Tag Archives: life

50 thoughts on turning 50: #2 We’re just frosting on the cake

Who knows what's actually out there, in a galaxy far, far away ...

Who knows what’s actually out there, in a galaxy far, far away …

I was fascinated last year to hear astrophysicist Adam Reiss on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, explaining (with great humor, I might add) about how much we don’t really know about the universe. Talking to the show’s host Peter Sagal and panelists including P.J. O’Rouke, Reiss said:

SAGAL: I mean, isn’t it bizarre though to find out that 73 percent of the observable universe is actually invisible; we have no idea what it is?

RIESS: You know, it’s not just the 73 percent, it’s the other, there’s a 25 percent chunk in there called Dark Matter. We don’t know what that stuff is either. So…

SAGAL: Well wait a minute, 73 percent of the universe…

P.J. O’ROURKE: Plus.

SAGAL: So you’re telling use that everything that we see in the universe when we look out and we see all these galaxies and all this stuff out there, that’s 3 percent?

RIESS: That’s right. We’re really just the frosting on a cake and we don’t know what’s inside the cake.

Think about that: of the part of universe that we know about, 73% is invisible to us. And of what we can see, 25% is made up of stuff we don’t even understand. We can only see and understand about 3% of the known universe.

We don’t even know what’s beyond what we know – dark holes, other universes, infinity.

We like to think that with all of the advancements in science, medicine, and technology that we’re pretty darned smart. But the reality is that, when it comes down to it, we don’t know squat. We are, in fact, just tiny dust specks on a little pebble, floating around out there in a universe so mysterious and enormous that we don’t even know how much we don’t know.

It’s “Horton Hears A Who”, the reality show.

Think about that the next time you want to puff yourself up and proclaim there is no God. The truth is, you don’t know. You can’t know. You’re just frosting. Pretty, but also pretty tiny in the whole scheme of things.

Does that depress you? Not me. To quote Walter Bishop on “Fringe”: “Where would the fun be if we knew all there is to know?”

You can listen to the episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” here.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #1 Be nice. It’s contagious.

I love this video making the rounds online, mostly because it exemplifies something I’ve learned over my life about being nice: you have to be nice without expecting anything in return.

You can’t “do good” to win favor, raise your standing in the community, earn points you can cash in later, or pat yourself on the back. If you give of your time, energy and money for any of those reasons, you’ll drain yourself dry, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Neither you nor anyone else will be better for it.

Instead, “do good” because it’s who you are, and let the satisfaction from “doing good” be your reward. It’s a far greater return than you could have asked for … and it can change the world.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

When you’re dead, you’re dead a long time

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Words of wisdom inscribed on the headstone of Robert and Grace McGowan, Mt. Hope Cemetery

Here’s the thing about death: it’s permanent. Regardless of your beliefs about the afterlife, in this life, when you take your last breath on earth, the story is over.

Think about it. In 100 years, with the exception of a handful of those who will defy the odds and live beyond a century, every single person on the earth will be dead.

Everyone. Gone. Me. You. Babies born at this exact moment, whether here in America or in India or China or Europe. In 100 years, billions of new humans will walk the earth, and while they’ll share our DNA and genealogical ties, none of them will be us.

How’s that for putting your life into perspective? It’s true. When you’re dead, you really are dead a long time.

The Be Nice Project: A challenge for 2014

Most of the action has been moved over to my new website, but I want to invite you to join me on this new project: to be nice in 2014 …

That's me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt ... and from what I've heard, the building is still standing ...

That’s me in Mexico in 2005. Yup, I was three stories up slapping plaster on a building. Miraculously, no one got hurt … and from what I’ve heard, the building is still standing …

I’m trying to be nice. Honest. But it’s not easy.

For years now, I’ve been working on a book idea about loving your neighbors. The idea came to me after I went on a mission trip to Mexico in 2004. At the time, I hated flying, didn’t speak Spanish, knew zero sign language and was completely inept with both ball peen hammer and ball point pen. And yet I got on a plane and flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children.

