Friday, May 26, 2017

Dialogue Gone Wrong

I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, "selling past the close," as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.

And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I'm saying, or they've formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.

When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started.  Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.

Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others' versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the "right" one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn't agree with us, isn't awestruck by the story we've told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.

As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn't lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren't showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.

It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don't already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.

This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of 'our turn,') and then label ("that's racist," "that's wrong,") or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal ("that's not my experience; here's something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong"). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they've had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They've effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is "better," I am a smart person. If my position "loses," I am a stupid person.

Unfortunately, I don't often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can't I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn't about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way - when people can pause a moment after I'm done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) - I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing - to learn something we didn't already know.

I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others' efforts.

Monday, May 22, 2017

It's Complicated...

By Kurt Baty - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
I know that, and yet, there is still something so appealing about believing that the world is black and white, that things are either good or bad, and so are people. It is both efficient in terms of time (I can decide whom or what to invest my energy in and when to walk away) and emotionally satisfying (no agonizing over the minutiae, just make a judgment and move on).

And it's rarely true. In fact, I'm pretty sure the only things that are black and white are those two crayons in the box. (Don't get me wrong: there are some things that, in my mind, are Absolutely Wrong and I will continue to acknowledge the nuances within, and still condemn the behavior.)

I am a social-justice-minded person. I have strong values and strong opinions and I love fighting for space for those without it, hearing new voices, expanding my view of the world. And sometimes, I read about something in the news and let the ethical warrior side of me take over. I re-post things and sign petitions and vow to boycott companies and sometimes, that feels like the exact right thing to do in terms of aligning my behavior with my values. But sometimes I get conflicted.

Like when scandals come up involving giant companies like Uber. While I went along with the suggestions to delete the app from my phone and vow to use other rideshare companies when the news came out about the CEO's reprehensible behavior and choices that don't support my values, I was still a little worried. Mostly because I thought about the drivers - the vast majority of whom I've ridden with that are pleasant and professional and friendly. The drivers who are working in this flexible gig-economy world because they have other jobs and obligations that don't fit in with an 8-5 job. Maybe they're going to school or parenting or taking care of their aging parents. Perhaps they don't speak English well enough yet to get another type of job or this is the thing they're doing while they train for a better job. Maybe they're retired and on a fixed income and this is the way they put aside a little money in case of emergency. Doesn't my boycotting the company they work for impact them more than it impacts the CEO, at least percentage-wise? He's already a millionaire. Maybe losing some revenue will affect his company's bottom line a bit and perhaps his ego will take a big blow, but for the driver who depends on every paycheck, I may be creating more hardship for them than their employer does.

Two weeks ago, I saw a message on a Facebook group I'm part of (a FB group that is all about supporting and empowering women), asking if anyone would be interested in joining a day-long women's empowerment and employment event to provide a breakout session workshop. They were specifically looking for content that centered around wellness and well-being and self care. I was hooked.  After a few emails, I realized that the event was being put on for women who are Uber drivers in Seattle and I admit to having a twinge of discomfort. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this event centered around helping these women, who are mostly part-time drivers, understand the gig economy a little better and enabling them to find other ways to get into it to support themselves. Uber's partner for this event is a local organization called Tabor 100, an "association of entrepreneurs and business advocates who are committed to economic power, educational excellence and social equality for African-Americans and the community at large."

Whoa.

I signed up. Other breakout sessions included one that helped women envision their own paths as entrepreneurs or career growth, one dedicated entirely to self-care, and another that helped women learn to manage and grow their wealth. They provided a beautiful continental breakfast, a full lunch, free headshots by professional photographers, and the opportunity to get your business certified with the Office of Minority and Women's Business Enterprises. Oh, and childcare. Full. Day. Childcare. For free.

This day was truly about empowering women to be part of the sharing economy in a way that works for them, with a ton of information about the opportunities that are out there as well as tips and tricks to more fully engage in those opportunities. My workshop centered on using mindfulness to ground yourself in your values, create personal boundaries, and find joy everywhere you go.

I vowed to go in with an open mind and I came out with a full heart. This is the kind of company (at least the Seattle version of it) that I can say I'm proud to have been associated with, even for just one day. This was not some gimmick to show the world that Uber is a friendly company and win back shareholders. I don't even know that it was widely publicized. This was an honest attempt to acknowledge the employees of this company, remind them how important they are, and help lift them up.

So, it's complicated. I reinstalled my app because I hope to see some of these women on the road soon and get to know them a little better.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day

The older I get, the more complicated Mother's Day seems to be. As a kid, it was all excitement and anticipation - making crafty gifts in class with glue and construction paper and flowers and hearts. I couldn't wait to watch Mom open her one of a kind present and exclaim how wonderful it was.

