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Great Walls

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wallI was recently reading an article about the Great Wall of China. Considered one of the greatest wonders of our world, the Great Wall is the only man-made structure visible from space with the naked eye. It amazingly winds up and down over deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching some 5,000-plus miles. Originally built as a series of separate walls, designed to protect and fortify warring states, the Wall was eventually joined together to fend off invasions from Northern enemies. It stands today as perhaps the most remarkable and remembered part of Chinese history.

Fascinated by what I read about in China, I Googled “great walls.” List upon list popped up in my browser. Included were walls like the Wall of Troy in Turkey that was built to protect the legendary city of Troy and Hadrian’s Wall in England, the longest wall in Europe that stretches 73 miles all across the land from shore to shore.

Mankind has a strong history of building walls.

Maybe it is the writer in me, or maybe because I just can’t help but look for the metaphorical, my Google search on great walls got me thinking about the emotional walls mankind is also good at building. These walls serve as a defense mechanism designed to protect the person from emotional harm. Sadly, though, the walls constructed to keep out the “bad guys” often also prevent the “good guys” from getting in as well. The very thing which rises up to defend is the very thing which prevents wounds from ever healing. Instead, the greatest wall builders live isolated lives, often wondering why they are, in fact, so lonely.

I do not begin to underestimate the fears and experiences that cause people to build emotional walls. I also recognize that being open to others involves a certain level of risk. It makes us vulnerable to judgment. But it also opens us to love. I’ve often thought that maybe my life would be a little less complicated if I were a better wall builder; if I could be a more private, protected person locked within a fortress of mystery and introversion, maybe my heart would be better served. I’m sure I’d be disappointed less often. But my kingdom has few walls. Any that you encounter are ones easily scaled by acts of kindness and genuine interest in the person I am.  Some would argue that I leave myself vulnerable to attack; I choose to believe that I am open to possibilities. Every person I meet has the potential to bring something special to my life; some gifts are just wrapped with more tape than others.

Certainly, every  person has a chapter of their life they don’t read out loud to others. Even my extroverted personality has secrets. But I would argue that the benefit of any wall is soon diminished if we take a good look around and find ourselves alone in a fortress of solitude. People won’t stand like the fairy tale wolf to huff and puff for long at walls that just won’t fall down. Unless they can see the warmth of a fire at least kindling through a window every now and again, they will be knocking on the door of a much more welcoming house in no time.

I’ve been pondering this blog for several days now. I’ve been carrying it around with me and thinking about the people in my life … specifically, one or two of them who continue to build emotional walls that challenge our relationship. Every so often, just when I think we are getting close to establishing a new level of intimacy, a wall rises up to block that connection. And so why do I continue in these relationships? The fact that I just don’t give up on anything easily – even when it frustrates me or causes me sadness – just didn’t seem like a good enough answer. But a better answer came last night. I sat in a parking lot waiting eagerly for a fireworks show to start.  The night sky was dark black, barren of stars … a seeming wall between the world we know and the one that exists beyond our atmosphere. I waited, firm in my conviction that what would come would reward my patience. And reward it did. Flashes of color, one brighter than the next, filed the sky with beauty, tearing open the imposing, black wall. I realized that explosions of color are possible, even in the darkest night. And when something that has been so reserved finally learns to sparkle, it is an experience not to be missed.

 

A Crab Worth Cracking

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crabI had dinner the other night with a friend who is … well … guarded. We’ve been friends for more than two decades and I still run into his self-imposed walls every once in a while. I don’t think it is that he is shy. In fact, he’s a pretty outgoing guy. But with most people, his friendly demeanor is pretty superficial. Rarely do people get past the tough outer shell with him. I don’t think it’s because he is afraid to venture out; instead, I think he’s hesitant to let people in.

On another night last week I was having dinner with a different friend (my life is blessed). As we weighed our options, I considered ordering snow crabs. My friend wrinkled her nose and replied, “They are just too much work.” She opted for a cheeseburger and during the course of our conversation told me about an argument with her boss, revealed details about her sex life, and even cried about the recent loss of her mother. She is an open book. We are very much alike in that way. In fact, I could probably benefit from being a little more guarded with my feelings or intentions.

