status updates, experience, and the present moment

Some people assert that the only experiences worth collecting are those that are extreme. Summiting a mountain. Sky diving. Placing a prayer flag in Tibet. Even their every day experiences tend toward the extraordinary. Bikram Yoga in 100 degree studios, Roller Derby matches, and colon cleanses fit in the “fun” category for these folks. If pain or risk aren’t involved, the experience doesn’t count.

I, on the other hand, consider myself a collector of what might be thought of as somewhat mundane experiences. I often invite friends to join me (or not) in my every day adventures and it becomes clear (quickly) how much about the experience, rather than the content, that I am. For example, I rarely know much (and hardly ever care) about the bands whose free concerts I attend. The experience of the concert is the gift much more than the music. I go to lectures by people I’ve never heard of and visit sporting events I know nothing about just to experience the crowd.
I think I learned this from my parents. My dad rode bikes with my brother and I on Saturday mornings and we collected cans to return for cash which we saved for Thrifty ice cream cones by the downtown fountain. We had family nights and took turns planning them. I vividly remember the month that I chose to give everyone makeovers and my dad sat patiently while I applied makeup to his face. We often served at the local Gospel Mission, my dad speaking, my mom loving everyone there, and my brother and I singing (with me playing my oh-so-cool tambourine...seriously!) on Friday nights. On many occasions family friends would return from their honeymoons to us sneaking into their homes and bedrooms (as an adult I can’t really believe my parents took this risk but I love that they did) to shanghai them for breakfast celebrations we would host. One summer my parents took us to a film series, held over several consecutive weeks, that consisted of lectures by a noted philosopher and theologian. I remember being part bored and part thrilled, realizing that we were the only kids in the place every week.
I read research recently that posited that people are engaging in life differently now that they can Tweet and blog about their experiences. It seems that, for some among us, experiences themselves are no longer sufficient for recollection. It is, rather, the broadcasting of the occurrences that gives them significance. Think about the last week’s worth of status updates you’ve typed or the last twenty five tweets you’ve sent. While there is nothing inherently wrong or “bad” about including others in our day to day experiences, it is important to own our motivations for doing so. What can, at times, be a fun way of keeping our communities up to date or sharing an amazing moment can, at others, be a way of looking cool or gaining status (no shock that this is the word chosen by Facebook).
In considering my own life, what I notice is this: the extremity or price tag isn’t what makes an experience meaningful. Neither is the reaction of those I tell about it. It is, rather, the level of engagement, the novelty, and the investment of myself in the process that gives an experience its meaning and ascribes its potency. Mundane everyday-ness can become quite stretching when embarked upon with intention and effort. Plane tickets, mood altering drugs, or extreme risk are not necessary components for a stretching of the self. Broadcasting my experiential ventures doesn’t make them more impactful, it just makes them more widely known of. Real life has an excitement and expansiveness of its own, even in the routine, and solitude, and regularity of it all. This, however, is rarely tweeted about or included in our status updates.
When was the last time you really stopped and noticed a cloud? How did it move? How long did you watch it? When was the last time you savored something you ate? Or heard? Or felt? Savored. Really, truly experienced it in all its “it-ness?” When was the last time you leaned into an experience to enjoy it solely for and with yourself? Have you, recently, willed yourself to pay full attention to how it is to be exactly yourself in exactly one moment? When you are able to do this, does your mind float to telling others about it via social media? If you stopped yourself from doing so, and worked instead to fully validate your own experience, what might happen? How might it change the way you experience that very moment?
Last weekend I went to a wedding alone. After a lovely ceremony and the cutting of the cake, the dancing began. Pulled onto the floor by the bride and encountering friends among the other dancers, I was completely content dancing by myself. The bride, however, played amazing hostess and brought over a childhood friend of the groom to dance a partner dance with me. I was nearly paralyzed. For all my love of dancing, I am completely incompetent at following a lead. Completely. Since walking off the floor and refusing this kind soul’s partnership was not an option I gave myself, I was given a new experience. 
Even though I rarely post status’ to my personal Facebook page, I found myself thinking in status update sound bytes in this incredibly uncomfortable moment. “doreen dodgen-magee is failing on the dance floor,” “currently bruising the toes and ego of the kind groomsman who is only trying to help,” “so I thought I could dance...” By thinking about making fun of myself I was able to escape the embarrassment of the moment.
In this case the status update/Tweet type thinking was helpful and that is not uncommon. Status updates are also incredibly helpful ways of sharing an amazing opportunity or experience with others who would want to join in. In other situations, however, I find them incredibly un-helpful. When I’m undertaking a task I secretly wish I got more praise for it would be convenient to seek it in passive ways on Facebook. When hoping others might think I’m cool because of my knowledge of certain events or locations I could broadcast my whereabouts by checking in. When my affiliation with someone might win me prestige I might want to post photos or such to show it off. While all of these might be harmless and fun, none of them really help me develop a sturdy self. Instead, they take me away from my own thoughts and feelings in the present moment and place my attention in your thoughts and feelings, wondering how YOU will respond to MY moment.
Next time any of us goes to Tweet, to “check in,” or to (unconsciously) type status updates, may we pause first to cherish our own moment for all it’s instructive power, experiential wonder, and raw everydayness. Maybe, sometimes, that will be enough.


