For One Day

Maybe for one day…

We will forget the little things that are troubling us.

We will forget to be angry or frustrated when we get stuck behind that awful driver.

We will chill out when we inevitably choose the slowest line at the checkout counter.

We will smile anyway when someone hurts us.

We will extend kindness to a stranger who—for all we know—may be in desperate need of some.

We will forgive the petty arguments we are in the middle of.

We will allow bitterness to loosen its grip on us.

We will hold close the ones we love and tell them how much they mean to us.

We will drop our shoulders
our guards
and our anger.

Miraculously, we did that ten years ago this week. We all stopped and for at least ONE day, we remembered the most important things. We remembered that all we really, truly need is right in front of us… be it family, friends or neighbors. We remembered what a gift it was just to be safe and to be alive. We learned that kindness and goodness will always trump jealousy, selfishness and rage.

This is how we should live each day, even though we don’t. Believe me… I include myself in that I-don’t-do-it-even-though-I-know-I-should category. I worry, I fret, I pace and I wring my hands while obsessing over what I think I need to accomplish that day, over a lack of money, or a lack of time, or a lack of respect I think I deserve, or an awful thing that someone said or did to me.

But perhaps for just ONE day … ten years after we witnessed first hand—through billows of black smoke and piles of ash—what hatred and fear and ignorance are capable of …

We will take a breath and remember.

And rather than dwell on everything that has gone wrong … we will pause and give thanks for everything that is still right.

This waterfall at the site of the 9/11 memorial at ground zero now fills the "void" left behind by one of the fallen towers.

A serviceman kneels at the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon.

Families walk amidst endless flags in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

One Nation, Deeply Divided

Do you ever feel like running away from it all? I know I do at times. These days all I have to do is turn on the news and a sudden, uncontrollable urge to pack a bag and just disappear washes over me. I would leave my cell phone, computer and all other forms of communication and technology behind.

I would go somewhere where I would not be exposed to the hatred-filled arguments between just about EVERYONE in this country about our current president and whether or not he is a Socialist… or a Communist… or the Anti-Christ.

I wouldn’t have to listen to a polarized nation debate the efficacy of the jobs plan, the necessity and scope of health care reform, education reform, the dwindling budget and rapidly-emptying coffers, anticipated green laws, foreign policy, the continued instability and unrest in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

I would quietly slip away to a place where there were no such things as Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Ultra-Conservatives, Liberals and Ultra-Liberals, Independents, political pundits, corrupt politicians and loud-mouthed, single-minded individuals pushing their own agendas all under the guise of “productive discussion.” Since when were hatred and fear the key elements in productive discussion anyway?

You see … I am so deeply disappointed in our behavior as citizens of this country. If you are still reading this, do not think me unpatriotic. I am PROUD to be an American. I still get goosebumps every single time I stand and tilt my chin toward the stars and stripes being lifted by the wind while our National Anthem is sung or played. I try to say a sincere “thank-you” to our men and women in uniform whenever I get the chance.

But I can’t help thinking about where we were, who we were and how we treated one another just 10 years ago this week. September 11 is drawing near… again. For the tenth time our nation will stop and gather to remember the tragedy that occurred on that fateful day. Most of us will probably pause to remember where we were, what we were doing, how we heard, what we witnessed and hopefully—more importantly—how we felt.

A horrific thing happened on that Tuesday morning… an unspeakable act that has forever charred the fabric of the American tapestry. But on that day, and in the months and probably even the year that followed, we were united as a country. We had a common enemy: Terrorism and those who perpetuated it. We had a common goal: To restore peace and a sense of safety in our homes and in our communities.

What happened? Have we so quickly forgotten what we were so brutally reminded of on that day? That we are ALL equal? That we are ALL human? That we ALL love… and hurt… and bleed? That we will not live on this earth forever? That we are all in this together whether we like it or not?

Please, PLEASE I ask you to consider these things this week and if only for a little while… I encourage you to look at your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, fellow classmates and strangers you pass on the street… and remember that we are far more alike than we are different.

Falls the Shadow

“Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” — T.S. Eliot.

This is not what I had in mind. At some point in time everyone utters those words. No exceptions. Most of you have already said it. And if you haven’t yet… I promise you will.

Maybe it was the vacation you had planned or the house you always imagined you’d buy. Maybe it was the career you thought would last forever or the spouse who promised to love and cherish you “till death do us part.” Perhaps it is in the visions you had for your children, or even the vision that one day you would have children. It might be the health and well-being you expected from your own body.