It’s not as if I hadn’t volunteered before. I’d done a local mission project for several years, sponsored children through a Christian organization, and supported many charities. But getting out of my comfort zone and allowed me to get a better understanding of my place in the world.

It was a life changing experience, and it gave me the idea to write a book about how to love your neighbors. I figured if I could do it, anybody could. Although I still hate flying, don’t know sign language, can’t speak Spanish and can injure myself with writing utensils and screwdrivers with equal severity, I learned how to be giving and how to love my neighbor.

I tried to write. Tried for almost 10 years. But every time I got in front of the computer I went blank. I kept notes, clipped stories from the newspaper, did research, even had an agent interested in the project. All I had to do was send him the first three chapters. But no matter how hard I tried to write, it just never came together.

Then I realized why: I’m not very nice. Continue reading

Reflections on a fallen tree and the brevity of life

This is one of the trees that stand tall over my house. The trees shield us from rain and snow and the sun's rays, provide a home for squirrels and birds. I've never realized how incredibly gigantic this tree is or what power it holds for both life ... and death. Photo (c) Joanne Brokaw

This is one of the trees that stand tall over my house. The trees shield us from rain and snow and the sun’s rays, provide a home for squirrels and birds. I’ve never realized how incredibly gigantic this tree is or what power it holds for both life … and death.
Photo (c) Joanne Brokaw

Coming home from today from a walk at White Haven with Bandit, I took the detour down Main St in East Rochester (they’ve got the street to our house completely torn up with construction) and came across what was clearly an emergency situation.

There was a man directing traffic as a fire truck came towards the intersection, and a crowd of people stood staring at a giant tree that had fallen across the road. I could see the front of a car under the tree. I waited as the fire truck was in place, until I was given the go ahead to turn.

My first thought? I should run home and get the camera. It was a big tree (100 years old, I later learned) and there are always cars parked on that street. It seemed like one of those “moments in history” when it seemed appropriate to capture the images on film (digitally, speaking). I’ve taken lots of nature photos like that- trees down in cemeteries, a train derailment just a block from my house, snowstorms that shut down our town, and the like. I think I’m drawn to the power of nature vs. man in those situations.

But when I got home, I could hear my neighbor telling someone there were people trapped in the car and I decided to skip the “isn’t that interesting” picture-taking opportunity. A giant tree falling is opportunity for photos of nature; people trapped in a car is gruesomely voyeuristic.

Then I saw tonight on the news that the tree fell on a car that was driving down the road, killing the driver and sending the passenger to the hospital.

Imagine for a moment what exact timing there has to be for the tree to fall on the car at the precise moment the car is driving past. In a fraction of a fraction of a second, you’re before the tree, then under the tree, then past the tree. It took longer for you to read that sentence than it takes for you to drive past the tree.

What are the odds?

And what if, under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t have been driving down that road? With Lincoln Rd. under construction, all traffic is routed through town. What if you weren’t really supposed to be there to begin with, but on that one day you happened to drive down that road, a tree happened to fall?

What are the odds?

A few years ago, a train derailed just up the street from my house. Cars were hanging over the overpass, had fallen onto the road below, and had skidded just feet away from homes in the neighborhood where the trains speed by several times a day. While there was damage to cars parked in the lots right next to the tracks, no one was hurt. Which is a miracle, when you consider how much sustained traffic is on that street, how many people are walking to and from cars, up and down the road. And yet no one was hurt.

What are the odds?

But today? Someone is driving down the road and BOOM. Under bright sunny skies, a tree falls on their car and they’re dead. It’s sad and eerie and a little difficult to comprehend.

Even eerier for me was to realize later that, had Bandit and I left our walk at the park just a few minutes earlier, we’d have been driving down that exact street, possibly at the exact moment when the tree fell.

