A prayer to Phoebe

Phoebe (August 28,2005-March 15,2011)

Dear Phoebe,

I have never witnessed greater pain than I did at your funeral on Friday. I felt it in my body. There were times when I could hardly breathe. And Phoebe, I barely knew you. How much worse must it have been for your parents, who loved you more than life itself?

Please stay near them. Be obvious about it. Be clumsy about it as they adjust from the warm tangibility of your physical presence to the wispy subtlety of your spiritual being. Help them know you, not only as the five-year-old girl you were, but as the powerful spirit who loved them so much, that you agreed long ago to draw forth from them greater love, devotion, effort, and courage than anyone thought possible.

For more than two years, they tapped in to reserves that they didn’t know they had in their fight to keep you alive. And now they are empty. There is little left with which they can care for themselves or each other.

They must’ve concluded by now that the source of their strength was not entirely their own. It couldn’t have been, because caring for you in your illness required more strength than human beings typically possess. Assure them now that that source of strength is still there. Show them in a tangible way that you are still there. Remind them that we are still there to hold and support them.

The world as your parents knew it has ended. Help them deal with the absolute sacrilege that life will go on. Help them now to do the most courageous thing of all: to live without you.


Damsels, distress, and ethics

Like any young damsel in distress, I always dreamed that a knight on a white horse would rescue me someday. Didn’t matter what the distress was. Maybe it was my night to do dishes. Maybe I forgot to do my homework. Maybe my siblings were especially annoying that day.

Fast-forward to today, and I am actually experiencing real, grown-up distress. As always, I dream of being rescued and relieved of my burdens. But for the first time, I realize that it’s completely unethical to allow anyone to do it.

When you’re a damsel in distress, you’re in it for the rescue, not the knight. And that’s not fair to any man.

So I sent the knight away.

Truth, and where to find it

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, and the Bible was our sole source of truth. It was considered inerrant, which means, in essence, that God dictated every word of it, and that it was perfect in every way.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to discover contradictions and ethical quandaries in the Bible, and that’s not a problem if you consider it a book that was written over a period of hundreds of years by countless authors. But if you believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, these contradictions are a big problem that leads pastors everywhere to cherry-pick the bits that serve them and sweep the rest under the carpet.

Of course, as a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and resident assistant in a dorm at a Christian university, I cherry-picked, too. Only I swept much bigger things under the carpet—things I never understood. Like why Jesus had to die for my sins (the core tenet of fundamentalist Christianity) and communion (the idea of symbolically eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood grossed me out). Large cracks began to form in my faith, but on the whole, it still held together.

Then two of my former youth group kids died at the age of 17 and 18 in the same car accident and my faith crumbled. It took two decades to rebuild my cosmology, and I slowly found new sources of Truth. I no longer wanted to BELIEVE something was true. I wanted to KNOW it was true.

When I believe something, it calls on me to have faith. Like, say, that the Bible is literally the word of God. When I know something, every pore in my body opens to receive it and incorporate it into my being. Believing is an intellectual experience. Knowing is a physical one.

Long after Mike and Jill died, a woman in her seventies handed me a cassette tape and suggested that I listen to it. I did and knew there was Truth on that tape. Then I learned that the Truth was channeled. This posed a problem. If I accepted this new source of Truth, I would have to keep it secret. My fundamentalist loved ones would consider it satanic and fear for my mortal soul.

In the end, I decided to accept this new source of Truth and concluded that:

Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it.

This mindset has made it possible for me to find Truth in unexpected places. Like a quote by musician Marilyn Manson in the movie Bowling for Columbine, while dreaming, and while packing for a move.

Recently, I discovered my most cherished source of Truth yet: Shamanic journeying. Journeying provides a means of obtaining direct revelation, which is something I’ve yearned for all my life. Until now, the quality of my connection with the Universe was about as good as you can achieve with two soup cans and a string. I always longed for a hard-wired, broadband connection that provides me with a sense of direction and spiritual companionship. Journeying is it.

Again, I have found a source of Truth that I have to hide from people who love me. But Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it. And I couldn’t be more grateful for this one.

The New Year’s theme

This year, I’m taking the advice of author Steve Shapiro and establishing a theme for the year instead of list of resolutions. Steve is the author of Goal-Free Living and estimates that only 8 percent of Americans achieve their resolutions. He advocates choosing a one-word theme instead.

“Resolutions are things to do,” says Steve. “Themes are a way to be.”

Examples of themes are:

  • Service
  • Flow
  • Flexibility
  • Health
  • Confidence
  • Travel
  • Self-expression
  • Harmony

The year 2010 was one of the most challenging of my life, so for me, the theme for 2011 is “joy.” For my son, it’s “fitness.” What’s your theme for 2011?

Using a compass instead of a map

I recently read a heretical book called Goal-free Living, and loved it. Among other things, author Stephen Shapiro advocates navigating life using a compass instead of a map, which I found especially relevant, given the fact that I created a tool whose very purpose is to help you access your inner compass.