Whatever it is for you… there is probably something that didn’t turn out the way you planned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes amazing blessings and miraculous surprises come our way. And that’s what keeps life interesting.

In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” there is a line that reads: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” There is much debate over what the entire poem means. And it means lots of different things to different people. But in that particular line I find it interesting to consider “the shadow” to be that grey area that exists between what we pictured in our minds and what we actually have.

If you’re anything like me, you might struggle with reconciling your dreams with your realities. And we may ask ourselves: How do I learn to be content living inside “the shadow”? I think the best we can do is to look around for the surprises… the tiny gems we never even considered to be of such great value: A neighbor who seems to come through just when you need it most. A co-worker who notices whenever you’re having a rough day and encourages you. A friend who knows everything there possibly is to know about you and loves you anyway. Family members who are your biggest fans and cheer you on even when you fall down.

These are the riches found in secret and unexpected places. We may need to write them down. Put them on the fridge or the bathroom mirror… somewhere we’ll always be reminded of them. This way, perhaps we will never forget that even if life doesn’t turn out to be the treasure chest we were expecting… we need to look closer. We will find that it is still a treasure bursting with sparkling jewels… just lying there… in the shadow.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

How is it that children see things so much clearer than we do sometimes? Perhaps it is because their brains aren’t as cluttered with all of the crap we adults tend to carry around. We underestimate their ability to comprehend, process and understand what we deem to be “adult information” and we often overlook how tuned-in they really are.

Three summers ago when I moved back to Ohio from the southwest and began my job search, I thought FOR SURE I had stumbled upon or been led to the perfect job for me. It all came about so easily and so quickly and I pridefully thought to myself: This is really going to work out much better than even I had planned. The job was near Cleveland, the pay was great, the company seemed solid and well-established, and the work was creative & diverse. The HR Director had even used these words: “We really think we have a good fit here” while referring to me as a candidate for the position. All 4 of my interviews with the various “suits” had gone well and I felt fairly confident that this thing was all sewn up.

I’m sure you can tell where I am going with this by now… I didn’t get the job.

The rejection letter came, a charming form of correspondence with which I would later become very familiar… and I came unglued. I mean REALLY unglued. Unfortunately, my then 12 year-old nephew, Cameron, was at the house at the time.

I should mention that for about 6 or 7 years now I have struggled with depression and anxiety… and I was in a bit of a fragile state of mind at this particular time anyway, so this letter was the last straw. In an attempt to protect the innocent as well as whatever is left of my credibility with whoever may be reading this, I won’t go into detail about HOW I came unglued. Let’s just say that the wheels pretty much flew totally OFF my wagon.

My mom and dad tried comforting me, all the while my nephew is in the other room, hearing terrible things spew forth from my mouth as I am screaming and sobbing and raging about all sorts of things that I’m pretty sure were not even remotely related to this “You Suck” letter. And I’m ashamed to admit it, but Cameron overheard things that no child should ever have to hear from an adult whom they love. Scary things.

A few days later, when I had gained some composure and perspective, in addition to a refill of my medication… it’s OK you can laugh at that… I took Cameron out to lunch, just the two of us, and I apologized to him and I asked if he had ANY questions he wanted to ask me about what he’d heard me say that day. Cameron is an extremely bright and mature child, therefore nothing was off-limits. I wanted him to know that it was ALL out on the table in front of us. He expressed his feelings of sadness and concern that I was so upset, but I believe he genuinely understood that everything was going to be OK… that I was going to be OK.

I wish that at the time, I had had the confidence in myself that my nephew had in me.

Fast forward 10 months.

It is 5:30 p.m. on a weekday. I am home from work and I pull my new car into the driveway of my house. Because my family has practically established a 2-block commune in our little town of Minerva, it is quite the norm for a stray child to appear out of nowhere with a hug and a bright “Hi Aunt JoJo!” And on this particular day… it was Cameron.

He gave me a huge bear hug and asked how my day was. I hugged him back, locked my car, gathered up my things and started toward my parent’s house to say hello. But Cameron stopped me. He put his little arm around my waist and turned me to face my house. And he said, verbatim: “Look at you now, Aunt JoJo. Look at how far you’ve come.” At first I thought he was just being silly and sarcastic and I smiled and hugged him again. But since I was not completely certain what he meant by that, while we were still hugging one another, I asked him: “What exactly are you talking about, Cameron?”

