The Day the ‘Shoulds’ Died


It has been exactly one month since I drove my car into the side of a pickup truck westbound on Highway 2 toward Bemidji.  After my world (as I know it) exploded, my first thought was that I was not dead and probably should or could be.  My second thought was to call Milt (after I grabbed a paper towel to hold against my bleeding forehead.  My third thought was that my life was going to be different than it had been just seconds before.

It was the worst accident of my life.  I had serious injuries to both feet and a thoracic compression fracture plus nine stitches to my forehead.  Nothing required casting or surgery or even an overnight stay in the hospital, but it hurt.

A lot of things came to an abrupt halt.  Suddenly walking from the couch to the sink was a major effort.  Sitting in a chair was painful.  I could only sustain writing or working on the computer for fifteen minutes.  Those of you who know me well, know that I am not a person who easily sits still.

But maybe hidden in that statement is the one good thing to come out of this accident.  Maybe I am learning to sit still, to rest, to reflect, to stop piling one thing onto another surrounded by a whole lot of shoulds.

It was not easy to give up on my do list.  I wanted to “should” on myself.  I really did.  One week in I hobbled out to the flower bed, sat on the ground, worked for five minutes, and then tried to get up.  Not good.

I had to cancel several presentations and a workshop, set aside my book a month project, and stare passively out the window at the massive amount of garden chores and mudding projects that I had been preparing to dive into.

I rested.  I slept.  I drank a lot of water.  It felt like everything in my life was suddenly being filtered through my inured feet instead of my too busy brain.  One month in, and I am just now beginning to sit for a full hour upright without being 100% conscious of only my pain.

But an event like this makes a person ask a lot of questions.  Why do I feel the need to do, do, do?  Where does it get me?  Who is behind the voice in my head that is constantly telling me what I should do?  And if I don’t do it ALL, who cares?  And maybe more importantly, are questions like what really matters to me?  What do I feel most passionate about?

In a strange way I like that I am being forced to take personal inventory and not just racing down a path of do, do, do until I drop.

I don’t yet know what the outcome will be.  I remember reading a story about a psychologist who had a client who didn’t know how to say no or put things down.  When she came in one day he walked around the room and kept picking up things and handing them to her—a tissue box, a figurine, a potted plant, a book, a pillow from the couch.  She just kept taking whatever he gave her until she couldn’t hold any more and began to drop items.

It is too easy to go through life and just keep picking up more and more to do and be without letting anything go.  I’ve been doing workshops since 1985.  I’ve sat in a room with thousands of people, listening to their requests,their hurts, their desired outcomes until once face blurs with another.  I’ve planted a garden every years since I had my first house in 1979.  I’ve written nearly twenty books.  And now we’ve built three straw bale structures that need my expert mudding attention:)

Is there a little voice in my head that says, “But what about me?”

Maybe it is time I sat in silence and stillness with her and listened to all she has to say.  I have no idea what that might mean, but I don’t want to dance to every single should (and could—it is just as demanding) that emerges out of my mind.  I want to be intentional.  Careful.  Generous and gentle with myself.

The only thing I am slowly beginning to get back to is finishing my books.  It felt good to re-engage my story self and set her loose upon the world again. And the only other things that matter to me are love and creativity, and I have those in great abundance around me.

I wonder if this blog will continue on as I re-emerge from my recovery.  We shall see.

Peace to all of you and take great care with yourself and those you love.  It is really all that matters.

And special thanks to my husband, Milt Lee, for taking such good care of me.  You and me were meant to be.

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Blunt Force Impact

1-personal-085Today is the anniversary of my children’s father (my first husband, Wayne) who died in a plane crash over 10 years ago.  It still gives me shivers to read this.

Blunt Force Impact

The top of my bedroom dresser is buried again.  Outside, the sky is brittle blue, and there is snow on the ground.  On my dresser top are stray socks, bits of paper, stones, jewelry, a dead telephone, a newspaper clipping, and things I can’t yet see.  Deciding it’s a good day to clear it, I empty tissue paper out of a shoe box to begin with one thing empty.

