for me to take my turn at the top.

My new friend “Bucky” standing at the summit of Peak 9.

After a couple pictures and a look around, he looked at me again and made it clear it was time to switch places and time for me to leave.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife. Studied them. Watched them. But never talked to them. Never had a friendly conversation and a civil exchange of intentions.

My new friend waits on the other side of the ridge while I take my summit photos and claim my prize.

In those moments I remembered this wasn’t my first experience with goats and high places.  I was reminded of my trip to Greece many years ago, where my journey led me to the highest heights in Crete. While backpacking, I was left dehydrated and tired one night only to awaken to the what sounded like fairies singing. The fairies were actually the bells jingling around the necks of  goats, and unbeknownst to me, I was asleep in their pen. The water I drank from their well that morning saved me.

My goat herd alarm clock in Crete (1992) , leading me to water (left). Standing at the summit (right) now hydrated and able to find a way down.

There’s something incredible about being so close to the sky. So close to heaven–heaven on Earth. An Eden, where the lion lies down with the lamb. Or in this case, the human with the goat.

After my time at summits, I sadly must always descend. It is over all too quickly.  The reality of the fall hits me hard…back down the mountain I go. Still communing, but with a harsh reality facing gravity and its less than gentle push forward.

But I’m so grateful for my time at the top. Thanks for the peek at heaven, my fluffy friends!

Embracing Failure

basketball

The hoop of life looks a bit like this after you’ve been shooting for so long. This is a good hoop.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
                                                                                                   –Michael Jordan

Failure has followed me around. And as I wallowed around in it again the last few days, I came across this quote from Michael Jordan and realized it was so true. Really true. When you take the risk to shoot the ball 9000 times, you are sure to miss quite a few. The more games you play the more chances you have of failing…but, on the flip side, the more practice you get, the more you learn, and the more you grow.  Growth is success. Not necessarily a job well done. Not always a swish. Instead, a backstop bouncing miss with five rebounds before you get it in the net.

I’m playing so many games right now that some shots are just going to be air balls. And I have learned this week that I need to give myself a little grace in the missed shot because I can’t stop playing. The stakes are too high and people are too important.

Crepuscular Moments

Sunrise over the Salt Valley in Arches National Park.

One of my very favorite science words is crepuscular. Being a “word person,” I tend to remember when and where I was when I learned a word. While sitting in Mammology class, my college professor described nocturnal animals (yawn), diurnal animals, and then POW…there it was…crepuscular. The word for animals active at dawn and dusk.

Some crepuscular species:

  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Rats
  • Jaguars
  • Ocelots
  • Lemurs
  • Wombats
  • Hyenas
  • Bobcats
  • Quolls
  • Chinchillas
  • Moose
  • Me!

Bonus words: matutinal (only active at dawn) and vespertine (only active at dusk).

Since then I’ve used the word as often as possible. It is fun and surprising to say.  And over the years I’ve found it is even more fun and surprising to be crepuscular.

My soul is filled in crepuscular moments. Those quiet moments when you are joined by only a few other crepuscular living things. You need not speak to them. You silently give them a nod as you pass by. Crepuscular moments cast dynamic shadows and fleeting colors making everyday objects exude magic and majesty.

Only a few people saw the sun hit these rocks on Saturday morning. Glad I was one of them.

Our lives are pretty full.  Yet we still have two chances everyday to be crepuscular.  Most of us can’t recall our dawn and dusk moments each day, even though we are often “active” during these times—actively helping kids with homework, actively making dinner, or “actively” sleeping. When we actively seek crepuscular moments it is a rare and beautiful choice. It goes against the norm. It makes life feel less crowded. It gives your soul space. It slows down and extends time. Sharing the sunset with your spouse. Watching the light turn mountains into golden monoliths. Sharing a glance with a white-tailed deer. Seeing the open petals of a Morning Glory. We get two crepuscular opportunities every single day. That’s 730 possible incredible soul moments a year.  Awesome.

Sand Dune Arch is crowded with visitors all day. But at dusk, when people pack themselves into restaurants, you can find yourself sitting alone in the soft sand enjoying the moon glow.

