Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lessons from nature

Amanita muscaria reminds us that all that glitters is not gold.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Lessons from nature

Persimmons teach us how the bitterness of youth can mature into sweetness.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What William White knew about Hercules

“Blessed are they who heal us of self-despising. Of all services which can be done to man, I know of none more precious.” 
William Hale White, British writer and civil servant

I found this quote one day while looking for something else and was struck by its audacious insight. I wrote it on a post-it note and stuck it to my monitor where I could compost it, although I wasn't sure why.

Its proximity caused me to think about the work I do teaching and coaching, and pressed me to investigate White’s context and self-image.

In a treatise written after his death it was said about William Hale White (penned as Mark Rutherford) that he wrote peculiarly well about, “misery of diffidence and self-distrust . . . an extraordinary knowledge of loneliness and depression, and of self-deception and humbug . . . his pity for the poor and oppressed, for the lonely and the sensitive, for the unhappily married - for all the world, indeed, except hypocrites and landlords.” White was kicked out of seminary for the meagerness of his faith, and spent the better part of his life moving around looking for the perfect home. It’s not difficult to image White’s primary diagnosis as a lack of self-worth. No wonder he wrote about such things.

Fast forward some months to the Oregon Coast and our fall offering of Creating The Life You Want—eight people joined in community to find where they strayed off the path they thought would be their lives. In a group of high achieving, lovely people I was struck once again by the roadblocks they fashioned using fear and shame and guilt and unworthiness. I thought of White and his quote.

Because over the years it has been a constant theme among our learning communities, I wondered about universality. In our work even those who rise above self-doubt to pursue their dreams are haunted by “monkey minds” that chatter about their lack of worthiness. I concluded there must be an origin of fear, shame and guilt, some epic, mythological origin.

Mythology, for those of you who have forgotten, is a collection of stories that help us explain our beliefs and history; beneath their story-lines they confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level.

Enter Hercules, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Hercules was born a great hero with god-like strength. Unfortunately the goddess Hera (Zeus’ wife) was furious about the birth of this child belonging to her husband and another woman. Hera made it her business to make Hercules’ life miserable. Hercules was able to overcome all of Hera’s challenges, until the day she cursed him with madness that caused him to kill his beloved wife Megara and his two children. Hercules was tormented by self-despising for his actions.

There it is--epic reasons so many come to us with the same issues in slightly different, very personal iterations. The foundations for self-despising weren't White’s alone. They belong to all of us beginning with Hercules (even though his evil behavior was not of his own making). I felt relieved to find some explanation for the existence of self-despising as a human trait.

In order to be absolved Hercules had to use his strength for the good of the Gods by completing twelve labors: slay a lion, a multi-headed serpent, a flock of birds, a bull and a herd of man-eating horses; capture a sacred deer and boar, clean a behemoth neglected stable, steal the cattle of a three-headed beast and capture a three-headed dog. And you might remember Hercules overcame his self-despising by repeatedly doing the impossible. He married again and eventually became a god.

There is no contemporary version for how we rid ourselves of our own self-despising since most of the three-headed creatures are long gone. But I do have an idea, and I actually like this rendition because all of the labors are intrinsic in nature, actions aimed at being our best (what greater service can be done for the gods), affecting our outlook and all of our actions. And there are only seven labors, though each must be attended to daily, weekly, relentlessly. All seven are within our control.

  • Physical—fill up our bodies by sleeping, eating and exercising well.
  • Social—hang out with people we love and people who help ground us.
  • Emotional—learn about why we think, feel and do what we do; take responsibility to improve our actions accordingly.
  • Occupational—find and do our life’s work.
  • Environmental—keep our surroundings healthy (guard our home and the earth).
  • Spiritual—connect with a higher source and with all beings.
  • Intellectual—continue to learn and grow our knowledge, skills and abilities.
When we labor this way we become whole human beings, able to be our best selves, the source of our own peacefulness. I wonder if poor myopic White was so focused on the environmental labor searching over and over for home that he abandoned his own physical, social and emotional health. It's no wonder he knew so much about self-despising.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

One wonders

How deep the shame and how long it lasts when it begins with hiding behind the pumpkins to suck a thumb.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Lessons from nature

Even when we go with the flow, there are times when we must stand up and be counted.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why wait

until you're up to your ankles before you move your chair?

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Lessons from nature

Nature teaches us to add an exclamation point to the beginning and ending of each day. In the morning a positive intention for the day to come.

