The Guest House

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Dear Keatsway,

I want you to encourage you as if it’s the most important task I’ve been given. You’ve been brave and adventurous, hopping continents and crossing borders, forging your career trajectory and becoming the most international person I know. All of which comes with a cost: leaving friends, meaningful work, and places you love behind. Of course, you are heartbroken and unsettled. You don’t know if you should prepare yourself for the next move or learn to love Amman. I don’t have easy answers.  I can only echo your broken heart.

Recently, I returned to America after living in England for sixteen months. In York, I fell in love with the city, the people, the lifestyle. I lived inside Roman walls, traded my car for a bicycle, bought my groceries at the year-round farmer’s market and grew to love the rain and the fog. I critiqued literature, translated foreign films, and learned how to read medieval maps. I went road tripping and hiking through the Yorkshire Moors, Scottish Highlands, the Lake District and Irish countryside. I traveled by train across Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. I did daring things I had never done before: karaoke, bouldering, sensual bachata dancing, swimming in Loch Ness, clubbing until 3 am. I also wrote a thesis, fell in love, and started attending an Anglican church. I could write a book about everything I did in England but there is not enough space here yet for that.

A few months ago I unpacked my bags in a new place: a hamlet in southern Washington state. I am grateful for the hospitality of my cousins, and the chance they have given me to start anew in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, I struggle to be fully here at times, as I imagine you are in Amman. My 16 months in England reels through my head reminding me of all the brilliant adventures and loves I have left behind. I want to return permanently, but I don’t know yet if that’s in the cards or as you say, Inshallah, if God wills it.

I agree with you Keatsway, we must write about our inner journeys. The highs and the lows. The joy of a discovering a new place and the ache that accompanies having your heart split across continents. What do you love about Amman? What do you miss about Kampala? What can you take with you from place to place to create a home regardless of where you lay your head?

I think we can choose to stay in a place and call it home. Even if we have to leave we can build our lives around returning. I don’t know yet if Amman is your city, but I do know that the last city I lived in felt like a place I wanted to stay.  I don’t know what it will take for Amman to feel like home for you. And if you are not sure about Amman, be excited about what the city has to reveal you. What the city expects of you. Maybe you will discover answers to Rilke’s questions or perhaps you will learn to carry them with grace and poise.

All that is yet unknown. As you learn to hold uncertainty with open hands, I leave you with this poem by Rumi. It offers solace for the expat whose heart is still halfway in Kampala or York.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

So much love,

xoxo Brightstar

I Wanted to Live Deep

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Dear Brightstar,

Those who know me know I tend to collect quotes, print them out and tape them to my walls. This is why my walls are covered with post-it notes and sticky tack residue.  I’ve always felt that a well written sequence of words can be the best guidance for life.  But lately, I look at my wall of quotes and wonder at the advice I’ve been following for years. It seems I’ve reached an age where I can’t rely on the same optimistic promises.

In my journal, I’ve  scrawled a Henry David Thoreau quote. One that seemed to epitomize everything I feel in my daily life. The tension between plodding through my work day and the liberation of day dreaming on Sundays about my future.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .    – Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods  

This quote seemed like such a short yet accurate description of a very big feeling. Concise enough to be repeatable, a mantra.   I have sprawled this quote across my bedroom walls, in my journal and on my computer desktop. But am I actually succeeding in living deeply?

What does this quote mean to me? It’s served as a catch-all sentiment that I can cram many concepts. Broadly, I want to develop as a individual and learn a great deal over my life. At the same time, I don’t want to be so occupied with my development that I miss out on life itself.  I want to be deeply engaged, always striving, and taking risks but all without losing sight of enjoying the day to day.  Sounds like the secret to life doesn’t it?

This means a long list of work for me now. To develop professionally, to find a job I enjoy, to hone skills. It also means figuring out my mental state and being able to exist as a fully formed individual, to accept myself, and be alright when  alone. I also need to know how to live with others and to be there for people without letting anyone take more from me than I should give. Perhaps most importantly, living deeply would mean being constantly learning, whether about myself or about the world. Challenging, critiquing, and forcing myself to take on difficult lessons.

Examining my life now I find that while I am enjoying myself and averaging a healthy balance of work and living  life I don’t feel I am living deeply. My brain and senses aren’t exploding with new thoughts or experiences. I’m not discovering myself with epiphanies. While I do feel I am settling more into accepting myself and  understanding who I am this is a very gradual process and not one that has reached a critical turning point. Really, I feel like I may be ignoring the most important part of life. Deep learning.