Who decides when it’s your moment to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? What supernatural forces are at work that keep you just a few minutes longer where you are or that would have you be in exactly one place in exactly a specific moment?

I wondered later about a giant BOOM Bandit and I had heard while walking. At White Haven (which is a cemetery memorial park; ironic) we’re just a mile or two away (as the crow flies) from where the tree fell.  It’s possible that what we heard was the tree falling, based on witnesses who heard it fall and said the sound was terrifically loud. In fact, the BOOM scared Bandit because it sounded a lot like thunder. It’s what actually ended our walk. Bandit is frightened of thunder, and given that we’ve had two days of storms, when he heard the BOOM, even though the skies were clear and sunny, he made a beeline back to the dogmobile.

I’d wanted to stop walking a few minutes earlier. I’d been feeling a little queasy all morning and was ready to head home. But at a fork in the road in the cemetery, Bandit (in what is a very regular occurance on our walks) stopped, and when I said, “OK, you pick which way we go,” he opted for a longer route back to the dogmobile – until he heard the BOOM.

What are the odds?

I wouldn’t normally dwell on my own mortality, except that last week I celebrated my 30th birthday for the 19th time. Last night darling husband and I were out to dinner and I was musing about how I’ve accomplished nothing of value in my life, left no mark, and wasted much time and opportunity. And really have no prospects that things will change in the near future.

I suppose birthdays are like that, especially as you get older, moments for reflection and a little bit of self-pity.

But I think today the lesson learned is that there’s no value on worrying about the past or fretting about the future when you don’t even have control of this exact second. There are no odds. There is force at work greater than our desires, our plans, our wants, who controls the moment for reasons we will never understand in this life. The only moment we have is now. That is the only thing we can be sure of.

My first post at Paradise Uganda blog

I forgot to tell you that I posted my first post at the Paradise, Uganda blog. I actually posted it before my little musing the other day but it ironically touched on the same theme: being on the outside, looking in, and wondering why you’re there.

For the record, what I originally thought I was volunteering to write is nothing like where my blog posts are going – and with the blessing of my dear friends. Rather than help with the fundraising “rah rah”, I’m writing more about faith and life and … well, stuff that’s where I’m most comfortable. Yay!

Here’s the beginning of the post; there’s a link at the end that’ll take you to the Paradise, Uganda blog where you’ll also see a little video of Jesse in Africa:

 ***************

When my friend Jesse Sprinkle asked me if I wanted to be involved in a project he was working on, I didn’t ask what it was or what he needed from me. There are moments in your life when someone asks and you say yes and you know it’s exactly as it should be.

I’m not a musician. I’m not a missionary. I’m not a fundraiser or a world traveler. I’m not hip or cool or trendy.

I’m just a writer. For years I’ve written feature articles in magazines and websites on everything from entertainment to dog food. I love telling stories. So when Jesse asked me to join the team for Paradise, Uganda, I signed on for the one task I knew how to do: blog.

It’s never easy jumping into a project that’s already been moving along at mach speed. It’s difficult to find your place, to keep up, to feel part of the crowd. The things I’d originally planned to blog about … well, they just don’t seem like where I’m supposed to be. The ideas I had … someone else has them, too. The things I thought I brought to the table … not so helpful right now.

It would be easy to just back out, just say, “Gee, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here, I think I made a mistake” and go home and hide under a rock because I don’t fit in.

And yet I know I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how or why I know, I just do. (Click here to finish reading on the Paradise, Uganda blog)

Three lessons I learned this month about following God

So I’m up at 7 AM because I need to write. Not want to write or have something I’d like to think about writing. I neeeeeed to write. Like, if I don’t write it, it’ll cause me great pain.

It’s about the concept of following God.

As you know, I’ve volunteered for a project recently. Without going into a lot of details, I was ready to work. Ready, willing, and able to do this and this and that, because I’m very experienced at this and this and that, and I’m very good at this and this and that, and the project needed this and this and that.

