Expanding our thanks

Thanksgiving, that holiday of family, friends, food, and thankfulness in the US, is almost here. T-day is my favorite holiday, even if I need to monitor my consumption and cool it on the mashed potatoes and gravy.

What could be better than a day dedicated to giving thanks?

Hopefully, on T-day, we’ll fill our spirits as well as our plates. Our expression of thankfulness, expanded, becomes gratitude. Gratitude, in turn, becomes a way of being in the world. We give thanks for specifics, for family, community and what we’ve been given. With gratitude, we expand our perspective beyond what is personal to us and feel our common connection.

Gratitude invites me to share blessings with others. 

Gratitude is like a healing superpower, which brings me light when the fires rage in California, the Northwest rains begin, I lose a dog, or life doesn’t go the way I’d prefer. Gratitude invites me to remember my deepest values, even as the cultural cacophony about holiday sales and shopping days till Christmas, begins to crescendo.

Gratitude reminds me of what is important and what is good. I notice the small blessings that I almost take for granted, such as the right to a good meal, and the big ones I should never forget, such as the right to freedom. 

Because life is not a “grab-bag candy game.”

Sorry, Gordon Gekko (of the movie WallStreet), but greed is not good. Toni Morrison put it bluntly when she spoke to a group of students. Don’t treat life, she told them, like a “grab-bag candy game.”

In that game, the powerful get to be first in line, putting their mitts into the candy bag and pulling out all that they can. Winners take all. The losers, whether they be refugees in a Caravan from Central America or the marginalized in our own communities, well, too bad. They should have been first in line. 

The grab-bag candy game dehumanizes us. I remember the words of the Dean of the Management School at Yale, a fiscally conservative guy, who nonetheless said, 

“The problem isn’t in making a lot of money. The problem is thinking that you have to keep it.”

Hoarding isolates us. Sharing connects us.

My sister-in-law, a very talented independent videographer, shot several episodes of a reality show about hoarders. As she entered their overstuffed homes, she found them crammed with misery. (Believe me, she doesn’t keep anything surplus!)

Now back to freedom…

The freedom to share freedom

Our freedom thrives in our desire for others to be free.

Morrison also told her students:

Remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Right on.

Freedom, like love, gets bigger when it’s shared.

 
President Obama, a friend of Morrison’s, said: 
“Justice grows out of our recognition of ourselves in each other, That my liberty depends on you being free, too,”
Nelson Mandela said:
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
and even Abraham Lincoln had a few things to say:
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”-
Please mention this to the powers that be.
 
On Thanksgiving Day, as we bless the food we receive, or as you, in your way,  eat and celebrate what’s good in your life, let’s send blessings to those who will never take freedom for granted.
Here’s my tiny prayer:
 
Because I have food, I want you to be able to eat.
Because I have known love, I want your life to be full of love.
Because I have known freedom, I want you to be free.
 
Peace and blessings to you and my great thanks to you for being who you are.
 
 

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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Don’t Photoshop Your Life

Over the past weeks, we’ve been forced to listen to a public biography that was photoshopped and edited to a polished, plasticized, perfection.

Viewed through the lens of a storyteller, it was a lousy story.

The main arc of the story, as much as I could listen to it, went something like this: I came from a privileged family. I was sent to an elite prep school and then an elite college. I attended an elite Law school. I worked hard. I did well. I succeeded at everything. I’m a model citizen. Sure, I like my beers, but that just shows I’m human.

Human? Yeah right.

Real stories don’t sound like that.

Susan Shapiro, in her hot-off-the-press book for professional writers, The Byline Bible, invites her readers, if they want to be published, to share their vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies, failings, and obsessions when they write. She tells them to be human and share with their readers what they’ve learned from life–while never portraying themselves as victims.

As someone who seeks out stories, I prefer ones that include some struggle, internal conflict, epiphanies, and quirkiness. I want to learn about people who have known difficulties, bruises, and, hopefully, redemption.

I like stories about those who have been a bit broken and picked themselves back up, taking away from their experiences great empathy and compassion for others.

I have little interest in the polished, public relations version of someone’s story–unless he or she has a tuned-in publicist who allows a little vulnerability to bleed through.

“I’m so good and I’ve always been good” stories make me want to retch.

Pride, combined with privilege that lacks insight, is a formula for hubris. It’s unsatisfying to read about, unless, of course, the hero falls.

The unspoken subtext of the story we’ve been hearing is: because I’ve succeeded with all the privileges I’ve had, I deserve more.

Going to Yale wasn’t the problem with the story, nor was coming from privilege. If you come from privilege, own up to it in your story, and don’t let it set you apart. Dig deeper into your life and find some compassion for others. Even the privileged can carry tough stories.

Whatever you do, don’t whitewash your story.

Your story is precious. It’s you. Guard its integrity and peculiarities with your life.

