Create the tension for change

When we work in a problem-solving mode, we remain limited.

Our energy stays focused on the problem, instead of what we want.

I’ve reached a point in my book-writing where feedback from first readers is critical.

Constructive, critical feedback shows me what is working and what is not.

It provides a snapshot of current reality that suggests how far I have yet to go.

Yet when I received first feedback on my manuscript from a couple of readers, feedback I had asked for, it was still difficult to hear.

My initial solution: plunge ahead and reactively fix what appeared to be broken in the book.

Instead, I reviewed a classic book about creative change from the 1980s, The Path of Least Resistance, by Robert Fritz.

The Limits of Problem-Solving


Fritz argued the limitations of problem-solving and suggested that creatives choose a different approach. They move forward by maintaining a structural tension between their current reality and their vision for what they want to create.

Focusing only on current reality, without a vision, can be exhausting and constraining. We get stuck in the problem we’re trying to solve, often in a one step forward-one step back oscillation.

Conversely, focusing on vision, without acknowledging current reality, leads to fantastical, hypothetical thinking rather than effective action.

Power lies in maintaining a dynamic tension between the two: what we want and current reality.

Then we can pour our attention and focus into what we want without denying what is.

Think of an archer who pulls back on the bow (current reality) before allowing the arrow to launch into space towards its target (the vision).

We maintain focus on the target given to us by our vision. Current reality gives us the tension that can help us spring into action.

For another example, think of an artist. She begins a project with a vision, however rough, of what she wants to create. Then she works with the current reality she observes – either in the world or on her canvas. The art emerges from the tension between them.

Fritz says:  “Think in terms of what you want to create rather than what you want to change.”

Perfect words before returning to editing.

Steps to renewing a vision

Before jumping ahead with book revisions, I decided to revisit and renew my vision for the book. Rather than become lost in the process, I need to stay focused on the end result I want, whatever the circumstances in front of me.

A true vision comes from the heart, the imagination, a sense of the possible, or from spirit. It is never a “to-do” or a document that gets generated in committee after a long day hammering out words.

To be powerful and worthy of our focus, a vision has to feel alive. It needs to be able to sustain the tension coming from the counterweight of current reality.

Here are my steps:

1) Know the why.

A vision doesn’t come with an ulterior motive. I write my book because I’m called to do it–because I love it. The poet Robert Frost wrote:

“All the great things are done for their own sake.”

2) Don’t look for inspiration to come from a sense of need or making up for lack. 

Of course, I’d like to be published. But need or lack takes energy from the vision. Will my life be OK if am not published? Yup. See above.

Most of us, at some point, try to make up for what we believe we didn’t receive in childhood. We build companies to show Dad how great/worthy we are.

For me, a deep vision comes from a space within where I’m not trying to make up for what happened in the past. I ask the questions, “Is this still what I’m meant to do?” and “Is writing a book still what I want in life.” Then I listen. Fortunately, this week, the answer is still, “Yes.”

3) Don’t be constrained by what seems possible or by “how.”

Fritz argues that a vision needs to exist outside what we think is possible. It can be any size and shape – small or large, practical or fantastical, as long as it is truly ours.

At times, the prospect of publishing looks impossible. I certainly don’t know how to make it happen. Both are irrelevant to my vision.

“How” we do something is not part of the vision. We figure that out while we move ahead.

4) Picture the end result. The more we see our vision in vivid images rather than conceptualizing it, the stronger it becomes. As part of his method, Fritz suggests we envision the end-result, not a process for getting there.

I picture people reading my book and then reframing their relationship with aging as they express themselves more creatively. I see myself gleefully gabbing about it. The book is in bookstores. I even see (gasp) royalties!

5) Listen for the intuitive, knowing, inner voice. Leave room for magic, the unexpected, or for a desire to show up that we didn’t even know we had.

7) Let the vision reflect what you love. 

In focusing on my vision and giving energy to it, I feel stronger about my work and more excited to jump back into revisions.

With the vision in mind, I can better embrace the tension.

The road ahead to publication, given today’s realities, is still fraught with challenges. The publishing industry has now consolidated down to four major companies, which is down from five in 2019, which was down from what was once hundreds of small publishers.

