Sweat your way to community

Sometimes you build community by talking, finding common interests, and slowly building trust.

Sometimes you find community by…sweating.

That’s what I did this past weekend in my Zumba (dance-fitness) instructor training. I almost didn’t make it. Life’s been a bit rough recently, and it was hard to imagine myself spending a day doing high-energy, Latin-inspired moves, while feeling burdened by some unexpected problems.

I tried to picture myself among the clientele I thought might be attending this training: nubile, super-buff, exercise-freaks in their twenties, their butts thinly coated by tight, designer stretch pants. Would there be other 67-year-old women, with aching knees, vulnerable ankles and other physical limitations? Not likely.

However, the idea of chickening out made me feel worse than the prospect of feeling out of place. And, thanks to a couple of handfuls of ibuprofen, I did survive all the high energy movement. It was fun, but what I really loved was taking a deep dive into a diverse community.

The participants didn’t fit any stereotypes. They came in every color, and even from some different parts of the world. I danced next to a woman wearing a Hijab and form-fitting pants, and boy could she wiggle!

Yes, there were some crazy designer leggings and tank tops. But it turned out that the insanely cool black and white tights I saw came from Walmart.

Moving together connects us across different experiences, backgrounds, and countries.

Great dance music is democratically distributed around the globe.

Zumba was started by a man from Colombia who started life poor. He danced in the streets before he stumbled on a formula for dance-fitness success. Two Latin business partners joined in, and soon they had created a multi-million dollar empire of instructors and participants. You can find Zumba today in two hundred countries. No longer limited to Latin rhythms, Zumba now draws inspiration from music and steps worldwide.

What stood out for me last Sunday, apart from the fun of dancing, was how fast our little rainbow classroom started feeling like a supportive community. I wished that my pale, winter-white skin could borrow some color from the beautiful Indian woman who was dancing next to me. (She, too, had the moves!) Participant ages ranged from 17 to 67 (yours truly).

Did I tell you we came in many shapes, from finely chiseled to, well, big? What we had in common was that we could all shake (or try), laugh, and enjoy letting our hearts beat with the music we were hearing.

No introductions needed.

We started the day with no introductions, no sitting around a circle discussing our goals, no check-in opportunities for me to give the instructor my list of physical limitations and tell her why I might not make it through the class, Nope. After sharing a few words at the beginning of class, the instructor got us up on our feet. Then she revved up the music and we were dancing.

The instructor was a high-octane bundle of crazy-wild energy, whose might exceeded the size of her well-sculpted 5’4″ body. With a lingering Puerto Rican accent, she shouted out encouragement for us to follow her as she demonstrated some basic variations of core Zumba moves.

The intense beat of the music seemed to bond us.

At lunch, I noticed how easy it was to share with my new Zumba buddies, who no longer felt like strangers. Where else could I ask a dancing friend how many women in her Muslim community dance in Hijabs? (Some do, some don’t.)

Movement, like storytelling and other arts, is a gateway to community.

I’ve written before about forming community through the amazing Story Bridge process. Expressive arts like storytelling, music, and dance encourage us to make connections with each other independent of our intellect or opinions.

We open up for a moment, and enter a truer part of ourselves where we are free to move with less pretense, and, in the case of Zumba, more sass!

Don’t hold your breath–I have no immediate plans to teach Zumba. Trying to do the angular hip-hop inspired Reggaeton moves was still beyond me. (My back agrees with this verdict.)

I kept thinking that dancing is such a cool way to build community quickly, and span differences in backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. On the island where I live, the Zumba community is an amazingly supportive bunch.

The core elements that bond us are so simple:

Music.
Movement.
Sharing joy together.
Engaging our minds together with our bodies (It takes brains to do those moves!)
Laughter. Smiles.
Sweat.

Especially sweat.

Maybe we don’t always need to talk through our problems.

Maybe we should just dance the heck out of them. 

 

When Grief comes to call

Last week Grief took me down, yet left a gift.

If you’re dealing with personal pain or the low-grade, chronic grief a lot of us are feeling about the world, it may be time to learn to walk with him.