If I am not living deeply am I just wasting my time?

Best wishes my dear Brightstar from someone contemplating taking down some old mantras.

With love,

Keatsway

 

The Time I Kill

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Dear Brightstar,

I  treasured your last letter Brighstar because it I know you are under a great deal of pressure. My own letter is written in response to your description of suffocating moments when you feel the weight of making decisions. It is  a few simple thoughts on how we judge our lives through hours but I hope it provides some stillness.

Time worries me constantly. There seem to be some many things I am waiting to do with my life. Projects and discoveries I am seeking to fit into my youth so I am prepared for the future. And a chorus of questions to accompany me. Am I working hard enough now to achieve everything I want to in life? Am I missing good hours here and now while I struggle for the future? How much is too much and at which point does worrying get redundant.

I know I am happier if not happy and better then I was a year ago (and a year before that). I am ageing and it is within the realm of possibility that with age I am getting somewhere. But its never so easy to convince oneself that we are spending our time well.

The time I kill is killing me. – Mason Cooley

The title of this page comes from a quote I keep above my desk (ostensibly to motivate my work). Thinking about hours as wasted can inspire us to action but I wonder more and more whether the stress and tension this mentality fosters makes me less productive overall. Downtime or “wasted time” seems to soothe me in a way I can’t do any other way. The less I rush myself the more I know and like myself.

We choose how we measure our time and then we judge these hours expecting it to be an appraisal of the trajectory of our lives. The divides we create, measured by these hours, are artificial but are strongly felt.

The truth is that time is probably exactly what we make it to be whether we choose friend, foe, companion or muse. When I tell myself I am behind time I am merely setting myself up to judge myself harshly. I wonder what I could have done in the past years with a different mantra.

So Brightstar, I leave you with all my love and support from across the ocean. I suggest you guard how you think about the issues you are in the midst of and watch how you perceive the hours in your life. How you choose to approach these questions may just determine how you feel forced to live. 

With my thoughts and good wishes,

Keatsway

“When the world feels all jittery . . .”

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Dear Keatsway,

On weeks when my head is spinning with too many ideas and I can’t seem to sit still, I try to remember everything I’ve read to somehow put into words what seems incomprehensible inside my head:

When the world feels all jittery, like it just quit smoking, and the questions of my soul start to sound like a heavy metal concert gone awry, I find I must . . .    -Tamara Park, Sacred Encounters

Except the must part doesn’t apply to me here. Park wrote that travel stills her, but for me I find that travel just unleashes a pandora’s box, igniting a desire to plan more trips instead of plan my life.  And at this moment that is precisely what I don’t need. But the jitteriness and soul questions and thoughts beginning to sound like a heavy metal concert gone awry, that I can relate to perfectly.

These last few weeks my thoughts been swimming with what ifs and I long for a doable action, not a detour, to propel me in the right direction. The idea of what I am supposed to do with the rest of my life is overwhelming and suffocating at times. In those moments every second seems to be laced with an extraordinary weight.

But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another.  –Michael Cunningham, The Hours

What if every plan I thought would be in place by now, as I stand at the precipice of my twenties, has not come to pass, what then? Do I make a new plan? And what if I discover that I am more attached to “the plan” than living out the extraordinary ordinariness of my life?

We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep-it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the mornings; we hope, more than anything, for more.  –Michael Cunningham, The Hours

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When my heart is heavy with unfulfilled dreams and uncertainty, all I can do is crawl under the covers in the fetal position until I don’t feel anything else. Eventually I come up for air and when I do I open a book.  I escape  through other character’s stories until the wee hours  of the morning pass and I can no longer keep my eyes open For years I’ve been escaping–sometimes referred to as taking a book binge–through dystopic literature and fantasy when my own life became too vulnerable and uncertain.  Maybe somehow by reading about another life, time and place I can pick up some extra bravery and navigation skills to manage my own.

In the meant time I need to acknowledge the incredible gift of being accepted into a graduate program in England. Whether or not I accept, defer for a year (how does one put one’s dreams on hold for an entire year?), or completely change my mind about it entirely –due to hefty price tags, doubling student loans, lack of scholarships, lack of parental approval– this acceptance is a good thing and it can lead to open doors in places I hadn’t expected.

