Relief

Je l’aidai de mon mieux, c’est-à-dire, en essayant d’écrire un chef-d’œuvre immortel.
(I did my best to help her, that is, by trying to write an immortal masterpiece.)
–Romain Gary, La promesse de l’aube (Paris : Gallimard, 1960) 185.

Relief for me is finally, finally being good enough in my own estimation, within my own head and heart.

I haven’t felt good enough before now.  I would have liked to be a great novelist who stirs readers’ souls.  Or perhaps, I thought, I would be good enough if I earned a doctorate and became a tenured university professor, or even if I earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing.  My master’s degree in literature is not a “terminal” degree and so is not good enough, or hasn’t been.  I began a doctoral program at the University of Maryland but changed states and jobs when I was just two courses into the program.  Even at this point in my life, I’ve thought about earning an MFA or PhD.  I’ve explored university websites from time to time, hoping to discover the path to wholeness.  I would enjoy the academic work; I love to learn.  But I can learn outside an expensive degree program.  The degrees have appealed to me because I’ve thought they might make me, finally, fully sufficient.

For most of my life, I have felt insufficient, second rate next to the world’s full professors, full-time writers, musicians with careers, people with a life mission.  Above all, I have with desperation sought a mission for my writing.  I’ve been searching for fifty years.  Having a mission would, I was convinced, permanently ignite my writing, giving it drive and meaning, carrying me past procrastination, past wondering what to write, past the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed with projects calling to me but languishing unsupported by confidence in how to do them and in their offering others something of value.

I have with frantic intensity tried to find my writing niche—my life niche.  Good ideas have come and given me hope that I have finally found this longed-for writing and life niche.  But inevitably I’ve bogged down sooner or later from a loss of energy, inspiration, momentum, and belief in the merits of my plans.

I want to write about so many things, but the pen becomes too heavy to lift if I think I must write specifically about X or Y and do so at a suitably high level—what that is, I am uncertain.  I bloom at intervals, even finishing substantial projects from time to time.  But then I sink back into the slough of discouragement, fatigue, and endless games of Scrabble on my Kindle Fire.

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The truth is that, in contrast to my ambitions, I love being a Jill of all trades.  I have not proved willing, or even able, to give up the quantity of my interests and hobbies in order to achieve quality, to overcome my master-of-none status.  I love the full range of my enthusiasms.  I don’t want, for example, to give up my French class in order to spend more time on Italian, or give up Italian in order to practice my flute daily, or quit billiards, tap and line dancing, or my occasional acting to reestablish a regular program of reading literature.  I don’t want to give up my meaningful visits with friends in order to have time to produce masterful creations, as much as I am driven to express myself creatively.  I’ve joined a choir and signed up for spiritual retreats with a dear friend.  I want to organize my possessions, walk down by the pond, meditate, make jewelry from beads.  And still I’ve craved—begged—to find my overarching purpose in life, my reason for being, my way of serving.

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Can I possibly serve merely by being as I am—rather than only as I have, all my adult life, longed unsuccessfully to become?

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I can’t be a great writer and also spend long hours studying my part for a play, or figuring out how to fill seventy-five minutes leading a book discussion in French, a language I love but in which I lack confidence.  I can’t be an accomplished musician if I spend my days on other than practicing music.  Yet perhaps, after all, my failure to reach the heights I’ve been thinking I must scale if I am to count, to serve, and to overcome my sense of not measuring up is because God didn’t form me to be an Isabel Allende, James Galway, or tenured professor.

Maybe I’m meant to serve as I can by savoring smaller bites across the vast smorgasbord of life and by sharing my enthusiastic efforts—whatever their limits and deficiencies—with others.  I can encourage others, too, to find their joys in the world and to embrace their own God-given ways of being.

I suppose it is shortsighted of me to smother the pleasure and satisfaction of my Jill-of-all-trades temperament and opportunities because of my shame and discouragement over my master-of-none status.  I’ve been damping the fires of who I am.  I’ve spent large portions of my days mourning the failure to materialize of the person I thought I ought to be—but couldn’t figure out how to make myself become.

What profound relief I feel as I begin to move forward, having decided that who I am is not simply enough but is also who God made me to be.  I have the responsibility to grow, to serve and to seek to master being me, but not to become other than the nature I was given.

Playing with Gusto

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Age brings strength of many types.
Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book [Falling Upward] is exactly the opposite.  What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.  -Richard Rohr*

I’ve been in a slump—hunkering down with a brick wall in my face: the brick wall of “I don’t have any ideas worth writing about”; “My friends are going to get sick of me, if they aren’t already”; “I’ve messed up so many things in my life”; and “If I don’t hurry and get it together, it will be too late.”