she is not her hair and her brother is right there!

my niece has a head full of fantastic, curly, red hair. it’s the first thing that everyone notices about her. they exclaim, “your hair! it’s amazing!” they ask, “where did you get that beautiful hair?” they quip to her parents, “oh no...you’ve got a red head on your hands” then wink and nod. what they don’t notice is ella’s amazing vocabulary, her desire to talk about mary poppins, and her amazing coordination. they also don’t seem to notice her brother, who is standing right with her, hearing repeated comments about his sister’s amazing hair. one time, shortly after this phenomenon got underway, i asked him about his day. “it was o.k.,” he said, “but i only have brown hair.”
we’ve all done it and we’ve all had it done to us. we’ve commented on how great someone looks and we’ve had folks ask us if we’ve lost weight. we’ve told a little girl she’s adorable and a little boy he’s quite the tough guy. we’ve heard and said, upon greeting someone, that we/they look great. in fact, we’ve heard and said these things thousands of times. it’s not wrong, per se, to do so. it’s just that these statements are so automatic and expected. often they’re not honest. frequently they aren’t even thought about. they are, however, automatic phrases that come tumbling off our tongues in social situations. we’ve been reduced to how we look and we’ve reduced others as well.  we comment on the externals and leave it at that.
many years ago i made a personal vow to avoid conversation starters centered on how people look or what they do for a living. it has been no small task to make this a reality. fellow party goers look at me strangely when i ask them, “how do you like to spend your time?” colleagues don’t always know how to respond when i ask, “what are some hobbies you’d love to pursue?” when i encounter people i haven’t seen in a long time and they lead out with the standard “you look great!” (even when i don’t), it is terribly awkward to respond with comments that have nothing to do with their appearance, even if they do, indeed, look great. even still, i refuse to let appearance or title be that which i passively deem as pressing.
the portland art museum holds a special class once a month for families. it is called, “learn to look” and is designed to help children and their grown ups build the skills necessary to truly see “into” art and to enjoy what they see. docents are trained to give children clues about how to wonder about what they see in order to help them become curious about the intentions, motivations, and meanings each piece of art holds. come to find out, people enjoy art more when they know how to look at it.
how amazing would it be if we were to give similar thought to how we look at and address the people we encounter every day? might we better enjoy others if we knew how to “look at” and be with them in a different way?
it is so easy to rely on things we see or job titles we understand as training wheels on the bike of learning how to encounter others. when we are willing, however, to let these automatic behaviors go and strive to genuinely encounter another, we can “ride” so much further together. 
if we did not rely solely on observations of or comments about the obvious (i.e. the “i’ve worked hard to create this front to present to the world” self) we might discover the much more reliable qualities that lurk so close to the surface but are not visibly seen. these places, less easily categorized, lie underneath the externals and titles and are realities that don’t fit tidily into the “cute” or “ugly,” “successful” or “failure,” “in” or “out.” 
“red hair” becomes less reliable as a category when the more substantive qualities of the internal world are wondered about or seen. 
how might we spur one another on to encounters based upon a meeting of the minds, or hearts, or souls of eachother? how might these encounters enlarge our experience of community and relationship as opposed to reducing those we meet to that which we (consciously or unconsciously) label them as? i’d love your ideas...the ones that have to do with who you are or what you look like, what you care about or wish you didn’t...