It was about experimenting in the kitchen to make her breakfast in bed or plucking flowers from the neighbors' yards on a walk to make a spontaneous bouquet.

In my teenage years, Mother's Day was more of a reprieve for both of us; a day to set aside the petty frustrations and disagreements and have 16 hours of peace and appreciation. I'm sure, more often than not, by the time Monday came around, I was back to rolling my eyes in derision while the flowers stood tall in the vase on the kitchen counter.

When I became a mother, it was about excitement and anticipation again - waiting to see what my girls had made for me or chosen for me at the store with their dad. But it was also a revelation.

Motherhood is about soft snuggles in bed, the smell of a baby's head, and it's about bedtime routines that lasted for hours and often ended with me screaming into a pillow after tiptoeing out of my child's room.

It is about smiling in pride when my children do something amazing and the stark fear that they are somehow in danger and it's my job to protect them every moment of every day.

Mother's Day is about recognizing that my mother is a human being, that she had to try and hold the tension between caring for me and preserving her Self, and that she didn't always do it the way I wanted her to. It's about realizing that my daughters feel the same way sometimes. It is about appreciating the evolution of my relationship with my mother - from feeling smothered and policed to feeling appreciated and honored. It is also about the evolution of my relationship with my children - from overwhelming responsibility and endless repetition of tasks to stepping back and watching as they do things I never dreamed they would do and knowing that we will always have this bond in one way or another.

Mother's Day is about widening that circle to include every woman who ever mothered me, the teachers who took an interest, women who mentored me or listened to me or encouraged me. It is about honoring mothering in all its forms - gentle prodding and sideline cheering and bandaging wounds and holding space for my grief. It is about watching my childhood friends grow up to be mothers and realizing that we all had it in us somehow, somewhere, this ability to believe in something bigger than ourselves and the desire to protect it so that it flourishes.

Mother's Day is the ultimate exercise in opposites, the feeling that you're part of a tribe and that you're in charge of it; the joy of watching your children grow up and the nostalgia of your own childhood; the gratitude of being recognized and the knowledge that you would do all of it even without that recognition. But since mothering is an exercise in opposites, that seems fitting. From the moment our babies are born, they begin moving toward independence, stretching that distance between us and them and we are tasked with helping them accomplish that while simultaneously mourning the loss of that connection.

I'm coming to realize that Mother's Day is simply the distillation of the biggest lessons in my life. It is a day that reminds me that grief and joy live together in every moment, and that my job as my daughters' mother is to help them figure out how to hold both of those things simultaneously, honor them both, and keep moving forward. Whether you are mothering children of your own or you are a mother-figure to other children, whether you have a mother or you've lost yours, may your day be restful and full of peace. May you find the strength to hold all that is present in your life today, or have others who will help you hold it. May you feel mothered.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Walking Meditation

I spent the last two days at a Mindfulness Research Conference and my brain is full. I dreamt about mindfulness last night. Don't ask me to describe it because it doesn't make much sense, but trust me when I say it will be several days before all of the information I received filters down through the recesses of my brain and begins to create a clear picture. I was left with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of the people who are doing such good work to uncover which practices and paradigms are the most effective. People doing work on a shoestring budget in the face of resistance to the idea that this is a science, in the face of challenges like racism and ablism and a culture that doesn't embrace relationships between people as much as it embraces the power of money. More than once, I found myself breaking out in goosebumps as I listened to these brilliant, fierce, heart-centered folks present their work. Whew.

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I had ample opportunity to quietly reflect on the last two days. I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors' yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn't long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it 'monkey mind,' but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could - small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them - exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won't change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).


The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.

This is mindfulness. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn't want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street - going well over the speed limit - a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God's sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. This is mindfulness.

Noticing that word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

Stimulus                                       -                                        Response

Was I really angry? Yes.
Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway. 

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger. 

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn't learn anything this time. She'll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won't be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her - she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. This is mindfulness. 

All of this happened in the space of about 90 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop. 

This is mindfulness. 
I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don't, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others. I suspect this is only one of the ripple effects the last two days will have and while it is invisible to most people, it will certainly impact how I show up in the world. 




Monday, April 24, 2017

On Expectations

Expectations may be one of the biggest roots of all suffering. And yet...

Is it possible to be human and not have expectations? Can we really move through life without having some subconscious idea of where we're going and what it might look like when we get there?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately. My life does not look like I expected it to when I was a kid. It doesn't look like I expected it to when I was in college, or as a young adult, or even two years ago. My children are not doing the things I expected them to be doing, nor is my mom. Ultimately, that is both pleasant and sad. There are things going on in my life that are devastating and others that are so amazing and wonderful that I am grateful over and over again in any given week.