Perfect match, right? So I volunteered. And talked at length about doing this and this and that and thought I was part of the team and all was good.

Except – and if you’ve ever volunteered for something and God was in any way involved – this and this and that just wasn’t happening. That and that and this other thing were going full speed ahead, and a whole lot of other that and that and this other thing were happening and successful. Except me and my this and this and that were over on the sidelines by ourselves saying, “Hey, what about us?”

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

The problem, of course, wasn’t the project. The problem was me. I was focused on what I’d volunteered to do, not on what was being done. Sure, I can do this and this and that, but maybe this and this and that isn’t needed any more. Or maybe someone else stepped up to do this and this and that and they do it just fine.

But I wanted to help. I wanted to be part of the whole thing. I offered and they said yes and then everything moved and I was left behind.

Really. Even I see how glaringly arrogant that sounds.

So lying in bed last night, feeling left out - boo hoo for poor me - it occurred to me that if I focused instead on what did happen instead of what didn’t, maybe I’d learn a lesson.

Or three.

Here goes … Continue reading

The Summer Olympics, Arkansas and making memories

Bryan told me this week, “I remember sitting in Wayne Gretzky’s in Toronto and watching Canada’s Olympic hopeful in the hurdle race fall flat on her face after the first jump, to the dismay and groans of the patrons. It wasn’t funny, but it kinda was.” Here’s a picture of that moment.

I walked into the living room tonight and darling husband said, “Are you ready for Phelps/Lochte?”

“I don’t know what that is,” I replied. We already ate dinner and as far as I knew we didn’t have anything special on tap for dessert.

“Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps?” darling husband asked. “You know? The kid from Rochester?”

“I didn’t know Michael Phelps was from Rochester,” I replied.

I get the open mouthed, dead stare, “Do you live under a rock” look.

For the record, Ryan Lochte was born in Rochester, NY and lived in Canandaiga, NY. I rarely watch the news and I don’t read the newspaper, and I’ve been on an “as needed” status with Facebook. In other words, unless you came to my house and told me about the Olympics I wasn’t going to hear about any of it.

What can I say? I’m a little out of touch. I didn’t even know until yesterday that the Olympics were happening right now. But when I did find out, my first thought wasn’t about Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. My first thought was about a bunch of guys from Arkansas. Continue reading

Thoughts on “The Alchemist”

“The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and saw that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself.” – The Alchemist

My new friend Pauline and I went out recently (she’s a writer, too; you can check out her blog here) and we got to talking about the book, “The Alchemist.” I’d started to read it a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. But after a tipsy conversation Pauline and I had at an Irish pub before she went home to Colorado, wherein she told me what effect the book had had on her life, I decided to pull it off the shelf and give it another shot.

I know now why I couldn’t read it before. I wasn’t ready for the message.

The book, which I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, is an allegory about a shepherd boy named Santiago who goes in search of his treasure. On the journey, he learns lessons about life, personal calling, and love.

In this new (scary, undefined) season of my life, it’s applicable because it not only holds a mirror to show me where I’ve been and what’s been holding me back, but also shows me that there is more beyond the reflection, and that I am the only one keeping me from stepping through the looking glass .

It got me thinking about what someone referred to as this security blanket of fear and insecurity that I seem to have wrapped myself in; this friend noted that it might make me feel safe but also holds me back, adding, “We are running out of time in this great thing called life…if you don’t throw that security blanket away now then it will be never and that would be really sad…”

This friend is right. And it’s a little scary that, despite what has felt like progress these last months, someone still saw it. Because I’m not secure at all and I don’t want to be held back anymore.

But wanting to move and knowing where to go are not necessarily the same thing. Do I have dreams? If someone came to me today and said I could have one of my dreams come true, I don’t know that I’d even know what to ask for. I don’t have a dream job. I don’t have a passion. Do I?