saying grace

the merits of saying grace before a meal are many. it is important to express thanks for the food we are about to eat. it’s also helpful to recognize a Force larger than ourselves and not take for granted the fact that we have a meal to sit down to. it also has incredible power to bring us to the present moment.
think about it. meal times are busy times. at breakfast we’ve awakened to a new day, we’ve scurried around getting ready and often find ourselves racing out the door barely noticing we have eaten. lunch is sandwiched into our full days and is often consumed rather than savored. at dinner, everything around us is changing. the light is shifting, cooking smells tickle our noses, and daytime sounds are often eclipsed by either the silence of car or home or the noisiness of radio or television. all of our senses are peaked. when we finally have dinner on the table, or sit down to it, we are moving quickly. 
grace quiets us. it stills us. it calls us to be aware. it, quite literally, brings us to the table.
i have noticed that when i sit down and bow my head i also often breathe in deeply. sometimes this invites a yawn. i notice smells. the darkness offered by closed eyes heightens the other senses and stills me. i need this time. i need to stop. i need to be quiet. i need to bring myself to the table.
when i begin a meal mindlessly absent from the moment i am in i am less likely to savor, to linger, to notice. i don’t see the colors on my plate or feel the textures in my mouth. i don’t attend to the sensations of satiety or feel the temperature of my drink as i swallow.  when i say grace, however, i am present to all of the stimulation in small, but meaningful, ways.
where else might grace help bring me to the table? before a contentious meeting? prior to encountering a friend? a foe? might a small moment of closed eyes, gratitude-expressing, quiet change the way i shop or exercise or re-enter home after a day of work? might acknowledging the presence of God settle and soothe? might it change what i consume (be that food or entertainment or stimulation of any kind) or how i consume it? 
may i grow ever more conscious of my tendency to race from moment to moment so that i can learn the habit of saying grace. and meaning it. and being at the table. on purpose.