This sudden need to clear my dresser top is a distraction.  I just reserved a motel room at the top of Rimrock Highway, a place to retreat to in order to finish the final paper of my master’s program.  I asked for room number nine on the second floor near the rocky slate wall rising above Rapid Creek.  In my mind, I see the room–have been there three or four times already.  It smells of dust, old carpet, and too sweet deodorizer, but it has no phone and it’s cheap.  Except for the creek running below the rock wall, there’s nothing to distract me.  The position paper is on “belonging.”  Ironic, I think, to retreat from my husband, my son, and my eight-year-old granddaughter to write about belonging.  Sometimes we step away in order to see more closely.

On my dresser top is a boarding pass from Luthansa Air.  Last October we flew to Germany to interview Bert, a man with a deep soul who’s written a book on the hidden orders of love.  He spent a lifetime studying the high cost of belonging.  Americans are restless, he said, because we seek our ancestors.  We landed in Frankfurt and took a train to Kufstein, Austria where I felt strangely at home, familiar with the bits of lace on the edge of table runners, the red and yellow salt and pepper shakers, and the paper doily beneath my coffee cup.  My grandmother’s family once lived near here.  I didn’t know them.

On my dresser top is a single small, tan pebble with a light streak running through it.  It looks like the tip of a finger.   It came from the concentration camp outside of Dachau, probably hauled in with a load of rough gravel to keep the mud and memory from seeping up.  Atop my jewelry box is the small yellow booklet on Edith Stein, the Carmelite Nun who died at Dachau.  The nuns have surrounded Dachau.

Belonging.  It holds the submerged energy that fuels wars, splits families, turns one against another, and gives the illusion of innocence when guilt is the only reality.  I sort the stray socks on my dresser top that have lost their mates, separating his from mine, seeking the lost ones.  Beneath the socks is a small leather box from India or Guatemala purchased in a third world store to support the workers from other nations.  Beside the leather box is another stone, this one from Vermont, gathered on a silent walk during a seminar on structural thinking following the trip to Germany.

Where do we belong? Does human behavior link to long ancestral lines, hidden forces operating within the larger family of origin?  Or are we subject, in a chilly way, only to formal structures dictating action, emotion, and experience?  I resent being asked to choose a position, to select one camp and abandon all others.   What is the cost of this choosing?  It became the subject of a deeper inquiry.

The lone socks on my dresser are mated once again; blue to blue, beige to beige, paired for life, or until they separate once again.  I pick up a sand dollar on my dresser top.  This pretty bit is from Orange County, California.  The sand dollar, along with several stones, rest on my dresser top by intention.  I like stones and shells.  This particular sand dollar had a twin, one I found before the gulls plucked its center out.  It was the first perfectly intact sand dollar I’d ever found on all the beaches I have walked.  I broke it in pieces packing it for my granddaughter to take to show and tell.  The one on my dresser is the less than perfect one.

Belongingness sounds like too-simple a topic for a position paper.  I narrow the topic from belonging to “conscious belonging”.  Conscious belonging is about gaining the freedom of self to not just blindly belong but to pick, choose, finger the cities of the self like the stuff on my dresser to determine what deserves care and attention, and what to discard.  Blind belonging is belonging because we fear not belonging.  It’s the go along game; choose a camp, take a position, and then fight to the death for that bit of ground.

There is a book by Rilke on my dresser top.  Poor, brilliant Rilke.  His mother lost a baby daughter and later named her son Rainer Marie after the dead daughter.  Bert, the German, would see Rilke caught in the tangle of his mother’s grief, bravely bearing it for her, leaving only the legacy of his poetry behind.  Belongingness.  Inclusion.  Exclusion.

Bert says the only group we cannot choose is the family.  To that, we simply belong, forever.  It stands alone among all other groups and holds even beyond death.