I can’t tell you how to “get over” grief, but I’m learning about how to deal with his dominating, demanding presence.

Grief is one tough master. (I’ve gendered him, but you can change that if a force that takes you to your knees and threatens to flatten you to the ground feels more female to you.) He’s unyielding, sometimes cruel, and yet not without occasional kindness.

Losing Riley

Grief took my husband and me for a wild ride last week after we decided that it was time to put down our little animal companion, Riley.

Riley was our foster-rescue dog, a sweet, gentle Springer Spaniel, who came into our lives for four months, until his dementia and neurological difficulties made life too painful for him.

Our passion for Riley defied logic. We were smitten the moment we saw him walking in circles at the park, on a leash with the woman who brought him to us from the Seattle Animal Shelter. No matter that Riley was deaf, near blind, had trouble lifting himself to walk, and at times couldn’t contain himself for more than three hours.

He became a vessel for the biggest love we could give.

When Riley looked at us with his clouded eyes, our hearts melted and all we could think of doing was showering him with the safety, care, and love that he had missed during his days of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

Grief was watching our moves.

Grief took aim as we kept opening our hearts to our little fella. Grief knew how to pulverize us the moment that we decided that Riley’s pain and confusion had outstripped his joy in living and it was time to say goodbye.

NEVER say to anyone, “He was just a dog.” Grief doesn’t care. Grief shakes us with loss and strips from us whatever we hold precious, whether it’s a beetle or a treasured photo, lost, of a deceased grandmother.

In the soul, sorrows mingle. My mother’s long-awaited death evoked few tears (they may still come), but putting down Riley took me to a place where I couldn’t stop sobbing.

Last week I read the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experienced a tsunami of grief when her wife Rayna died. As she shared in a recent TED interview:

“Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.”

Quote cited in a post at Brainpickings

Gilbert’s words resonate as memories of Riley continue to haunt our house.

A piece of chicken fat turns into a memory of how Riley would have swallowed it whole and then licked my hand. The baby gate we put in place to keep Riley in his section of the house is down, yet I still try to step over it. After-images of Riley keep appearing: Riley stumbling to stand, Riley being carried down steps by my husband, Riley panting and turning in circles in the hall, confused by his growing dementia.

Part of me wants to numb this pain, but neither drinking nor drugs are appealing. Grief is adept at waiting out numbness. Reasoning feels equally useless. Who cares that Riley was only with us for four months or that we gave him the best life we could? That may matter, but not to Grief.

Grief comes with a gift

Bearing the pain, I walk through our vegetable garden. I notice that the colors of the leaves on the smoke bush have become more vivid. The beans I left dangling from their vines stand out like a piece of art. The rustle of the quaking aspens turns into a melody.

Words, inspired by Riley, start flooding into me and I create a small poem. Grief waits with me as I shape a blessing from Riley for my husband, another for a friend who loved our furry companion.

The power to shape and craft my words is the lifeline I need, a way to stand with my grief, neither running from it nor drowning in its waters. Creativity lifts me out of the darkness, with compassion. I do not have to produce something lasting or great, I just need to follow its suggestion and open my senses and imagination.

I follow the thread, creating other small poems, trusting that each step I take is leading me towards healing, knowing that light will follow the dark, sensing that the gashes in my heart are expanding my perspective, and giving Grief its due.

Whether you are happy with the elections or not, concerned about the Caravan of refugees coming towards the Mexican border, or not, or tracking on other sufferings, know that in today’s world, Grief is likely to be a frequent guest.

Give Grief his place at the table

It’s a small price to pay for the right to love and care deeply about the world.

Let Grief stand at your side as you dip into that place in your soul where joy and sorrow mingle and deep hope lives.

From there, you may find solace. From there, you can create.

From there may you find a place of wholeness, a rainbow within that can bear the storms.

A blessing from Riley

To the friends I met
and those I never did,
I send you blessings.

I will be watching over you.
So grateful to have received love
in your difficult world,
a chance to leave in peace
even though I couldn’t wag my tail
or say thank you.

