The impeded stream is the one that sings

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Back when we left for Australia in 2012, I was preparing my dissertation proposal but in all honesty not entirely sure how realistic it was to expect to finish.  I had started a PhD at Tufts several years earlier and had incrementally finished the coursework and the internship and the qualifying review, studying at the table alongside my kids and at times putting school on the back burner for a season or two when my family needed more of my time or when I served in more demanding church callings.  Pursuing this degree was important to me but it was HARD, there were many bids for my time, and often I wasn’t entirely sure why I was putting myself through all of it. 

After the move to Australia, it was particularly difficult to coordinate with my committee from so far away (and, oh, that killer time zone difference!) while working with a set of data on the other side of the world.  I came very close to quitting but as I considered it I felt a quiet but unmistakably insistent nudge to continue.  Even with that reassuring nudge, it was still arduous--in absence of any in-person colleagues or mentors to talk through ideas with me, I had a particularly difficult time articulating my thoughts and formulating my theories into written words, let alone feeling confident about their value once they were there on the page. 

Finally the time came and I headed from Australia to Boston to defend my dissertation. It was a crazy trip--I ended up getting delayed 24 hours in Brisbane due to some flukey, rare fog, which made it a 56-hour journey, my longest ever. Right on the cusp of presenting my research I had an experience that weekend that really felt like a bit of a personal blessing--a small thing, really, but something that felt holy to me. 

The dissertation defense with my committee was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Monday in June.  I flew out on Friday and attended an inspiring Saturday evening session of stake conference (like a diocese regional meeting of several congregations) with friends in the area where I used to live. The next day I wasn’t entirely sure if I would go back up to stake conference again. I was fully in the throes of jet lag and I reasoned that I had kind of prepaid my church observance the night before. I thought maybe the time would be better spent going over my notes and fine-tuning my presentation for the next morning. Ultimately, on kind of a whim, I decided to go. 

So there I was, fresh off a long journey from Australia, in a congregation that was no longer my own, on the threshold of defending my dissertation. I felt worried and inadequate and unsure but so very relieved and grateful--almost there.  And then. The new presiding stake president (whom I had never met before; he moved in after we left) stood up and began his talk by sharing a personal, tender experience about his own dissertation process, the vulnerabilities he felt, and the poignant questions he asked and answers he received as he tried to complete that challenging goal.

What are the chances of that? I have never heard a dissertation story in church before. Sitting in that congregation, I felt known and comforted and buoyed. I was reminded (as my tear-splashed notes from the talk read) “that when we present our best efforts and include God in our struggles, He can bring light to dark things, brilliance to dull things, divinity to earthly things.” It felt like a benediction.

. . .

Recently I was thinking of this experience and how we serve as blessings in each others' lives. So many people aided my efforts to finish this undertaking. They gently guided me out of the weeds or opened doors when I was pacing anxiously at the threshold. These included big things like G's confidence and go-for-it-ness and my kids' immense enthusiasm for my goals. And small things like drive-by moments of thumbs up and encouragement and check-ins and, yes, these words in a talk given on a not-so-random Sunday.  

If you're spinning your wheels or wandering in the weeds or despairing at creating something you have your heart invested in--a book, a painting, a feeling, a study, a degree, a family, an assignment--I just want to say: dead ends sometimes turn into launching pads. Bewilderment sometimes opens us up just enough to the right questions that we begin to live the answers. Words and glances and snippets sometimes become leaps. The reward is sometimes found, oddly, in the impediments.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry

Virtual mentors and finding your thing

Doesn't everyone dream of packing up and moving to Paris? (Raising my hand and nodding vigorously.) A few years ago Sharon Eubanks decided to do it.  Just like that she quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Paris to find her dreams. Live it vicariously with her in this TED talk where she talks about "slowing down the frantic pace of modern life to find creative energy, purposeful acts, and meaningful relationships." And she realizes in the process that you don't need Paris to get there:

"I'm on a train, it's early spring and I'm looking out the window and I see men and women out in fields and they're getting the ground ready to plant and they're trimming vines and they're getting ready for this great act of faith. They're going to plant. They're going to plant olives and they're going to put in grapes and they're going to have this harvest, which would be later on. As I look at them, I realize: I feel like that. I feel like I'm ready to do some great act of faith where I've kind of thawed out, I've kind of prepared the ground. I'm ready for it. But what is it? What is that thing? And as I thought about that conscious "I'm ready" all of the sudden--you know how the Salt Lake valley gets inversions...and then you wake up the next morning and it's just crystal clear?--it was like that. It was just crystal clear....And it didn't have to do with an exotic place. What it did have to do with was slowing down."

. . .

I have this mental list of virtual, long-distance life mentors. I draw inspiration from their examples and think of them as my pantheon of enlisted advisors, an imaginary council of women (mostly) and men who provide a wide range of inspiring examples to follow and motivation to proceed. Learning about their struggles and paths and processes helps me keep trudging along on mine. Maira Kalman, Madeleine L'Engle, Esther Peterson, Julia Child, Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen, Catherine Thomas, Brene Brown, Louis Armstrong, Eugene England, Samantha Power, Lowell Bennion, Emma Lou Thayne, Madeleine Albright (the list goes on and on and of course includes people I know in real life, too) all have a seat at the table.