In the evening a point of gratitude for the blessings of the day just ended.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What if . . .

we were only willing to accept water the color and clarity it is at its source?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life is full of small acts of ignorance

Ignoring them keeps them small.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Dream up new ways of doing things

Pescado blanco drying on the Isla de Janitzio, Mexico.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Stop and look at the trees

Research shows gazing out the window at nature can help heal the sick, boost the self-esteem of the insecure, calm the stressed and restore the exhausted.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Find Your Passion

Due to habitat destruction, pesticides, non-native plantings and climate change honey bees are in danger. As a result fruits, nuts and vegetables that rely on pollination from bees are in danger--either of disappearing altogether or being priced beyond our budgets. One-third of our food supply relies on healthy working bees. If you love foods like almonds, watermelon, cantaloupe, berries, cherries, oranges, peaches, kiwi fruit, cucumbers, squash, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or okra you might find a way to make a positive contribution with like-minded people at The Honeybee Conservancy.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lessons from nature

Boasting its motto, "I'll still be waiting," Astilbe teaches us patience with and dedication to loved ones; its fragrance infuses our hearts with "no matter what" love even when they make choices we abhor.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sweat and then rest

I try to avoid the ashtanga or vinyasa type of yoga when choosing from the neighborhood offerings. Vinyasa is the “flow” yoga, which is a euphemism for “kick-your-butt-in-75-minutes-or-less.” I would have to admit being intimidated by a class whose nickname is “power yoga.” Picture awkward body positions, and then envision them laced together one after another in a kind of frenetic dance.

Knowing this about me, it’s difficult to believe I failed to read the course description and showed up for the Saturday morning class at the neighborhood studio, figuring anything on a Saturday had to be mellow. I tried not to bolt when the trim, muscular instructor started out by softening the blow of the impending routine, meant to open our tight hips, with the guarantee we would go really slow on the first two repetitions and only speed it up when we could configure ourselves in and out of a pretzel position (whose name I can’t remember) she demonstrated with ease. Much to my dismay I had landed in a power class. “It’s okay,” I said to myself, “you can opt out at any time,” knowing full well that because I landed in the front row two arms lengths from the instructor there would be no way for me to find the courage to exit.

It started out okay with a warm up and I was encouraged because I followed with ease. But that’s the thing with power yoga, positions are added and you return again and again to repeat what you didn’t do so well the first time around, and it creeps up faster and faster until you are on a yoga-go-round you can’t escape, flailing wildly, unable to strike the poses the ultra-fit instructor demonstrates with ease.

By the third repetition of the second set I was done, legs wobbly in protest. I couldn’t bring myself to leave even though I knew I would be sore on Sunday and probably Monday. The instructor’s voice broke through the whizzing in my head with a reminder that the momentary pause on a front bend or a downward dog that are part of the flow were perfect points for us to quickly gather ourselves and rest. I held back a breathless chuckle.

As with most things that make me sweat, I figured this yoga class was meant to teach me something. It's funny what desperation can reveal. One thing about the crazy momentum I sometimes struggle to contain is that I don’t always take advantage of the down time to rest and breathe so I can prepare to deal with the next challenge. I have allowed myself to be at the beckon call of anyone who has my number. I often fail to give myself the breather I need between the contortions required of my life. No wonder I can go over the edge when I am forced to deal with relentless exertion. 

As a demonstration of my understanding I found respite in the next forward bend, breathed some relief into my aching back and rear-end in my next downward dog. And today in the midst of some tough stuff I left the cell phone on the kitchen counter, headed to the local farm and picked berries. I practiced breathing in the fragrant berries and letting everything else go.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Passing out lollipops

There was a mysterious and delightful email in my inbox this morning and Saturday’s leisure allowed me to follow its trail. While I didn't recognize the sender’s name or address (nor anything on his LinkedIn or Facebook pages), based on what he mentioned in the text he obviously knew me. He mentioned having read a piece I wrote about inspiration that inspired him, he knew about my writer’s hat and was using a one-page instruction I peddle in my classes outlining key actions for self-care. Following it has made a difference in his life. There was a piece of me that felt badly I couldn't remember this man, but there was a larger piece that was blown away because a person I touched, likely teaching a college course, was living better because of a connection with me.

It made me think of DrewDudley’s TED video “Leading with Lollipops.” In it he tells the story of a chance connection he made years ago while doing a volunteer assignment during college registration. He was being his engaging self, making jokes and giving out lollipops when an encounter with a panicky freshman made an unlikely difference that changed the course of her life. His point is that we can (and do) make a difference with any or every encounter.