God knows I tried to explore some of that last year. Dog training? Job at the animal hospital? Starting (and stopping) various writing projects? Not only did none of it make me happy, most of it made me feel miserable, because I failed at it all. Not because I’m bad at the things I tried, but because none of them are my dream and none of them made me feel fulfilled.

I was at my happiest 8 or 9 years ago, when I was doing publicity for a local band, mentoring a few musicians (including John, my son I never had), volunteering for local causes, and even going on that trip to Mexico. (Yes, friends, for those of you who don’t know this story, I – who hated to fly, couldn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know sign language and once almost killed myself with a folding chair - flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children. Twice.)

I was giving and giving and giving, and it was the act of giving that renewed me. It was a wonderful season in my life.

So what happened?  The season changed – the band moved to LA; John died; my work in Christian music became empty; the volunteer projects changed; the well started to run dry and rather than stand back and refill, I kept giving.

I tried to find another band to work with, I volunteered for other projects, I started a writing group with a friend, but in truth I was exhausted. Eventually I was starting to feel annoyed in the company of other people. But rather than taking time to reflect on why that was or the dangers of not addressing it, I simply redirected my (exhausted) energies. 

Somehow, I had convinced myself that helping other people was not enough; that I had to turn it into something with my fingerprints on it. A book, an article, a … whatever, as long as it was something that would prove to the world that I had been here and made a difference.

I tried desperately to bring in income through my writing, but when it was financially successful it exhausted me creatively, and when it was creatively fulfilling I felt like I was writing in a vacuum.

Other areas of my life were also struggling, and while I recognized it I had no ability to change it. Fortunately, when most of your life is fulfilling and positive, you’re able to manage the parts that aren’t much more easily. But when you let failure and defeat creep in, you begin to see the dark shadows that have been lingering in the corners, and rather than shed light on them you invite them to take up residence.

In the introduction to “The Alchemist”, Coelho writes:

“I have known a lot of people who, when their personal calling was within their grasp, went on to commit a series of stupid mistakes and never reached their goal – when it was only a step away.”

Yup, that was me. I had forgotten my calling. I had forgotten that the ability to make people laugh is a gift, or that being able to introduce Person A to Person B so that they can make their dreams come true is, in itself, priceless. I was blind to the fact that I lived in every dream I made come true for someone else.

I have this quote written down in my notebook; I don’t know who Sonny Melendez is or where I saw a video, but here’s what he said:

“Our job is to first find our gift … then when you use that gift to give back, without asking or needing anything in return, that’s when you’ve really arrived. That’s what makes you who you are rather than what your title is.”

Perhaps, like me, you’re trying to find out who you are. Perhaps, like me, you convinced yourself for too long that a dark cave was the safest place to be. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve recently decided that, consequences be damned, you will not just exist but live, and that while you’re still not sure which direction to move, you’re willing to just move in order to simply feel the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

If so, consider this: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” It really may be that simple.

This is a new season. My drought is over, washed away by laughter and love and renewing of the spirit. And I believe, as Coelho writes, that the Universe is conspiring in my favor.

It’s a quarter after one …

It’s a quarter after one, I’m not the least bit drunk and the only thing I really need right now is a slice of Pontillo’s pizza.

I’m a simple girl with simple needs.

I went out tonight with my sister and her friends to Richmonds, a bar/restaurant owned by a friend from high school. I confess: I was excited to go out. I mean, how often do I go out in public and talk and have fun? (We figured it out tonight: not counting the reunion and McGraws last week, my last venture out was last July 2011, when we went to Shamrock Jacks to see my uncle play.)

I know, I know. I talk a big social butterfly talk. But I’m really just a little caterpillar who prefers to be snuggled in a cocoon.

Don’t get me wrong. I had fun tonight. It was fabulous to see our friends who own the bar; they’re fun, gracious hosts. I got to spend some time with someone I haven’t spent actual time (as opposed to Facebook time) with since … well, last summer. And my sister’s friends are also fun, and we had some laughs with (well, at the expense of) a group holding a get together in the bar. Continue reading