A big part of grief, I think, is letting go of that picture I had in my mind, realizing that life is not going to be the way I thought it was, and recognizing how much I rested in it, relied on it, planned for it and trusted it. I find it amazing how often I lend some weight and solidity to my expectations, even though they are merely schemes cooked up in my brain with no substance whatsoever. I can believe a certain thing so unquestioningly that I build entire systems on top of it and then spend overwhelming reserves of time and energy reworking those systems when the bedrock beneath them turns out to have been sand.

But in order to move forward, expectations are a requirement, aren't they? Or am I confusing expectations with goals? Perhaps that's it. Maybe I need to be more mindful of the difference between desire and assumption. Just because much of my life does go according to plan is not a reason to lull myself into thinking that all of it will. And it's true that often, when things fall apart, I have some pretty amazing experiences that help me grow and become a better person, simultaneously, I'm holding expectations for other parts of my life.

Maybe it's impossible to not assume that there will be certain givens in my life. Maybe, without those mental mirages, I wouldn't ever bother to get out of bed. Maybe, as long as I can continue to recover from the loss of expectation, grieve for it and learn from it, it's not a bad thing. Maybe this is just the way it's designed to be. Our human brains crave coherence, predictability, structure. We want a story that makes sense, puzzles with all the pieces contained in the box. Most of us would choose a safe, complete scenario over one whose ending is altogether uncertain, and so we are built for expectations. And while I know the Buddhists say the trick is to not get too attached to them, that is sometimes a tall order (especially when we've crafted those stories in our minds so well we don't even recognize them for what they are - stories). Maybe accepting the fact that we're going to get attached to some of them and learning how to breathe and get curious and remain flexible when they fall apart is a more realistic plan. At least for me.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Inspiration

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris' words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven't sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here's the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this - I deserve this. It's been a long day. Or - It's a pretty small vice and I don't do it every night. 

More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn't had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I'm sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want - to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy - and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty - I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I'm working on won't see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I'll do with them or where I will put them. I'll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have - like publishing credits or a wine cellar that's full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I've walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I'm in the water, that's my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I'm able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don't have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fixing What I Can

I fixed the salt cellar this morning. It wasn’t terribly complicated, but it took a little bit of ingenuity and some focus and a real desire to have it fixed. I made it last year at one of those paint-your-own-ceramic workshops. Eve and I were having a mom-daughter day and I decided the last thing our cupboards needed was another coffee mug, so I chose this ceramic salt container with a rubber flange on the lid to keep it air tight and Eve pronounced it “cute,” which is an enormous compliment coming from a 16-year old girl who is your daughter.

It lasted about a week before the wooden lid came loose from the part with the rubber seal and Lola decided shove it farther down inside rather than trying to pry it loose. This resulted in the container being full of salt beneath part of the lid that was firmly stuck halfway down, and no way to remove it. We left it like that for months, filling the upper part of the container with salt and calling it good.

But this morning as I stood over a pan of hash browns, imagining what it is going to be like to pack Mom’s stuff up and move her to memory care in the next week or so, I took on a project I thought I could fix. As tears tracked slowly down my cheeks, I contemplated what it would take to pry the lid out. I started by running a sharp knife around the edge of the rubber, hoping to ease it loose, but abandoned that after imagining the knife slipping out and slicing my finger. Next, I got a corkscrew and tried to drive it into the center of the wood to get ahold of it and lift up, but the wood was too dense. When I went to the junk drawer to get a screwdriver and screw, I heard Dad’s voice in my head, telling me this was the ticket.

I screwed it in until it just took hold and then grabbed the vice grips, stopping for a second to wonder how many other households have a pair of vice grips in the kitchen drawer and mentally patting myself on the back for my cleverness. I clamped them over the top of the screw and gently rocked the vice grips back and forth until the lid slid up and out.

I flipped Eve’s hash browns to crisp up on the other side, put the tools away and grabbed the superglue. Within minutes, the potatoes were on a plate and the two halves of the lid were tightly bonded back together. I washed out the salt cellar, refilled it with fresh salt, and wiped down the counter.


When Eve came in to eat, she opened it up, pinched out a bit of salt, and sprinkled it on her potatoes. She didn’t even notice that it was fixed. Par for the course with a teenager in the morning, I suppose, but it didn’t diminish either my sense of pride or the immense feeling of relief I had that I had found something I could accomplish today.
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