Our first maps are given to us by well-meaning parents, teachers, clergy, and employers. They provide a bird’s-eye view that enables us to “see” destinations that may be thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, they cause us to become so destination-focused that we don’t see where we are in the moment. Compasses, on the other hand, give us a sense of direction, but don’t provide information beyond our line of sight. They keep us in the present.

Why would anyone choose a compass over a map? Because using a compass forces us to look within, identify the true north of our passions, tool up to pursue them, and follow where they lead. Using a compass means making room for synchronicities and serendipities in life. It means being alive, NOW, rather than postponing life until after our goals have been met.

I called this book heretical because ours is a very goal-focused society, and a book on goal-free living seems to go against everything that we believe in. Nonetheless, as I’ve spoken to others about it, I’ve encountered relief. Some have said that they live life in a goal-free way, but have felt guilty about it. Shapiro’s book makes them feel validated. Others have recognized that living goal-free is a more feminine approach that has been frowned on in our patriarchal society. They weren’t really able to put their finger on that distinction until they were exposed to Shapiro’s book.

I agree with that. Motherhood blew the map right out of my hands. I lived goal-free for a decade, picked the map back up earlier this year, and then another gust of wind came. Now, here I sit with my compass, feeling validated, excited, and scared all at the same time.

Being afraid–and liking it

Night before last, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a local author. “I just had a thought,” I said. “Maybe you can help me think it through. You know how some people love to be scared? They go to scary movies and pick out the scariest rides at amusement parks? I wonder if some people are like that in real life and just like to be scared.”

I’ve never sought out scary things on purpose, having found real life scary enough. I can only guess that people who deliberately expose themselves to frightening situations must feel safe in all other areas of their lives. No one experiencing the real-life horror of a concentration camp, for example, would queue up to see Friday the 13th.

Now, let’s say that we are eternal, and knowing that makes us feel completely safe as disincarnate beings. We can dip our toe into the sea of mortality whenever we want. Let’s further say that our sense of safety leads some of us to seek out the contrast of deliberately bringing scary situations into our lives when we’re incarnate.

“Am I one of those people?” I wondered. “Am I saying ‘yes’ to scary things just for the experience of it? If so, I’m ready to knock that off right now.”

This morning, while walking through the forest, my thoughts veered toward something frightening, and I stopped myself. “You’re making a choice, Petra,” I said. “You’re choosing to walk into the horror show. Why do you do that?”

I’m beginning to realize that most of the fear I’ve experienced  in life has been anticipatory. My scary pie chart would look something like this:

Enough of that. Here’s to staying off roller coasters and out of horror shows.

Changing lanes

The way I figure it, I spent about 200 24-hour days in traffic on State Route 520 from Seattle to Redmond and back over the course of 10 years. This commute bore the distinction of taking me across the longest floating bridge on Earth twice a day.

You see a lot when you spend that kind of time in the car. Little things, like the fact that someone glued a bottle of aspirin to the jersey wall between the east- and west-bound lanes. The way a road-striping crew painted a fresh yellow line all the way up to—and then beyond—a dead raccoon on the side of the highway. And a guy dressed as the grim reaper, standing silently at an intersection.

These things were entertaining, but one of my experiences became a metaphor that has helped me ever since.

During my commute, I was often frustrated to find myself in a lane that had come to a dead stop, while traffic moved briskly and efficiently in the next lane over. Eventually, I learned that I couldn’t switch to the lane I wanted to be in unless the traffic in my own lane began to move as well.

I learned that you can’t change lanes unless you’re moving.

The economy brought me to a halt, and I saw nothing but brake lights. This was especially frustrating because people were sailing by unscathed in the next lane over.

It took a while, but the lane I’m in has begun to move. It’s less than ideal. It’s nowhere near where I’ve been or where I want to be. But as I pick up speed, I also pick up the ability to make choices.

At some point, I’ll be able to change lanes. Or I’ll realize that the one I’m in now turned out to be the right one after all.

What’s a nice girl like you doing at a land trust?

We lived on a 50- by 100-foot lot in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood when my son Adrian was born. He was only weeks old when I noticed that he stopped crying if I took him outside, and I soon realized that I couldn’t raise him in the city that I’d called home for 20 years. We had to move. This child needed to be in nature.

My husband did not feel called to parenthood as I did, nor did he feel called to move to the country. The day came when I had to choose between my husband and my child, and our divorce was final when Adrian was 18 months old–three days after my father died.

I was doubled over with loss, but Adrian’s needs kept me putting one foot in front of the other. He inched me through the valley of the shadow one diaper-change, one feeding, and one nap at a time.

I set my sights on Whidbey Island and began the search for a new home. It was difficult for the people who loved us to understand this, and some took it personally. How could a single mom leave her support network behind and move with her toddler to a strange place where she knew only one family?

Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey Island is a calling.” For us, it was more than that. I felt as if we got caught in a sci-fi tractor beam–there was no way for us not to come.

