Category Archives: Life Purpose

A Getaway Gets Me Closer to Who I Am and Hope to Be

I wake up early the morning we are to check out of the hotel room. It’s 4:30 a.m., and I feel myself preparing to leave, to return to what we call “real life.”

Facebook at White House_06.15

Facebooking at the White House

This trip to Washington, D.C., is the first vacation my husband and I have taken together since December 2012. We often travel by combining my business trips with a short vacation, which affords us a half-price trip. This time I was attending a four-day conference, during which he stomped the city with his map and sturdy shoes, and afterward we tacked on a few days of sight-seeing together.

In between we had moments — separately and as a couple — when the distance from our daily lives helped us see ourselves more clearly. For me, that is the discipline and the reward of a vacation. I maintain enough of my routine to feel physically healthy and keep pace in the high-strung cities where work trips invariably take me.

But I step back, too. I allow myself the time and space to read, write in my journal and reflect upon a life that, in many ways, is blessed.

Proudly Minnesotan
“Where are you from?” is a common question at a conference. It’s an ice-breaker, a way to forge a quick connection. I used to be embarrassed to mention Minnesota given the indifference I encountered on the East Coast, the lack of curiosity about the Upper Midwest.

These days — likely because I’m more comfortable with who I am — I proudly tell people where I’m from and where I’ve always lived. At this conference for community relations specialists in higher education, I resisted the urge to compete with the woman from Chicago who challenged my labeling of St. Paul as the “Boston of the Midwest” given our number of colleges and our status as the state’s capital.

Chicago is the nation’s second city. St. Paul is the second sibling to its better known Twin City, but I like the relative quiet and the friendly neighborhood feel, and I’m finally to an age where I can acknowledge that.

I felt that pride of place again at the “Reporting Vietnam” exhibition at the Newseum (a worth-the-trip experience for a former journalist) where Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey were featured as prominently as LBJ and Richard Nixon.

Elsewhere in the museum, a series of comedy clips from “Laugh In” and “Saturday Night Live” about anchors and reporters featured Al Franken from the early ’90s. “That’s one of my state’s senators!” I crowed to the woman sitting next to me. I’m not sure she saw the humor, and maybe it only reinforced her impression of Minnesota as a backwoods state. I didn’t care.

A different lensindia amy
The emotion of traveling hits me more acutely as I age. It’s not that this trip took me out of my Westernized, middle-class comfort zone, as a 16-day journey through India did back in 2006. Instead it was the roller-coaster ride of anticipation, exhilaration, exhaustion, reflection and elation again that had me hyper-alert to my surroundings.

That, in turn, made me nostalgic about my youth and wistful sometimes about what my life is missing and what I hope it still can be.

    • I called my father, a retired attorney, from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and reminisced into his message machine about our trip to D.C. when I was 11 years old and he patiently walked me through “The First Ladies” exhibition at the Smithsonian. Instead of heeding the selfish and self-defeating voice that said, “He never calls back,” I reassured myself that being a decent daughter is the one piece of this equation that I control.
    • I stood below the steps where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and watched a group of African-American parents and children from Indiana mourn and celebrate their sons and brothers who have been shot dead. And I recognized how little I can do to save my own sons and felt the painful tug-and-pull of parenting young adults — the impulse to hang on, the absolute requirement to let go.
    • I joined the touristy throngs in front of the White House and felt the satisfaction of knowing that I voted for the president who lives there. That wasn’t true during my last visit in 2002. And I challenged myself to work to get my candidate elected in 2016. Women’s Studies was my second major in college. Time to put the theory into action.

Coming homeSkip
Back home for a week now, I have settled into the life I sought to escape. Living paycheck to paycheck but grateful for interesting work. Both tired of and devoted to my 15-year-old, food-obsessed dog. Worried for the economic climate my sons are inheriting and proud of them for making their way in it.

Nearly one-fourth of working Americans have no paid vacation or holidays, and those of us who do are often too driven or insecure to take it.

After years as a workaholic, I’ve come to see vacation as a worthwhile investment, a rare chance for a broader view. “All work and no play” not only makes Jack a dull boy; it makes him unaware of customs and cultures beyond his own, and way too invested in the illusion that he’s irreplaceable.