He lifted his chin up to meet my gaze and he said to me: “Your car. Your house. Your job. (And he nodded in the direction of each of those things) Look at all you have now. And to think that just a few months ago you wanted to give up.”

I was speechless. I started to cry. I squeezed him tighter and I cried harder. All I could do was nod in affirmation. At that point in time I was so overcome with emotion, that his small 4-foot-something frame was supporting ME. I held onto him for dear life and I have never felt a bigger knot in my throat.

Stormy Seas

“Calm seas don’t make good sailors.”

I read that once on a sign that I used to pass everyday on my way to work. I took a second to absorb it and then nodded my head in agreement that it is not the good times or the quiet times or the all-is-right-with-the-world times that make us who we are. It is the tough times that ultimately develop and define us.

That concept doesn’t exactly leave one with a “warm fuzzy” feeling. It kind of stinks to know that in order to be a better person, I am going to have to face difficulties and trials. But it is so true. And my not liking it won’t make it any LESS true.

So after I’m done lying down crying, kicking, screaming, yelling and feeling sorry for myself about how NOT FAIR (insert name of said trial or tribulation here) is… I usually pick myself up, dust myself off, and try to move forward while considering what valuable lesson can be gleaned from the unfortunate circumstance.

But sometimes it isn’t always that easy to just “learn our lesson” and move on. Some things are going to be SO big, so earth-shattering, so knock-you-on-your-ass devastating that it isn’t possible to simply alter our behavior, adjust our attitude or modify our thinking.

I have learned that sometimes we will have to sit in the dark while the storm rages all around us, knocking things down and forever changing the landscape of our lives. Sometimes we will have to cling to whatever vestiges of peace we can find when the sky overhead cracks open and the rain falls and thunder rattles our very foundation. Sometimes there isn’t going to be an easy way out. Sometimes we will just have to WAIT it out.

And that waiting can be the hardest part.

But I guess in those times—in those waiting periods—we can take heart that something IS happening! We are silently changing, growing and being refined. We become acquaintances of Sorrow. We have developed relationships with Patience, Perseverance and Stillness. So when the winds cease, the waters calm and the sun shines down on us again, no matter how long we remain in the center of that storm… we will be forever changed… for the better.

And when we open our eyes, we will find that we are not empty-handed. Rather, our arms have been filled with tools. Tools that will help us build a shelter for our friend when it is their turn to ride out the storm.

The Rolling-Ruler Concept

When I was little I loved to draw. My mom and dad, wanting to encourage this activity, were always getting me different types of “supplies” that I might use to create my masterpieces. One of the things they bought for me when I expressed some interest in it (after watching the TV Infomercial of course) was the “Rolling Ruler.” That was its name… and that’s exactly what it did. It was a ruler with a roller inside of it so that you could not only make perfectly straight lines, but perfectly SPACED straight lines.

In high school I took this nifty little tool with me to my art classes and I began using it on quite a regular basis. Before long I was using it for ALL of my art projects. Everything I drew was black and white and comprised of straight lines. I’d draw lines closer together and with heavier pens or markers to make things appear dark and then I would draw light, spaced-out lines to make certain areas appear lighter.

One particular day during my senior year, my art teacher was watching over my shoulder as I created a cityscape with my rolling ruler. It was then that he uttered ONE sentence that would set a course for the rest of my life. He said: “Joanna, you really should consider going into Commercial Art since you seem to like things so clean and precise.”

That was all it took. I was a senior. I knew I would be going to college. But I had NO idea what I should study once I got there. So I looked for a reputable school that offered Graphic Design as a major. (Graphic Design was called Commercial Art at one time) I found a school—Bowling Green State University—I applied, was accepted and started the Graphic Design program in the Fall of ’93.

I graduated exactly 4 years later, moved out west, got married, secured a great job in my field, bought a home, and began building a life. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was no longer using the Rolling Ruler as merely a drawing tool… I had begun applying what a dear friend of mine would later call the “Rolling Ruler Concept” to all facets of my life.

