Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holiday Mistakes and Mastery

Sometimes December can feel like running a three ring circus as the stage lights slowly dim.  Five different things are going on at the same time, right as the theatre is about to go dark--there is a frenzy combined with exhaustion that is unique to this time of year.

This year I happen to be feeling it more than usual.  Work is drawing my time away from house and home.  The children are in three different schools.  The rain has finally returned, adding more mess and more chaos, and even more desire to snuggle down into bed or fill up a hot bath.

And after ten good years, our snow globe yard decoration 

has lost its steam.

Oh dear.

I feel like that myself a couple of times a day this month, and yet I am happy.

Two weeks ago I had the chance to chaperone my middle daughter's Brownie troop at the Girlscout Nutcracker workshop and performance down in San Jose.  And if I'm being honest, I did not start off the day with the best attitude.  First of all, the event took all day--all of a pre-Christmas, weekend day in December.  So there was that.  And then there was the fact that I was dubious about the performance I was going to have to sit through.  I was thinking--if I have to sit still on a pre-Christmas Sunday in December, I want to see the "real" Nutcracker, the one in San Francisco.  And then there were the logistics of ushering nearly twenty little ones for the day: lunches, bathroom trips, lost coats, you've been there.  So I was feeling a little grinchy.

But here's what happened.  As part of the workshop, we got a back stage tour of the San Jose Dance Theatre's Nutcracker performance, the longest running community based Nutcracker performance in the Bay Area.  We looked so closely at the staging you could see the brush strokes of the volunteers brushes.  We watched some of the performers, none professional dancers, practice on barre before the performance.  We listened to presentation by Girlscouts who gave us tastes of real sugar plums.  And we met the handful of moms dressed in black who maintain the army of costumes that a Nutcracker performance requires.  This year, they actually sew one of the dancers into her costume before she goes on stage, and then cut her out of it when it is time to go home for the night.  
And then there was the performance.  

Some dewdrops danced out of step.  The Russian dancers nearly dropped one of their leaping scene mates.  My daughter complained that when Drosselmeyer had his magical flying scene she could see the ropes.  Clara, though, had a brilliant night, as did her young prince.  And the two principals who had been hired to dance the pad de deux at the end of the ballet, they were magical, dancing their parts with the precise mastery that only emerges from long, hard serious training.

By the end, I was in tears, because I got something important for the first time.  The Nutcracker Ballet was written in 1892 by Tchaikovsky as the Christmas recital piece for the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg.  It was intended to be a performance that included a range of dancers and dancing ability.  In the community performance by the San Jose Dance Theatre I experienced the Nutcracker, for the first time, in the way I imagined it was intended--as a performance for an entire community.  I saw how inclusive it was, and how the arc of the ballet led up to the final pas de deux.  I saw, really for the first time, that the Sugar Plum Fairy is Clara's guide to the dancing life, and that Clara's wintery dream is about growing up.  I always knew this about the ballet, but I really felt it in this one.  What I didn't know, what I had never felt before, was the wholeness of it--how fitting the mis-steps of the beginners are in this Christmas performance, and how important it is to the story to have all of it together.

So as we plow into the last week before Christmas, into the final week of the circus and the dimming light, this is what I am holding in my heart--the blessing of wholeness, the chance for even one second to hold the mistakes and the mastery in one hand, the frenzy and the rest, the dark and the light.  I saw it, right there, for a magical moment in the San Jose Dance Theatre's Nutcracker.    

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Holiday Leap

Friends, meet Sharon Wong.  She attended our November 2nd Event and took a leap.  At the event that day she decided to launch the Palo Alto chapter of The Shoebox Project, a charitable initiative that packages holiday gifts for women in transitional shelters.  

Here's the leap that she posted at the event!

Since that day a burst of grassroots goodwill has been spreading in our community as more and more people participate.  Groups of friends are hosting shoebox parties, businesses are offering donations, shelters are reaching out and asking to connect with this kind of support for their clients.  Kirsten, Brette and I will be hosting a party of our own on Wednesday December 10th at the University Club in Palo Alto if you want to stop by.

I had the chance to talk with Sharon about taking her leap.  In the interview below she shares some of what she's learned so far.  

My favorite Sharon-quote:  "I saw the cause was bigger than my fear of failure." 

