Friday, August 27, 2010

A Simply Complex Personality

When Dr. Kelli Gardner taught in the psychology department at Waldorf College, she invited me to participate in an exercise for her Personality course. It involved allowing students to ask me questions – any questions they wanted – and then having them analyze what my answers might indicate about my personality.

Kelli, having read Involuntary Joy, correctly assessed that I would be open to such an exercise. “Not many people would be willing to do that, but I thought you might,” she had said.

Willing? How about eager? I loved the intent of her proposed exercise, and I think Kelli knew that I would.

I won’t lie. I won’t hide. And the safest topic for me to neither lie nor attempt to hide anything about is … well, me.

Is that a good thing? I like to think it is. In fact, I’m fairly Socratic that way. According to Socrates (c. 469 BC-399 BC), an “unexamined life is not worth living.” Centuries of philosophers have argued the meaning of his statement. I ascribe to the thought that living in denial of the motivations or circumstances that shape our thoughts and actions is a waste of time. A waste of life.

Life is each person’s best teacher. And, again like Socrates, I am fascinated by epistemology, or the nature and study of knowledge. Where does our knowledge come from? What do people believe they know? What do people know?

Ultimately: How do we know what we know?

Ironically, I have always thought one of my greatest personal strengths is my awareness that there are things I cannot claim to know. And once I identify an area of deficiency, I want to spend time collecting knowledge. I want to begin to understand. To know.

If you haven’t figured it out, the process of asking questions and then identifying answers invigorates me. And, as with the Personality course, answering questions about myself with honesty and integrity is exponentially more invigorating. If the reason I feel that way hasn’t become obvious to you, it soon will. Keep reading.

My life – as cliché as this will sound – is an open book. But each book is open to an individual reader’s interpretation, isn’t it? One person can read what is regarded as a classic – say Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women – and share in the awe of what those authors have brought to life on paper, while another person may declare their work as “drivel,” “inflammatory,” or even “scandalous.” Or take a more recent book: Eat, Pray, Love. Is it an inspirational memoir or a selfish diatribe? I guess it depends who you ask.

What is that about?

I guess I only know how it works with me. I am driven to examine my motivation, others’ motivations, my strengths, my weaknesses - even my personal demons. Mostly I love to search for the boundaries of the bigger picture, if you will; then wonder if boundaries actually exist.

As I’ve matured, I have witnessed – make that have experienced – that this manner of living can have consequences. My little sister, who has arguably watched firsthand longer than anyone else, recently said it this way: “Joy, you are a complex person who is difficult for people to understand. You like to use sunshine as a disinfectant and not everyone is comfortable with that."

Yep, that pretty much explains it. Except I think my approach is simple – not complex.

Let me clarify: I don’t see myself as a complex person. But can anyone really see himself or herself as others might? Probably not. So I must be – to some people anyway – complex. And, in fact, I am certain other words have been used to describe me as well. Recently I heard some fairly hurtful descriptors for me: “dark,” “snide,” “evil,” “backstabber.”

Had the words “arrogant,” “assertive,” “impulsive,” “forceful,” “passionate,” or even “selfish” been used – I’d cop to each one. I can be each of those. But I don’t believe I have “dark” or “evil” in me. And backstabbing someone is not my modus operandi. As probably too many people have learned, I am the person who will call you at home, walk to your office, or push for a chance to meet in person to talk through something that appears to be an issue of miscommunication. I want to deal with it in as simple a way possible – well, simple according to my complex way of being.

Oh, and if someone reading this believes that - contrary to what I just said - I've actually avoided having a conversation with you about something, that is likely true as well. But only because someone in authority told me they wished I would "drop it." (And it was really, really, really, really hard for me to honor his or her request.)

Remember the sunshine disinfectant? I want to get everything out in the open – to talk through things until it seems no more words can be said on a topic. I don’t wield anything other than words. However, I know words can cut like a knife. That’s why I try to choose my words well. Obviously, if I’m labeled by some as “evil,” “dark,” or “snide,” I’m not good enough at it. That’s likely why, sometimes, I simply end up making things a whole lot worse.


Life really is more complex than I have wanted to believe that it is.

