Monday, February 23, 2015

When A Shortcut Isn't Worth It

The human brain loves a shortcut. Maybe not as much as my Dad did, driving through the rural back-roads of Oregon, but pretty close, I think.  The look of pure satisfaction on his face as he turned in the opposite direction that we expected him to, the glee when he discovered a different route that would shave minutes or seconds off of our trip, it was a thing to behold.  Cheating the system, cutting a corner, figuring out a pattern and exploiting it - that was the stuff of legend in our household and always good for a cheap thrill.  I took notes as a kid, and my brain followed suit, laying down a nice flat steamrolled bed of gravel and pouring some asphalt over the top of it. Streamlining the process for the next time and feeling smug that I had discovered a better way, a faster way, a more efficient way to deal with all sorts of things, not just how to get from Point A to Point B.

After a few times of traveling that new road my brain laid down, it increased the speed limit for me. How nice, I thought, I barely even need to think about this anymore. It has become reflex to react in this particular way to this particular set of events. And, often, it was nice. It was time-saving. But when I got to the point where I could navigate those paths blindfolded and in my sleep, I forgot that they were crafted by a child.

When I was a kid, my brain laid down a path to being okay with people leaving. Forged over the span of a few years as some pretty critical folks peeled off and left, it gave me a way to shortcut the hurt whenever I suspected someone else was about to go. I used that road for a long time, and I got really good at it. The signage on that road went a little something like this:

GO AHEAD. I'M FINE.

and

I'M DONE WITH YOU, ANYWAY.

Long-time readers may recall that about ten years ago, Bubba was really sick with some mystery illness. He was in and out of the hospital every few months for days at a time and it took many doctors over three years to figure out what was wrong. But in those three years or so, he did his level best to keep on keeping on in-between episodes, continuing to travel internationally for work and provide for the four of us. This meant that on a few occasions, he would fall seriously ill in a foreign country and I would get a phone call in the middle of the night - from Prague or China or somewhere that felt really, really far away.  That path went from a foot-worn deer path in my brain and heart to a full on superhighway.

GO AHEAD. WE'LL BE FINE.

When he was home, I was guarded but loving. Affectionate and caring but ready to pull away just in case.  As if that shortcut would circumvent the deep wellspring of despair I would have plunged into had anything happened to him. As if I could distance myself enough emotionally to be able to just carry on if he were gone for good.

And yet. That shortcut beckoned. My brain saw that path as the well-lit one studded with diners and rest stops along the way and it was so well-traveled that I could barely discern the other road off to the side.

These days, I'm working on creating a new path. As Bubba readies himself for another long trip and Eve pulls away more and more in search of a new kind of independence and Lola hits the stage where her bedroom is the best room in the house (as long as she's in there alone or with a girlfriend), I am discovering that that old highway is no longer useful. It never really got me where I needed to go, anyway. There's no getting around the hurt when someone leaves. So instead of pulling away preemptively, I'm going to hang on a little tighter. I'm going to squeeze every last drop of affection out of the time I do get with these amazing people and hopefully the signs on my new road will read

I LOVE YOU AND I MISS YOU.
GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Listening to Stakeholders

It is often hard to remember that listening is the best first step to creating solutions, especially when the solutions are not for us, personally. The older I get, the more I understand that listening is truly the best first step in nearly every situation, though, whether it's meeting someone new, planning a project, walking with a friend.

If we don't listen, it's easy to forget that someone else's perspective might be incredibly valuable.  Last October, Gloria Steinem told this story to a room full of people I was lucky enough to be in.

She had traveled to Africa to attend a summit on sex trafficking with many, many organizations and governmental representatives all gathered together to come up with ways to combat this rising challenge.  During a break in the meetings, she was approached by a woman who asked her to travel with her to a small village where several women had recently been lost to this trade. Gloria was flattered and shocked, unsure of what she could do to help this small village, much less how she would manage to communicate with the villagers, but she went.

She described a scene where a feast was prepared and blankets spread out on the grass, with all of the women in a circle ready to address her.  Translating their concerns was difficult, but they found a way to get their request across - the women of the village wanted elephant fences.  Gloria was confused. What do elephant fences have to do with sex trafficking? The women explained:

The livelihood of this village was largely dependent on growing maize.  Over time, though, as elephant habitats become smaller and smaller, the elephants discovered the fields of maize and came  to the village to feed on them.  This left the village in dire straits - they had not enough maize to feed their own families, much less to sell to others.  It is because of this that three young women traveled to the nearest large city to find work to send home money to support their families. When they arrived in the city, they were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.  The rest of the villagers reasoned that if they raised the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to erect fences that would prevent the elephants from eating their maize, they could keep their young women from having to leave the village to find work.

Gloria was stunned by this simple solution - one that nobody at her enormous conference would have come up with. She traveled back to the city and worked for several days to raise money to build the fences.   More than that, she demonstrated the power of listening. By traveling to the village to hear the ideas of the people most affected, she was enabling them to empower themselves and helping them find a way to prevent their girls from being sex-trafficked.  It is not a solution for the many, to be sure, but for this village it was monumental. And it cost mere pennies compared to the proposals being raised at this multinational conference, most of which were not preventative solutions, but punitive ones for the traffickers themselves.

I am so often struck remembering this story as I read stories in the news about government agencies or non-profit organizations who are puzzling over potential solutions to poverty, hunger, major health issues, and violence in particular countries or communities. The first question I ask myself these days is whether the folks with the leverage and money to provide help have asked the communities in question for their stories, their ideas, their solutions. Bringing American-style answers to questions that exist in non-western countries may turn out to be wasteful or overkill and it may well be that if one or two people listen to the individuals living with the struggles and ask for their perspective, they can come up with simpler, more comprehensive solutions.