I will be romping again
with those you have loved
in a place called Dogland.

If you listen quietly
you may hear us bark.

.

 

 

 

 

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When wonder beats words

After a productive day writing, I was burnt out on words. My brain couldn’t string any more together.

Because most of my work involves words, “no more words” also meant no more work.

I needed a break, but with other events coming up on my schedule, it had to be brief. Ten minutes, maybe twenty tops. What better time to test out one of the tools I’ve been developing to help you re-set yourself and become more present during a short break in your day.  I call them  “Ten-Minute Miracles” and I decided to try the TenMinute Wonder Walk.

In a Wonder Walk, you relax your brain and let your eyes do the walking. Pretend that you’re a camera and take snapshots of what intrigues you. Or, use the camera in your smartphone to catch the small miracles of beauty on your path. Turn your eyes into wide-angle lens and take close-ups of details you might otherwise miss. I can assure you, there’s a world going on in a manure pile!

As I walked slowly through the same yard I walk every day, I entered the land of wonder. Bits of magic popped up everywhere.

The flat orange mushrooms: extraordinary. The fog on the Doug Fir, mysterious. The red leaves circling the maple: reminiscent of the artist Andy Goldsworthy. The heart-shaped leaves of the Katsura: better than a Valentine. Even the dense pile of manure held spindly black mushroom shoots I had never seen before.

The more I looked, the more was revealed, and the more interesting the walk became.

Instead of offering you more words this week, I invite you to take a Wonder Walk. Grab a camera or be a camera and go noticing.

 

I promise it will help you shift gears.

I shared some of my other “Ten-Minute Miracles” last week with Beth Genly as part of her five-episode video “Spotcast” series, Beat Holiday Stress! 5 Experts Share Hot Tips to Ensure You Can Relax and Enjoy the Holiday Season. If you sign up for this free video series before November 4th, you can listen when it airs November 4 – 11th and learn some cool ideas to lower your stress.

OK,  I know, even hearing the word “holidays” can be stressful, although my conversation with Beth was really fun. She wants you to be prepared before holiday stress hits. You can sign-up by clicking here at this link. It’s free, and who doesn’t want to relax more during the upcoming season?

OK, now, I’ll be quiet.

It’s time to return to wonder.

Ask a better question…create a better world

Whenever I lose my glasses, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, happens increasingly frequently, my world devolves into a glasses-finding operation. Walking through my house, I stop seeing the art, the dog, or the freshly-picked apples on the counter. Instead, I ask, “Where the heck are my glasses?” and view each piece of furniture as a potential hiding ground. My question sets the stage for what I see as I comb through the house.

Once the misplaced item is found (hopefully), I could create a different future (if I were wiser) by asking new questions instead of hopelessly playing and replaying my game of lost and found. By asking, “Why do I keep losing my glasses?” and “What system could I use to keep me from losing them so often?” I could create possibilities for change, rather than staying stuck in reaction.

Questions shape what we see

The slogan Make America Great Again, continues to polarize us in the United States. Framed as a question, it sounds like, “Why isn’t America great?” with the embedded assumption that America is not great. Asking that question (and the phrase itself) invites us to look at America and find ways we are “not great.”

If we were seriously interested in manifesting the greatness inherent in phrases like “liberty and justice for all,”  we might begin with a set of questions that offer a different lens through which to view the country:

  • In what ways is America great today?
  • What values lie underneath our true greatness?
  • Where are we living those values?
  • What stories do we have that capture the essence of this greatness?
  • Why is being great important?
  • When we embody our greatness, how do we act?
  • What could we do to bring out more of our true greatness–and make sure it benefits all?

When we examine our world for signs of true greatness rather than its lack, we start finding lots of examples.

We also see the gap between our values and our reality. We’re provoked to act out of our desire to do more of what is good, rather than fixing what is broken.

How to change the narrative, one question at a time

Sometimes the cultural narratives we live in, our “big stories,” are outdated.