There are times here on Whidbey Island, particularly in Langley, when life feels so idyllic that I’m afraid a Klieg light will drop out of the sky, as it did in the movie The Truman Show, and I’ll discover that I’m just living on a really big movie set. It feels that idyllic. And it’s my deepest privilege to raise my child in a place where he can fish, dig for clams, and whack nettles with a stick; where he’s had goats, chickens, and bees to care for; potatoes to harvest; and trails to blaze through the forest. But beyond being a beautiful place, Whidbey Island has redefined what the word “family” means. Our family has grown to include others who heeded the same call and moved here to provide the best imaginable childhood they could for their children.

I stayed home with Adrian until he was 10, which is when we finally overcame the vision problems that had made it so challenging for him to succeed in school. The businesses that I had been running from home did not generate enough income to support us, so I began looking for a job elsewhere. Having been employed as a technical writer before Adrian was born, I searched for writing and editing jobs on the mainland, completely heartsick about the 12 hours a day that I’d have to spend away from my son, and struck by the irony that I had to work off the island so we could live on the island. Moving was out of the question.

Then, one day, clicking the wrong link on Craig’s List led me to an expired listing for a communication and marketing position at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. I read the description, and said, “That’s me!” But when I went to www.wclt.org and saw this slide show below, I knew it was my job in the same way that I knew I had to move to Whidbey Island. The slide show represented everything we loved about our home.

Could it GET any better than working on the island, protecting what makes it so special in the first place? In spite of my late application and a total of 165 applicants, I was the one they hired, and I feel lucky to spend my days preserving a place I love so dearly.

Stuff, and how it defines us

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

My mother grew up in Germany during World War II and experienced genuine need. During that time, for example, ration cards limited each citizen to only one egg per month. And if somebody in your family had a birthday that month, your egg was likely to wind up in his or her cake.

Surviving the war caused Mom to hoard Stuff, which insulates her from need.  At 80, she is surrounded by a sea of her own Stuff, as well as all the Stuff that my father left behind when he died.

Dad’s father was a chaplain in the Army, which had him moving hither and yon all of his childhood. Unfortunately, Dad later joined the Air Force and forced the same fate on us. When we were moving every year or two, we didn’t acquire much Stuff. But when Dad retired, Stuff came in waves.

For dad, Stuff was grounding. It was an anchor. It kept him in place. It also raised his self esteem. Being able to say “I’ve got one of those” made him feel important. When he died, he left behind an inordinate amount of Stuff.

My Stuff story didn’t gel until after I’d realized a dream and designed and built a house. Building it was one of the most fun and creative things I’ve ever done. It was self-expression on a grand scale, and the best part was that I got to live in it after it was done. Everywhere I looked, I saw a reflection of who I am.

For me, Stuff became a mirror. Due to a perfect storm of adverse financial circumstances, I have to sell the house that I created, and with it, a business and a farm. This has sent me reeling. I’ve come to realize that, in the absence of my Stuff, I don’t know who I am.

We moved several weeks ago, and I still haven’t found my feet. Most of our remaining belongings are in storage, and only the bare essentials are with us in a cabin that a dear friend invited us to live in for a few months. As lucky as we are to be here, I do not see myself reflected in my surroundings and I’ve been experiencing an identity crisis.

Who am I?

In my attempt to make sense of my losses, I concluded that they must’ve been necessary because I’d come to derive my sense of self from the wrong things. But what were the right things?

Today, with the help of two coach friends, I realized that the right thing is people. People—and the love they hold for me—are the most accurate reflection of who I am.

I cannot describe how much relief that realization has brought.

But enough about me. What’s your Stuff story?

The fear of fear

When I felt fear in the old days, I just felt fear. But since I learned about the law of attraction, which has become mainstream since the movie The Secret came out, things have gotten much more complicated. In a nutshell, the law of attraction means that like attracts like: positive thoughts attract positive things and negative thoughts attract negative things. So, basically, if I dwell on the things that scare the crap out of me, I’ll create them.

Now I’m scared of being scared.

On some level, this strikes me as wrong. Emotions are messengers that bear information for us, and we ignore them at our peril. They must be invited in, heard, and then released. Carl Jung said that what we resist persists, and being afraid to fear seems like resistance to me. If I resist fear, won’t I create what I fear?

Instead of resisting fear, what if I felt it, made a decision about how I’m going to respond to it, and then moved on? Fear motivates us to act like nothing else does, and perhaps I just need to work up the courage to feel and transmute it.

This works for me on a philosophical level, but on a practical level, I hate feeling fear. I have never understood why people go to horror movies.

But hang on a minute. What if my fear is just a judgment? Raising a son brings many opportunities for fear and watching Adrian has often made me wonder how our species survived. When he was younger, Adrian seemed to need to take risks. Life for him was a perpetual if-then loop. If I do this, then what will happen? It was challenging to balance his need to explore with my desire for him to survive his childhood. But he has survived, and all the things I considered risky did not turn out to be fatal after all. I feared for his life and in my fear, I judged many things dangerous that didn’t turn out to be.

Walt Whitman wrote “Be curious, not judgmental.” What if, instead of judging that whatever I fear (and indeed, fear itself) is bad, I were curious instead?

What if?