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Don’t get me wrong: all sorts of wonderful things have filled vast expanses of my most recent slump time: happy and deeply meaningful experiences with friends, the arrival of the beautiful weather and blossoming brilliance of late spring, the royal wedding (which I watched live and then watched again later in the day). . . .  But the sense of time ticking past with frightening speed while I fail to catch hold has once again thrown me up against that brick wall.  Life has been and is profoundly good to me, but I’m not doing my share, or so it seems.

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with an embracing and ecumenical spirituality, not only writes of the value and strength of later life, he also does the same for our mistakes: “Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey” (Falling Upward, 21).  Richard Rohr’s books and daily meditations, available by e-mail, speak in harmony with my needs and personal philosophy.  They give me comfort and encouragement.  But I have continued feeling bogged down along the path of my particular journey.

And so, as I have before, I asked my Loved Ones in the Light to give me their perspective.  Here is what I think they told me today:

We think you’re doing pretty well, better than you recognize.  But there is room for improvement for the sake of your peace of mind and sense of purpose.  This is a prime time in your life.  You think that many possibilities are behind you—and they are, those of your now-past life stages.  But the possibilities available and offering themselves to you now are just as vibrant, interesting, and important as were those of your youth.  Such is the case for everyone.

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Evening is beautiful.

The key is in not regretting what has slipped through your life and into the past but, instead, valuing the lessons distilled from

  • Missteps, wrong turns, right turns, and byways along life’s journey
  • Opportunities—taken or not
  • Challenges—muddled or surmounted
  • Deep regrets
  • And dear memories

Who you were, you are now.  Your four-year-old self and your forty-year-old self are with you, transmuted but not abandoned or lost.

You know very well that if you spend your days mourning what no longer seems possible, fearing you cannot meet your own high standards and others’ expectations, and feeling like residue left behind after those you love have crossed to the other side, you will damage or destroy your health, your serenity, and much of your joy.

This evening, you have finally wrestled aside your fear enough to pick up a pen again after a long siege by the paralysis of self-doubt.  Look at the pleasure that writing even these few lines has given you.  This small success has reignited a sense of living life instead of merely bouncing around with its buffeting—back and forth between happy times, like those with friends, and the desperation of sleepless nights spent tangling with the What Am I Going to Do Monsters:

  • What am I going to do to bring life and purpose to my blog?
  • What am I going to do to become calmer and stronger?
  • What am I going to do to be a better friend to my friends?
  • What am I going to do to bring order to my days?
  • What am I going to do to bring stability to my finances?

And so on.

Richard Rohr reminds his readers of the value of mistakes.  To give our own analogy: wrong notes cue you about what the right notes are as you continue playing your life symphony.  As the late Adlerian psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs, an acquaintance of your family’s, said when someone pointed out a wrong note he had played on the piano, “But look at all the notes I got right.”  Besides, the “wrong” notes you have played may not, in fact, have been mistakes so much as modulations into valuable new improvisations, or into the development section of your current symphonic movement.

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Okay, so some of the notes you played really were sour.  Yes, entire measures of your life have been filled with missed accidentals and a failure to follow the key signature.  But you are now a much more skilled musician of life as a result.  While you may not be able to present your life’s music with the full force and vigor that you could muster when you were fifteen or thirty, you are able to play with greater finesse, passion, and virtuosity.  And remember that pianissimo moments can be captivating and lyrical; they complement the fortissimo, con brio, and con fuoco passages.

So play the melodies of your days with gusto, even in the minor keys.  Remember that while nothing, including practice, makes perfect, practice in interpreting life with determination and courage makes meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment.  Play on.

Namaste

* Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 139 (Nook edition).

Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic

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“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1.1.82)
  1. Know that it’s not too late.

  2. Know that you’re not too old.

  3. Cultivate your own individual style.

  4. Be yourself; let others do the same. And avoid trying to find your satisfaction vicariously through someone else’s life.

  5. Be able to articulate your values and beliefs.

  6. Each day, use your creativity, interests, and talents in some way.

  7. Write/Draw/Dance/Play music . . . to satisfy yourself, not for anyone else’s approval.

  8. Embrace this truth: If you try to do something according to someone else’s opinions—in place of your own—you’ll probably either not like the results or give up before finishing.

  9. Acknowledge that if you’re procrastinating, there’s something wrong with the situation. Figure out and address the problem.

  10. Learn something new every day.

  11. Learn for the pleasure of learning.

  12. Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.

  13. Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).

