Portland, Baltimore, denial, disruptive change and the stages of grief

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Years ago, I read a little book of philosophy called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, by Gordon Livingston. It’s organized into thirty pithy and helpful truths. Number fifteen is this: “Only bad things happen quickly.” I have a little game I play with myself whenever I think of this maxim (which is pretty frequently, even over ten years later). I theorize good things that could happen suddenly, as if even one would somehow undermine the truth of it.

The fact is that many bad things do happen suddenly and catastrophically. Earthquakes, for instance. Living in Maryland, that’s not something we have to worry about. Although we actually had one a few years ago, it was small and brief. What would it be like to have this complacency suddenly shaken by new science, as happened with the recent New Yorker article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone? This unstable tectonic plate off the coast of Oregon and Washington is apparently overdue for a major disruption. Both states boast cities and towns burgeoning with hipsters and tech companies, excellent coffee and vital industry, great music, agriculture, wine, and an embarrassment of natural wonders. An entire civilization has sprung up in the quiet interval since the last earthquake-and-tsunami in January of 1700. Continue reading

Mirroring the courage to speak up and tell new stories


I’ve long been fascinated by the ways that my inner and outer worlds mirror each other. Even way back in college, I somehow knew that annoying people are reflecting something in me that I don’t like. I’m devoted to dream work and my morning journaling for the insights and clarity that often come, and to writing in this blog for the same reason. I tend to regard this reciprocal conversation as a way to diagnose what’s wrong from the inside out, more so than to notice and appreciate what’s right outside, and how it reflects goodness on the inside.

Yet it does work both ways, and it’s going on all the time. When someone I respect questions or refuses to encourage my latest grand scheme, that is showing me the degree to which I am not on board with it myself. But it’s also true that if I look around at my comfortable home, good health, lovely neighbors, engaging work, responsible husband, and yummy food in the fridge—all that is reflecting an inner world that is safe, healthy, and full of good companionship, worthiness, love, creativity, intelligence, security, and nourishment. Continue reading

Playing our way back to connection


A wise teacher advises in times of uncertainty to turn to activities that go back generations deep. Ancient activities like walking, or storytelling around a fire, or cooking, or hugging, can be very grounding. These basic actions remind us of our humanity, of our animal nature, and our belonging.

To that list, I would add feeling and expressing emotion. We have been conditioned to push emotion away as wrong, unseemly, embarrassing, toxic, dangerous, imposing, selfish, anti-social — there are any number of labels the ego likes to have at the ready. Last night, I discovered an excellent way to practice emotions: improv class. Continue reading

Rejection’s good side


I’ve been submitting work to journals lately and have received two very kind rejection emails in the last two weeks. While it’s never fun to be rejected, I’m also curious to dig into it and reflect on what lies beneath the surface. Rejection isn’t the same thing as failure, but it sure feels like it on one level. What happens if I play with Lincoln’s famous words about failure?

What concerns me is not whether you’ve been rejected, but whether you are content with your rejection.

For much of my life, I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid rejection: playing it safe, drawing inward instead of reaching out for help, not rocking the boat, following rules, doing what’s expected of me by others, conforming to societal norms. Continue reading

Attention is the greatest gift you can give


Life throws so much at us, we can forget to slow down and do one thing at a time. I recently heard the story of a woman who had difficulty as a child getting her parents’ undivided attention. Forced to settle for whatever they gave her, she eventually came to believe that she didn’t have anything important enough to say that would warrant their — or anyone else’s — full attention. She stopped sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with people, resulting in isolation and loneliness.

When I share genuinely with someone, I am unconsciously looking to be seen and treated as the most fascinating thing going in that moment. In acknowledgement of this universal longing, there’s a wonderful African greeting. When a person arrives in a village after being away, they say, “I am here to be seen.” And the response from the group is, “We see you.” Isn’t that what all of us want? Continue reading

Plus, perfection is beside the point


One of the most insidious effects of perfectionism is its power to shut down creativity and paralyze action. There’s a wonderful book called “Daring Greatly,” by Brené Brown, the Texas sociology professor whose TED talks on vulnerability went viral a few years back. The title comes from this remark by Teddy Roosevelt in a speech he gave in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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An ambition to witness and celebrate wonder


What do you want out of life? Who do you want to be when you grow up? These are questions we all have heard since childhood. Ambition is revered in our culture, even exalted. Without it, we are told, people are nothing; they are losers sitting on their couches watching daytime TV.

I enslaved myself to ambition for many years. I’m still motivated by it, though in a hybrid that oscillates between crass materialism and blinding spirit. In its purest form, my ambition comes more from within, in contrast to the culturally-sanctioned outward motivation I was taught. Like Rumi, I am burning with desire to serve the Beloved. To bring forth words and images, in the most beautiful, clear, inspiring and moving way I can possibly manage. Continue reading

Being doing dreaming acting


“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” Dalai Lama

Sometimes I wonder about the axis that runs between dreaming and action. I seem to gravitate more naturally to the dreamy end of things, for which I feel vaguely guilty, as though I’m not a fully contributing member of society. It’s not enough to dream or imagine; you have to do something, right?

Our culture does seem to be biased towards action, which isn’t surprising as it’s heavily weighted towards masculine values and skewed away from feminine qualities of introversion, open receptivity and non-action. This is not to say “men” versus “women,” since we each have a dynamic balance within ourselves of qualities that are both masculine and feminine. Continue reading

A case for direct experience


I’m in a rain-misted spring forest examining a batch of cheeky green fungus that has flagged me down. In sliding my eyes along the fallen branch it’s growing on, I notice a snail shell and marvel at its size and intricacy, thinking it’s exactly like a shell one might find along a beach. Then I notice a white fungus, same shape as the green, but with wedding-dress frills instead of garden-party apple green flounces. And just like that, metaphors have crashed the party.

This setting teaches me that metaphor is a habit of culture, a way of mediating direct experience and keeping my distance with cleverness. Continue reading

Failure is an option


People who research creativity and innovation tell us that the willingness to risk is a critical factor. Fear of failure shuts down creativity. At IDEO, a world-renowned design firm, their motto is “Fail early and fail often.” In the art classroom at my son’s grade school was a beautiful, handmade sign in rainbow letters that said, “Mistakes are treasures.”

My own relationship with risk and failure is evolving. A child of a grand perfectionist, I learned early to do everything possible to avoid failure. I never knowingly took risks and resisted mightily when in situations so challenging as to be ripe for failure. It took sailboat racing to reveal the unique freedom that’s concealed within failure. Continue reading