When we defend a position we give up variety for belonging, loosing out on a vivid, wide-awake life.   When we defend a position, we become blind to all others.  We lose fluidity, flexibility, our right to change.  We lose our hearts.

On my dresser top are movies stubs from Manhattan downtown.  They say Bowling, short for Bowling for Columbine.   There is a theme running through the things on my dresser top.  Or perhaps I only imagine the theme because of the paper.  The shootings at Columbine School are about belongingness—or not.  Inclusion.  Exclusion.

Suddenly, I see what else was on my dresser top.  Two photos.  Just remembering them slips me suddenly back into early September.

The first photo is a long, horizontal picture of my 17-year-old daughter, Lisa, at the wheel of her car.  Her smile is big.  She has a fabulous smile.  Her left arm is extended straight out the window, her wrists circled with two blue bands of uncertain material.  “With attitude” the arm says.  Behind her in the image is a giant, cloud layered sky.

The second photo also has sky but bare of clouds this time.  A steel power line structure takes the center of the photo like a giant.  And on the earth below, tattered, scattered, and burned is a single engine Cessna belonging to my first husband, the father of my three children.  Lisa’s dad.  It’s a newspaper clipping that reads “Local Men Dead After Air Crash Near I94 in Central North Dakota.

The two pictures are incongruent with one another and with the things on my dresser top.  When I called Lisa in the middle of the night to tell her that her father was dead, she screamed.  As she screamed, her sister came in the door of her apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska and they screamed together.  I could hardly breath, listening to them scream, with me an impossible nine hours away, and my son still soundly asleep in his bed in the sunroom.  Rilke writes,

Finally, using both my eyes

I close my face,

And when it lies with its weight in my hand

It looks almost like rest.

That’s so they won’t think I have nowhere

To Lay my head.


Love.  The hidden orders.  Belonging.  Or not.  The social scientist, Kurt Lewin said it is not belonging but our own uncertainty of belonging that makes us vulnerable.  I buried those two pictures sitting on my dresser top in favor of stones and sand dollars, my mind’s gentle effort to shield me from this memory, of my children crying, and their blade-sharp question.  Do you think he loved us?  Really?

Blunt force impact.  I will despise those words forever.

My children went with their uncle to the site of the crash and threw carnations of all colors gathered from memorial mourners over the site.  Then they dirtied their hands with soot and soil, digging like archeologists in search of any sign of him.  My eldest filmed the scene, ending with my 17-year-old son washing a chunk of metal that looked like a crude sculpture of cumulus nimbus clouds.  A piece of engine melted from form…to formless.  His back is to the camera, he squats, dipping the metal in a stock pond on a piece of prairie outside of Bismark, North Dakota.  In front of him, an incredible sunset swallows his hurt.

Suddenly, I understand why my dresser top got so piled up these past two months.  Where to put all the things it contains–how to assimilate, integrate, how to fit each item into the greater soul of my own life?  I can’t file and tuck these things away and I can’t get rid of them either.   Again I think about the position paper, and of the tasteless motel room waiting for me at the top of Rimrock where I’ll go and sit cross-legged on a blue bedspread for the next twenty-four hours and write about belonging, or not; about conscious belonging, or not.   And in the meantime, my dresser top will pile up again, and again, and again.

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These are the days of holiness and wonder . . .


During our morning coffee Milt mentioned that earlier on the news they had covered “Easter” without a single mention of Jesus Christ.  It was all about bunnies, eggs, chocolate, and sweet-filled baskets—the junk side of Easter, not the heart and spirit of Easter.

I was raised Catholic and, although I no longer practice that religion, I have a lot of memories of Easter season. I remember it as the end of an arduous time of lent, prayers, and of fasting and cleansing. Mom would have us kneel along the length of the couch to pray the rosary. We went to the Stations of the Cross at church, and I can still smell incense and hear the mesmerizing tones as the priest and his attendants sang the difficult journey of Jesus Christ in Latin.