Once again I was reminded, my actions (can) have impact, and if what I send out sticks, I want it to be a piece of my best. It inspires me to “bring it” to every interaction and it makes me want to carry along real lollipops just to keep me on on track.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lessons from nature

The thistle-like Globe artichoke teaches us that the heart of the matter is usually hiding under layers of thorns, and can choke us unless we handle it with care.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Reinvent yourself

Built in 1891 by Multnomah County to allow the Oregon National Guard a place to practice riot prevention for anti-Chinese sentiment, the Armory was designed in Romanesque Revival Style including massive stone cladding and semi-circular arcades using many Northwest quarry materials. The Armory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. During the Gerding Edlen development in the Pearl District around the Weinhard “brewery blocks” the dilapidated building was renovated as the home of Portland Center Stage.  Shortly after opening, the building was certified by the US Green Building Council as exceeding the requirements for designation as LEED Platinum, an ideal significant-to-sensational transformation in a city that loves the flight of the Phoenix.

Friday, July 06, 2012

When you make your mark . . .

. . . try not to do so at another's expense.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Buy local

More beautiful.


More sustainable.

Way healthier.
Way, way healthier.

Puts your money back in the hands of your neighbors instead of in the hands of b'zillionaires..

Builds strong communities instead of strongholds of the 1%.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Lessons from nature

Perhaps the first symbol of universalism, the rose has common meaning across time and religious, theological and philosophical boundaries. The ancient Greeks and Romans identified the rose with their goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus. Iran’s culturally significant geometrical gardens feature roses prominently. Sufi mystics use the rose as a symbol for the quest for divine love. The rose is the emblem of Islamabad Capital Territory in Pakistan. The red rose was adopted as a symbol of the blood of the Christian martyrs. A bouquet of red roses is used as a Valentine’s Day gift in many countries as a show of love. The rose is the national flower of England and in 1986 was named the floral emblem of the U.S. A red rose is a symbol of socialism and is used as a symbol by British, Irish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Brazilian, Dutch, Bulgarian and other European labor or political parties. I suppose it is optimistic to think that a love of roses might furnish an inspiration of future harmony among peoples of the world.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

In pursuit of my dreams

A decade of work with people trying to make changes in their lives gives grist for my philosophical mill as well as private lessons of my own. Those who realize one morning they are living someone else’s life (not the one they had hoped for) have visions of a pivotal moment when the sky will open and lightening will strike their new life path at their feet. I can’t help think of my life as a flutist.

I have known since third grade I wanted to play music—an unrequited love if there can be such a thing for a musical instrument. I received a used flute all snuggled in a blue velvet-lined case for my 30th birthday. But for some reason while I had the vision, I could never bring myself to do the work to play it. I moved this aging flute from closet to closet for the "some day" when I would actually become the musician I wanted to be.

Serendipitously last fall my musical neighbor who knew I wanted to play the flute needed to do some community service work for her junior year of high school and approached me with a proposition to be my teacher. At last, the sky opened and I would become my musical dream. Right.

I struggled from the moment we started in the fall. First, while I poised my body, fingers and mouth just the way she told me I could not find some notes no matter how much I worked. The more I failed, the more I lacked luster to practice. Until one day my novice teacher (who had extracted some advice from YouTube) tried to play my flute. She couldn’t find the notes either. A closer examination sent the deteriorated thing off to the repair shop for $300 to make it playable.

I felt a renewed sense of purpose; only to find that while I could make a clear B flat, I was brought to my knees by the C. On the flute the C note requires that you almost let go of the instrument, teeter it between fingers and still form a perfect blow in the wobbling mouthpiece. It was awkward and at first unthinkable. Weeks and trials later, I finally found the C. My triumph was short lived as I progressed to the next song in my beginner's book.Now I struggle to consistently find the D and E flat. While hands are not the issue with either, posture, breathing and direction of breath are. It turns out that changing from not being a musician to being one is a lot like work--which finally brings me to my point.

