When we do our best, and I mean giving it our most heartfelt effort, not expecting it to be easy, or noticed, this is the most effective form of growth I can imagine.
What I’ve been inspired to explore today is how we develop character, what informs our growth, and how we do this intentionally. I found the answers on an unexpected excursion. Don’t bail on me now, you don’t want to miss this one!
Last weekend I had the enormous privilege of visiting “the relatives” in the heart of America. If I had considered the possibility of this experience a few years back I would have deemed it inconceivable, not because it was a risky proposition, but because the possibility did not exist.
I believe it was forces beyond the grave that pulled us together and forged the tender seedling of a new relationship. My Mom, an avid gardener in life, is no longer interested in mere horticulture, she’s cultivating and managing the future of her clan from above.
That’s so my Mom and I’ve come to believe Bev is now assisting.
As if a train conductor, they’ve pulled what they call a rail switch, which put us on a new track, one bound for middle America, where those historic tracks connect, move, and transfer the resources of this great nation from one generation to the next.
When our long lost second cousins slipped unexpectedly into our lives we embraced the opportunity to reconnect, and although delighted, it was rather brave of us to hop on a plane in route to unknown territory, banking on the hospitality of newly established relationships, but having this deep knowing we would be received with generosity and kindness.
I believe it’s transformational to purposely embrace the unknown. Don’t you?
Landing in St. Louis on a rather hot and humid day, Larry and I checked into an adorable boutique hotel, before making our way to the iconic St. Louis Arch. The significance of this monument is that it was designed to pay tribute to the role of St. Louis in the westward expansion of America (not to be confused with the McDonald’s arch and what it did for the hamburgers).
The goal was to create a permanent memorial to the people who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States. I think it’s appropriate for these native Californians to appreciate the effort it took our ancestors to forge this great nation, exploring, and expanding our knowledge of not only the land, but it’s people.
We ended up on The Hill for dinner, the “Little Italy” of St. Louis, known for it’s authentic Italian dining, and charming neighborhoods. As the evening cooled we lounged on a quaint plaza, enjoying homemade gelato, and a spectacular fountain, as if gazing at the Trevi in Rome (on a much smaller scale mind you).
I was thinking to myself we should all live like this, simple, peaceful, assuaging.
Tomorrow we point our rented jeep towards Jefferson City, capital of Missouri, in search of “the relatives.” Are you hearing the faint sound of banjos in the distance? We’ll just push that thought away.
Sometimes we can’t see the best of ourselves until we find ourselves caught in the lens of someone who loves us, strong demanding love, and as if in the hands of a magician, we are permanently transformed.
This is what I learned from my second cousins in middle America, where the act of love comes in the form of honesty, hard work, devotion, family, integrity, and true grit. As if Louis and Clark I expanded my interior landscape by paddling upstream.
1 – First I discovered how hard it is to cultivate the land, to nurture the growth of say a fruit tree, and the rush one gets from the experience of harvesting that which you have grown. Yes, the labor was free, the work sweaty, and the cousins made use of our enthusiasm, but what I learned was far more important. You reap that which you sow in life, this can come in the form of produce, but it also shows up in our character, the hard work of cultivating oneself, it doesn’t happen without effort, nurturing, and then the reward of harvesting that which we consider our “fruit” for the benefit of others.
The act of selfless giving is not instinctual to me, but as I pluck the ripened fruit from a weighted branch of the family tree, I’m what you call a late bloomer, ripening in my own time, so don’t throw me no “shade.”
2 – Second I learned how difficult it is to tame the wilderness as we explored the acreage in a totally “cool” Polaris Ranger. This was right out of an Indiana Jones movie, we traversed this extraordinary terrain, forging streams, climbing steep embankments, encountering not only wildlife, but enormous spiders, spectacular groves, quaint watering holes, lush crops, and sublime scenery.
What was not known was the work Mike put into our tour beforehand, cutting miles of evil branches that snag and sting, sweeping away the majority of annoying spiders and sticky webs, and mowing the land for a smooth and enjoyable ride. This is what I refer to when I say heartfelt effort, not expecting it to be easy, or noticed, just midwest hospitality and generosity at it’s best. It did not go unnoticed.