Sharon, in a really short time you've successfully launched the Palo Alto chapter of The Shoebox Project.  What was it about the Playing Big event that got you into action? Why did you choose this idea?
I attended the Playing Big talk not knowing what to expect.  I went mostly to support my friend Kirsten Romer, who co-organized the event. However Tara Mohr's opening words, "You are all brilliant women playing small" inspired me to take on something new.  We all have fantastic ideas and dreams in our head that we don't make a priority, so it's great to get motivated.  I'm originally from Ottawa Canada, and duing my visit last year, I recalled seeing a picture of a car trunk full of shoeboxes filled with basic neccessities being sent to a women's shelter.  I  thought this would be a meaningful cause to bring to my community because it was a simple, hands-on way to make a difference and brighten the day of women needing encouragement and support.  I like that all ages can participate and that it can be done with a group of friends or by yourself at home, on your own time. 

What were the first three steps that you took and how did it feel taking them?

My first step was to start telling others about the project.  At this point I had decided to do it, but I knew if I told others, I couldn't back out of it the next day.  
Based on people's responses, my second step was to ask them if they wanted to get involved in the project, because I knew I would need support and couldn't do everything on my own.
My third step was to set deadlines for myself, so the project would stay in motion and be completed with an end date.  I realized I had to start immediately to have enough boxes for D
ecember 25th.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in taking on this project?
My biggest concern was that this project was dependent on others' participation during a busy time of the year.  However, the generosity of others has exceeded my expectations.  I received two boxes the next morning after I sent out my initial request.  Some of the boxes I've received really show how much people care.  Many strangers have emailed me asking how they can do more.  Businesses have generously donated. It's wonderful to see the different ways people are willing to help others in need. 

From the outside, the kinds of actions you've been taking look a lot like what I would consider Playing Big. Do you think this is your version of Playing Big? If so, what does it feel like to be Playing Big?
This was my first time leading a charity project so I wanted to start with an attainable goal.  As my project grew, I grew braver with it. When a second shelter reached out to me with a shoebox request, I saw the cause was bigger than my fear of failure, so I said yes, not quite knowing how we would achieve it. I'm thrilled that people from across the US are now asking me how to start a Shoebox Project in their region.  When you're doing something out of your previous realm of possibility and comfort zone, that to me is the essence of Playing Big.  I've realized that Playing Big is a state of mind.  You can apply the attitude to your daily activities.

What are you learning from your experience with the Shoebox Project? How does this shape your hopes and dreams for the future?
I've realized you don't need to overthink a unique, complex innovation to attain change for yourself or others, you just need to take that first leap. If you fall, just take another leap.  Once you have a meaningful goal, it's not about you and your inner critic anymore and you become braver and stronger when faced with obstacles. I like Tara Mohr's quote, "Be more loyal to your dreams than your fears."

Sharon would love to hear from you.  She can be reached at @thesharonwong on Twitter, or if you see her around Palo Alto, stop and say hi!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Celebrate :: Finishing Day

From here on out, November 18 will officially be known as finishing day.  Yesterday morning I completed my last "assignment" on How To Write Your Own Ceremony.  A solid draft is complete.  It took a long time for me to get to this point. And I am happy.  The young writer in me is wide eyed at my ability to see the thing through.  The mom in me says, "Ha, you ain't seen nothin' yet, young writer.  There's more in much more!"

But November 15 isn't finishing day just because I finished.  My friend Laurel finished her book today too.  Three years ago Laurel and I set out to run a Half Marathon--on a lark, to see if we could do it.  I wrote about it here.  We met our goal of finishing in three hours by the skin of our teeth, but more than meeting our goal, we found a way--a way through the long haul, through the weeks of training and ultimately through the race itself.  In the end, we both understood that we accomplished something together that we probably would not have been able to see through alone.  

We did not know it, but in this sideways way, we were becoming writers.  The Half Marathon set us on a course of rich mutual support.  I have a lot of thoughts about this, about how people are more connected than we appear to be, about how our identities rise up in the spaces between us, about the fact that if Laurel can see me finishing a project in her mind's eye, then I am much more likely to finish it.  This is a kind of magic--a kind of invisible human connection that I have been swimming in for a few years now--both with Laurel and with a few other friends.  We hold each other in a way that make more possible.  Being held like that changes things, it changes us, and I think it changes the world we live in.

So November 18th, Finishing Day, is more about that for me than anything.  I'm glad to be at a completion point with a project, but I'm even happier to be in a friendship that holds two women as writers.  To be nested in a friendship like that fills me with hope and faith that we will look back some day on these projects as our first projects, the first of many.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Leap

Fourteen years ago Graham and I got married in a small chapel in Carmel, California.  I wore an ivory wedding dress with a huge skirt and a cheerful striped pattern.  We were married by Graham's dad in a very personal ceremony that included Rumi, a Declaration of Intent we wrote ourselves, and traditional vows that connected us to generations of happy marriages that came before ours.  

I loved that ceremony and that gathering of family and friends in a way that I had never loved anything before.  On that day I loved Graham in a huge way and that was obviously a big part of the day.  And there was something else too.  