Be Still My Heart

It’s a beautiful morning to be free.

Eastertime has a special place in my heart, but not for the actual holiday of Easter Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I like ham and chocolate eggs as much as the next person, but I find this time an opportunity to carve out moments for quiet reflection in the days and sometimes hours leading to that Easter sunrise.

There’s something big in something small and quiet.

Just a couple of weeks ago we played a game with our youth group at church. Adult leaders dressed as a Roman soldiers and the youth pretended to be Christians and ran around the church trying to escape our capture while they looked for the “secret place of worship.”  It was all in good fun, but when we finally all gathered in the small candlelit back room, we discussed the reality of the need for this type of “secret” worship space for early Christians in Rome. Sadly, it still remains a reality in many places all over the world for Christians as well as for people of other faiths.

Just this week my cousin in Africa sent me a picture via email of a small group of people  sitting on her floor in a circle worshiping and studying together. I’d love to share the picture, but for security reasons I cannot. I’m grateful to live in a country where we are ensured the freedom of religion, but even so, like many others, I have still felt the sting of persecution right here.

When we were playing the game, we asked the youth (in our best authoritative Roman soldier voices), “Are you one of those Christians?” They all denied it to escape…for them…all part of the game.  But their “game day” reaction isn’t all that far from reality. It is difficult to share your faith when it could cost you your life, your job, your working relationships, or your friends.

This Easter I quietly climbed a mesa top in the dark and waited for a small group of people to join me —  strangely reminiscent of another gathering long ago in Galilee– and together we watched the world awaken, welcomed the sun, and declared what I believe to be the only true hope there is for this world.

There is something big in something small and quiet.

May we humbly be the love of God in a world that desperately needs love.

Seeing Thestrals

candle

Seeing something there that wasn’t there before.

As I’ve watched my friends grieve the death of those closest to them over the last several years, and more recently just this week, the idea of seeing Thestrals (Harry Potter-inspired magical creatures) suddenly became a lot more “real” to me.  According to the “wizarding world,” Thestrals (scary-looking flying horses) can only be seen by those who have been touched by death.

So is that a good thing or a bad thing? An honor, a blessing, a badge, or a curse?

Definition of a Thestral, according to J.K. Rowling: Manifesting as black, skeletal, bat-winged horses, but invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death, Thestrals have a somewhat macabre reputation. In centuries past the sight of them was regarded as unlucky; they have been hunted and ill-treated for many years, their true nature (which is kindly and gentle) being widely misunderstood. Thestrals are not marks of ill omen, nor (their spooky appearance notwithstanding) are they in any way threatening to humans, always allowing for the fright that the first sight of them tends to give the observer.

Today, a friend of mine preached a sermon on love where he told about the seasons of loss in his life (past, immediate, and future). Those losses were, are, and will be painful, yes, but they can also be an opportunity…an opportunity to give, recognize, and receive love in a deeper way than ever before. The more pain we experience, just maybe, translates to the more love we have the opportunity to experience as well. Strangely true.

Isn’t that just like a Thestral? The fear we have of pain and loss tends to give the pain a bad reputation–a reputation that it has nothing to offer but something evil or scary. Yet something kind and gentle is hidden beneath that scary exterior. And it isn’t until we experience great pain or loss that we are able to see something we’ve never seen before. When we open our eyes and hearts to it, we just might get the opportunity to deeply understand some of the greatest love of all and, in turn, be that kind of love to the world.

Solomon’s Moon

moon

Solomon: Forevermore this is your moon. Thank you for your story.

As I hailed a taxi at the Indianapolis airport on my way to a conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Solomon, my taxi driver. Though he moved to the United States from war torn Eritrea in 1991, his English was still rather broken.

Looking out of my window I spied a gorgeous orange full moon setting just below the horizon. I squealed with excitement, trying to remember the name of this month’s full moon. I finally remembered it was the Worm Moon and I told Solomon about the Algonquin Indians and why they named it so. He told me that in Tigrinya, the name of this kind of full moon was something that sounded like fortuna…which I translated as fortune (in Greek).