  14. Develop and keep routines and traditions that support order and meaning in your life. Include time for meditation and reflection.

  15. Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.

  16. Keep a journal so that ideas, impressions, and memories don’t fade and days don’t get lost in the tide of years.

  17. Practice being fully present in the moment.

  18. Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.

  19. Discover the positive potential and lessons in difficult situations.

  20. Value your blessings while you have them, and not just in hindsight.

  21. Do the best you can and then let it go. Don’t rehash the past by asking, “Did I really do my best and try my hardest?”

  22. Once a situation is past, forgive everyone for everything (which does not mean letting bad situations recur).

  23. Realize that other peoples’ behavior makes sense from their frame of reference.

  24. Don’t try to change other people, but allow for the possibility of their changing. (Your example is more powerful than your arguments.)

  25. Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.

  26. Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.

  27. Don’t allow yourself to feel like a child who has misbehaved. You acted as you did for a reason, even if you will look at the situation differently next time.

  28. Look for and take opportunities to give honest encouragement.

  29. Recognize that encouraging others doesn’t mean trying to please them to win their favor.

  30. Don’t allow yourself to act out of fear of rejection or criticism.

  31. In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.

  32. Identify a mentor to help you strengthen your confidence, courage, and dedication to your values and life focus. A mentor can be someone you admire but don’t know personally.

  33. Find and seize opportunities to see life from others’ perspectives and situations.

  34. If you’re lonely, reach out to someone to whom you could give pleasure.

  35. Be aware that reaching out to and helping others can take many forms, including writing and other creative endeavors.

  36. Don’t value helping strangers above helping family members and other loved ones: both kinds of service are infinitely important, so serve where and how you can.

  37. Realize that if you fail to honor your own fundamental needs, you won’t be able to continue helping others over the long haul.

  38. If you are doing an assignment or task for someone else, first accept it consciously as something you are choosing to do, and then put your own stamp on it.

  39. Accept that getting stressed won’t lead to greater punctuality/perfection/approval than will staying calm.

  40. Strive, in your own way, to advance justice and kindness.

Trying to Turn What I Say into What I Do

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In becoming a classic, you don’t have to be perfect.

Sometimes I’m pretty wise about other people.  After all, I’ve been hanging around earth for quite a while, and I’ve been paying attention.  My powers of observation, however, substantially exceed the example I set.  In this post, rather than citing others’ work, I quote some of my own advice from my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.”  But then I explore the gaps between what I say and what I (am so far able to) do.  This essay is in the second person because I am giving myself a good talking-to.  Perhaps some of my self-talk will also be relevant for you.

The Point of It All

I’ll begin with a piece of advice that is both an obsession and a challenge for me: Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.

Winnie, since your earliest adulthood, you have sought a sense of purpose, a way to serve, through writing.  But you have wanted the heavens to open and present you with the perfect project, the golden one that will engage you for the rest of your days and give meaning to your existence.  Even if the heavens did give you what you seek, would you be able to move forward, or would your fear of not being equal to the task soon send you back to procrastination and distress?  You have had dozens of adequate ideas for major writing projects, but you have sooner or later rejected nearly all of them as either defective ideas or as ideas for which you are defective in your ability to bring them to life.  Finally, however, your editing your parents’ memoirs, publishing your own, and finishing your novel are evidence that you are not irredeemable in your inability to move forward in your writing.

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Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania – Drawing by Mason Hayek, from his memoir, Growing to 80

And as you are beginning to recognize, your writing is a flexible way for you to serve and to express yourself.  Just as you have sought and pursued a wide range of experiences in your life, you will do best and find greatest peace of mind if you accept that you will write in the service of many different subjects, people, and areas of expression.  Yours is a life about broad, varied activities and not about devotion to a single area, such as virtuosity on an instrument—or repeated excellence in novel writing.  This is not to say that you can’t write a novel, even a good novel—and, of course, you have already tried your hand at a novel that expresses some of your heartfelt interests and values.  But your life is not designed to parallel, say, Jane Austen’s, Elena Ferrante’s, Isabel Allende’s, or J.K. Rowling’s.  And so: Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).

Dance Skirmishes and Other Melees

Another situation preying on your mind right now is the kerfuffle in your dance session on Friday.  Let’s figure out what happened, why you let yourself get upset with a member of your amateur dance troupe; we’ll call her Hilda.  You have, for years, objected to Hilda’s sometimes imperious (in your opinion) ways and railed against what you perceive as the unfairness of her dictatorial (in your estimation) pronouncements.  The obvious question is: why associate, when you don’t have to, with people who upset you—and, at this point in your development, inspire responses ranging from headaches and stress (the usual outcome) to letting your feelings fly, as you did on Friday.  You were reacting rather than attacking; it was a defense that you mounted, but an ineffective one that certainly did not inspire Hilda to engage in self-reflection or decide anything other than that you and your views are (in her estimation) worthy of rejection and resentment.

