Category Archives: Spirituality

Pockets of Emptiness

I’m not sure how or why or when it happened, but somewhere along the way our society decided that busy-ness is the new black.  When people can squeeze each other in for a quick cup of coffee or a hurried dinner, the conversation often turns to the laundry list of tasks that have been done, need to be done, want to be done.  Although all this busy-ness is presented as a complaint, it really comes across more like bragging rights.  The busier one is the better they must be, surely crowned as the more important one, the one who is winning.

But not me, I’ve decided.  Maybe I am getting old.  Well not maybe – I guess I actually am.  At the end of a day where I was decidedly homebound and happily so, I wondered if I would someday do a life review and feel like I had squandered my time on these lazy Sundays.  Days like today that are made of decadence like fresh linens, the smell of banana bread wafting through the air, hours sorting through future travel options, naps and thoughtfully planned dinners.  This is not about busy-ness or what needs to be done, other than needing to tend to my soul.  I just can’t imagine I could ever regret it.  Has it furthered my progress, made me a better person?  Got me closer to any of my goals?  Not really.  Do I care?  Not really.

My friend described it perfectly recently and I’ve clung to her words, taken them on as my own.  She said, “I have a really full life, a life that I love.  But part of that fullness includes pockets of emptiness that I must fiercely protect.”  Yes, yes, yes.  That is beautiful.  The space and time created by pockets of emptiness matter a whole lot, too.  There is no need to overthink it. I’m keeping them.

MLK

In 2004, my best friend Mindy and I decided to take a trip to drown our sorrows and/or celebrate our good fortune (yes, you can do both simultaneously) following a divorce for each of us.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, we landed on Memphis as our destination of choice.

Although Memphis may not be the dream holiday vacation for most, the trip has turned out to be one of our most cherished and memorable for a variety of reasons.  We ate barbecue, listened to the blues on Beale Street, got freaky-deaky palm readings done, went to Graceland and maybe kissed a boy or two. We still have memories that can spark instantaneous laughter about our foolish ways.  It was truly a charmed trip.

The highlight, however, was unquestionably our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is situated at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I’ve now been to the museum twice, and I have told everyone I know that if they are ever in Memphis, they must go.  In fact, I would say if you are an activist, a social worker, a teacher, or anyone who is committed to the human race, you must make plans to go.  It’s that good.

As is often the case when Mindy and I go to a museum, we were not moving at the same pace and this particular day was no exception.  This is because I like to take it all in and really absorb it – for about a good solid hour – and then my short attention span starts to kick in and mess with my head.  Mindy, on the other hand, prefers to move at the speed of a glacier (pre-global warming, mind you) and read Every. Single. Word.  (Don’t even get me started on the six hours we once spent at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved it.  But wow.  Six hours.  Whew.)

About two hours in at the National Civil Rights Museum, I had run out of things to occupy my time and maintain my sanity, and I was ever-so-patiently waiting for Mindy to catch up to me.  (This ever-so-patient waiting probably included a fair amount of sighing, eye rolling, and internal dialogue that sounded a lot like muttering.)  I could see in the corner of my eye that Mindy was engaged in conversation with someone.  Dear Lord, I thought.  Who on earth is she talking to?  

As it turned out, Mindy had been talking to a gentleman by the name of the Reverend Billy Kyles.  She introduced me to him and explained that he knew a thing or two about this museum and had asked us to stick around for a talk he was going to give in a few minutes.  Let me be the first to admit, at that point it seemed that Mindy’s slower museum pace was going to glean some benefits.

What happened next turned out to be one of the more profound experiences of my adult life.  At the outset of Reverend Kyles’ talk, he explained that he is the last living witness to Dr. King’s assassination.  (A note to any fact-checking readers:  Jesse Jackson had been at the Lorraine Motel that day as well, but had left just minutes prior.)  Now a pastor in Memphis, Reverend Kyles considered Dr. King a personal friend and feels a deep commitment to use any opportunity he can to carry his message forward.