It’s very difficult for a first-time author, with no fame, to gain notice.

Does that dampen my vision? Nope. It’s just a chunk of current reality, a part of the tension I hold without running away from it.

What’s important is to honor my vision and give it focus and energy.

With that focus, I can move forward again, based not on reactiveness, but on love.

 

To gain perspective, turn upside down

 

The tragedy of George Floyd invited many of us to wake up, to see the world as it is and not what we believed it to be.

To see the world of systemic discrimination, inequities, and violence that have been hidden in plain sight for years.

As for the outcome of the trial, I’m relieved, but I’m not the one to offer commentary. It pains me that racially biased police shootings and gun violence continued even as the trial was going on.

Instead, I’ll offer a small exercise in seeing.

See the world from upside down

When I was growing up, in my white bubble, I saw the America I was taught to see. I sang, “Sweet Land of Liberty.” I pledged allegiance to the idea of “liberty and justice for all.” I imagined that these phrases represented the America in which I lived. Not the country with a history of gashes, nooses, prejudice, cruelty, and scars that I’m waking up to today.

Today, I want to observe what is, with equanimity, objectivity, and compassion.

How can we see what is as we create towards the ideals we hold?

In a recent drawing class, Heather Williams, author of Drawing as a Sacred Activity, suggested that I sketch a portrait from a photograph turned upside down. This exercise, also suggested by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, encourages us to see what is actually in front of us when we draw instead of our concepts of what we think we are seeing.

Instead of a chin, I see diagonal and horizontal lines. A mouth looks like a flat line with a little curve. A nose is a series of circles and shadows that don’t make sense. Dark patches contrast with sections of light.

I record what I see. The exercise wrests me away from my concepts of what a face looks like. The drawing I sketch this way has flaws, but it also has a freshness and surprising accuracy.

In her brilliant work from three decades ago, A Soprano on Her Head, performance coach Eloise Ristad described how she worked with musicians to shake them out of their habitual, limiting patterns. She encouraged a well-trained soprano to sing upside down. By so doing, the soprano stopped singing the way she thought she was “supposed to sing,” the way she had been taught, She discovered a new voice with a fresh, new resonance. Then, she learned to sing upright again.

Maybe we should all spend time upside down. We can learn to see the world as it actually exists.

Observe the beauty along with the fault lines.

Viewed from upside down, the world gains new possibilities. Those on the bottom show up on top. Those on the top lose their grip on that position.

The earth is plainly visible soaring above us–no longer something to be taken for granted.

After we learn to observe, we can, like the soprano, right ourselves and use our new perspectives to resume our work.

Is it time to start returning?

 

It’s time to start talking about APAD: Anticipatory Post-pandemic Apprehension Disorder.

Unless it’s just my issue.

I was so excited to have my second COVID vaccination shot last week, I’m starting to feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I can see my grandson! Hug a friend!

Maybe I can start returning to …what? Normal is already gone. What’s my alternative?

This worries me.

And what happens to the introverted me that finds it yummy to spend time reading, writing, and working alone, interspersed with meals with my mate and conversations with the dogs? I feel like a shy kid, not quite ready to go back to school.

Maybe I need to start one person at a time. Maybe one person a week.

Will this mean I can no longer blame COVID for all the tasks I forgot, incompletions, and general disinterest in doing anything useful?

Or, the fact that I’ve lost my fitness and my stamina?

It seems too soon to take responsibility for myself.

First, could we heal (I hope) the holes the pandemic has worn in my brain? I need to know whether they will fill back in.

Speaking of things filling in, I hope I can wear earrings. I may not have holes left.

I look forward to the day I can sit in a café and enjoy a latté with a friend. But wait, do I still have to wear a mask? That’s not fun. Maybe we can Zoom with our coffee for a little while longer.

I’ve heard that the local performance hall is going to offer a public lecture with limited, well-spaced, seating–and the obligatory masks. How exciting. But wait, can I wear my jammies?  I’ve gotten used to attending lectures while curled comfortably on the sofa.