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You can and need to find the lessons in the situation, lessons you have not yet mastered from earlier such occasions.  From the past several years, we can think of two to-dos with similarities to Friday’s.  That’s not a lot, but you’ll acknowledge that you’ve also had many, many episodes of saying to yourself, “Let me out of here—I’ve got a terrible headache!”  The causes are similar.

One all-out to-do involved your crying in a post office in Rome, Italy, and telling Sylvia, your traveling companion, “I resign.  I quit as translator and tour guide.  I don’t want to have any more responsibilities for you or anyone else for the rest of this trip.  I’m going for a walk.”  And off you flounced in the opposite direction from the convent where the two of you were staying.  When you did finally return, you and Sylvia tenuously reconciled.  But during the night, she called friends and family back home to update them on what a rotten time she was having with you.  Fortunately for you both, you managed to part ways two days later.

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Sometimes it’s pleasant to explore alone.

And then six years after Italy came the time you sat crying and distraught in the office of Mattie, the acting CEO where you worked.  She had, by anyone’s estimation, been truly out of line and unbearable, but she was your boss, and distraught crying is not, as you know, an effective career strategy.  Nor is it an effective reaction to any sort of bullying or other unfair behavior, no matter how egregious.  And now, ten years after your work meltdown, you have had your encounter with Hilda.

To repeat an earlier point: Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.  If being with someone is stressful and no necessity exists for being with this person, make the choice to stay apart.  Obviously you would come to Hilda’s aid if it were your place to do so, and certainly you will look on her with good will, but you don’t need to dance with her.  Yes, you love dancing.  Yes, people in your community expect you to dance in the community’s annual talent show.  But also yes, you can stop dancing with Hilda.  You have other ways to practice and perform your dancing.  But even if you didn’t, you need, as your wise mother sometimes phrased it, to take your sails out of Hilda’s wind.

Before boarding the plane to Italy with Sylvia, you should have, as you now know, established clear, mutually understood ground rules—such as, “We will each be free to go different places and pursue different activities.”  In other words: In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.

Better yet in this case, you would have recognized the ocean of differences between your interests and personality and hers and would have avoided trying to travel together at all.  With Mattie, your job prevented you from avoiding her.  But you could have surmounted the fear, the sense of being threatened, that led to your upset with her, as well as with Sylvia and Hilda.  You believed you were about to drown under the tsunami the other person represented for you.  While each tsunami was different in its size and perceived power and danger, the image holds true for all such cases in your life.  But instead of being tsunamis, most challenging relationships represent a series of smaller waves that—if you act from a base of confidence, resolution, and mutual respect—you will be able to navigate calmly and justly, one at a time.  Of course if you can simply step away from the water, why not do so?

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Know when to get out of the water.

An Age Full of Possibilities

Other areas of your life also need attention.  You watch House and Garden Television and relish the transformation of other people’s homes.  But your own woodwork has black stains; the veneer on the kitchen cabinets is peeling, and the curtains need washing.  Again, however, your all-or-nothingness intrudes.  You are so overwhelmed by the volume of things that need doing in your little apartment that beyond keeping the place neat, you usually only act when necessity becomes profound—such as when guests are coming.  Do you also feel you don’t deserve a pretty home?

Certainly granite countertops are not one of life’s necessities, but your failure to upgrade your home in small ways that could be attainable is evidence of your unvoiced belief that life has passed you by and that you don’t deserve the possibility of having your small and large dreams realized.  Of course your life is blessed exactly as it is—particularly in the parents that were yours, in your friends and community, and in the education and life experiences you have had—but you have not fallen out of possibilities, not aged out of worthiness to hope, whether for pretty cabinets or for a return to Italy: Know that it’s not too late.  Know that you’re not too old.

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Age is a strength.
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All seasons are beautiful.

Let’s directly address the issue of aging.  While you are, for now, considered relatively young by your friends, you are not young, and most of the world does not look at you as youthful.  You subconsciously think you have slipped up somehow by letting yourself age.  While you would prefer an unlined face, your wrinkles are not enormously distressing to you, but you don’t like the “such a sweet old dear” reaction from younger people who hear that you tap dance and study French and Italian.

You sincerely believe that your older friends have enormous possibilities open to them and are inestimably valuable human beings. But perhaps because you’ve always felt that you’ve failed in so many ways to meet life’s expectations, you struggle to avoid feeling tossed out of the circle of life and into the bleachers to look on for the rest of your days.  So instead: Practice being fully present in the moment.