Don’t photoshop your life

When I was a teenager, I read Seventeen Magazine and believed that in order to be popular I needed to look like the models I saw displayed on its pages. The beautiful girls I saw had no zits, freckles, fuzzy eyebrows, or worn collars. No moths ate holes in their sweaters. Their hair was never messy, nor their fingernails grimy. They never buttoned up their cardigans wrong. These people, I decided, were perfect. I wasn’t.

Little did I know that every photo in the magazine had been airbrushed, cropped and burned (how we had to edit before digital photography) and none of it was real.

American advertising thrives on promoting the illusion of perfect appearance.

“Flawless,” though, makes for a crummy story.

wabi-sabi

The Art of Imperfection

In contrast, Andrew Wyeth, one of the preeminent U.S. painters of the mid-twentieth century, chose to paint the farmers, hunters, and housewives who were his neighbors, none of whom were  “classically beautiful.” He painted their beaked noses, chiseled faces, furrows, worn garments, and warts in great detail.

In capturing their “flaws” and peculiarities, he brought out their humanity. His subjects, realistically portrayed, were hauntingly beautiful.

The Japanese have a concept that is at the heart of their traditional aesthetic: wabi-sabi, which, loosely translated, means “flawed beauty.” Artists allow for some imperfection, quirk or anomaly in even the most beautiful house or piece of pottery.

Our flaws and imperfections, as we are able to own them and learn from them, make us who we are. They shape the background for a beautiful story.

Don’t photoshop them away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A wedding to remind us what matters

This weekend I went to a wedding that broke my heart apart and made it sing.

I don’t think I ever,

  • Laughed, cried and cheered so much at a wedding.
  • Been so engulfed in a supportive community.
  • Witnessed a pre-wedding, theatre-worthy performance with songs, story, and poetry celebrating two individual journeys and the magic of their meeting.
  • Felt a collective joy that risked blowing out the walls of the ceremony hall.
  • Cried that marriage could have ever been denied a couple who loved so deeply.

Ten years ago, this wedding wouldn’t have been possible. If anyone has any lingering doubts about the validity of gay marriage, I dare them to witness the story of these two men. Through their honesty, their commitment, and their bravery in not giving up on love in the face of society’s homophobia, they honored and sanctified the act of marriage.

Throughout their ceremony, I kept squeezing my husband’s hand. Their vows renewed mine.

How ironic, I thought, that we can learn the beauty of marriage from those who once would have been denied the right to it.

Yet that’s what the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and those who did not grow up entitled to what we take for granted, can do for us. They open our eyes to beauty and privilege we don’t see any more. Entitlement numbs us to life (I know; I grew up in a community where entitlement was assumed.)

With privilege, we despair of everything that doesn’t work and forget what does.

In witnessing:

  • Two wonderful men take their vows, I see the power of marriage.
  • An immigrant take an oath, I understand the power of citizenship.
  • A refugee join our community after risking life to escape a troubled land, I’m struck by the power of home.
  • An older African-American woman voting for the first time, I remember that voting matters.
  • A Down-syndrome man standing at the altar at church, I sense our equality as beings.
  • An unemployed twenty-four-year old land a first job, I get the power of work.
  • A woman step forward and say “Me too,” I’m moved by the power of voice.
  • A woman dying in a hospice bed, I feel the sacredness of life.

All of these people offer gifts that shake my world out of its complacency. I say “Black lives matter,” and become more present to why every life matters. I welcome immigrants, not just for their sake, but because they have much to teach us about what matters in this country today.

We need to listen to those at the margins. They can be our potent teachers.

Just as my two beloved friends can remind me of why, thirty years ago, I took vows of marriage to the man I love so much today.

A question to guide your birthday

I’m writing this on my birthday, pausing to reflect on what it is to grow older.

I’m not yet ready to share my age, which is odd because I believe in claiming your age. At Ignite Seattle this past May, I closed my talk by inviting audience members, in one super-charged burst of enthusiasm, to shout out their ages.

Yet today, I’m not above feeling the stigma of aging in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with its elders.

That stigma is like the haze floating in our Northwest skies. It’s everywhere, intensifying the red fire of the setting sun, but you can’t see the source: the fires raging in California and Oregon. The stigma of aging penetrates our social atmosphere, showing itself on birthday cards of big-bellied older people on the ski slope joking, “It’s all downhill now.”

“It’s all downhill now…” Is that the story of elderhood? Where are the enlivening images of aging? The role models of elderhood?

I’ll share one example later.

Our story about aging is so out of sync with the world, neither heroic, redemptive, or interesting. Can you imagine going to a movie where the message was: “You grow older, you start to lose who you’ve been, people ignore you or too overtly care for you, and then you die?.”  Even popcorn sales wouldn’t save it at our local theatre.

Young people are concerned about aging, too.