juries, verdicts, and owning ones' bias

this weeks’ pronouncement by the casey anthony jury, and the cultural response to it, has pushed a painful memory to the surface for me. in october of 1995 i became undone by the similarly surprising verdict rendered by the jury in the o.j. simpson trial. undone in a way i will likely never experience again and that is evident this week.
nearly eight weeks before the jury read “not guilty” into the microphones of more live broadcasting cameras than had ever been allowed in a courtroom, my husband’s sister and our three nieces had been shot and killed by her husband/their father. in what we believe to have been efforts to torture my mother in law, he had kept her alive and taunted her for forty five minutes prior to help arriving on the scene. prior to those forty five minutes he had fatally shot our five year old niece while she attempted to shield her.
in the weeks that passed between the quadruple homicide and o.j.’s indictment i found myself relying on the twelve jurors seated in the courtroom during his trial to mete out the judgement that i so wished for in our own story. my brother in law, a man present in my wedding and summer vacation photos, sat in a prison cell and showed up on our television screen saying crazy things about the incident. grand juries, phone calls from reporters, caring for my mother-in-law, and frequent visits to the district attorney’s office peppered my life between changing my newborn’s diapers and reading to my two year old.
when the announcement came that o.j. had been found not guilty i felt deeply and totally betrayed. i had placed my trust in these faceless fellow citizens of the earth. i was sure that MY deep belief that the defendant in their case had committed murder was a shared belief and i relied on their delivery of this news to both him and the world. for all of us who knew what it was like to lose a loved one at the hands of a known other, i wanted justice, felt i knew what that would look like, and assumed that my sense of this was a global one. 
in the days since casey anthony’s jury delivered their verdict i have reminded myself time and time again that both of these juries were carefully instructed by respected judges, were working to do their jobs well and with intention, and that they had a more complete picture of the case and the facts than i ever will. i also have been working to keep conscious of the fact that i was not put on this earth to judge but rather to love and that my own particular bias’ may not allow me the most complicated forms of love or objectivity required in situations like these.
i keep landing there. my bias. i keep realizing, i am never free of it.
not long ago psychologically minded research teams found that human bias exists in nearly 100% of peoples’ beliefs. regardless of how strongly held these beliefs are or how central they are to a persons’ sense of self, it seems that bias impacts the shape and color that they take on in each of these. while this is an assumption we have all likely made, it has now been proven in black and white scientific terms.
where bias becomes an especially insidious issue is in myopic cultures such as our own in the west. when we are the centers of our own universes, when our individual needs and rights eclipse those of the community at large, when we feel as though we have a corner on the truth, we lose touch with the deepest reality that we all share. we are all human.
i recently expressed to someone that i don’t believe that our ideologies connect us. instead, i feel that our deepest, most intimate, shared “place” is found in our humanity. we are all human. we are all flawed. deeply so. while we may share certain beliefs, thoughts, and lifestyles with others, those things cannot assure certain connection between us in the ways we would like. these ideologies may make certain connections more comfortable. the friction and tension in our relational lives might be reduced by relating only with those we share a bias with and yet, there will likely be other bias’ that we don’t share with even these individuals.
reading the news stories today it is impossible not to notice that as immediate reactive anger with the jury calms the community turns readily to criticize the prosecutors. we, as a people, do not do well with sitting with discomfort. neither do we tolerate. the difficult truth is that we do not always know best. this makes us squirm.
until we are willing to assume that others (i.e.: the jurors, the prosecutors, our different-from-us neighbors) are trying their best, working hard to come up with verdicts that integrate the tasks given them and the information presented to them, we will likely approach the world in an us/them, my way/the wrong way reactive stance. such a stance leads to dissension, disappointment, and shallow relationship. it says that my bias is the best bias. it says that i know better than you...ALWAYS.
i am working hard to trust the findings of the 12 men and women who were handed casey anthony’s life. i am asking you all to hold me accountable to not blaming people for underperforming in jobs i know little about. i am similarly working diligently to be aware of my own bias’ and to engage with the bias’ of others rather than reject, dismiss, or discount them out of hand.
empathy blooms where differences live and where deep convictions of the heart can handle hearing the deep convictions of the heart of another. may we all engage each others’ humanity and from there move from myopia to community in its truest and richest forms where we may not all agree but at least we are all valued. of that pursuit i would like to be found guilty.