For example, the narrative that shapes how we look at growing older is usually some version of  “aging-as-something-to-be-avoided-as-long-as possible,” “aging-as-a-problem-to-be-fixed,” or simply “gloom, doom, and decline.”

No wonder as a society we’re not turned on about getting old!

If we started asking questions that offered a different frame, we’d kindle a more hopeful perspective.

Next week, after my talk at Sageing International’s Global Conference in Minneapolis, I’m going to invite audience members to try out a few questions. Sageing participants support positive, conscious aging, so imagine the energy if people started asking each other:

  • How are you thriving now that you are past midlife?
  • What are you exploring or discovering that inspires you??
  • How is your life vibrant today?
  • What is calling to you now?

The mere act of asking those questions subverts the old narrative!

“Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.” – Godwin Hiatshwayo

Let questions shape the world we want

Looking for what we want doesn’t require that we deny the shortcomings or problems in our society. We acknowledge the gap between our aspirations and values and our current reality, and then ask:

“What’s a change we could make today to bring us more in line with our values?”

The world orients to our questions.

Want to give it a go? You’re welcome to try out these:

  • What about life has pleased you today?
  • Where in your life are you feeling most yourself?
  • Where did you catch yourself thriving?

Or, you could always borrow mine:

“Where did I leave my glasses tonight?”

 

 

12 Great Quotes on Creativity (with a few you haven’t heard)

When I was moving into my fifties, I was consumed by an enormous hunger to express myself creatively. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been creative earlier in my life, but, up until then, creativity had been a byproduct of my work, an interest. Now, it became an intention, almost an obsession. After so many years of working to produce for others, my heart yearned to let my imagination out to play, to work more artfully, and to follow my creative yearnings.

Working on writing the story of this awakening, I inspired myself with quotes on creativity that I want to share with you. Here are some of my favorite quotes, chosen from the hundreds out there.

(I’ll provide the source of these quotes because it bugs me that so many quotes on the Internet are wrongly credited, misquoted, or can’t be verified.)

1. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle

2. “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

John Cleese (lecture 1991)

3. “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Mary Oliver Upstream: Selected Essays

4. “To create anything…is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic…That magic…is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic.”

Tom Bissell, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation

5. “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Albert Einstein as interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck in the October 26, 1929 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

6. “In our later years, it becomes imperative to increase our capacity to hold creative tension, allowing far greater and more inclusive solutions and options to emerge. By befriending and strengthening our capacity to hold paradox, we can explore the realm of deep spiritual growth.”

Angeles Arrien The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom

“Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

Gretchen Rubin, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

7. “C.G.Jung once wrote that creativity is an instinct, not an optional gift granted to a lucky few. If you don’t find a way to be creative in life, that instinct goes repressed and frustrated, You feel its loss as a deflation, the spirit leaking out of your sense of self. You feel empty, disengaged, and unfulfilled.”

Thomas Moore, A Life at Work

8. “There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Thomas Berry, Standing by Words

9. The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

Denise Shekerjian, author of Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born

10. “At every level of life – from personal to political – our creativity is being shut down because we are so vulnerable to fear. And there are so many forces out there working hard to manipulate our fear to keep us shut down, in line, and under control.”

Parker Palmer, in Yale University Reflections on-line magazine.

11. Creativity or talent, like electricity, is something I don’t understand but something I’m able to harness and use. While electricity remains a mystery, I know I can plug into it and light up a cathedral or a synagogue or an operating room and use it to help save a life. Or I can use it to electrocute someone. Like electricity, creativity makes no judgment. I can use it productively or destructively.

The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou conversation with Bill Moyers in Conversations with Maya Angelou

12. The picture below is from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.

Let the beauty we love be what we do!

Does your work make you better?

In her stunning collection of essays (highly recommended) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett offers us this simple, yet profound question about marriage she received from her friend, Edra. Quoting Ann:

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” she said, running down her list. “Does he make you better?” 

That last question could be applied to many things in life–including our work.