My short, mustached driver spent the better part of fifteen minutes explaining how the moon phases worked, using hand movements where his words failed him. He told me that a full moon, like this one, meant rain is coming. I imagined him growing up in Eritrea with his family and the stories of the moon and its weather patterns passed from generation to generation. (Of course, I looked it up when I got to my hotel and found out that scientists have studied the stories and found that there is actually a shred of truth to this lunar weather predictor.)

After the weather report, I told Solomon about our friends the Bahta family who were refugees from Eritrea back when I was in high school and college. Eritrea, a postage stamp of a country in East Africa, endured a horrible civil war.  I told him about Tigisti Bahta, their daughter whom I tutored in English. Tigisti means patience. And she needed a lot of it having me as an English teacher.Solomon said he had also fled to the United States for the same reason. He told me he started out in Washington D.C. and it was difficult because of the crime there. He said to me, “Black, white…it doesn’t matter. Color doesn’t matter. Crime is crime. Wrong is wrong. And I didn’t like it.” He was extremely grateful to meet his sister in Indianapolis and for the peace he has found here. Solomon means peace.

I’ve learned that Eritreans have a different system of naming from most Western countries. Among Christian Eritreans, children are given two names: a secular name at birth and a Christian name when the child is baptized.

I never learned Solomon’s Eritrean name, but I have decided to give him an honorable one —Werḧi, meaning moon. So together his name would mean peace of the moon.

I woke up the next morning to a precipitating sky. Solomon’s moon was right. And I am better for knowing him…. even if it was only for a 30-minute taxi ride.

I’m Sorry I’m a …?

apology

Hit me with your best shot. I apologize.

I’ve always found it funny that when you defend your faith or beliefs, it is called apologetics. Today, when we think of the word apology, we associate it with an act of sincere regret—something you are sorry for doing and feel bad about.

“I apologize for stepping on your toes.”

“I apologize for hurting your feelings.”

But never, “I apologize for what I believe.” That would be the opposite of what a true apology is.

The word comes from the Greek apologia, a derivative of a word meaning “to speak in one’s defense.” It comes from apo-, “away; off” together with logos, “speech.”

Lately I’ve felt compelled to apologize… but in the Greek sense not the modern sense. I’m not sure why now…maybe because I feel poked a lot…and it hurts. I don’t think people always realize they are poking me and it isn’t always intentional. But lately I’ve stripped away my garments, looked in the mirror, and realized I’m covered in bruises.  As long as I can remember I’ve tried to make my life a quiet, steady apology. But now it’s time for a written one. I don’t have all the answers or by any stretch of the imagination think I know it all or ever will, but I plan to have my pen search the depths of my soul and let the words of my heart heal some wounds.

Apology coming soon.

People with Rabies

rabies

This guy has Rabies.

A homeless guy called me “cool” today. He said and I quote, “Only cool people appreciate the name of my dog.” His dog’s name is Rabies. He knew how much I appreciated the name by my reaction. I LOVE creativity and a bit of dark humor. And this pup is aptly  named.

Just one day after watching A Dog’s Purpose at the movie theater (spoiler alert: bring Kleenex), today I saw another dog with a purpose. A dog named Rabies loving his master. A master who many people treat like he has rabies, though neither of them do.

I love his sign, too. I think it is a sign we all should carry. Everyday.

Because isn’t that what we are…really? Ugly and broke. We are all imperfect. Yes, we may wash our hair and put on clean clothes in the morning, but let’s face it. His sign is our sign, too.

And aren’t we ALL traveling folks? We journey through this world looking for our next opportunity–whether it be a better job, a happiness fix, a loyal friend, or our next meal. We travel. We journey. We wander. And every now and then, if we are wise, we slow down enough to share in the joy of the struggle and break bread with other ugly, broken people along the way. Cool.

Entropy, Feelings, and the Next Chapter In My Quest for Peace

grave

Is this a picture of peace or unrest? I think it is both–the nature of our life on Earth.

I’ve been thinking about peace all week. And as with other synchronicities of life, I happened to also take a personality test on 16personalities.com . It is a Myers-Briggs style test. I scored as an INTJ (introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging) type when I first took the test in the early 90s and in all the years I’ve taken it since. This particular test labeled me again as an INTJ-A, and categorized it as a rare analyst personality type called “The Architect.” If you haven’t taken this particular test, I highly recommend it. Don’t forget to read all the methodology (but of course I would say that, I’m the Architect).