I believe we could change the narrative of our lives if we all aspired to make life easier for each other, without calculating the difficulty, or expecting a reward.
3 – Thirdly I learned about bees, yes the ones that will sting if provoked, but make the most gloriously sweet honey imaginable. They’re organization is complex yet simple, they work relentlessly for one purpose, the survival of the colony, because individual bees (workers, drones, and queens) cannot survive without the support of the colony (this is true for humans as well).
Bees are strictly a matriarchal society, the queen bee provides the leadership and the eggs, but more importantly she produces pheromones that serve as a social “glue” unifying and helping to give individual identity to the bee colony. I think this is interesting because our human families are not only unified but often socialized by females, either consciously or unconsciously, and that might be key. The male drones have one purpose and that is to mate with the queen (I’ll let that stand on it’s own so to speak), and the duties of the female workers change as they matriculate from nursery duties, to pollen collectors. Sound vaguely familiar?
Gail is a bee whisperer, she meticulously cares for at least a dozen colonies, harvesting honey, keeping them fed during the long winters, and rescuing hives in need of a home. This is who she is and the characteristics she invests in the survival of her bees are the very same she invests in her family. In referring to how she spends her precious time she said, “what is more important then spending my time with family and the people I love.” Enough said.
4 – The fourth lesson was one of hospitality, relationship, and hope. And I refer to hope not as an emotion, but as a cognitive behavioral process, one that is rooted in the belief that we are capable of overcoming obstacles, especially if our lives are marked by trustworthy relationships. Rebecca Solnit says, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” I love that.
Our final night on the farm was significant because they invited their people to join us, people who define themselves as family, trustworthy relationships that have withstood the test of time, people who give each other an irresistible sense of hope.
It wasn’t just the easy camaraderie they displayed, or the diversity of the generations docked around the kitchen table, but what I found most attractive was the warm of inclusion I felt as a stranger in their midst.
[Can I just add not only were we served a delicious meal, paired with extraordinary wines, and a delectable dessert, but everyone participated, especially the drones.]
5 – Fifth and finally I think it is interesting how little we really know about each other unless we take the time to really see each other in and through the sacred lens of our passions, the things that not only drive us, but define us. We had the enormous privilege of visiting the home of my mother’s first cousin Richard, in this we were able to observe the culmination of his lifelong passion, and that being the collection, restoration, and display of miniature trains. Trains have crisscrossed our landscape for centuries, they are part of our heritage, and I believe they are embedded in our universal conscious, in that we are inordinately delighted by this form of transportation. Seeing the breadth and depth of his passion in minute detail inspired my own in ways I’ve yet to discover. I’m enormously grateful for the small peak inside the workings of this majestic man.
“Mother of the West” This Missouri nickname is a reference to Missouri’s advantageous geographical location and history of westward expansion. Both the Santa Fe and Oregon trails start in Missouri and The Pony Express and the Butterfield Overland Mail Route both originated in Missouri.
“Salus populi suprema lex esto,” is the Missouri state motto, it’s translated as “Let the good of the people be the supreme law.” We also brewed our own beer, sipped wine on the porch by the light of the moon, and engaged in unrushed conversations over steaming cups of coffee, something we often sacrifice in lieu of a more frantic lifestyle. See I believe we epitomized the state motto unawares.
I am the harvest, the witness, and the worker who learned how to show up, risk the unknown, put in the labor, and in doing so relish the sweetness of hope. Even though I am compelled to remove the struggle from the lives of those I love, I’m learning how our challenges not only form us, but drag us right through the valley of fear, and into a space where we are able to discover our best selves.
I’ve seen first hand how hard it is to cultivate the landscape in which we live, it is the same with cultivating the self, it requires extraordinary grit, the kind that forged miles and miles of tracks across America, and in doing so we discovered not only the true spirit of Missouri, but that of Mike and Gail who are, “close to home, and far from ordinary.”
I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we’ll do something simple, peaceful, assuaging.
- You have to love your country the way you love your friends, the way your spouse loves you, right? The people who love you don’t blow smoke up your backside. They don’t do that. They tell you hard truths. Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Fulfilled life is possible in spite of unfulfilled wishes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- “Hey. Please. This is not the Midwest. All right? Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why. This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues.” Tracy Letts”