We need a new word for “work”

I’ve been struggling this week to find a more uplifting word to replace the word “work.” In writing a book on thriving in the 3rd Act of life, I’m asserting that engaging in creative work is one of the keys to staying vital.  But “creative work” could mean working a job, making art, serving your family or community, creating a business, fixing a car, or ???  In wanting to stay open to so many creative possibilities, I figured that I’d better define what the heck I mean by work.

I checked the dictionary’s synonyms for work and found: labor, toil, drudgery, and exertion–not an uplifting array. Is work really synonymous with  “ugh?” (As in “It’s Monday and I have to (ugh) go to work.”)

No wonder people want to leave “work.” Who wouldn’t given the negative overtones?

A more positive way to look at work

What if you could engage in an endeavor where:

  • you applied devotion and discipline and showed up regularly.
  • your creative juices flowed freely.
  • you experienced a sense of wonder, curiosity, and continual learning.
  • you felt a sense of rightness, as if you were doing something that was truly yours to do.
  • you felt a sense of purpose and passion.
  • you might be paid or not.

What would you call that?

The way to know what qualifies as a right endeavor might be by asking a question like the one Edra asked Ann Patchett.

“Does it make you better?”

Not richer, more successful or likely to show up in Time Magazine’s top 100 People of the Year. Just better. You know what I mean.

“Are you more vital, alive, compassionate towards others, a more fulfilled human being?” “Do you feel like your being is expanded as a result of your engagement?”

Another word choice could be your “creative practice.” It comes with less baggage. (I’d love to know if you have a better alternative!)

The nature of a creative practice

You know you have a creative practice when you feel like it has you.

There’s a bit of a master-devotee feeling in it, combined with the above-mentioned devotion and discipline, When I was studying photography during my year as a college student in Paris, I couldn’t wait to get into the darkroom to see what miracles could happen next. My accredited “work” for the year was studying French and passing a number of courses, but my real work-as-practice was allowing myself to explore photography and cinema with eyes of wonder.

I can still remember that cool, blue-lit darkroom, where the shallow troughs of water and chemicals bubbled. We students spoke in subdued voices as we awaited our turns to print our films, swooshing our papers through their chemical baths, while holding our breaths to see what would emerge.

I’d leave the studio in wonder, my eyes captivated by the Art Nouveau curves of the Parisian Metro signs; my curiosity piqued to study the faces of subway riders, my time on the trains absorbed in dreaming of what I would shoot next.

Today’s practice

My work-as-creative-practice these days is writing, although I hesitate to say that because I still love any chance to teach leadership storytelling and coach my clients. But the master who calls me to attend is intangible, not measured by money or external rewards, rather elusive about what she or he wants from me, and very demanding.

I’ve learned that in showing up for work, I will be challenged, altered, and rewarded if only by the satisfaction of launching a few ideas that someone else might read. As a result, I walk in the world differently.

Heeding the master

Years ago, when I was in a period of high obsession in the garden, I had a similar sense of commitment to a master with whom I was in regular dialogue. The rules were similar: show up consistently, maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder, structure my life to support my endeavor, and wait for orders.

When I’d garden in those days, a world opened up for me. I’d spend hours on my knees getting to know my garden by weeding, digging and pruning before it would start to “tell me” what it wanted next. Then I’d enter an altered space where I followed the orders I was hearing: remove this hellebore, transplant that Japanese maple, trim the lower branch, pave the path with logs, etc. I only left when night descended and I couldn’t see to work.

Similarly, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I needed devotion and discipline to work on my research while managing a full-time job. At first, I felt like I was slogging uphill, but as the project continued, a voice started emerging from the pages, talking back to me, and encouraging my work. Its directions weren’t as assertive as my garden’s, but I was in dialogue with a force and my work was to listen.

I smile to myself when I hear people complaining about the process of completing a doctorate, knowing that mine was a delight. Hard work, of course, but a practice that “made me better.”

What’s your practice?

Am I’m crazy? I’d love to hear from some of you who know what it is to surrender to a creative practice. If you have a better word for work-that-allows-you-to-thrive, please let me know.

What is your creative practice and…does it make you better?

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