Oct 102015
 

Note: The following will be published in the November-December issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I am thankful to Suzanne & Steve Heronemus for their friendship, kindness and wisdom.

Twenty years later, the paradox grows even more relevant. We long for stable, creative lives. What if that is impossible?

Many years ago, I worked with a large trade association. The president, who founded the association 25 years earlier, was nearing retirement. I requested an opportunity to chat about his thoughts on retirement, and the history and future of the organization.

Early in our time together, I asked what would most benefit the association going forward. “If we had a more predictable income stream—if we enjoyed more stability—we could plan so much better,” was his immediate reply. Later in our conversation, as he reflected on his tenure, I asked what he would miss most. Again, without hesitation, he exclaimed, “I’ll miss the early years. There were days we came into the office not knowing if there would be a future. It was a very exciting, creative time.”

It wasn’t long before I realized the paradox defined by the incongruence of his recollections and his dreams. He relished the chaotic nature of the early years…the moments that demanded creativity and innovation beyond what they thought possible. What he hoped for going forward was control and stability…a future barren of the creativity that uncertainty demands.

Nature is inherently creative. It continually crafts new ecosystems and species, and does it by remaining on that edge between order and chaos. To introduce planning, stability and control into natural ecosystems is to plant the seeds of their own destruction. On those occasions, for example, when we impose control by preventing chaos-inducing fires, forests build unhealthy levels of underbrush. When fire eventually comes—and it always does—it is intensely hot and destructive, often beyond that which the ecosystem can survive.

When I ask people to recall a time of deep learning and creativity, they are reminded of junctures imbued with confusion, turmoil and disarray. They recount the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or unexpected physical displacement. In those moments, of necessity, we must regain our footing, and redefine who we are in relation to life itself. Living on that edge, the insights we gain help us create new futures for ourselves and those around us.

I have spent time recently with a man who has become a friend and treasured teacher. Steve Heronemus was diagnosed more than ten years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS. Today, he is wheelchair-bound, can no longer speak, and receives sustenance through a feeding tube. And yet, he wrote a book, Shells: Sustained by Grace within the Tempest, using his eyes and infrared sensors to choose letters on a computer. He is working on three more.

On September 5 of this year, using only two fingers and his teeth, he sailed on Lake Michigan solo on a specially equipped boat. He has sailed twice more since. His dream is to help create a fleet of boats that will make the joy of sailing accessible to others who have limited physical ability. Steve is fortunate to have Suzanne—who is one of the most resilient, resourceful and creative people I have ever met—as his wife. She just smiles and rolls her eyes when Steve reveals ever-more audacious dreams.

When you converse with Steve, using only his eyes, he forms words and sentences that exude wisdom. He refines the ore of his life, through the pain and heartache of ALS, into the lustrous gold of understanding, joy and love. Steve says ALS has been a huge gift, and that he has never been happier. The chaos of ALS has forced him to focus the remainder of his days on only that which has meaning. His smile…his joy…his generosity, bring tears to my eyes in this moment as I fumble for words to scratch at the depth of my affection and appreciation.

It is exhausting, and often terrifying, to live on the edge of chaos. Just ask Steve and Suzanne. Are the creativity, wisdom, inspiration worth the oft-paralyzing fear and arduous struggle? Steve Heronemus shouts, with his very life, “YES!” Who am I to say otherwise?

 

Note: I highly recommend Steve’s book, Shells. It is filled with wisdom. There are short, inspiring documentary films of Steve’s recent victory on Lake Michigan. Search YouTube.com for “The Hero in Heronemus.”

Apr 232014
 

The flow of a river is constrained by its banks. Over time, however, the rushing water erodes the banks and redirects the course of the river. Riverbanks are necessary to give form, and yet the river retains the power to alter its future.

If you would be willing to play along, what appears a game just may prompt surprising questions about the riverbanks that constrain our lives.

Triangle Instructions

Figure 1

Take out a piece of paper and located three points in the shape of a triangle. Label them 1, 2 & 3. Pick any point on the page—inside or outside the triangle, and locate additional points using two rules: pick 1, 2 or 3 at random and move 1/2 the distance from the most recent point to find the next.

In Figure 1, I began at “a” and picked “1” at random. Point “b” is then 1/2 of the distance from “a” to the number 1. Next I picked “3” and moved 1/2 of the distance from “b” to 3 to locate “c”. Then I picked another “1”and moved 1/2 of the distance from “c” to the number 1 to locate “d”. Finally, I picked “2” and moved from “d” to locate “e” 1/2 of the way to 2. Simple enough…go ahead and plot a hundred points or so. I’ll wait…

Triangle 100 Points

Figure 2

If you did that, you would end up with a diagram similar to Figure 2. It appears a fairly random set of dots. What happens if you plot, say, 30,000? This time I won’t wait. But before you look at the resulting diagram below, any guesses what it might look like? Okay, take a look at Figure 3 at the bottom of the post.

I find this result both stunning and terrifying.

I am stunned that such simple rules—rules that appear at first blush to yield chaos—countenance order and beauty over time. Order out of chaos. Stunning! Rules as simple as green means proceed, and red means wait, give order and meaning to millions of vehicles. “Do unto others…” gives order and meaning to our lives.

But there are ways in which I am terrified as well. As long as we remain allegiant to the rules, future dots are determined, and our path is immutable. We remain trapped in the pattern forever.

I wonder how I remain trapped by rules in my life, even those so very subtle they remain imperceptible. Might there be ways in which my future is constrained, rigid and immutable? I hated writing essays in school and remained, for many years, certain of my inability to assemble meaningful words on paper. “I am a loner,” “I am artistically destitute,” “I am not a good listener” and “I don’t like to read,” defined much of my life. While I have not overcome feelings about lacking artistic ability, I have set aside many of the others. As I do, I erode the banks and set the river of my life on a new course.

I leave you with one final exercise. Allow yourself a few moments to reflect on the “rules” in your life. No doubt there are many that provide order and meaning. But if you are honest and look deeply enough, you just may uncover a few that keep you trapped in work, relationships, communities or images of self that limit your freedom, and constrain your future? It just might be time to jettison them, erode the riverbanks of your life and allow stunning new patterns to emerge.

 

Triangle 30000Points

Figure 3