You see, what attracted me so much to the Rolling Ruler as an artistic device… was the control. Hello, my name is Joanna, and I am a control freak. I love precision and I crave perfection. With evenly-spaced, parallel straight lines everything ALWAYS makes sense. There is neatness and order, and I am the one making it happen. I am the one drawing the perfectly straight lines with the help of my handy little tool. Nothing EVER goes wrong, nothing is EVER crooked, everything is ALWAYS as it should be. As an aside, do you notice the use of all of the superlatives here? Heavy use of superlatives is another characteristic of textbook control-freakism.

At this point I should mention that if you are one of those go-with-the-flow-totally-not-a-control-freak-type-people… good for you! I envy you… but this writing will have little meaning to you whatsoever. On the other hand, if you’re anything like me, you understand exactly what I’m talking about.

There is a real problem that arises when one tries to apply a RULER of any kind to their life. Trust me, I know. For awhile I had the ILLUSION of being in control because things pretty much went the way I had planned them to… until they didn’t. And when they didn’t, my ruler went flying… and I was lost. I learned that the ruler didn’t work on other people’s behavior, it didn’t work on biology, it didn’t work on medical science’s intervention, it didn’t work on matters of faith and it didn’t work on external influences.

It was inevitable that at some point in time that ruler was going to get wrenched from my tightly-clenched fist and cast into the wind. Why is that? Because Life is messy. And since we’re talking about art, I would say that if Life were a painting, it would be a Jackson Pollock. All colorful and noisy and chaotic with spatters of paint, shards of glass and grains of sand and dirt tossed this way and that.

I’ve learned the hard way that Life doesn’t follow straight, evenly-spaced parallel lines. Life’s lines are crooked and bent and swirly and jagged and they cross over one another and collide unexpectedly and they are usually too wide, too thin, too short or too long. But even more important to note is the fact that WE are not in control. Many times I have exhausted myself trying to MAKE this “Rolling Ruler Concept” work in my life, but it won’t matter how hard I try… I have discovered that much of life was and is and will continue to be beyond my control… though I still fight it… A LOT.

One of the most difficult things I have to do on a regular basis is lay the ruler down… take a deep breath, step back, say a prayer and watch as the masterpiece that is my life reveals itself to me. Crooked lines and all.

The Survivor Tree

In the middle of a busy city, surrounded by traffic, concrete and glass, stands a very special tree. To simply look at it, you would assume it’s just an ordinary tree. And if you did not know the history of it or the reason why it is so special, perhaps you might walk right by without giving it a second glance.

It isn’t a very big tree, it isn’t a rare type of tree… yet it stands humbly and proudly in the center of America’s Heartland serving as an icon of survival. People travel from miles away to stand beneath the shade of its branches and reflect on its sheer existence and resilience. Perhaps they gain strength, perhaps they feel the freedom to surrender to their emotion and weep, perhaps they receive healing, or perhaps their chests swell with pride to be in the presence of such a cherished natural landmark.

I have had the unique fortune of visiting the tree 3 times in as many years. And on each occasion when I stood at its base, examined the bark and gazed up at the sunlight streaming though its canopy, I have been inspired. Several times I have driven across this country, and while passing through I have never failed to stop in Oklahoma City and pay a visit to my favorite tree… The Survivor Tree.

The tree got its name by surviving the bombing that occurred at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6 and 3 unborn babies in addition. The survival of the tree was quite amazing considering that the sheer force of the blast ripped most of the branches from it. Glass and debris were embedded in its trunk and fire from the cars parked beneath it blackened what was left. Most thought the 104-year-old tree would not survive. However—almost a year after the bombing—family members, survivors and rescue workers gathered for a memorial ceremony under the tree, and they noticed something quite extraordinary. In the midst of this field of desolation and despair… this tattered tree was beginning to bloom.

Drastic measures have since been taken to see that the tree is cared for and preserved in honor of those who survived that tragic day. A beautiful memorial surrounds it so that anyone who cares to may come and marvel at the wonder of the tree’s endurance. The inscription on the wall around the Survivor Tree reads: The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.

As I look back, I am reminded that my deeply rooted faith has sustained me thus far. You see, each time I traveled across the country and took the opportunity to stop at the memorial, I was never really “just passing through.” In my case, all three times found me in the midst of a personal life transition and when I approached the tree, it was always with a burdened heart. Standing on the hallowed ground of such a place, one’s mind cannot help but reflect as it reels with doubts, fears and endless questions about this thing we call humanity. But each time… the Survivor Tree stood there for me as if to say: You WILL survive this circumstance, after all… more fragile things than you have survived much deeper devastation.