One of these days, I’ll be able to dress up and wear one of the beautiful jackets that have hung in my closet, unloved, for the year. But then again, what does dress-up mean? Can I still wear my designer mask with the tropical bird on the front?

I’m used to dressing being simple: five easy-care choices. When I want to dress up I add a scarf to my t-shirt and stretch pants.

Will people start expecting me to drive to meetings and, heavens, even take a ferry into Seattle?

I’m already nervous (see introversion above).

Maybe I’m kidding and maybe I’m not. I have no clue what’s ahead. This is not like returning from vacation.

When you go away on an extended trip, you expect the world to be somewhat the same when you get back.

What if everybody went away on extended trips and the world moved and changed a lot before they got back?

That would be disorienting.

Which is what I expect.

Now.

Want a little vaccine humor?

 

 

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with a fiercer love

I’ve been learning about a new face of love reading Valerie Kaur’s See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. Her writing is glorious.

Who else could have successfully braided memoir with a manifesto? Memoir calls for personal vulnerability. Manifesto asks for a strong, sometimes fierce, stand. Valerie gives us both as she carries us on a journey between the deeply personal and the political.

She takes us back to 9-11 when the aftermath of tragedy devolved into a hate-fest. I cringe reading of the enormity of violence done to Sikhs, Muslims, and BIPOC peoples as the number of hate crimes exploded. Heartbreaking.

At the same time, she writes with a mother’s love and threads a hope for change throughout the book.

She has done what great authors and filmmakers sometimes are able to pull off: allow me to feel the sorrow of the world and still find its joy, blend together pathos and possibility, marry fierce reality with an even fiercer commitment to change.

I read the book with kleenex at my side, crying my way through. Yet my tears feel, in a strange way, uplifting.

Reading her words, I feel cleansed.

I can’t do the book justice, but I can speak to how it moves me.

I cry because of what she and other Sikhs have witnessed or endured:

  • As a little brown girl, she was regularly harassed by white classmates.
  • Her best childhood friend told Valerie that she was doomed to hell if she didn’t take Christ as her savior.
  • She witnessed the explosion of hate crimes after 9-11 and documented many, while the press ignored the magnitude of the violence.
  • A family friend was killed in a post-9-11 hate-crime. She saw Sikh turbans become targets.
  • She was sexually molested by a family friend and traumatized, and thought she had to stay silent.
  • While working as a journalist, she suffered police violence and physical injury.
  • She was attacked by family members for wanting to marry a Muslim, not a Sikh.

Yet I also cry with joy because she found a way to live with hope. She:

  • Took courage from the phrase “See no stranger” spoken five centuries ago by Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith.
  • Continued to be guided by the Sikh values of truth and justice, and its commitment to defend all people’s in harm’s way.
  • Developed a band of close friends and fellow activists who stood with her.
  • Created a moving film documenting the hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs.
  • Found professors at Stanford and Yale who saw who she was and valued her gifts.
  • Shaped her Yale Law experience into an opportunity to help communities protect their civil rights.
  • Fell in love with a beautiful man who helped her heal and became her husband.
  • Became a mom.
  • Danced.

When I first learned about Valerie Kaur, I thought she was a superwoman: filmmaker, civil rights activist, religious studies scholar, lawyer, speaker, and mom. Now she feels more like a sister, a deeply human woman who faces down her dragons and learns to draw from the wise woman inside of her.

Many of her metaphors for change are female. She references the birthing process, which can be acutely painful and risky, but which women endure in order to give birth to something beautiful.

Are we, as a culture, she asks, moving through a difficult labor to give birth to a new world?

She coaches us: Breathe. Push.

As I melt into her words, I feel inspired to:

  • Fill in the many gaps in my knowledge of marginalized peoples and understandings of different faiths.
  • Be a witness for the disenfranchised and stand up to hate.
  • Examine my white privilege and cultural blinders.
  • Encourage others to tell their stories, particularly those whose stories have been silenced or not shared.

In a world full of hate, war, and violent insurrection, the word warrior, as in the Sikh sense of the warrior-sage, may be difficult to use. But wasn’t John Lewis a gentle warrior for civil rights?

