Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hurricanes of the Heart

The first line of a poem came to me again when I sat down to write this blog, so I thought I would share it with you. I present to you, John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God”:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor even chaste, except you ravish me.

One of my final courses in graduate school was a 17th Century poetry course, taught by the chair of the English Department at the University of Houston, and John Donne was one of about 10 poets whose work I came to know more intimately. The poets of that time were very much concerned with the nature of the Christian God; they needed to understand, as many of us still do, the relationship between God and “Man”…humans…persons. God, in this poem is “three-personed,” which I find very comforting…God with us…a God like us. But more interesting is the relationship between that God and us—and how apt this poem is in the 21st Century…in my life…in relation to my journey.

In the poem, the human spirit struggles between a love for God and a natural tendency to turn away from that saving Grace. “Reason,” the faculty which reigns in God’s stead in the human mind, is “captived, and proves weak or untrue.” The idea of freedom here is the freedom from temptation…the freedom from the weakness of the human condition…freedom from imperfection in love. The speaker of the poem asks that God storm the human castle and take the soul captive, in order to truly free it from a sinister bondage—that Earthly curse requiring the pain of repeated error and incompetence in things spiritual, loving, and good.

The professor who taught this course is a paragon of intellectualism…known as a GPA “buster.” I took the course, frankly, because it was the only available offering that fit with the final course requirement I needed to graduate. I knew I liked Donne and Herbert and Wroth, off the top of my head, and I love poetry, but the course itself didn’t sound too exciting—it was listed as 17th Century Non-Dramatic Literature—and, as I mentioned, the man had a reputation, and I was determined to beat my undergraduate GPA. (I missed a 4.0 by the equivalent of one course—a story for another day!). Let’s just say that I regretted that I had missed the pinnacle by so small a margin, and so each successive "perfect" semester compounded my secret longing into an ever-increasing goal to surpass that mild disappointment.

And so, I took the course, and it turned out to be one of the best courses of all those I took during my three year stint at the University. It was a small seminar of five women, plus the instructor. Finally, I was able to speak!!! In seminars of 18-22 students who were seasoned and much more talkative than I, my opportunities for contribution had been severely limited. Here, I felt like a graduate student. And I worked harder in this course than in any other. Perhaps I could have done more, but I had two other courses that semester, and I was graduating, and I did the best that I could at the time. In any case, I earned the dreaded A-minus.

I know, I know. But all of you perfectionists out there are groaning with me …I know you are. So, did I mind? Sure, it’s still a thorn in my paw sometimes…that feeling that I JUST MISSED out on something really exceptional. And a wry expression comes over my face when I think about how my GPA’s match. In fact, if I’m really in a self-flagellating mood, I will think that it just goes to show I’m not quite good enough, or that it's part of the Universe's plan to keep me humble or wanting more. (I told you those little mean voices are nasty!) So what does this have to do with my journey now? Well, that brings us back to the first line of the poem, inspired by recent events, meteorological and otherwise.

Previously, I likened the Queenly awakening to being “born again,” and just as the newly converted are often quickly tempted by the old lifestyle, habits, or “wicked ways,” the newly crowned Queen is quite vulnerable to the slings and arrows from those around her who are threatened by her changing attitudes and behaviors. A new Queen, when she discovers her dream, must make decisions about her life: What will she do? Where will she go? Who will be in her court? The natural consequence of decision is change, and change can be unnerving, to say the least. So, I made a “First Things First” kind of decision of seismic proportions, with long-lasting repercussions, and as the devastating weather stormed into the Gulf Coast shores, my heart was being battered by a hurricane of its own creation.

I apologize for being vague here, but the last thing I want is for my journey blog to sound like a soap opera. Suffice to say that I listened hard to the voices of my dreams and stepped out into the fury that I had avoided for so long. I realized, as the waves came crashing over the levees around my heart, that I had, on a fairly regular basis, “protected” myself out of a life of my own creation. I think that’s where the line from the poem emerged. A friend had told me that life was falling into a pattern of “the same old, same old.” I responded with news of my decision and wrote:It’s brought up all kinds of things. I think it’s been part of the relentless ache in my heart all these years, but I was unable to recognize it as such because I’d mentally convinced myself that things were “better this way.” And, still, in some ways they were. Now, it is merely the right time. So…not really the same old same old over here. More tumultuous than the weather really. Hurricanes of the heart.

After writing those last two lines, I started hearing the refrain of “Batter my heart, three-personed God” run through my mind. Now, in this particular case, I am not struggling with my religion—although I know that it is on "the list" of things to address on my journey—but the essence of the poem that I hear right now, in this situation, is that in order to be truly “free,” we must allow that love and passion to overcome us. We have to be willing to be stormed like an enemy castle, or battered as by a storm. We have to weather the transition from the realm of fear and indecision into the Promised Land of strength, conviction, love, and plenty.