Thank God, February’s Over: Bring on Spring!

The longest shortest month of the year, February makes me wish time away — something  most of us cease doing at middle age.

We’ve had 26 sub-zero mornings in Minnesota so far this winter. February is among the slowest months for local businesses; people would rather be keeping company with their screens.

Native Minnesotans are supposed to take the icy sidewalks and bitterly cold temperatures in stride. But I’ve eaten too much. Gotten off my running routine. And been too distracted and stir-crazy even to finish reading a book.Penguins on ice

Enough. Spring starts in March, and I am holding myself to better habits, starting today:

1) Keep moving. I felt reborn the other day when I ran four miles along Mississippi River Boulevard with a friend I hadn’t seen in months. Yes, it was cold, but I know how to dress for winter running: layer your clothing, go lighter below the waist, wear a black Ninja hood to encase your head and neck.

The sun was shining. The conversation was lively. And I adopted her trick of thinking positive when the going got tough. Rather than “damn, this hill is steep” we’d exclaim to each other: “Look at the view!”

2) Gain perspective. The death of New York Times journalist David Carr on February 12 threw me, as it did many of his former colleagues. I knew Carr, barely, back in the roaring ’80s, when we both worked at MSP Communications. He chastised me once for wearing a campaign button in the newsroom. He swept through a party at my upper duplex in northeast Minneapolis, pronouncing that I had a “nice pad.”

I envied his self-confidence and single-minded ambition. I recognized his talent, even as I viewed it from a distance. I was never brave enough to travel in his pack.

Like others, I was shocked and saddened to read of his collapse. But I also personalized the news in a way that feels ungenerous, both to him and to myself. I didn’t think about the wife and daughters he left behind or his unfinished work in the world.

When I read about Carr’s globe-trotting career, the mark he made on his profession, and his canny ability both to overcome and capitalize on his addiction, I felt small by comparison. Just as I did back then. Only a year younger than he was when he died, I assessed my career and wondered what I have accomplished.

Weeks later — given time, perspective and a review of his candid, pragmatic interviews with Terry Gross on Fresh Air — I recognize that Carr would want his hometown coworkers to be not intimidated but inspired.

3) Build community. A couple of colleagues asked me in January to teach a weekly yoga practice over the noon hour, even though I hadn’t taught for more than a year. We meet in a drafty gym, with no music. We bring our own blocks and other props. We have a varying range of abilities.

And it’s become a high point of my week. They overlook my rusty teaching. I watch then bring courage and humility to the mat. We’re taking risks, and that helps us appreciate one another in a way that simply working together does not.

4) Just do it. I’m grateful for the discipline developed over decades in the workplace. You suit up and show up, even when you’d rather be somewhere else. “My whole life is have to,” Steve Martin declares in Parenthood, a spot-on film I saw the day I learned I was pregnant with my older son.Parenthood

I don’t want to walk my dogs in the minus-zero wind-chill every morning. I don’t always want to visit my mother in the memory-care facility, or shop for groceries, or sort the boxes taking up space in our one-car garage. But I do it, because I have to. And because action is always preferable to riding the merry-go-round inside my head.

5) Write it down. On my best days, I see that obligation gives my life purpose. People count on me. I have a good job and a strong network of friends. I’ve built a family to care for and about.

On the harder days — which was most of sub-zero February — I start the day with a cup of coffee and a journal. Thirty minutes later, the world looks right again.

Then I haul out the long, black down coat and the boots that hold me upright on the ice — and I get on with it, whatever it is, because having places to go and people to see brings me one step closer to spring and beats the alternative of wallowing in the winter blues.

What an Atheist Is Teaching Me about the Nature of Faith

The day after Thanksgiving, my son and I talked about God and gratitude, religion and reason, faith and Ricky Gervais.

I knew the British comedian as the originator of The Office. Turns out he’s also a “pathological atheist,” according to former CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, and a surprisingly articulate authority on the wisdom of living in the here and now.