So, dear Socrates, what’s a girl – a woman – a mom – a daughter – a wife – a friend – a teacher – a writer – a student-of-life like me to do? Consider me as Plato or Aristotle. Consider me even as Theophilus, a friend and student of God, for, my dearest God: I want to know.

Let’s get busy talking, thinking, examining. Let’s not waste the essence of life.

I would like to believe I am capable of getting better at interacting with others. Of having their perceptions of who I am more closely resemble the person I believe myself to be. However, will achieving that end mean I will no longer get to be who I am called to be?

For instance, when asked my opinion, I will tell. When asked my thoughts on a topic or how I arrived at my understanding of that topic, I will tell that too.

I am not sure I can stop being who I am.

I mean: I don’t know if I am capable of not saying what I think - especially when I see an issue of injustice, inequity or ineptness. I may not wait to be asked my thoughts. I will likely simply say them – and I will also, most likely, be insensitive when I offer my opinion. That’s part of what it is to be me. It doesn’t mean I am not working on developing sensitivity. It simply means that my inability to be sensitive is rather complex.

I know insensitivity is wrong. I know arrogance and selfishness are wrong. Yet I find a way to be those things anyway – even if in socially acceptable ways. Like talking only about myself for more than an hour to a class of students taking a course called Personality - and loving that the whole time the focus was on me. Or writing a blog where I tell about my life using my thoughts about issues that matter – if only to me.

Finding a way to be accepted for who you are. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? Or it is simply that complex.

I used to think that life was simple. Now I live the complexity of life.

And I guess that – as with the Personality course and my personal blog – I need to find a safe place to be me, for an unexamined life is a waste of life; and it is nearly impossible to examine something sufficiently while living in shadows or places where light and sunshine disinfectant are not appreciated. As my little sister reminded, not everyone is comfortable with that. Well, let’s be totally honest: They are not comfortable with me.

As I approach my 46th year of life, I am keenly aware that I have a whole lot more life to live – days not meant to be wasted, but fully examined and used in a manner to which I feel called. It is really that simple – or it’s that complex.

How about this: When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. I’d love to tell you all about it. (Did you have any doubt?)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August: My Quiet Place

I am in a quiet place again, wondering if this state of mind may be one of my life's seasonal certainties - unavoidable August, if you will. My least favorite month of the year.

My youngest son might take offense at such a label, for one of the Augusts of my life brought him into our family. And other than the long days of doctor-ordered rest that were prescribed to combat pre-term labor, that August was pretty fantastic. Almost like the Augusts of my childhood.

When I was a youth, my parents - both history teachers with an affinity for America - took my sister and me on epic tent-camping vacations throughout the country at the start of each August. One year my dad had us follow the path (sometimes the actual ruts) of the Oregon Trail. Another year we visited as many national parks and landmarks as possible in two weeks: Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Tetons. The August before my 16th birthday, the summer that Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour starred in Somewhere in Time, my parents took us to Mackinaw Island, the film's romantic location, where they tolerated my teen angst while wondering how many more years I'd willingly join them.

No matter the arc of our journey, our travels would always bring us back by mid-August in time for the Fayette County Fair. I would spend that week of August helping my dad coordinate and run all the fair's special activities: horseshoe tournament, spelling bee, rolling pin throw, nail driving contest, sack race, pancake flipping contest, and an amazing amount of events more. Those were really good Augusts. Even the August prior to my 8th grade year when - sometime during my responsibilities at the fair - I discovered that I would need to begin shopping in the feminine hygiene aisle.

Where did those awesome Augusts go?

This many years later, even that august supply aisle is a distant memory. I wonder when August began to feel like an obstacle - a time to live through in order to get to some place else.

When the words "quiet place" announced themselves in my mind today, I remembered that I had written a blog with the same title already. I searched to learn when and discovered that I had written that
A Quiet Place
blog during one of my life's Augusts: 2007.

Even that particular quiet place seems a lifetime ago; and in a way, it is. Involuntary Joy had just come out, and I had decided to move ahead with its second printing. By the next August, I had voluntarily put the book's momentum on hold to answer what I had perceived as a vocational call. Evidently I was in such a quiet place that August - 2008 - that I wrote no blog entries at all that month. But then, in mid-September, I emptied my heart into a blog that spoke of my frustrations as I hoped for a future.