It seems obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up in our own viewpoint and the belief that wanting to help is enough. I do the same thing with my kids all the time, swooping in to offer advice or put into place some new system that I think will fix a pervasive problem in our household without asking them what they think. And, especially when it comes to kids, I think adults do that a lot. I watched my daughters' middle school revamp their dress code four times in four years, having discussions with staff and administration, parents and board members, but it wasn't until they listened to the students that they came up with a solution that everyone feels good about. It was a student that got so frustrated she crafted a PowerPoint Presentation to illustrate the issues and potential solutions, and it took a month of student council meetings to come up with a new set of guidelines that has everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Four years (at least). Four years of meetings, research, discussion, fiddling with different ideas, and nobody was happy.

I have a photo of an elephant fence tucked inside my nightstand as a powerful reminder that listening is one of the most effective, efficient things I can do every day. Even if I see my strengths as collaboration and a strong desire to help, it turns out that the best way to do that is by asking the stakeholders what they think, no matter who they are.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Perspective Achieved

Last week I got to spend three days with Lola and her 7th grade class (26 12- and 13-year old girls) on part of the trail that Lewis & Clark trekked. We slept in yurts, explored Shipwreck Beach, hiked to the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment, visited Fort Clatsop to learn about the living conditions, and listened to folks tell stories of their discoveries. It was a lot of driving (I had four girls in my car), and I can honestly say that I don't recall when I have laughed that much.

There were two other moms who came along as chaperones and four dads that joined the teachers on this trip, and it was really great to see how different adults interact with the students. One dad talked (in front of everyone) about how much he appreciated getting to spend this time with his daughter before she truly launches into the more fully independent teenage years which got quite the sweet response from us all.  Some parents watched the kids pretty closely while others gave them a wide circle of trust, but we all ultimately had everyone's back.

There were moments of tension, and some tears along the way, but for the most part, the girls enjoyed exploring, talking about what it might have been like to be Sacajawea (the only woman, the only teenager, and the only Native American on an all-white-male expedition), and having a little bit of freedom.

As for me, it was just exactly what I needed.  The previous week had been one of angst and turmoil for me. After launching The SELF Project and officially putting the word out, I spent a week making a few connections with folks I thought might be interested and another week waiting and wondering. While I engaged in many of the normal activities of my life - blogging, editing a piece for publication, cooking and shopping and running the girls to school and their various activities - I was constantly taunted by thoughts that I ought to be doing something else. That if I were a "real" entrepreneur, I would know the right steps to take to get clients and start some projects. That I was somehow not good enough or smart enough to make this endeavor work.

The three days with these girls showed me that those voices are wrong. I had several conversations with teachers and parents on the trip about the social-emotional health of the girls, discussing my insights and understanding and making suggestions for future trips. I was able to see patterns in some instances that others hadn't seen and it reinforced my belief that engaging in mindfulness with these kids is terrifically important in so many ways.

I came home exhausted and rejuvenated, my belly sore from laughing at their antics, and feeling a renewed sense of wonder about this beautiful place where we live. More than that, though, I came home knowing more about how I work best and that actually immersing myself in the work is where my talents shine through.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

How Do You See The World?

When I look at this image, the first thing I see is an old woman and it's hard to see anything else.  But as soon as someone points out the young lady facing away from me in the same lines on the page, it is nearly impossible to see the old woman again. I am stuck with the view of the young lady.


In order to switch back and forth, I am forced to focus on certain parts of the image instead of looking at the whole. If I want to go back to the view of the old woman, I seek out the line of her mouth and raise my eyes up to her beak-like nose.

If I then want to see the young lady again, I look out to where her eyelash and nose are to shift perspective.  And as I do so, I am reminded that I possess the same power of perspective in my daily life.

Perception is reality, right? So if we're in a challenging situation, or a pattern in our lives where our default perspective is glass-half-empty, it's up to us to change the way we look at it. The trick is not to fill up the glass, but to see that it is half full instead.  We have to focus on certain parts of the whole that help us to see things in a different way, and it is important to teach our kids how to do this for themselves. As they hit adolescence and emotions become king, it can be really difficult to perceive things in a positive way, and once the negative patterns have been set, it takes work to change them.

If you have a teen who sees things in a decidedly unhappy way (I hate school, nobody likes me, I suck at math/history/lit), there's no use challenging their perception. You will get nowhere by disputing their sense of reality or belittling their emotional responses, but you can help them turn the tide slowly by helping them see things in a different way. One powerful way to do this is to begin a gratitude practice (although you may not want to call it that).

When Eve started high school there were a lot of challenges and it didn't take long for her to feel like a square peg in a round hole. After weeks of angst and hand-wringing (on my part), lots of conversations designed to build her up, and a few frustrated arguments, I decided to lead by example. Every night before turning my bedside lamp off, I texted Eve a list of three things I was grateful for and asked her if she had three to tell me about. I wanted the last thing in her mind before sleep to be happy.  She started out slowly, often able to come up with one or two things, but sometimes getting stuck. It took a week or so before she was texting me first and asking for my reply, and her list of things has deepened from "my soft pillow" to items like "teachers I can trust" and her own strengths. Her perspective is shifting right before my eyes and I would be remiss if I didn't say that it has made a difference in her willingness to get up and tackle each new day as it comes, challenges and all.

It is a practice, and, like the effort it takes to focus my eyes on one set of lines or another in that drawing when I want to see a certain perspective, it is continual. The best part about it, though, for me, is the reminder that I am ultimately in charge of which lenses I see the world through - hope or fear, scarcity or abundance, gratitude or anger - and I hope that my girls are learning that, too.


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