When I envision or make changes, I somehow believe a miracle will follow. I am hopeful that just because I want it things will happen. I forget how long it took me to get where I am. I am naive to how many C notes I must craft, how many impossible movements I must overcome. I am humbled by my own optimism but am learning to laugh at my awkwardness. I am also learning to like the work I have to do and the accomplishment I feel when I conquer today what was unthinkable yesterday. Baby steps. Progress. Onward to F.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lessons from nature

It is from St. John's Wort we can learn versatility. Officially know as Hypericum perforatum, it is a herb that has been used for some 2400 years as a nerve tonic, a painkiller for arthritis and menstrual pain, and a relief for gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, nausea, and more serious problems like ulcers. It is known as an aid for heart palpitations, moodiness and symptoms of menopause, attention deficit, obsessive-compulsive and seasonal effective disorder. It has been used for exhaustion, stop-smoking help, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer and hepatitis C. Some people apply St. John's Wort oil to their skin to treat bruises and scrapes, first degree burns, wounds, bug bites, hemorrhoids and nerve pain. It has evolved into a remedy for depression and anxiety and is being tested on AIDS patients because it appears to help the immune system combat viruses. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lessons from nature

An afternoon with a gaggle of Canadian Geese teaches us the importance of relationship (they are monogamous and mate for life), community and a watchful parental eye.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Lessons from nature

Cytisus Scoparius, Scotch Broom, teaches us about the unintended consequences of disturbing the natural order.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Lessons from nature

Lathyrus latifolius, or everlasting pea teaches us that labels such as "weed" or "flower" are in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Lessons from nature

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” was Ben Franklin’s urging to save Philadelphians from the irreversible economic loss of house fires. Queen Anne's Lace, or Wild Carrot offers similar teaching; a flower whose seeds have been used for centuries as birth control is also a companion plant to protect and support the growth of more vulnerable species.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lessons from nature

Nigella Damascena, a May-blooming relative of the buttercup is commonly called Love in a mist and Devil in a bush. Who and what among us isn't a Jekyll and Hyde?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lessons from nature

With its everlasting history dating back to Greek mythology and meanings that include faith, hope, wisdom, courage and admiration, even this hybrid iris reminds us of the indispensability of endurance.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lessons from nature

Despite horticulturist George Russell's tenacious decades-long attempts to alter their color, lupines left unchecked over several generations eventually reverted back to the old blues. These Blue-pod Lupine growing wild on the Oregon Coast remind us that vigilant efforts are required for permanent change.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lessons from nature

Bletilla Striata, also known as Big Bob, reminds us never to judge another based on something superficial like a name.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lessons from nature

Corn cockles perplexed farmers before the invention of wheat harvesters because they grew weed-like among crops and carried a poisonous seed that had to be culled from the grain. They remind us to be wary of beautiful things that are toxic at their core.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Lessons from nature

Stand tall even when others don't know your name.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Lessons from nature

Violets/violas show up each year, grown from last year's seeds to remind us to be down-to-earth and unpretentious. Violas never have an urge to showcase their strengths. But you can count on them to show up.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Live in peace with dukkha

Because they can thrive in drought or moist, poor or rich soil and are equally at home in shade or full sun, Bergenia might be the perfect symbol for living in peace with dukkha.

If you hang around a meditation group or attend a meditation retreat you will hear about dukkha. Dukkha is a term that comes from the Buddha, has no direct translation in English and was the first of his Noble Truths. Many think dukkha means suffering; life brings suffering. This culture has produced bumper stickers that use slightly different words with the same connotation, "life's a bitch and then you die," "shit happens." Dukkha doesn't actually mean suffering. What it means is that because all things are constantly changing and therefore impermanent we live with discontent; unhappy because life regularly fails to meet our expectations. In other words, dukkha is our reluctance to go with the natural flow. Peter Russell describes dukkha as our resistance to experiencing the moment, wishing things were different, hanging on to notions of the way things should be. There are two things we need to learn about dukkha.

First is to deal with inevitable dukkha. Life itself is impermanent. All of our relationships will end either in break-up or death. There are accidents, disease and tough times. Our best life can be lived if we figure out who we want to be and what we want to do with the precious time and manage ourselves everyday to do and be it. Our days will be best if we learn to take good care of ourselves. Our best strategy is to view every day as a blessing, every meal as a feast. Not out of fear, but out of gratitude. Cliche, right?

Next, we need to stop creating dukkha in our lives. Creating dukkha comes from our unhealthy need to control things in order to avoid unpleasant feelings. We try to control outside of us those feelings we can't control inside us. We try to control things because of what we think will happen if we don't. We try to control because we are afraid. We try to control because we know we are right. We cling to outcomes we think are best, as if we know what is best (even deciding outcomes for others as if other's lives are best controlled by us). I propose it's the dukkha we create ourselves that is the most devastating. Devastating when we jump from person to person, situation to situation creating dukkha that stresses us out. Sad because it's avoidable, with a little awareness and a lot of practice.