And then there is last year's August - August of 2009. In the months previous to that August, I had fallen into such a quiet place, that I'd gone fully silent. I had written only one blog entry in May and one in June; both were republished pieces that I had originally written for others. But by September I was ready to live out loud again, letting go of things that no longer fit while looking for new undertakings to replace what felt lost.

From then until now, this InjoyBlog has been my lifeline. A safe place to be me: candid, introspective, honest, analytical ... vulnerable. I hope I can keep it that way. I hope I can resist the urge to fall deeply quiet again. Or maybe being quiet for a time - especially in August - is inevitable. Maybe it's my August thing.

Those of you who follow my InjoyBlog regularly - officially or unofficially - might recall that I regard birthdays as High Holy Days. Well, guess what. September is coming and all that month means to me: a time of review, renewal and rebirth.

I can hardly wait. Perhaps that is why I am in a quiet place. Perhaps this is my August of Anticipation. I hope so. And I guess there is only one way to find out: I plan to listen for lessons that linger in this August air, waiting for September to arrive.

September. My favorite month of the year.

Hey, September. I am looking forward to you and the possibility that you might bring a new way to live - maybe even a way that makes the month of August pretty awesome again.

Amen. May it indeed be so.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sweet Corn: It's an Iowa Thing

Iowans take many things for granted: four distinct seasons, quality education, beautiful sunsets, lush vegetation, family farms, county fairs, a median city population of less than 500 (true!), and sweet corn.

Sure, we may occasionally take a moment here and there to quietly breathe a humble breath of Iowa thanks. But in the same way that you can't recognize how tall your child has grown without looking at last year's photos, Iowans can't always recognize how blessed we are to live in a state where - as a friend who recently returned here for a visit said - "it is so green your eyes hurt."

A short drive on any Iowa highway is a reminder that farmers defined the boundaries of Iowa's interior expanses. They cultivated acres and acres of soil whose beautifully blooming prairie flowers hinted at the rich potential awaiting their labors. Farmers continue to define Iowa. If anyone doubts that, just watch what happens when August rolls around acting like a plentiful prelude to a promise-filled harvest season.

Few can understand the cultural connectedness of Iowa's agrarian heritage. How families gather to share in traditions shaped by food. And not just any food, but food from a land of bountiful blessings: hog roasts, strawberry festivals, beef barbecues, sweet corn feeds. Each gathering a celebration of food and the abundance of life lived well.

For our family, the first week of August typically means a trip to my aunt's and uncle's farm to freeze sweet corn. This year we - my family, my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousins and their children - packaged more than 130 quarts. And while we picked, husked, silked, boiled, cooled, cut, and packaged, we also talked, remembering what it means to be related and remembering how to relax even when your body has grown tired from a good afternoon of shared labor.

Thanks, Aunt Lois and Uncle Chuck. Our freezer is full, but our hearts more so.

Sweet corn. Sweet life. It's an Iowa thing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Graduation Tree House Celebration 2010

Life has an ebb and flow. A yin and yang, if you will. In academia, that can be illustrated in many ways. However, one of the most profound ways for me each year is when one class of students graduates, then only weeks later another arrives.

Quite a few of this year's class left right after graduation in May. However, a handful of students - those who took their studies as part of Waldorf College's three-year communications degree - completed their 8th semester this past week. And, like every year before, we enjoyed a celebration barbecue with them in our tree house to honor their accomplishments. Also as in years past, we were pleased to have a reason to spend just a little more time with our graduates before each one drove off campus for the last time as a student.

I have yet to meet the incoming freshmen. But I know fairly well those who just graduated and left Waldorf College to encounter their future: Brandon Aschinger, Andrew Blum, Mary Dickman, Robert Farland, Andrew Johnson and Tyler Snell. Thank you for sharing your lives with us. We are richer for it. Please keep in touch. We will love to learn where life leads you.

May heaven's richest blessings, crown every passing year.