For the sake of those who are younger, we need a better story about growing old.

At Ignite Seattle after delivering my talk about the promise of aging, I was approached by a thirty-year-old woman who said:

“I really loved your talk. I wish my friends could have heard it, especially that part about claiming your age. You wouldn’t believe what’s happening. My friends are giving themselves memorial-parties for their thirtieth birthdays. Everyone dresses in black to mourn that the best is over. I know one girl who is totally freaked out about turning twenty-one.”

She needs inspiration about the power of aging–not some cool photo of a dude climbing Kilimanjaro at eighty-five. I huff and puff climbing up the road in front of my house! We need stories that recognize the physical, even mental, limitations that can come with age, yet leave us with a sense of dignity, new respect for aging, and the hope that we’ll have access to a different, wiser, kind of power.

Do we even have elders? 

In Stephen Jenkinson’s provocative new book, “Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in Troubled TImes,” he argues that we have no place for elderhood in our culture. Jenkinson, featured in the movie Griefwalker, rattled the world of end-of-life care with his thoughts about death, learned in his years working in what he calls the “death trade.”

Now he’s taking on aging and elderhood.

“Something in the fabric of life in North America inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders all the time, and this something is being driven to panic by the daily news and in the panic, you’ll find the refusal to age. This something robs age of elderhood. No one would seem to benefit from the theft and it isn’t likely that anyone would vote for it, but there is a general willingness to forgo aging, and to live without the elderhood that could have come with it. … Agedness is at best a prolonged, unextinguishable middle age…”

An elder, for him, is someone who knows the reality of death, failure, and limit. But the issues aren’t just about aging. Our failure to accept the idea of limits affects more than our relationship with the elderly. It’s at the source of an environmental crisis that stems, in part, from our failure to accept that there are limits to growth, limits to what our planet can tolerate, and limits to sustainability,

If the youth were to speak

This spring, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida gave us straight talk about gun control. Their courage was the only silver lining after another godforsaken tragedy.

I imagined what they might say about the lack of elderhood in our culture. I doubt they would mince their words:

“You adults need to give us a better image of elder wisdom than we have today. You can’t just leave huge messes for us and then lock yourself away into comfortable communities with people just like you or retire to leisure villages and distance yourself from the problems of the world.

We understand that you may not have your old energy and may need to adjust what you can do. But here’s the deal: you have to stop running from the pain of knowing that the environmental, economic and social problems created on your watch aren’t like to be fixed while you’re still here. That’s going to hurt and you’ll just have to deal with it.

So don’t turn your backs on us. We need your wisdom. Grow up and become elders.”

An example of eldering

Where do we look for elders? I don’t know.

Not necessarily in elder circles, or crone gatherings, although a few might be there. I can’t tell you who an elder is, but I can recognize someone who seems worthy of the name: my friend-colleague-mentor of many years, Anne Stadler.

At 87, Anne is still going strong, although she has to be selective with how she spends her time and mindful to take care of herself. (You can listen to Eric Liu’s interview of her here.)

For over fifty years, as a mother, TV producer, community developer, educator, and peacemaker, Anne’s been a fierce advocate for the possibility of what Martin Luther King called The Beloved Community. She has stood up for social justice, for giving voice to those whose voices have not been heard, for encouraging participation, and fostering collaboration.

She teaches and models how to trust the wisdom that can emerge when we listen for the spirit within ourselves, within our groups, and within our communities.

Whether she’s supporting the peoples and waters of the Salish Sea or helping to bring Story Bridge to the world, Anne brings deep intuition, soul, and commitment to everything she does. Her commitment to always doing her own inner work strengthens her actions.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of people she has mentored and still does.

When I was a fledgling faculty member in a university, struggling to realize my dream of creating a new graduate program in leadership and management, Anne gave me the hand I needed to summit a steep and rocky slope. She blessed me with her network of connections and helped me assemble a remarkable crew of advisors to guide what we were creating. She supported me to trust myself and to trust the emergent wisdom within my group of advisors as we sat together and contemplated what this new program really needed to be. She helped mid-wife its birth.

I call Anne a true elder not just in recognition of her community contributions, her mentoring, or her wisdom. It’s because, throughout her life, she’s had the courage to ask one question and then follow the call:

“What am I being called to do?”

That’s the question we all need to ask.

I bet Anne will be asking that question for the rest of her life, even if the answer is: “Be still and do nothing.”

Being willing to ask that question, and then listen deeply, lies at the root of elderhood.

By asking, listening, and waiting, we find our individual answers. The Anne Stadlers of the world are to be treasured, not copied. They show us what vibrancy and commitment can look like at any age, and serve as the role models we need for elderhood as we age.

In honor of Anne, and on my birthday, I ask myself the big question once again:

“What am I being called to do?”

Oh, and by the way, I just turned 67.

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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