Naturally, it makes sense I continue my quest for peace by none other than good old reliable analysis. It’s what I do.

First, I discovered people often misunderstand what I mean when I say I am not peaceful at Christmastime. It is not spiritual peace I am lacking. I have plenty of that. In fact it is because of my spiritual peace that I am all the more in a state of unrest. I want and desire more than anything the promised peace I believe is to come. This peace does not exist naturally on Earth. Don’t get me wrong, there are peaceful moments, but let’s face it…the second law of thermodynamics proves that disorder is the order of the day. That’s right! Entropy! And the holiday season brings with it both  great joy as well as great disorder. Hence, less peace in my life.

Secondly, while doing my morning swimming/thinking, I contemplated how we all use the same words to mean different things. Peace, joy, happiness, contentment …what do they really mean?

I hear all the time that joy and happiness are different; that is, happiness is circumstantial and joy is not. That’s how I’ve always thought of these two words. Webster only partially agrees with this concept. I hear people use peace, joy, and happiness interchangeably when describing their state of being. I see both circumstantial and spiritual meanings in all of these definitions. It is confusing because you never know on which plane people are speaking when they say they are happy, content, joyful, or peaceful.

Joy: 1) the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; 2) a state of happiness or felicity 3) a source or cause of delight

Happiness: 1) a state of well-being and contentment;  2) a pleasurable or satisfying experience

Peace: 1)  a state of tranquility or quiet; 2)  freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions

Contentment: 1) in a state of peaceful happiness.

My contemplation of peace has been centered on something I’ve started to really embrace and let out.

Are you ready for it? They are called feelings. Amazing, right?

Did you know we are allowed to feel bad, or sad, or mad, or glad? And we don’t have to repress, hide or deny those feelings? In other words, I don’t have to cry in my closet or the car wash anymore. I can, but I don’t have to.

I’ve actually been working on understanding feelings for the past six or so years (thanks to my feeling friends—most of whom score high on the Ffeeling scale on personality tests).

When I took the personality test this week one of the things I discovered about myself was a change on the thinking/feeling scale. I was no longer heavily weighted on the thinking side, as I have been in years past. There was almost an equal balance on the thinking/feeling scale. And, if I switched the T (thinking) for the F (feeling), my personality profile changes to that of an Advocate (INFJ) not an Architect (INTJ) —both of which are rare personality types. Eureka! This explains a lot!

INTJ – Architects form just two percent of the population, and women of this personality type are especially rare, forming just 0.8% of the population – it is often a challenge for them to find like-minded individuals who are able to keep up with their relentless intellectualism and chess-like maneuvering. Few personality types are as mysterious and controversial as Architects. Possessing intellect and strategic thinking that allow them to overcome many challenging obstacles, Architects have the ability to both develop and implement a plan for everything, including their own personal growth.

INFJ –Advocates tend to see helping others as their purpose in life, but while people with this personality type can be found engaging rescue efforts and doing charity work, their real passion is to get to the heart of the issue so that people need not be rescued at all.

In short, what I’m discovering is that my own repression of feelings for many years may, or may not be, my natural personality. Most likely I am some hybrid of the two.

So what does this long personality explanation have to do with peace, you ask? Everything for me. I’ve been interpreting my newly embraced entropic feelings as the lack of peace – physical peace. And, I believe, rightly so. And guess what? That’s alright. Because when I let myself feel them and I share them with others (outside of my closet) it allows me to be an advocate for others–something I’ve been doing more and more and more as the years advance.

A good friend of mine told me to imagine feelings as if they are kept in a vise. If you tighten the vise and suppress one side you suppress the other as well. So if you squash the unrest, you squash the joy, too.

So, today I say this. I’m going to be glad I’m not “peaceful” all the time. I’m better for it. Ironically, I’ve found that there is peace in not being peaceful Wow! Who knew?

But no time for more writing today…. I have whips to crack, puzzles to solve, people to love, and a world to help rescue.