If I'm not very focused on taking care of myself, I can create a perfect dukkha storm using my relationship with my daughters. I adore these young women so much that am capable of worrying about their welfare, safety, choices and decisions; I have been known to spend some of my sleeping time wallowing in my own personal dukkha suffering about what they are doing and with whom. When I gather myself I realize the insanity of it all and the error of my ways. What makes me think my dukkha is going to influence or change anything? What gives me the right to live my life and try to live theirs too?

I watch others create dukkha when an email they receive insinuates their shortcomings and spurs a counter-missile. I see others suffering when their children don't call as often as they would like, or take their freely given advice. I coach people who create dukkha when they assume others are responsible for their behavior, or are blind to what they own in the situation. I hear from those who are tempted to go with the crowd rather than follow their own heart. I listen to people who are tangled in the conflict between others. If we stop creating dukkha in our lives and imposing it on the lives of others it would leave much more time for learning our own lessons, most of which are delivered by the dukkha we feel; captured well by Charlotte Joko Beck in Everyday Zen: Love and Work.

Life always gives us
exactly the teacher we need
at every moment.
This includes every mosquito,
every misfortune,
every red light,
every traffic jam,
every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),
every illness, every loss,
every moment of joy or depression,
every addiction,
every piece of garbage,
every breath.
Every moment is the guru.

Welcome the lessons. Celebrate the learning. Live in peace with dukkha.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Lessons from nature

Salmonberry flower: Even when you show up looking all hot, you better back it up with something substantive.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Lessons from nature

Double hellebore—a new improved version of a classic; one can reinvent themselves with a vision and little encouragement.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Lessons from nature

Plum blossoms--symbolize perseverance and hope and the transitory nature of life; reminds us we can be strong without sacrificing grace.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lessons from nature

Indian Plum--shows up first, when others are hesitant to bloom, even when there is peril from a late snowfall; teaches us to be bold.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Procrastination fuels inaction and stymies change

Even when you are clear about your mission, it’s not always easy to figure out how to live it. In my own case I have been waiting for my muse to dictate a book for years, as I sat in confusion about what to write. So I've tried to be patient, continue digging, hone my skills and work on short works all the time knowing there was something bigger I was supposed to be writing. The composting time finally paid off and like a tricky puzzle falling together I am now focused on the book. I’ve done some leg work, am ready with the process and yet another snag. I am procrastinating.
Procrastination is when we put things off intentionally and habitually. We replace high-priority or important actions with tasks of lower priority or something easy and more fun. The psychological causes of procrastination are in debate. But once I admitted to myself I am procrastinating I could at least research why. The views of Dr. Kevin Austin, Director of Student Counseling at Caltech, make sense to me and so I offer them to you if you find yourself dragging your feet.
Dr. Austin believes we procrastinate because we experience emotions we don’t want to feel when we attempt to do certain things. Those emotions can be of helplessness, powerlessness, being overwhelmed, being controlled, sad or resentful. The reasons a person has these feelings are not addressed by procrastinating but the feelings themselves are avoided for awhile. I suspect the emotion I am experiencing is fear—fear of rejection of my work and this big idea I have been waiting on for so long.
But there’s more. Another parameter of procrastination is related to will (desire) and will power (energetic determination). It’s easy to label oneself lazy and without enough will power to move forward. Dr. Austin believes procrastination can be the result not of lack of will power but of uncertain will; that is not coming to terms with or avoiding the difficult question of whether or not I really desire the demanding work it will take to write a book.
Another obstacle is time. In the short term I may be willing to sacrifice other parts of my life to dedicate to a book, but over the long haul will I be able to shoulder the commitment it will take to compile the research, write, edit, figure out how to market, and on and on. There is likely a part of me foreseeing a compromise of my value for time freedom that I am secretly protesting through my inaction.
And there’s the old perfectionism theme that comes from being an overachieving only child. Perfectionism creates high expectations that feel difficult to meet and makes the process of writing too difficult—easy to avoid.
Those of us who are perfectionist tend to think more about how something should turn out, perfectly, and how hard it will be do it. Perfectionism makes a task seem bigger than it is making me feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of starting. In addition the perfectionist tends to scrutinize and critique every word for perfection, making the task tedious and easily avoidable.
So what to do to push through this craziness? I started by admitting I am procrastinating, again. Next, Dr. Austin recommends getting clear on what I really want; and I am pretty sure I have superseded the important message the book will deliver with the publication of the book itself. Refocusing on the former can only help put the work into perspective. Next, I need to understand the role of the emotions I bring to this procrastination as formidable and reversible. It’s not all logistics and will. Some of it has to do with how I feel and it’s an important acknowledgement. Next, of course is setting some goals and breaking them down into manageable pieces. Overcoming procrastination may also involve learning to say no to others. It is likely to require me to adjust my thinking about progress over perfection and the enjoyment of the journey over the destination. It’s guaranteed to make me appreciate and use small bits of time instead of the big blocks I perceive I need. It’s a new way for me to view myself and my work. And I’m glad I unstuck myself long enough to get informed. It motivates me to move forward.
The full text of Dr. Austin’s speech can be found at:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Undeniable Power of Modeling