Look at the beautiful day you have, this very day: Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.  The sky is bright blue, and red buds are beginning to appear on the trees.  The region had a ferocious nor’easter at the end of last week, and another is expected this week, but now the sun is coming in your window, which is rare because your apartment faces north.  The light is reflected from the building across the way, rather than shining in directly, but you can be grateful, too—and you are—for light however it comes to you.  Remember: Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.  And it is.

Hoping to Graduate from the Second Grade

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In my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic,” I include this recommendation as number 25: “Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.”  I didn’t just parrot this conviction after hearing someone else say it; I believe it absolutely.  Logic tells me the statement must also apply to me, not just to other people, but sometimes my heart is not so sure.  This was one of those days.

In French class today—a lifelong-learning course filled with retirees—I returned to second grade.  I experienced again how it felt when I was seven and knew I had become unacceptable—after six years of confidence and joy.  Since second grade, I have retained the fear that I am insufficient, will be rejected after a brief veneer of belonging.  This fear has possessed my life.  I have known where it originated, in spite of my difficulty in overcoming it.  But today I didn’t simply understand why I felt insufficient.  I once again became the essence of unacceptable, rejected, unique among others in not knowing how to fit in.

What I observed is almost certainly not a true reflection of my classmates’ motivations and actions, but I’ll share what I experienced, filtered through my negative state of mind.

In the French classroom, the woman who used to sit next to me now rarely acknowledges me, and did not do so at all today.  I said “bonjour” to a pair crossing my path as they were finding their places.  One perfunctorily returned the greeting.  The second looked at me as if to say, “Who let her in?” and continued to her seat without speaking to me.  Clumps of women found their seats and huddled together, conversing before class.  I sat by myself wondering, “Is my French so poor that I have earned ostracism?  Am I disagreeable in some way that I don’t understand?”  Tears assembled, almost ready to slip past my lower lids.  I wasn’t just remembering second grade; I was there again: unworthy, an outcast, alone.

Yes, today a man in our French class did greet me in a friendly manner.  A woman classmate who is also a neighbor is always pleasant and today asked me if she would be able to ride with me sometimes, and I did exchange a few words with a couple of other women who, while evidently much more acceptable to the class powerbase than I am, are nevertheless not full members of that oligarchy.  The substantial French-class oligarchy is for me the senior version of my elementary-school classmate Hannah and her court, whom I still hear and believe fifty-five years after I last shared a class with them.  I believe them because, perhaps through the effectiveness of self-fulfilling prophecy, I continue to find their scornful assessments true.

If my confidence and self-respect hadn’t been rocky to begin with, I would not have interpreted my French classmates’ behavior as confirmation of my lowly state.  But the message today seemed to be that I have been right all along, for the sixty-one years since I was in second grade: I am unacceptably different and deficient.  I reinforced my belief that in any setting with other people, sooner or later my fatal flaws will become known.  And because I don’t understand what these flaws are—merely know they exist—I do not know how to overcome them and earn ongoing welcome among those whose world I share.

Ironically, in French class we are reading the short novel Aliocha, by Henri Troyat, who based the story on his own childhood experiences.  Alexis, whose Russian nickname is Aliocha, is the novel’s central character.  Alexis and his parents fled Russia for France after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Throughout the book, we follow Alexis’ struggle to feel truly French, truly accepted.  Even in his happiest times, the doubts try to surface: “De nouveau, Alexis se découvrait en porte à faux dans un monde construit par les autres et pour les autres.”[1]—”Once again, Alexis found himself at odds with a world made by others and for others.”  On this occasion, Alexis quickly regains his sense of belonging in his current happy setting, with his best friend and his best friend’s parents.  Except for the three summers when I had a best friend, Louise, at camp, I found myself “at odds with a world made by others and for others” at summer camp.  I also seemed to be trespassing in others’ worlds in junior-high and high school, and often in my own neighborhood.  As happened today, the exceptions—those who included me at least to some extent—whispered, while the signs of my expulsion from society screamed.

My life has been and continues to be vastly blessed.  But when, and how, am I finally going to graduate from second grade?

A question I can answer is this: What is the gift here?  Because of my own experiences—even my mistaken interpretation of others’ attitudes and actions—I have empathy for all who are bullied or otherwise see themselves as outsiders.  I also have a responsibility to help change our we-they, insider-outcast society into one that recognizes and embraces this truth: We are all one.

[1] Henri Troyat, Aliocha (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1991), 90.