Reverend Kyles walked our group over to a replica of the hotel room that Dr. King had stayed in, which was depicted exactly as it was the day that he was assassinated.  He pointed out to each of us there that the room included empty beer cans and a dirty ash tray.  He made it clear that Dr. King was not only a legend, he was a man with weaknesses of his own to overcome.  (He stopped short of mentioning Dr. King’s well-documented philandering, and I imagined at the time he was probably strictly adhering to a “bro code” even 36 years after his death.  There is no statute of limitations on bro code, right?)

Reverend Kyles’ message to all of us there that day was clear and compelling.  It would be easy for all of us to look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to hold him to a higher standard than one we hold for ourselves.  He had a doctorate and a pulpit. He had political connections.  He was one of the greatest orators not only of his own time, but possibly of all time.  But Reverend Kyles cautioned us, to compare ourselves to Dr. King in this way does ourselves or our society no good whatsoever. Rather, he told us, we must all take responsibility for our part in the solution. We all have weaknesses as Dr. King did, and we all have great power within us as well.  Not only must we not engage in overt racism of any sort, we also must not quietly stand by and tolerate racism on the part of others. Reverend Kyles left us with a clear message that above all else, we must be a conduit of compassion to human kind.

Mindy and I left the museum that day with lumps in our throats and a feeling of utter disbelief in our hearts.  How was it that we intersected at that museum at that exact moment to have that precise experience?  It was truly remarkable and at the risk of sounding dramatic, I would say it was life-changing.  It seemed implausible that I – little Jenny Swearingen who grew up on a farm in the middle of Iowa – would have but one degree of separation from a man I’d spent all of my adult life admiring, a man who had died a tragic death before I was even born.

We went back to our hotel room that afternoon and I knew in my heart that the universe works in mysterious and beautiful ways.  All the proof I ever needed had just happened right before my eyes.

Vitamin J

I don’t wish to be buried, but if I were I do wonder what the epitaph on my tombstone might say.  “She always appreciated good grammar.” “Here lies one sassy woman.” “Even in death, she was quite punctual.”

What is it that we want to be remembered for?  We each have countless quirks and steadfast beliefs for which we stand firm.  Are you a lover of animals?  A humanitarian?  A teacher?  A spiritual guide?  When it comes time to eulogize you, how will someone encapsulate the very essence of you in a 10 minute speech? I wonder.

Over the years, I’ve decided I would make my mark in one simple way that can be broadly applicable to any situation.  It is this:  I want those who have spent time with me to feel better after than they did before. Bit by bit, minute by minute, interaction by interaction, I want to elevate the energy field of the world around me. That’s it. It’s realistically my only goal.

And while it sounds simple, it is not always so.  I manage people, and people can be tough – what with their personalities and dysfunctions and deep, unwavering commitment to their misery and such.  Not only do I manage people, I manage them in an environment that is stressful, contentious, often demoralized and sometimes downright impossible. To maintain an environment that leaves people feeling better than when they entered it is no small task.  But it is a task I take seriously.

My basic work philosophy is that it is not only possible – but rather, it is necessary – to work hard and have fun at the same time.  Maybe I carry it too far – maybe there is such a thing as too much levity – but I want people walking through the halls of our workplace to hear echoes of erupting laughter.  I want people to feel joyful about the difficult work that we do, and to celebrate the small triumphs that are the result of our efforts. I want people to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the goodness in their hearts transformed into action has in fact made the world better.

For years I’ve referred to this intervention of mine as “Vitamin J.”  If someone is having a bad day, a bad week or a bad life, it’s nothing that a little Vitamin J can’t help.  Vitamin J encompasses a myriad of ingredients. It might just be a concerned, listening ear.  It usually involves reflecting the good the person has done and a sincere compliment or two.  It almost always involves a laugh, especially at the absurd.  Vitamin J is offered in regular doses and is always on the lookout for those who are woefully deficient.  Never fear, Vitamin J can also be delivered upon request.

I was once at work standing by the mailboxes and two employees were having a conversation I could overhear, though they had no idea I was standing there.  One employee was lamenting how terrible her day had been.  The other listened and then offered, “Sounds to me like you need some Vitamin J.”  My heart swelled with pride in that moment right there. A little time with me had become the antidote for what ails ye. How cool is that?

