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.”