Those evolutionary storms of passage may be large, small, or merely imagined, but succumbing to the paralyzing threat is far worse than choosing to live through the turbulent paradigm shift(s) in our lives. And I promise you—once you find the true path, you will move out of the damaging winds and heavy rains and into that dead quiet center where nothing can touch you. When your “eye” and your “I” align, you can see the future, and the fear will leave you. Each true decision you make will show you the way.

Welcome the storm that leads to the peace of understanding…or, if you will, the peace that passes understanding…but don’t let it devastate you. Rather, let it refine your senses and clarify your thoughts, ideas, and dreams. Let the winds blow, the rains plummet, the hail pelt, the lightning flash, and the thunder roar, but stand in the calm center of your being and dare to dream in the face of it all.

Note: My heart goes out to everyone affected by Katrina—this storm of Nature completely surpasses the gravity of any hurricane of the heart I might be living through right now.

© Nicole J. Williams, 2005, all rights reserved

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Where Am I? How Did I Get Here?

Have you ever awakened from a dream, and peered out between your lazy, drooping eyelids, only to feel a sudden chill or thrill of energy run through your entire body? You might even have reflexively braced yourself with fingers splayed and flat palms clapping down on the mattress as you passed through that initial moment of confusion…of feeling as though you are waking in a strange place. Sometimes that happens to us because we are actually away from home, and during the night, the memory of the unfamiliar has been replaced with the warm fuzzy feelings we associate with sleeping at home in the comfort of our own beds. But sometimes it happens in our comfy beds at home, surrounded by everything we know, with all as it should be—or, at least, as we think it should be.

I suppose it is much the same as the archetypal dream of entering a crowded room filled with strangers, acquaintances, and perhaps loved ones…who suddenly begin to laugh at us and point. Yes, you know the one…the naked entrance dream. Dreams like that one have played out in so many of our minds because we are concerned about how others feel about us. I think that the feeling underlying the “where am I” dream comes from that same primal reservoir of fear—it’s a fear of being lost or forsaken, perhaps even a fear that our concept of reality is not true—we aren’t where we think we are in life.

More often than not, however, we have the sensation of “where am I?” during waking moments of introspection. It is the signpost we encounter when we begin to seek a conscious path towards a goal that, at first, may only seem like an inner longing or a stirring of our soul. We may say, “What is that uncomfortable feeling?” Many of us ignore that discomfort and hint of desire brewing deep down inside—for years. But oh! When we finally hear it, and cock our heads slightly to the side and listen to it…. When we let it speak, and engage that small voice in conversation…. When we truly hear what the voice has to tell us, then the whole world opens up!

That is the point at which you join me here. My whole world just lit up like daybreak at midnight! Previously, I’d heard bits and pieces of what the voice was saying, but I manipulated it like a Magic 8 Ball, asking it for speedy answers to essentially yes or no questions. I hushed it when it tried to suggest another alternative, or to remind me of my true heart’s desire—in its desperate attempt to save me from martyring myself with the limited choices I regularly used to barricade my dreams. I’d heard other Queens speak of that magical, transforming moment…the point of no return that they could identify as signifying surrender to their heart of hearts’ desires, but I just never felt it. I thought that I’d had mini-breakthroughs along the way, but nothing ever seemed truly life-altering or long-lasting.

I find myself wanting to describe this transformation by likening it to becoming “born again.” I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories of people who have attended church for years, out of dedication, habit, or just plain love, but who never feel a fire burning inside. Good people who start out good and continue on that path, being servant-like and pious, but not finding that deep spiritual connection.So that was me. Queen Camellia told me about Queen Power, and her friend Allyn, and how really great women-sharing was happening and was inspiring to her. So I checked it out and thought it was pretty nifty! But I was worn out and didn’t feel like I had time to “play” on the forums. I gave myself a queen name and said hello, signed up for the newsletter, and downloaded the ebook, Catch Your Dream and Live It, read a little bit, but then that was pretty much the end of it. Low and behold, though, Allyn needed a newsletter editor and Donna recommended me. She knew I needed something and knew I’d be amenable to that kind of assistance. So, I became the editor.

Now I had an “official” reason to read the newsletters—from head to toe, and without fail! I really enjoyed them! And I always thought to myself that it was nice to have a “reason”—in my busy world—to read them each week. I started soaking up the message…this Queen thing really made sense, and it sounded great. But it was easy to slip back into that voyeuristic mode and my Eeyore doldrums and think, “Those women are so much better than I am. I’m not like them. I can’t live my dream…heck, I don’t even have a dream. Dreams are frivolous when you have to take care of two kids on your own.” But I kept listening—secretly. I let the Eeyore part of my brain complain and the dreamer (Pooh?) imagine how lovely the honey would taste if I could just stick my whole paw or muzzle into the pot!