“I get frustrated when people say that atheists live a less fulfilling life because they lack spirituality and they believe nothing comes after we die,” said my son, 19, a college sophomore and recently declared religious studies major.

“Ricky Gervais made the point —and somewhat facetiously, because he’s a comedian — that atheists have more to live for because they’re not spending their lives anticipating what comes afterward. So they want to make the most of what they have.”

And so commenced a conversation that held more meaning for me than the facile reminders of “gratitude” that every listserv and website I subscribe to threw at me in the days before Thanksgiving.

Christmas ChristiansXmas Tree

I regret that my husband and I didn’t raise our children with a stronger religious faith. They don’t know the Lord’s Prayer or a Thanksgiving grace or the traditional Christmas hymns, and I feel the loss of that during these frenetic five weeks we have come to call “the holidays.”

Baptized a Methodist (my childhood religion) and raised in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship during his elementary school years, Nate at 19 is now an atheist. He questions why I would pine for some shared, sentimental religious feeling that our family hasn’t earned.

“An atheist’s approach to the holidays isn’t that different from the average Christian’s approach,” he says. “Christians will just say grace before the meal. I think Christmas has been secularized in the majority of the United States. There are plenty of casual Christians and families that aren’t religious who celebrate Christmas for the sake of giving gifts and having a meal.”

Studies support his claim. According to the Pew Research “Religion and Public Life” project, 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half view it as “mostly” a religious holiday, and fully a third say it’s cultural — a chance to gather with friends and family.

My own family celebrated Thanksgiving this year at the home of non-religious friends. No one offered to lead a prayer before the meal, so I raised a toast to the cooks who had prepared two entrées, three desserts, four appetizers and more.

During our talk the next day I asked my son whether he prays, in any form.

“No, not prayer,” he said. “Because prayer implies something religious, and I’m not religious. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope for things. I hope that I’ll do well on my finals, but I’m certainly not going to pray to God to let me get an A.”

What about offering thanks to whomever or whatever may be guiding our lives?

“For the most part, I think gratitude is expressed in small moments on a day-to-day basis. You make me a sandwich and I say, ‘Thanks, Mom. That was nice of you to do.’ There are bigger things, like being grateful for the people in your life who are a constant, who are there through thick-and-thin.”

And whom you can love and honor, he contends, without attaching those feelings to religious faith. “I’m grateful for things that are tangible, as opposed to thanking God when there’s no apparent intervention on God’s part.”

An atheist explains

Nathaniel Gage Studer

Nathaniel Gage Studer

When I tell my son that I am “saddened” by his atheism, or find it to be a cynical choice at his age, he points out that this is a considered decision — not a failing or a whim — and that believers have no corner on moral virtue.

“If I was being very cynical,” he counters, “I’d say a lot of people weren’t fully educated in matters of religion. I think a lot of people just grew up in a church: ‘Well, it’s how I was raised, it’s what I’m going to stick with.’”

Schooled in the importance of what he calls religious literacy, Nate would choose Buddhism if he had to follow a particular practice. “But that’s true of many non-religious people,” he says. “Buddhism involves coming to terms with yourself and your surroundings, and involves less of the dogma that comes with other religions.”

However reasoned his choice, my son will have an uphill climb to convince anyone other than his mother that atheism makes sense. Americans overall regard atheists only slightly more warmly than they do Muslims and seven points below Mormons, according to a July 2014 study by Pew Research.

Black Protestants and older Americans hold atheists in especially low esteem.

Asked what frustrates him most about people’s misconceptions of atheists, Nate said it’s “the idea that every atheist hates religion and is against religion.” In fact, he says, knowledge of the world’s religions helps him understand other cultures and history’s course.

“Even though I’m not religious, I think it’s important that I understand how and why other people are religious. By being religiously literate, people can better understand what’s going on in the Middle East, why 9/11 happened — almost all that happens in the world.”

He challenges whether I, as an unchurched believer, am willing to learn more about what atheists do believe. I begin with Ricky Gervais’ distinction between spirituality and religion: “One is a very personal feeling, a journey, a hope, a need, a joy,” the comedian said on CNN last year, “and the other is an organized body that uses that for power and corruption, in many cases.”