Our inner warrior can help us speak out for truth, intervene against racist comments, stand up for the marginalized and children, and address the inner demons that would have us hurt another.

Valerie understands that raging against social injustice can be a part of how we love.

We can be loving warriors, truth-telling, just, and compassionate through these difficult times.

As we approach Valentine’s Day, let’s dump the sappy cards. Enjoy the chocolate (I’m still a sucker for the darkest dark chocolate), and make a commitment to fierce love, love that breaks your heart, love that finds the courage to hope.

Love that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way, but there is a way.”

Valerie writes:

Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limits, wonder is the act that returns us to love,”

Here’s to that love on V day.

And now, for Valerie Kaur speaking at the 2019 Bioneers conference.

 

Let’s sing a new revolution

Estonian choral group. Creative commons license. By Ave Maria Mõistlik

In Estonia, people sing. An Estonian woman I heard speak in an online singing class talked about Laulupidu, Estonia’s choral song festival. Begun in 1869, it now draws 100,000 participants, including 30,000 singers.

Wikimedia commons. Estonian Song Celebration. Photo by ToBreatheAsOne

Then, she added that the country liberated itself from Soviet rule through their “Singing Revolution.”

A singing revolution?

I needed to learn more. I knew shamefully little about Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea less than a third the size of Washington State. The country was the site of some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, losing 25% of its population during WWII. In 1939 Stalin and Hitler created the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which “gave” Estonia, then an independent democracy, to Stalin, whose forces occupied the country. In 1941 Hitler broke the pact and Germany brutally occupied the country throughout WWII. After the War, Stalin convinced the Allies that he would set up free elections in Estonia, with the Soviets given authority for the country.  That promise was quickly broken. The country became part of the Soviet Union.

For the next fifty years, the Soviets controlled the county through oppression, terror, propaganda, and the prospect of forced labor or death for dissidents. Men, women, and children continued to be shipped to work in Siberia (where half died). The colorful culture of Estonia was being converted to Soviet-style gray.

The country’s spirit was almost broken. They had no guns, no military power.

Yet, they had the power of song.

The Song Festival continued. The Soviets saw it as a way to spread propaganda. At the festival in 1947, they required Soviet music to be sung, allowing only a few Estonian songs. But at that festival composer Gustav Ersenaks introduced his composition “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” (Land of My Fathers, Land that I love) using lyrics from a beloved national poem. As 25,000 people on stage sang this beautiful hymn-like homage to Estonia, it became a new national anthem.

The song gave hope. It reminded the Estonians of who they were. 

Later the song was banned from the Festival. But in 1969, at the Festival’s close, the crowd of 100,000 started singing it spontaneously, despite Soviet orders to stop.

The Singing Revolution began. Young people carried singing into the streets.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to freer speech with his Glasnost policies. In1988, 300,000 people showed up at the Song Festival grounds to sing together and hear messages of independence.

The Estonians didn’t win their freedom solely by singing. It took years of political strategy, rallies, perseverance, and raw courage. In 1992, as the Soviet Union fell apart, Estonia was recognized again as an independent nation. Today, it is a thriving member of the EU.

And the people keep singing. 

Are you singing yet?

Singing has been the backbone of many social movements, like the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Perhaps a revolution we need is to take back singing.

Unfortunately, every day, across North America, a chorus of people can be heard chanting, “I can’t sing,” a hymn they learned after some friend or teacher derided their voices. Singing is seen as an art reserved for the Three Tenors, rock stars, and Lady Gaga (whom I happen to love). Singing is for televised competitions with one dramatic winner and a lot of broken hearts. Singing is for the talented and the in-tune.

The funny thing is, when you sing a lot, no matter how you sound, you discover that you can sing.

I’ve been someone who wouldn’t sing alone in public because my voice becomes funky when scared. Yet that might be changing.

If I tried to sing in front of you, my voice might start out rough and warbly. But If I claimed my notes from the inside out, delighted in the experience of singing, felt the silence before the sound, and then enjoyed allowing tones to vibrate inside of my head, throat, and chest, my voice would become more sure.

Or maybe not. But does it really matter?

It’s time to reclaim our birthright. To all be artists, musicians, dancers, and creatives.