But I got to the point where a little voice started to rebel. It said things like, “You’re always helping everyone else do what they want—you never DO anything yourself. You’re always the maid and the cook, and the sidekick, the grader, the editor…you aren’t WRITING your own stuff.” Of course, that voice was quickly countered with, “Well, you don’t have anything to write about anyway. These women have it all covered. And that science fiction book you want to write? Bah! Kid’s stuff. Besides, you don’t know how to write a book, and no…you can’t learn now, it’s too late. I don’t care what those women say, it doesn’t apply to YOU.” Ouch, huh? Mean and nasty little critter voices in there!

I started to walk away from Queen Power because I was busy…because I thought my “dream job” was in the wings…because I felt so darn inadequate and out of the queenly loop. But even as I began to pull away…I realized I missed it. And then when the job didn’t materialize, well, then something wonderful happened—Queen Power sponsored its very first teleclass! I thought about listening in, and I almost chickened out, but Queen Me said the right thing at the right time, and I made it a date!

Christine Louise Hohlbaum talked about finding a dream and living a passion-driven life. Everything she said made sense, but it was what I didn’t expect her to talk about that caught my attention. The discussion turned towards how to deal with negative people. Christine said, “The people who are the most negative are the ones who want what you have. They are jealous.” Wow! My mind whisked back over all of the little nasty voice words I’d heard in my head about me not being like the other queens, and I knew! I was a negative person and I was jealous because I wasn’t living my dreams! (I was boo-hooing on my end of the muted phone line by this time!)

One of the other ladies on the phone had worked with Christine to find her passion—her dream—and she had had to make the discovery that she did NOT want to teach—it wasn’t her dream. I heard that, and I thought of myself, but I said, “NAAAAH! Now you are just thinking that this stuff has to be complicated. And you’ve just spent all this time convincing yourself that teaching is your dream! And besides, you aren’t like them and everyone can’t be a writer just because they want to!” (Darn those little voices!!!) Well, Christine also happened to mention an author she respected a whole lot—Cherie Carter-Scott, author of If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules, among others.

This is where the full miracle began to unfold. I looked Cherie up on Amazon.com and saw that she’d written a book called Negaholics. I took the quiz online and scored 98 out of 100—with 100 being a sure sign that you are entirely engaged in a negaholic lifestyle! More tears!!! So…off to the bookstore I went. To make a long story a little bit shorter, I ended up plopping myself down on the floor in the self-help section of Half-Price Books and browsing. I bought two of Cherie’s books, Stephen Covey’s First Things First, and the book that is helping me snap out of my Eeyore ways— Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement, by Kenneth W. Christian, Ph.D.

After reading Negaholics and starting in on Your Own Worst Enemy, I could feel something wriggling to break free from the mental chains of my mind. And then it all came to a climax when I started in on the written exercises. My first response was “UH-OH!” when I got to the freewriting exercise that asked, “What would you do that you are not doing now, or have not done, if success were 100 percent guaranteed?” In my 90 second allotment, I wrote that I would write—that science fiction story/novel, poetry, blog articles, a dissertation. It was all about writing—not teaching. I was actually astonished to find out that my mind quickly divulged that secret, and the unrecognized motivation for avoiding writing. I was afraid to fail! No wonder I couldn’t write!

Suddenly, it was as if I were dying… my whole life seemed to flash before my eyes. Ok, not the whole thing, but all the decisions that had taken me away from my dreams AND all the dreams I’d ever spoken that had to do with writing. I even saw, all together, all the times that I became semi-conscious of the fact that, through teaching, I was helping my students overcome the obstacles that keep me from writing. Or rather, I should say that I was constantly frustrated when they did NOT follow my advice and exhibited behaviors that I now see as a mirror reflection of my writing issues—waiting until the last minute, avoiding, not revising, waiting for perfection to come out rather than writing lots and lots of whatever and then playing with it. And I also could see that I so admire the students who play and explore and write like they never knew they could write after taking my advice. Advice I wouldn’t even take myself!

You know…I think part of the reason Queen Power was so attractive AND so intimidating to me is because there are so many women who write. (What a way to put your hidden dream in bas relief!!!) And so many successful women! I felt very small. But you know what? These women felt small at some point, and they remember that. They are generous and gracious and sharing—there is so much to be learned here! Everyone has a different dream, but the common thread is pursuing that dream! I thought I felt left out because I wasn’t a “success,” but I’ve realized that it was because I didn’t know what my dream was. And it can take a while to find it.

I am still working steadily on defining my dreams and turning them into goals with action to back them up and achieve them, but I can tell you that it feels like I live in a whole new world now that I am allowing myself to dream. I wouldn’t give up my teaching experiences, and I will be teaching until further notice from my dream plans, but now I know that it’s not just ok to have a dream—it’s imperative! Again…like the conversion refrain in that familiar hymn: “I once was lost, but now am found—was blind, but now I see!”

© Nicole J. Williams, 2005, all rights reserved