This week I’ve been thinking about my friend’s criticism of the crabs: “They are just too much work.” What she meant is that she doesn’t want to be bothered with cracking the hard shell. She doesn’t want to have to carefully pick to find the meat. She doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. But what she’s missing with all of those hesitations is a chance to savor the sweetness of the crab that is only known once the shell is cracked open.

My two dinner outings this week also have me thinking about the variety of people with whom I share relationships. My two dinner companions don’t know each other. If they did, I doubt they’d be friends. She is too busy splashing openly in the water while he is nested in mud, protected by a shell she has no interest in cracking. They are very different creatures in the same great, big ocean.

But let’s go back to the snow crab. There is more to the crab than his stubborn shell. For example, did you know that before mating begins, a male snow crab will hold onto a female for up to three weeks? He becomes her companion and protector, fending off other males and predators. That’s some serious cuddle time! He also then helps her molt (or undress) before mating begins. It’s all kind of chivalrous and romantic, don’t ya think? But this extended time frame could also imply the crab’s need to trust its mate; a need to build a connection and shared understanding before real intimacy happens. And since the female crab carries fertilized eggs for up to two years before they are hatched into the sea, I’m pretty sure she wants to know that the guy who put all those babies in there was worth her time!

Some people are like crabs. To say that a relationship with a “crab” is always easy would be a lie. There have admittedly been times when my frustration level with a “crab” – my inability to break through his shell – almost prompted me to walk away, to abandon the relationship for something easier. But what I’ve come to realize is that everyone operates at their own pace. We all come to trust and to love at different times. The trick, I think, is to respect each others’ boundaries and to honor each others’ needs. And like the snow crab, our eyes need to be open to the parasites and barnacles who will attach themselves to us for their own benefit.

I am reminded of the old saying: “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” That is certainly true. Each of them has their own beauty and makes their own contributions to our ecosystem. But each also has their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Some are just easier to catch than others. While the crab may be the trickiest to net, I’d argue this: inside that hard outer shell is often a sweet, delicious meat worth discovering. It takes patience and persistence. We may even sometimes get a little scratched up trying to find it. But when we do, the tender inside often makes all the effort worthwhile.

Feeling Flat

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Flat_TireMy decision last summer to trade in my Volkswagen was mostly prompted by my ongoing trouble with tires. The low profile tires on the Volkswagen had been replaced no less than four times during my ownership. It seemed that anytime I went over a bump, a tire went flat. Extra bumpy railroad tracks? Flat. Speed humps? Flat. I had had enough. While I’m sure the Jetta was expertly designed to go 120 or more on the Autobahn, it did not like the uneven terrain of the I-95 corridor. So when I found myself on the car sales lot, I was obsessed with tires. I wanted big and sturdy; something able to take a good bump and keep on going. When I pulled off the lot with an SUV, I was sure my tire trouble was solved.

One week into my new SUV ownership I got a nail in the front tire. I could hardly believe the tapping that came with every rotation. Certainly, this was a joke, I thought. Did the tire plague continue? Luckily, when I took the car into the shop and they pulled a fairly short nail from the new rubber, they could also plug it. The technician warned me, however, that given the location (almost in the sidewall), he wasn’t sure it would hold. I drove cautiously for a while, watching that tire diligently. It was fine. New tire woes averted.

Last week, about half way to work, my low tire pressure warning light blinked. The corresponding chime alerted me. I think I actually said out loud, “Are you kidding me?” I found the first side street available and pulled over to take a look. All tires inflated; nothing looked flat. Maybe it was just a sensor. At lunch that day, I went to the gas station. Sure enough, one of the tires was low; the one with the plug. Almost one year later and it now seemed that a slow leak was the culprit. I added air and the light went out.  Three days later, the warning light came back on again. Ugh!

Over dinner that night my husband and I joked about my car; about how I can’t seem to avoid tire troubles. In truth, he was joking more than I was; I was annoyed. But then he said something to me that I can’t shake. He said, “Maybe if you just parked it in the garage and let it sit every once in a while instead of traveling all over the place all the time, maybe you wouldn’t need to replace your tires so often.”

Although his comment irritated me at the time, he was right. I use my car. I use it A LOT. I use it to go back and forth to work. I use my car to drive parents to doctors’ appointments and to visit people when they are ill. I use my car to have lunch with friends and to meet people for dinner. I use it to visit the shore. I use it to run errands. I use it and use it and use it. And my husband is right. I could use it less. I could go back and forth to work and then park it in the garage and stay put. Maybe my tires would last longer that way; I”m guessing they would. But what I’d be sacrificing would be more costly to me than any tire. I’d be compromising a part of who I am: the person who is social and outgoing; the person who likes to be around others and who finds joy in crossing things off a list and lending a hand.