None of this trepidation and decision making will go away anytime soon; this I know. Not for a while. But in the meantime I got this post down on paper. The one I never thought I would publish. And I discovered my own way of stilling my mind, conquering the hours, and remaining undefeated by unfinished dreams: following the stories of strong, female characters  who have conquered fire breathing dragons (or their equivalent) when I need inspiration to defeat my own.

xo, Brightstar

The Holy Tussle : Longing for England

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Dear Keatsway,

Lately I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to write. I’ve started so many new projects this year (a small group based on Storyline, a church sermon, new presentations at work, a cooking frenzy) that I am worried I won’t finish the one project that matters the most: graduate school applications for England.  I feel like I am in the midst of the final struggle between almost finishing and not quite. I fear I’ll end up stuck in this in between zone, the holy tussle.

Transformation of any kind always exacts a kind of holy tussle.  The newborn butterfly struggles to open its wings so it can conjure up the strength to fly.  So, too, with artists, inventors, mystics and entrepreneurs. –Tama Kieves

What happens if a butterfly never masters the struggle to open its wings?
Does it lose its opportunity to transform?

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It took a lot of gumption three years ago to navigate all the major shifts in my life.  To graduate with my first Master’s, apply for an American job, move to America, start a new job, make new friends, orient myself to American culture. And now that I have a steady job and have settled into a routine, making a leap seems like a contradiction. Why move when I live in a nice city with good friends and full time employment?

I thrive on change and challenge, even though it terrifies me most of the time. Yet when I become too comfortable a ripple of restlessness runs through me. I am a nomad at heart, and my desire for travel and adventure take over. To make this crazy dream reality–to become an English graduate student– I have to  first overcome my own setbacks:  insecurity, procrastination, and uncertainty.

Until I send my application my life will feel out of focus. My situation could transform in an instant, but it’s blurry until I move past this transition phase.  I can’t see farther than the next step ahead of me, like a foggy landscape at dusk. I know there is a pink horizon on the other side, but for now all I see is white haze.

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Visions of a new continent, a new city, new challenges whirl past me, and I wonder if my dream to study English in a graduate program in the UK will someday become a reality. I admire you Keatsway for already making so many of your postgraduate dreams come true: working in Johannesburg and in a few days Geneva. I only hope I can use your successes as a springboard for my own.

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In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I know how to do best. Attend my weekly yoga class and stay grounded.  Keep my shoulders back, my heart forward. Breathe deeper, reach further than I did a moment earlier. Maybe moving past the holy tussle is as easy as deciding to trust yourself. Trust that I know what the next step is,  that I’ve been here before, and I will eventually make it to the other side of this white fog to the bright clarity of a new horizon.

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Hoping this upbeat perspective lasts beyond my yoga class,

xo Brightstar

Chasing starlight

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Dear Keatsway,

I can’t think of a better metaphor than navigating by starlight for describing how we move forward towards the future.

In August, I attended a faculty symposium to create ____ College’s 5 year plan. I remember leaving the meeting strongly impressed by this phrase:

There is no such thing as the future…there are only the futures, the alternative futures.
–Alex McManus, WordPress blogger

That statement continues to make the future less daunting. It grants an incredible freedom. You are the determining factor in your future. You get to choose which future you want to live. It’s not static and determined. It’s open and moveable. It could change at any moment.  It’s not a product of chance or fate; it’s an opportunity.

Two things immediately came to mind as I read your post. I couldn’t believe how much your last lines echoed Galadriel’s blessing to Frodo:

I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.

Galadriel presents Frodo with a type of solid starlight as he paddles away in his elf-made canoe from the safety of Lothlorien towards an uncertain future. A future that he hopes includes passing though Mordor to defeat the ring. Yet at that moment he still did not know the way, the method, or the outcome. He was plagued by self-doubt and had a task far larger than he was capable of accomplishing alone. Even with a fellowship of 12, a mountain had to be climbed, a dragon defeated, orcs and dark riders had to be outrun. Many of his companions perished or betrayed him, and at any moment he knew he could die and fail in his task. Yet something like starlight and hope compelled him onward.

Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet advice that well complements Galadriel’s:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Love the questions. Live the uncertainty. Embrace the ricochet. It is an integral part of the journey of learning to navigate by starlight, become less afraid of the dark, and marvel like Van Gogh at the beauty of the stars.

Yours hopefully,

xo Brightstar