Involuntary Exposure and the Power of Choice

Last night, as I sat on my living room couch editing an essay, my son went outside to clean out his car. I watched as he be-bopped about, diving into the backseat and stuffing discarded papers into the recycling. I heard the garage door open and saw him emptying a trash bag into the can. I went back to my work and the evening went on.
This morning, a full ten hours later, I went out for my morning run. As I hit the driveway I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that something didn’t look right. I turned my head to find my garage door open, light on, and the big, jumbled mess that is my garage, exposed. I shuttered. I cringed. I ran to my car and pushed the “close” button on the garage door remote as quickly as I could. As I sat in disbelieving silence I found myself saying, out loud, “I’ve been exposed. I’ve been exposed. I’ve been exposed.”
At our house the garage door has been a point of contention for some time. When my husband has it open while compiling the recycling I beg, implore, and plead with him to find a way to complete the task with the door closed. When kids come over and want to get the skates and hockey sticks out I offer to retrieve them with an exuberance that belies the true story. I don’t want anyone to see the garage. It is messy, it is jumbled, it is full. People and life experiences are important to us at our house so we place them at the top of our “way to spend our time” list.  At the bottom of that list is our garage.
As I sat in the car, mortified by thoughts of who might have driven by our home and seen the hodge podge piles of boxes, the discarded furniture, the lose objects from the back yard tossed randomly about, or the pieced-apart model A with the mirror ball box and Finnish advent sculpture perched on it’s hood, it hit me that this is symbolic of so much of my life. There are choices, feelings, realities that hide behind the garage doors of my expression and words. There are also “garage door” traits that feel as though they define me, hiding truer and more chosen qualities hiding behind. Often I feel lost in these “definers,” not sure what to attend to and how.
I frequently hear about these garage door traits as I listen to others. Body type, hair color, job titles, tax brackets - these all act as “doors” of sorts which speak to the outside world. It’s easier to define someone by the door that’s displayed to the world than it is to suspend all temptations to judge and all messiness of actually getting to know the someone that lives within the doors.
The trouble is that the door frequently isn’t fully “chosen.” Sometimes the bones of a home determine the type of door that can be installed, at other times attendance to the inside precludes a re-working of the door, further, some people are truly in touch with how little the outside matters and don’t notice the way their “door” does or does not match who they are.
The aesthetics behind the doors aren’t always useful for defining the substance of a person either. Does practical messiness infer psychological disorder? Does a tidy approach to possessions correlate with an emotional “clean house?” Sadly, no. We are so much more complex than we want to be.
Every day presents us with numerous opportunities to lead, in our interactions with the world, with the externals or the internals. Do we represent ourselves authentically or do we hide behind doors that look how we wish we were? Do we observe others at a door level, ascribing labels and pretending to know them when, in reality, we have done precious little to call out their true selves? What kinds of doors do we avoid altogether (think here weight, appearance, annual income, cleanliness, intellectual ability, faith stances, life style)? What cobwebby corners of our own selves could benefit from being wisely disclosed with a safe other? What messes in the garage of our neighbor might we be willing to tackle with them? 
Intentionality around these choices can bring us to new and richer ways of living. When I stop to remind myself why my garage is a mess I can live among the disarray with a greater sense of inner peace. When I do not make this awareness conscious I live in a state of self incriminating heaviness. “I’m a mess. I can’t even keep the garage organized. I will never be successful in running a home. If I can’t do that then I certainly can’t do much. I’m a failure here therefore I’m a failure everywhere. I hope no one notices.” This sounds so different from, “I could chose to open my home to my community in this season, spending time on hospitality, or I could chose to use that time to organize my garage. For me, right now, the choice is hospitality and my garage can wait.” This doesn’t necessarily make me welcome the mess nor does it justify me to the neighbors but it does make me able to live with it.
We can only do so much in a day, in a week, in a year, in a lifetime. Difficult choices are required. At certain points in our development our need to tackle a habit may not leave us time to attend to our relationships as we’d like. At other points our need to invest in our community may take precedence over our professional pursuits. At some important stages we may need to do internal work that requires an abandoned letting go of how the externals look altogether. None of this is obvious. It is rarely easy to make difficult choices that require a letting go of that which we have assumed we hold dear whether that be in ourselves or in those around us.
Knowing ourselves is difficult. Knowing others can feel impossible. Loving ourselves, messes and all, is excruciating. Loving others is inconvenient at best. Intentionally choosing to overlook some messes in order to live life with greater volition and health, to  be connected more authentically with self and other, may be the best form of exposure we can aspire to.