As I thought more about what my husband said to me I also realized the metaphor in this whole thing. Maybe – like me – my tires just get…well, tired. I am reminded that every once in a while, a break is a welcome thing, even for the most sturdy and rugged. There is benefit in sometimes pulling off the main road to take the more scenic route at a more leisurely pace. Certainly, a little bit of fresh air is good for more than just my tires. After all, we can only take our fair share of bumps before we are left feeling flat and deflated.

I can’t promise that I will slow down my daily life. But all of this reflection has left me more aware of the hazards in the road. And, despite the occasional detour, I remain grateful for the company I have on my journey.

 

Marathon

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Today I am thrilled to welcome a guest to my blog. When Nichol shared her writing with me and expressed an interest in “putting it somewhere,” I asked her if she’d like to make a guest post on Characteristically Speaking. When I read her message, I almost begged her to share it here. Even if you are not a runner, there are so many lessons in what she writes. Whatever your passion, find your own strength – pull from the inspiration all around you – and keep at it.  Thanks, Nichol. It is my honor to share this.

 

woman-crossing-finish-lineMarathon
Guest Post by Nichol Hoff

To borrow from The Counting Crows, “It was a long December…”And that’s when it all started.

A fitness friend of mine talked about setting a new goal for herself. In a slump myself, it seemed like a good idea and I followed suit. I really followed suit. I signed up for the 26.2 mile NJ Marathon.

With full intentions of meeting my goal, I wrote out a training schedule that blended workouts with my crazy life. And at first I was very diligent. I was out there running all the time. In late February/early March, I backed off a little, but still always tried to get in my long run. By April, I realized I had overtrained. My body wanted none of it and was protesting. For the last few weeks, I did 1-2 short runs each week.

On the morning of the marathon, I woke at 3:45 a.m. I remember thinking, “It’s time. I trained for months and now it’s time to GO!” With my friend and my daughter (my personal cheerleader), I was in the car and on my way, hydrating and fueling the whole drive. “Remember,” I told myself, “through HIM I can do all things.” On the way to the starting line, I wrote six names on my arm: all people who inspire me in different ways. I wasn’t out to break any records. I just wanted to finish.

I was lined up at 7:45 a.m. And then at 8 a.m., I heard the call: Marathon runners are you ready? The horn blew and it was game time. I breezed through the first few miles, using funny memories of friends and experiences to distract me.

At mile eight, I joined a group of runners wearing shirts that said, “I am running for…” One of the runner’s shirts said: I am running for Denise, my wife. He pushed a wheelchair that carried a woman; presumably Denise. Reminded that unconditional love exists in this world, I began to cry. I had experienced it once. Would I again? Could I again find someone who can handle the intensity of my love? I don’t know how to dip my toe into anything; you get all or nothing. It’s not for everyone. This I know all too well.

Seventeen miles in and I was doing ok, although getting a handle on potty breaks and hydration was a challenge. Made a mistake and allowed myself to walk for a few minutes during the last nine miles (warning: DON’T do that. You suddenly feel EVERYTHING). Sensing my struggle, a woman I had been running with for several miles reminded me of a client in one of the fitness classes I teach – a client whose husband battled his way through cancer and is now on his way to recovery. Her strength inspired me. Suddenly, my spirit was renewed!

When I hit mile marker 20, I decided that the best way to get through the last six miles was to assign a mile to each person whose name appeared on my arm. I name them here because of the influence they make on my life:

Mile 21: Mr. Hoffman. I immediately thought about forgiveness, God’s grace, and love. Mr. Hoffman lost a battle to cancer. Once a strong man, we watched him deteriorate. When he was still healthy, he helped me process some things I had buried; things that held me back from living my potential. And when I first started to train, I would run by his house. When I was tired, I thought of him and his pain. It helped me to keep going. I remembered that he had accepted Jesus into his heart. Through HIM all things are possible. I kept running.

Mile 22: Kevin Fidler. Kevin was my first husband and nineteen years after his death I still think about him often. His wild and adventurous side scared me; yet made me feel so alive. He was my first love and taught me so much about myself; the most important lesson being that material things don’t matter. Love is love, no matter what. Loving him – and losing him – taught me about loss…true loss. I learned how strong I am. I kept running.