Do I think I have something special to offer?  Truthfully, I do.  But the secret to all of this is that everyone has

their own version of Vitamin J to offer the world if they try hard enough.  Our society has developed a sorry habit of focusing on the negatives in life, but it needn’t be that way. Take the time to watch as others make their way in this complicated life. Recognize that everyone has some colossal piece of luggage they are carrying around with them day in and day out, filled with their problems and their sorrows.  And then take a moment to elevate your energy, say a kind word, pay a compliment, tell a funny story or give a hug.  It’s the easiest and best thing you can do to make the world a better place.  And not only that, you just might make your own heart sing.

The Church of Santa’s Misfit Toys

Seven years and a day ago, my family said goodbye to a most remarkable man.  He was the Dr. Reverend Thomas Barth, but to me he was simply “Uncle Tom.”

It is a rare and beautiful thing when you have the opportunity to connect with someone whose spirit is so loving, so disarming, that you can truly be yourself – all of you- without hesitation.  Keenly and wisely connected to a God greater than himself, there is no question that Uncle Tom was steadfast in his Christian beliefs.  But unlike many others who so deeply believe and identify themselves as Christians, Uncle Tom was comfortable in the midst of anyone.  Atheists and agnostics were not welcomed in with a plan to convince them otherwise; they were welcomed in with a plan to love and accept exactly as they were.  I will say this boldly:  more than anyone else I’ve ever known, Uncle Tom embodied the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Uncle Tom’s story, as he told it to me, was that when his older sister Sally – my mother- was on her deathbed, she cautioned him, “Life is short.  Go be you.”  This life-altering exchange put him on a trajectory to take an honest inventory of himself and his life.  Over the course of the next 18 months, Uncle Tom lost and buried many more people in his life, including his own parents. He struggled with his own health challenges and faced his own mortality.  As dark and lonely as this time of his life was, it ultimately led to him ending his marriage and telling his family after 40 years of painful secrecy that he was gay.

Now I would love to tell you that my family applauded his efforts to be true to himself and sprang into action to provide loving support, but that simply is not the case.  It took years and countless hurtful exchanges for some people in the family to arrive at a place of peaceful acceptance.  I have no doubt that there were some very dark days where Uncle Tom felt the searing pain of a broken heart.  Even so, he stayed the course.  He had left the corporate world so he could follow his passion and return to seminary school.  He eventually received his doctorate in theology and was installed as a pastor in the United Church of Christ.  After being part of a few different churches, he found his home as the pastor for a small, fledgling church in Waukegan, Illinois – a church I had affectionately dubbed “The Church of Santa’s Misfit Toys.”  It was the perfect place for him to be, because no one can heal a broken soul like one that has been previously broken itself.

It was over the course of these years of painful growth that Uncle Tom’s life really coalesced.  He met and married a partner who was a partner in every sense of the word, and was eventually assigned the term of endearment “Aunt Bill.”  He built an incredible allegiance with his two children, Todd and Carrie, and loved them as fiercely as I’ve seen any parent love.  When he moved just an hour away from my sister and me, he welcomed us in as part of his “Christmas family” and treated us as affectionately as he did everyone in his life. He told us stories and made us laugh with his silly, outlandish antics, and he helped my sister and me keep the memory of our mom alive.  He even provided mentorship to our friend Matt, and helped him understand that it was possible to fully reconcile being gay and a Christian – a reconciliation Matt desperately needed and carries with him to this day.

Greater than any of this, though, Uncle Tom lived out the values he so frequently preached.  In short, he forgave. It is the single most important thing I learned from him, that the key to a happy life is forgiveness.  He lived it, he breathed it, he taught it by example.  His forgiveness of those who had hurt and betrayed him in his times of desperate need was one of the most profoundly beautiful things I have seen.

He left us in the blink of an eye, but Uncle Tom stays with all of us in subtle and tender ways.  A cardinal landing on a branch to pause and sing their sweet song, a bowl of chocolate ice cream before going to bed, a hearty laugh at the absurdity of life.   Seven years and a day have gone by, and I’ve never stopped missing him.  I’ve also never stopped knowing my life was richer for having had him in it.