I think Sharon Eubanks might be the newest candidate. She has a really cool and meaningful job as the director of an international humanitarian organization, speaks articulately about my religion's doctrine regarding women, and just seems to be an all-around cool human. 

What about you? Who are your virtual life mentors?

A few good gems

We are officially on summer break in Texas!! Well, my kids finished up school yesterday, but I'm still in NYC helping Maddie find all the best restaurants in her new neighborhood. It's a tough job, but I'm totally up for it.

Maddie and I are off to try to get some last-minute Jimmy Fallon tickets (a very, very, very long shot), but I wanted to share a few good gems I've turned up over the past week. Enjoy!

 via  ishandchi

I love everything about this Zoey Murphy dresser. I'm trolling Craigslist for a likely candidate for some striping of my own. Lots of color ideas at ishandchi.

Last weekend I read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I have mixed feelings about the book. I mean, I liked it, but it somehow left me feeling a little deflated . . . in a everything-turns-out-crappy kind of way. BUT . . . it also reminded me of this Slate article about kids at camp -- a place where their essential version of themselves can fully emerge. I'm curious if you would agree.

When her son left for college, this mom dealt with her sadness and anxiety by drawing advice for him. Check it here.

Have you looked into #YesAllWomen? I'm thinking a lot about it as I drop my 19 year-old daughter off in the big city all by her lonesome. Mostly to make myself feel better, I keep saying "You won't run around NYC at night by yourself. Right? RIGHT??" I like how DesignMom talked to her kids about #YesAllWomen.

Billy Collins and Cheerios.

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Typography makes me happy. Framing and enlarged book page is genius. I can't find the original post, but I'm thinking Staples engineer prints would work here.

Amen! Have a happy weekend!


The power of grit

As we ramp up to the World Cup's opening ole-ole-ole-ole starting next week, we were really excited to catch a glimpse of a familiar face featured in a Powerade commercial. 

Nico was a talented and, yes, hard-to-miss fixture on the soccer fields in our community back home. He was a fellow student alongside our kids in Concord schools and frequently a ref for Sam's soccer games. But even if we didn't share a hometown, I'm fairly certain we'd still replay the video over and over and find his story--captured from videos his dad filmed over the years--powerful and inspiring.

You only have to glimpse the video a few seconds to see that his parents set an empowering, get-on-with-living-life mentality with no excuses. In an interview with Coca-Cola, Nico said "People usually think I was trying to make a statement by playing soccer with able-bodied people and not giving up, but really...I just love playing soccer." Although he had a prosthetic as a child, when he was 5 he decided to ditch it and use forearm crutches instead as he competed on the soccer field and wrestling mat. At 13, he raised $100,000 for Free Wheelchair Mission and was the first person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches (and was invited on Ellen to talk about it). These days he's the youngest player to land a spot on the US national amputee soccer team.

Recent research has posited that a good predictor of future success is not necessarily unending talent but rather a combination of curiosity, character, and grit, or in other words the drive to persist through failures and challenges.  Nico? He's the king of grit.

In another video interview a while ago he said, "Some people when they look in on my life, they think that, oh, what a crappy hand of cards this kid got dealt. I look at it in a totally opposite way. I've got a community that's completely accepted me for the person I am. I have parents who went through all this trouble to find the right mobility device for me after a prosthetic. And I've just, and I've got athleticism...you're not defined by what you have. You're defined by the things you make of what you have."

My kids as Navy SEALs?

When my kids were young, I approached summer break much like a cruise director trying to keep the guests happy and peaceful. I scheduled camps and play groups. I planned activities and quiet times. Sometimes I over-scheduled and the kids were frustrated. Sometimes I allotted too much downtime, which meant squabbles. Of course, all of my well laid plans were pretty much kaput half way into July. Then I reverted to survival of the fittest (and whining to my husband when he came home from work).

Teenage summers are admittedly different. In the face of long, hot, relatively unstructured days I'm getting this carpe diem sort of feeling -- like let's do SOMETHING with these fleeting days of freedom. Let's make memories. Let's stuff these last years at home with goodness and laughter and work. I do love kids working. Makes me feel fuzzy all over.

So here's my current let's-make-the-most-of-summer idea:

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven's commencement address given this year at the University of Texas  (which has been making the rounds on Facebook) is an outstanding and inspirational list of ways young people (and anyone really) can change the world. McRaven takes the lessons he learned from Basic Seal Training and turns them into metaphors for living a successful, world-changing life. Hooyah! Sign me up.

My plan is to take one of McRaven's lessons each week as the basis for a family discussion or activity -- challenging each family member to contemplate and apply that lesson during their week. The first one is easy. Make your bed. Here's what McRaven had to say:

"Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack--rack--that's Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task--mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs--but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter.

If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed."

I can do that! My kids can do that! And goodness knows we all could use a little more 'sense of accomplishment' in our lives. Read the entire address -- it really gets you excited to make a difference.


On a side note: My family (myself included) is particularly in awe of SEAL training. We've been watching Surviving the Cut on Netflix, which follows different special forces training classes. It's so brutal, but also a fantastic manifestation of the limitless potential of the body and mind.