If you can talk, you can sing. If you can move, you can dance. These are not special gifts reserved for the few.

Why bother to sing?

Why bother you might say. “I do certain things well, and singing isn’t on the list.”

Fine, I’d reply, but then I’d challenge you to watch the remarkable documentary The Singing Revolution and watch the Estonian faces, lit up and inspired, singing in the middle of the worst times and circumstances. Feel the light in their eyes. Feel what happens when people make music together. Feel the power of hope.

Singing together created a force, it turned out, even stronger than guns.

I’d like to think that the revolutions we need now for social justice, racial equity, consciousness, and environmental healing could be won, or at least be fortified, by song.

Singing together, we can find connection with others, open our hearts, share our truths, and stimulate our hopes for the future.

A revolution is a tall order. But done with joy and love, (thank you activist Valerie Kaur), it might be possible.

Today, we can take a small step: Claim your note. Then, sing it with love, whether to your cat, in your church or to the world.

Seeding a new beginning

“Stories are like seeds. It pays to know what you want to harvest from your garden so you can plant the right seeds.”  Mary Alive Arthur, story activist.

Inauguration Day felt like the true start of the new year.  With so much commentary–I’ll let others address the politics. I celebrated the day with a rite of new beginnings.

I bought seeds.

Growing a garden, after all, has some parallels with growing a new culture.

Seed lust

I live on an island where the desire to grow things is infused into the local water systems. I overdosed during my first years. I planted and grew way too much and then felt overwhelmed at harvest time. I swore to remember that 1) I am my gardening staff of one; 2) There are only so many turnips a couple can eat at any one time; 3) Fellow islanders do not want my zucchinis. In fact, islanders have been known to duck and cover any time they see a neighbor approaching with anything green in August.

Still hope springs anew when the end of a bleak, bleak winter is in sight.

One evening with  “The Territorial Seed Catalogue” from Oregon and I’m smitten with seed-lust. How can you resist descriptions like:

“Cantarix [lettuce] produces beautiful billowing globes of glossy, maroon-colored, oak leaf foliage that fades to a lime-green center. Maturing to about 7 inches wide and 4 inches tall, the plants provide a plentiful supply of sweet, supple leaves for continuous harvest.”

I’m in. My list lengthens. To give myself a balancing dose of reality, I add to my must-remember list:

  • My husband, while open to the force of nature called “kale,” will not eat it every night.
  • Finding a hoof print in the garden never augurs well.
  • One visit by one deer can devastate half the garden.
  • My horse likes peas. She will stick her long neck into the pea patch, risking a small electric shock. She doesn’t know how to pick, so her solution is to chomp shoots and pull out vines.
  • Half-eaten pea vines will not rise again.
  • Tomatoes, in the Northwest, ripen in October, after the rains have turned them to mush.
  • Digging is a family activity. My dogs follow my lead and continue to dig after I’ve planted.
  • I am slightly allergic to garlic, and the crop I planted last fall will sustain me for the next decade.
  • The robins put out a “Situation Alert” in June devoted to raspberries. With the announcement of the first delicious berry, birds from across the county flock to our property.
  • Harvesting, although fun, takes time. Perhaps “I like apples” wasn’t enough to justify 1200 pounds of apples each year.
  • As you sow, so shall you weed.
  • Weeding is a cosmic event that is never, ever done.

Hope and reality

As I work through the catalog, the dance between reality and hope continues, as it will with the new presidential administration.

In the spirit of the new President who invited us to step up, I offer a few garden insights:

  • Changing the culture is like developing soil. It takes time. Rather than just dumping fertilizer on a bed (which I’ve done), it’s better to play the long haul and cultivate an environment where the good stuff can grow.
  • Compost is golden, which is helpful when you’ve been left with a lot of shit.
  • Not all seeds will germinate.
  • It will never turn out completely according to plan. (The deer who crashed our fence.)  Expect mistakes. (Why did I grow perpetually self-seeding fennel?)
  • The best soil conditioner ever is love.

My kale made it through the winter, and so will we.

In the spirit of new beginnings, I dare you to resist this:

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