Buying Pants

My sister and I have this saying – a saying we have used for a long time.  It goes a little something like this:

“It’s like buying pants.  You can’t force it.”

I am guessing most of you know what I mean.  Pants are tough.  Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter what kind of pants we are talking about.  Dress pants, work pants, yoga pants, jeans…it’s pretty much the same experience.  Ninety-nine point nine percent of them don’t fit right.  They’re too bunchy or too short or too big in the waist while at the same time too small in the thighs or too stupid looking or Jesus something is wrong with every pair of pants I try on today.  Honestly, what is the deal with pants?

And you see, when you set out to buy pants, you really have to go to a zen place.  You have to let the universe take over and guide you to your pants destination.  Because even though you might really really really want/need/can’t live another day without a new pair of black pants, sometimes the universe just doesn’t agree.  And if you force it – well, we all know what happens.  You buy the pants, and you might even spend too much on them.  And then the first time you wear them, you know.  I shouldn’t have bought these fucking pants.  They don’t even fit right.  They are giving me a muffin top. I hate them.  And then maybe you let them hang in your closet for a year or two, and then you finally give them to Goodwill.  Let somebody else have these stupid, ill-fitting, unattractive, over-priced goddamn pants.  Enough already. Am I right?  Can I get an amen?

So really, it has become our metaphor for life, and I was reminded of it again just today.  I was in the middle of a whole stupid thing, and I thought, “You know what?  This feels like buying pants. I can’t force it.”  Which is really to say, I could force it if I wanted to but it wouldn’t work out anyway.  This is one of those things that I know for sure.

Because the truth is, when the time is right the stars will align.  You probably won’t even be looking for pants, but it won’t matter.  The clouds will part, and the sun will cast a light in just the right way, and the pants you have been looking for will be right there in front of you.  Right there in front of you, and on sale.  And that my friends, is when you know everything is just as it should be.  With pants, and with life.

Pieces of Paper

Pieces of Paper

It is human nature, or perhaps Jen nature, to think that we are fully in charge of our lives. We plan, we coordinate, we study, we work, we network…all because we know exactly where we are headed and precisely how we are going to get there. And yet, if you really stop to look at the path of our own lives, how often does it really go as planned? Not so often, would be my guess.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new friend, a friendship that as it turns out may be the shortest I have ever experienced. I was out of town on business and, because of my own social inadequacies, sat at the bar for dinner as opposed to getting a table for myself. Because really, let’s be honest, if you sit at the bar alone you look like much less of a loser than if you sit at a table alone. Really. Everyone knows that. Duh.

Anyway, the gentleman next to me at the bar, clearly embracing this same “cooler at the bar” mentality, struck up a conversation with me. Over the course of the evening we played a 3 hour verbal game of “I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours.” We cautiously, then bravely, then joyfully swapped stories of jobs, families, moms, irritations, passions, falling in love, falling out of love, hopes, dreams and the beauty of a clean slate pursuit. Okay, so maybe it sounds like the beginning of a tawdry novel inclusive of a steamy love affair, or perhaps more astutely as my friend Kim would say “a great way to end up in a Hefty bag on the side of the road.” But I assure you, it was innocent, and wholesome, and heartwarming, and a great reminder of the connectedness we can have as human beings if we are just willing, even if only for a moment, to step outside of our comfort zone.

And in talking to this guy–a guy I never knew before and may never know again–I learned something. From him, I learned that a little piece of paper can change your life. Now, I suppose we all can come up with pieces of paper that changed our lives. Divorce papers, sitting on my car seat one dismal April morning six years ago, certainly come to mind. But really, our lives are so inundated with information and papers and posters and flyers and post-it notes and memos and reports, who really pays attention to every piece of paper that crosses their path? But this guy did, and it has changed the the trajectory of his life forever.

