November 3:  (Sun)light Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Happy Standard Time Change, friends!

How do time changes affect you?  What about the shorter days here in the higher northern latitudes this half of the year?  I don’t have seasonal affective disorder, but no question, the absence of light affects me.

I grew up in Colorado (really, I know you could not possibly know by reading this blog), taking the sun for granted the whole time.  Blogging makes me read more, which makes me more honest.  I’ve been bragging to my friends lifelong about 320 days of sunshine per year in Colorado; turns out it’s more like 245.  But it’s still more than the US average of 205.  (Arizona has 299; Chicago has 189.)

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Utterly anomalous, then, that I decided to go to Northwestern for college.  I already wrote this summer about my campus visit—rain, rain, and more rain.  I never saw the sun that whole weekend.  But maybe it was the lake, viewed from the student center, that called me—that vast blue expanse, a smooth surface concealing untold life and tumult beneath.  There was no other school for me; I was meant to be there, sun or no sun.

Fall quarter freshman year, recalled now by a typically skewed mid-life memory, was a BLAST.  Independence, new friends, beautiful campus (deciduous trees with fall colors other than yellow, YAY!), being a small intellectual fish in a much bigger, much more diverse and interesting pond—I was in heaven.  Going home for Christmas, once I overcame the stark reality that life had clearly continued without me (what?), was also joyous. I caught up with old (HA! ‘old’ at age 18) friends and curated more items to bring back to school.  Life was sweet!

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So two weeks into winter quarter, I really had to wonder why I felt so down.  Mopey.  Low energy.  Sad.  Not severely, but noticeably.  I remember the moment, walking south on Sheridan Road in front of Tech, the giant engineering building (third largest building under five stories after the Pentagon and the Kremlin, they told us on the campus tour—found no reading tonight to verify this).  I looked up at thick gray-white clouds blanketing the sky.  I saw everywhere bare branches, orange and maroon leaves long gone, and only dirty snow, ice, concrete sidewalks and holey asphalt on the ground.  I had not seen the sun since returning to school, and I realize now as I write, there was simply no color anywhere outside, other than the bright neon Columbia jackets my friends and I wore in those days.  So of course I felt sad!  I think that was the day I started hating the climate here.  After that I never worried about my mood in the winter, grumpy as it was.

Fast forward about 17 years:  Winters were taking their toll: waking to blackness every morning, getting two little kids ready and out the door by myself, working indoors in a windowless office, and coming home again in the dark to the same little kids, hubs, and chores.  Maybe I was getting more cranky than I realized (she says innocently)?

My infinitely patient and loving husband was, finally, completely and justifiably fed up.  For Christmas, perhaps out of desperation, he bought me a dawn simulator, which may have saved our marriage.  It’s basically an alarm clock dimmer, which you can set to gradually turn on a bedside light to simulate the rising sun.  For the past decade or so, pitch black mornings outside have given way to a soft, emerging glow of light in my bedroom sanctuary.  By the time the audible alarm sounds, my surroundings are already warmly lit by the full spectrum bulb that came with the device—it really is kind of like dawn.  And I kid you not when I say that I am a much happier person all day—all year—for it.

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Since this realization, I make sure to get by a window every day in the winter, even on cloudy days.  Any light is better than none, and it makes a huge difference for me and everyone who comes in contact with me.  With age I have also gotten better at noticing how my environment affects me.  It’s a slow and continuous awareness.

The sun always shows itself eventually, my friends.  Maybe you’re like me and a dawn simulator or light box could improve your life.  It makes me think, though—meanwhile, how can we all be a little light for one another?

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Out and Back: Coming Home

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Meadow Creek Trail, Lily Pad Lake toward Frisco, Colorado

When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?

What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?

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Ptarmigan Trail, outbound, Silverthorne, Colorado

Out and Back

I used to think out and back trails would be boring.  What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came?  Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?

But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape.  The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience.  It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.

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Ptarmigan Trail, looking toward trailhead from same point as above

Looping

On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go.  If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it.  Or maybe you always go the same way?  That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps?  But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.

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Meadow Creek Trail again

In life, do/can we ever really go back?  I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started?  Are you?  And regardless, why hike in the first place?  What does it do for you, what do you gain?  Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?

Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:

John Gardner, in Self-Renewal:  “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception.  We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world…  That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us.  At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”

John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara:  “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

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West Overlook, Ridge Trail, Dillon, Colorado

When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant.  But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year.  And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply.  They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses.  What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met?  What do you want to focus on this day we are together?  When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it?  I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.