I wrote about this topic in 2010, I have become my mother, proving once again that life lessons are slow in coming and easy to forget. Sometimes they must shout to get our attention.

There's nothing like going away and being quiet at a silent retreat for the weekend to help point out life lessons. Silence has a way of revealing things you can't see or hear while you're busy talking. When you are quiet you are observing and feeling instead. The moment I got to the 154-acre retreat center snow fell like minute feathers on the uncovered pathways. Crabby followed me out of the car as I realized how far it would be to walk from cabin to bathroom to dining room to hot pools. The cold air penetrated my blue jeans as we marched through the thin layer of snow dust to get to the Office to check in. Here I was in a place so rustic it had no web service and no hair dryers and I was silently fussing because I was cold and my hair was going to be a mess. The lesson was whispering but I was too pissed off to listen.

Luckily at this retreat, the teacher believed in music and moving as much as silence. So he played an eclectic array of tunes and gave us the option to move or not. If not we were to observe that choice and how we felt about it. While the first piano piece didn't evoke emotion, the second piece of Middle Eastern vocals and percussion cocked my head to the left and swayed my hips and shoulders in its rhythm. That is until I realized someone could be watching. I wondered how I looked, whether I was moving correctly and if people might see me as, God-forbid, geeky. I stopped and peeked to see what others were doing. The lesson raised its voice, demanding to be learned.

I noted some observations in my journal during free time. Mom was always dressed up, would never go to the beach for fear of losing her hairdo to the wind, or being cold. She was mortified when I told the neighbors about how she voted in the Kennedy-Nixon election and threw a blanket at me when her friend witnessed me breast-feeding in her living room. "Cover up," she hissed. Appearances were everything. The lesson shouted a breakthrough. The etchings of her modeling are so deep I have adopted her way as my way even when the behavior makes no sense.

I can't help but think of two women I've been coaching, one whose boss wants her to be nicer to co-workers and the other who struggles to set boundaries with the person she reports to. I wonder what kind of modeling they had from their parents. Since I'm not a therapist I'm on safer ground if I help them focus on how what they are modeling will affect those around them. In the former case, can she expect her direct reports to treat others respectfully if she doesn't? For the latter, what kind of behavior is she inadvertently teaching her 4-year-old if she doesn't have her own boundaries? Isn't the child more likely to do what she does rather than what she says? I think I'll ask her to fast forward to the teen years and speculate on how well she will deal with a 16-year-old daughter with no boundaries.

I even used the lesson the other day when a student asked me if I knew any books or tricks to use to help his fourteen-year-old find what he wants to do. I always recommend "Finding Your Own North Star" by Martha Beck, but wondered out loud if fourteen isn't a bit young for such teachings. I said to the guy, "The best thing you can do is model what it is you want him do. Are you doing what you want to in your life?" His slumping shoulders communicated his comprehension and regret.

So what to do with such life lessons? Most learning can be used for good or evil. I cannot blame my mother for my behavior all these years later. That would be evil. I cannot blame myself for modeling I inadvertently showed my own children. That too would be evil and self-destructive. What I can do is continue to learn. I can be more intentional about how I behave; that is slow down and decide how I want to act instead of acting out some pre-determined pattern. I can talk and write about what I learn with the hope that some day it will make a difference to someone.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The wisdom of Jim

Jim won everyone's heart from the moment my cousin brought him to the first family gathering. It was more what he didn't say that set him apart in a family of too many talkers. Through the years he spoke when he had something to say and like E.F. Hutton, when Jim spoke we all listened.

For their 40th wedding anniversary we took them to dinner theater and as we were waiting in line I asked him his advice for staying together for such a long time in the era of disposable relationships. He thought for a while and then with a grin said, "Well you know when you get together with someone there are things you love about them and there are things you don't like so much. My advice would be to learn to live with the things you don't like so much because you're probably not going to change them, no matter how hard you try."

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.