As a teacher, my new-found friend noticed that someone had posted a flyer on a door in his school that simply read, “Teach in China.” And you know what? He did. For three summers he went to China to teach for the summer, and he said that even though he had been to 45 countries previously, the moment he stepped off the plane in China he felt like he fit in–he knew that he was home. So, after some soul-searching and consulting and worrying and planning and hoping and selling his stuff and breaking the news to his grown children, he decided to spend the rest of his life teaching in China. Boom. Just like that. Picking up, moving on, starting over, building anew. A new chapter, a new adventure, a complete revision of his life story….all because of a flyer that most everyone else would have ignored or maybe used to swat a fly.

I spent the evening enchanted by his courage and wondering if I could ever do the same. Probably not, I surmised, and then when he told me that in previous trips he had eaten things like chicken intestines (“probably not cleaned” mind you) and duck heads, I was certain the answer was no. Nevertheless, I was reminded of the importance of having an openness and an awareness of everything in our lives. A piece of paper–a meaningless, mindlessly placed, graphically lacking, stupid flyer, on white paper and probably typed in Comic Sans or some equally offensive font–can change your life forever. If you let it, that is. Will you?

Numbers

I’ve always loved math and growing up it was my favorite subject. This set me apart from a lot of people who found it to be daunting, but it was a subject I really enjoyed to no end. I think the reason that I loved it so much was that the answers and the numbers brought order to my sometimes chaotic world, or at least that was my perception of it. It also satisfied my need for the healthy dose of frustration that must be involved in any situation in order for it to be be truly enjoyable to me. Of course, I liked algebra best, but a close second was geometry. I especially loved doing geometric proofs, where you had to use logic and find the trail all the way to proving the theory. I loved math so much that sometimes, if I was stuck on a problem, I would go to bed early and the answer would actually come to me in my dreams. When I woke up, I would run down the creaky stairs of our old farmhouse and finish the problem no matter what time of night it was. Kind of weird, I know.

But I must say that in my adult life, numbers have not always had the same sense of order nor have they brought me the serenity that I found with them in the confines of a classroom. I was anxiously thinking about numbers all day because I have to complete an $11 million budget for 28 programs in the next 3-4 weeks. Did you see that? Three sets of numbers in one sentence, that combined feel like a chemistry experiment gone awry. And even though I have a long-standing love affair with numbers, today they don’t feel like my friend. Today they feel like a 400 pound gorilla that is locked in a cage with me.

I have learned throughout my life that numbers have power. In my own life, numbers have at times been elusive, they have sometimes let me down, they have been the occasional source of conflict, they have even been downright scary at times. As adults, we seem to attach numbers to just about everything, as though life has to be quantified in order for it to make sense to us. And yet in so doing, we all seem to be haunted by at least some of these numbers that we attach to our lives.

For some, it’s a high cholesterol reading that looms over one’s head, promising an early death. For another, it’s a dress size or number on the scale that chips away at their self-esteem. It may be the seemingly low balance in the checkbook that is believed to be holding them back from their dreams, dreams so far in the distance that they can’t see the greatness that is right in front of their eyes. For many, it is the rightful salary that is believed but never achieved. Some refuse to acknowledge the number of birthdays passed, as though it is a dirty secret never to be shared. Still others tally the number of sexual conquests to make themselves feel whole, but in so doing callously toss away part of their soul with every new addition. If you think about almost every major component of an adult life, you can attach a number to it in some way.

I can guarantee you that those very numbers have brought nearly all people disappointment or angst or full-blown panic attacks at one time or another. How many people do you know who think they will have found true happiness if only they could lose ten more pounds, make $20,000 more a year, take five years off their face through cosmetic surgery or get a car one model more expensive than their own? The world is filled with this kind of thinking, and yet as every goal is reached, a new one–with a new number–is just as achingly longed for. The number changes, and the promise of happiness remains as elusive as chasing a ghost or herding squirrels.

It has occurred to me that in the one place in life that matters the most, numbers don’t count. Our creator is not keeping score, and there is no real way to quantify one’s spirituality. In a spiritual sense, there is no magnitude or degree or severity or balance attached to love, regardless of the type of love it is. At the end of the day, love is love. And even though it has the capacity to grow, it has no numbers attached to it. It’s no wonder that love, in all its forms, is what everyone seeks for solitude and true fulfillment.