And yes, as a little girl I loved Easter morning, donning a pretty pastel dress, a new Easter bonnet, the pure, pretty white gloves, ribbons in my hair. But even then I understood that these pretty things had somehow been earned by our practices and sacrifices through the long Lenten season.

And yes, we got a small gift, eggs dyed into pale colors and a bit of chocolate and jelly beans in a little basket.  It was a celebration.

On the Saturday before Easter we were not allowed to play vigorously but were encouraged to stay quiet and still to remember the day that Jesus died.

I left that religion behind for many deeply personal reasons, but I kept the holiness and wonder of it when I left. Later, as I sat in an ashram meditating on other saints, smelling the incense burning, and listening to the beautiful chants (also in an unfamiliar language) being sung by people in long robes, I realized that I had not gone so far from where I had begun.  It was, and is, the state of holiness and wonder that hovers in my heart, the inner state of being, that I want.

When I started this post this morning I intended to criticize the crass commercialism of Easter; but as I’m writing along, I see there is much more complexity in the message of Easter. We come to holiness and wonder not by what we are given but by what we must give up. Like Jesus, we come to holiness and wonder through what we suffer in life. We have to give up easy familiar ways of being, we have to be on our knees sometimes asking big questions because life can be harsh. And then, like Jesus, we have to rise and stand up again and go on with eyes wide open.

I have this deep feeling that all of this “fluff and stuff” that the merchants want us to buy is really a way to divert the path. They want me to believe that if I get the right stuff, it will give me holiness and wonder. I can just buy it, right?

Joseph Chilton Pearce in one of his books talked about how our obsessive need to consume and own stuff rises out of a much more embedded and intrinsic need to be connected—in the family, to community, to our own heart, to the spirit. I think he is right. Everything is spinning so fast in our quest to consume that we grow further and further away from our need to connect—and holiness and wonder are lost to us.

We yearn for holiness and wonder. A kind of spiritual starvation sets in when it is missing and no amount of purchased goods, food, drink, etc. can feed that hunger of the soul for what only the spirit can provide.

Can we reverse this out of control spiral of consumerism as a replacement for connection that leads to holiness and wonder?

I think we can, but it will take more than one day a year. And we have to do things differently than we are doing now.

Here is a scenario. Let’s say you spend $300 on Easter junk.  It took you ten or more hours to earn that $300.  What if you bought one Zen tangle coloring book and pretty markers for $15 and then spent ten hours coloring with your children (or your friend, family, partner)? What if you just scribbled and let the trail of conversation go lazily to wherever their heart questions lead them and you just listen? You don’t advise, teach, preach, or condemn and correct. You just listen with every cell of your body to what they have to say.  (And no phones or pads allowed.) Which do you think they would prefer . . . the junk . . . or the time?

Or what if you spend ten hours with your own heart questions? Asking for answers?

The other night I was struggling with this myself. I was in a space of feeling isolated and shut down—no holiness and wonder.  I was awake in the middle of the night with nothing but my own agitated thoughts. The next day when I really talked it out with Milt, the concerns and questions of my heart emerged one by one.  I felt alone. I am sad for my sisters. I’m worried about death and loss. I feel insecure and uncertain. Then as the words flowed out, my heart met his heart and once again, like magic, holiness and wonder rose up in me once again. I had been experiencing “heart failure” and now my heart was restored.

Connection doesn’t just happen. A space has to be cleared for it, the way prepared, the time set aside, the flip tops closed and the screens darkened, the expectations released, the fears allayed, the resentments dispersed, the path swept clear.

And then, without effort and without force, holiness and wonder fill that open space. Again, it is not about what we get—but what we have given up that brings this transformation about.

I hope you have filled your day with holiness and wonder and not junk. I hope you have surrounded yourself with soul mates (yes, there can be more than one) who are unafraid to ask big questions or to just listen as you ask yours.

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