Mei lakeside July

Chicago, IL

Homecoming

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University.  We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home.  I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor.  When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment.  I never call it ‘coming home.’  Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual.  But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.

That perspective changed today.

These last days I have thought deeply about my life path.  I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places.  Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up.  My plan is still to go back for good someday.  But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home.  We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school.  It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend.  But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home.  I was born here after all.  It is my dad’s and my alma mater.  I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year.  I’ve brought my kids here since they were born.  Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.

We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated.  From the back, I first saw the silhouette.  Then I heard the voice.  Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love.  I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom.  He led my RCIA class for confirmation.  He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle.  I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.

I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories.  The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up.  Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991.  Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado.  Which is the Out and which is the Back?  Doesn’t matter.  Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.

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Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

On Easter: Separate and Unite

Sheil Easter 2019

What does Easter mean to you?

It occurred to me as I sat in the second pew today, coming to church on Easter labels me.  I declare myself Catholic on this occasion, in this place.  I separate myself, in a sense, from all who are not Catholic or Christian, from all who do not celebrate.  You might consider that I do this every Sunday at church, or every time I say I’m Catholic.  But on Easter it feels more intense, because this mass is all about the definition of Christianity—He died for us—we hold this to be true (I still have questions about that, actually) and that is what makes us Christian.  I apply this label to myself by my attendance at this mass.

I generally dislike being labeled, because of the assumptions that inevitably and automatically accompany labels of any kind.  You are Catholic, therefore you must be pro-life and thus anti-woman (I am pro-choice).  Your church is full of pedophiles and those who abet them; your religion, and you as an extension, represent the worst kinds of repression of the reality and diversity of human expression (if you think this please read about Father James Martin).  You are Chinese, you must be so smart and have a Tiger Mom (I am so smart but I don’t attribute it to being Chinese, and my mom is not Amy Chua).  You are a doctor in executive health, you must have done it for the money (this one slapped me recently, and I still seethe a little over it).

I have attended my church for 28 years this fall, starting my freshman year in college.  I was confirmed here, my children were baptized here, and I would have been married by the priest here, had it not been New Student Week that year.  I have so many friends here, from the couple who sponsored me for confirmation to the woman who ran the nursery where both of my kids played, to the director of the prison ministry who has kept the pencil record of my kids’ heights on the wall in his office.  I return to this community not for the ‘body and blood’ mass parts, which I could get at any Catholic church.  It’s how the people here put their faith into action that I admire—seeking connection across diversity, holding space for differing viewpoints and discoursing with respect and compassion.  Next month there will be a dialogue on the Ten Commandments led by our pastoral associate and a Northwestern campus rabbi, entitled, “The Big 10.”

I consider myself not religious at all, rather faithful and spiritual, and this is where I practice.  So while I separate from non-Christians this Easter, I unite with this particular Catholic tribe.  And let me be clear: separating into tribes is a GOOD thing.  Humans are wired for belonging and shared identity.  Support from those we identify with and relate to is essential for survival and thriving, especially in chaotic and uncertain times like now.

But it is in exactly such times when we must be wary of over-identifying with those we perceive as similar to ourselves.  Separating (or sorting, as Bill Bishop calls it) ourselves by religion, ideology, profession, or any other in-group carries risks for us all.  As I looked around the chapel today, I saw a widely diverse group.  Most people were white, many at least a generation older than I.  But there are always college students here, bringing balance, which I love.  I see also families like mine, our children growing up as members of the community, making it a whole of many assorted parts.  No doubt we are not all of one political persuasion, and we each have our own reasons for whatever opinions and positions we take.  We must not assume that just because we attend the same church, in this little building or the Catholic church of the world, that we are all the same, or wholly different from those outside of our church or faith.

As we unite as Christians this Easter, then, separating ourselves from ‘non-believers,’ what is the best object of our spiritual focus?  When we think of ourselves in terms of this religious tribe, how does it impact our identity and relationships in the tribe of humanity?

What are we called to do with this faith of ours, how are we meant to best manifest it here on Earth?

I hear Brennan Manning’s words in my mind all the time, like a warning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

By the end of mass, I decided that if I choose to accept this ‘religious’ label, oversimplified and overgeneralized as it is, then I must represent it well.  I must not personify the corruption and hypocrisy that so many identify with Christianity—I must demonstrate the opposite.  My faith in action must be driven first and always by love, and never by fear, never by suspicion.  If I can pull this off, then separating myself as Catholic or Christian serves wholly to unite me with all of humanity, because that is what my faith, and what I believe the best of all faiths, calls us all to do.