Mile 23: Mom. My mom struggled with inner demons that wreaked havoc on her life and my family’s. Her choices made me unable to decipher truth from fiction and I was insecure and unable to get close to others for a long time. My relationship with her taught me about faith in God and the importance of forgiveness. I am grateful that we had found a shared peace before she died; that we better understood each other’s love. I am thankful that she is at peace now. I kept running.

Mile 24: Dad. He is and will always be my hero. A straight shooter who will always tell you like it is, he is the most loyal man I know. While he doesn’t always know how to show emotion, he sacrificed everything – including himself – for many years to give me the best he had to offer. To this day, when I am in trouble, I call dad, my Dad E Boy. I kept running.

Mile 25: Richard. A well-educated man who surfed, skied, and loved the shore, Richard was a client of mine for a few years. Our conversations about his adventures inspired me to add an overseas ski trip to my bucket list. When he was diagnosed with invasive cancer, Richard pursued treatment that left him in ICU for a week each time. But his strength is what I remember. Today, he works out harder than ever. He does not quit. I kept running.

Mile 26: Emma, my true love. When I found out on Super Bowl Sunday of 2004 that I was pregnant, I was nervous and excited at the same time. It was an overall easy pregnancy. I loved having her in my belly! And the day she was born, I fell completely in love. It was a year of abundant dragonflies; they were everywhere! She is my little dragonfly. Every day she teaches me about unconditional love. She challenges me to be my best and forgives me when I fail. Her adventurous yet cautious spirit reminds me that life is short. Work hard, play hard, and be genuine and true. Being a mom is the toughest job I could ever have. I am blessed. I kept running.

There are so many reasons I run. A friend of mine (who had lost almost 200 pounds), invited me to run some 5K races with her because she wanted someone to push her. My own on and off battle with food and weight prompted me to run. I ran during a failing marriage because it was an outlet for me where I could be on my own, talk to God, and let my emotions flow. Through happiness and tears, for motivation and out of determination, I run. Running allows me to feel strong, to know that through HIM, I can do anything.

When I completed the marathon and crossed the finish line, I feel like I carried so many people over the line with me; not only those whose names were etched on my arm, but so many others who inspire and motivate me. And there she stood: my Emma, waiting to congratulate me and cheering me on. In her embrace I realized just how strong I am: spiritually, mentally, and physically. And for her – for us – I keep running.

(Nichol Hoff lives in Cape May Courthouse, NJ. She teaches fitness and is a lover of the beach, the surf, and of course, her daughter Emma.)

Choosing a Vulnerable Heart

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boatI read a quote recently that said: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

The quote lead me to wonder which side of the coin is better: being loved deeply, or deeply loving another. There’s no question that the ideal scenario is one in which both things happen simultaneously. Certainly, deeply reciprocated love must feel the best. Through my faith, I know that is true.

But what if we had to make a choice?  What if we could pick only one? Do you choose to love deeply? Or do you choose to be deeply loved?

The scenario, to me, is sort of like a Christmas present. As I’ve gotten older, my favorite part of the holidays lies not in the presents I receive. Rather, my joy lies in the giving. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Despite the fact that gift giving involves some level of risk (Will it fit? Will she like it? Is it the right color?), my heart swells with a certain happiness when I hand someone a neatly wrapped package. Imagine offering your heart to others in the same way.

Of course I am not ignorant of the risk involved in loving others. In fact, I’ve been told more than once that I love too freely; that I give too much of myself to those who don’t deserve it. My willingness to do so is a choice. I know that an open heart is a vulnerable heart. But I would rather drown in courage than flounder in loneliness.  I also believe that in loving others, I come to love myself. And if my mother ever taught me anything, it was that no one else will ever love me if I don’t love myself first (even if on some days that is harder to do than on others).

And so as I think about the question I posed about loving vs. being loved, the choice for me is an easy one. I will love. And I will do it with passion and intensity and freedom. I don’t know how to do it half-way. I don’t care to exercise caution. And I won’t waste time building emotional walls that make it hard for others to love me back. I will just love…and love deeply.

Theologian William Shedd is quoted as saying, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Take your ship out for a sail; even have the courage to venture into deep water. When you do, I bet you find all the strength you need for quite an adventure!