I showed up for my wedding more complete than I had ever showed up for anything before, more myself than I had ever been before.  For years leading up to that event, my spirit had been cloaked under cover, my irrepressible instinct to pray was a shameful secret, all those bible verses that I had memorized and loved as a child, an embarrassment.  But at my wedding, all of that was allowed, all those pieces of me had a place and a role to play for the first time in so, so long.  

And my life changed.  I knew that my life's work was going to have to have something to do with that part of me that is like a moth to the flame of the heart, that loves language and the way humans use it to courage up hope or strength or understanding, that seeks traditions of all kinds carry us along, sending wisdom through time to each new generation.  And yet, I was not a religious person.  A traditional experience of Christianity had not held up under the rigor of an intellectual education--and this muddied the waters quite a bit.  I was a spiritual person who was not religious.  I had no idea how to turn my beliefs into a useful contribution or whether anyone would be along for the ride if I did.  Committing to this part of myself felt like agreeing to walk alone in the woods for a long, long time.  There was so much unknown then.

The one thing I knew was that the wedding had made sense to me.  Weddings seemed like a place where my perspective might be useful.  So I started to write a book about weddings.  I was 28, pretty clueless, and not ready to write yet.  When I look back at those pages, I can feel how hard I was trying, how much I was wanting to be helpful to others, when I needed so much shoring up myself.  I was never able to complete the project, but not because I didn't care or think the work was worth it, I just didn't have enough experience or strength to see it through at that time.  

But now I do.  

Over the last two weeks I have been hard at work revising a new version of that original project.  I'm calling it, "How to Write Your Own Ceremony:  The Super Short Guide."  I'm two writing sessions away from having a complete version.  I've commissioned a cover, and hope to have it up on Amazon by sometime in December.  For this to be an official leap, I need feedback from couples who are planning to get married.  If you or anyone you know is is planning a wedding, I would love the opportunity to share this project.

But even if that never happens.  Even if this project never sells one copy, completing it will have been worth it to me.  It is something I have had to do for myself, for the young writer who lives inside me, who was not able to finish back then, who ended up curled up crying under a desk, lonely and frustrated.  Honey, we're almost there, I tell her. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Waterfall into My Heart

I knew for awhile that this weekend was going to be full, that Friday was Halloween, that Sunday was the first event for Impact Guild, and then the very sad news that Saturday would be the memorial service for Riley, my friend Suzanne's son.  It was chaos and sadness and beauty and celebration all mashed into a scant forty eight hours.  I've hardly had the time to digest all that this weekend was to me, but want to hold on to a couple of moments...Forgive me the long post.  

Halloween evening all three children went in separate directions.  Gwendolyn, our oldest, went on her own with friends for the first time.  Eloise and I joined up with two other families.  Graham and Chloe waited til seven and went with Chloe's friend Henry.  

Our neighborhood was like a pop up carnival.  There was a house with 200 free hotdogs and full sized candy bars, a dead end converted into Cirque du Soleil, and the usual line around the block at Steve Jobs house.  The streets, still wet from the afternoon rain, were jammed with masked strangers.  It got dark early and Old Palo Alto could have been a scene out of a zombie movie.  Walking around in it, it felt like the gears in my brain got completely jammed, like I had rocks between my ears.  A good friend asked me a question, and I couldn't understand the words he said.  He must have asked me the same thing in three different ways, and it just did not compute.  It wasn't until the next morning when I woke up that I was able to parse the question.  And then I was embarrassed, but relieved to have my normal brain back.

Green was Riley's favorite color, and we were asked to wear green to his Memorial Service. So we did.  The service was held in the Multi purpose room of his elementary school, and the superintendent of schools presided.  One of the first things he said, was "Don't tell the fire marshals how many of us are in here today."  

One boy stood at the open mike.  "The last time I saw Riley was at the sleepover party before his operation.  At the party I lost my favorite sock, the $14 breast cancer awareness sock.  Everyone had gotten up, but a few of us were sitting around still. Riley was one of them.  It turned out he was sitting on my sock."  This is what it is like for a sixth grade boy's mind to make sense of things that don't make sense at all, it is sweet, and relieving and obvious that it could be captured in a story about a lost sock.

Riley's aunt and grammy read an essay of Riley's, and all I could think of then was shit, we lost a great writer.  He started his piece like this, "Have you ever been bored playing right field?"  and then there was, "The most interesting thing in right field that day was the smell of dew on the grass..."  and then, "in my brain I thought I should run, and then I realized I was already running."  Sweet, brilliant, baseball loving Riley wrote a piece that would break Robert McKee's heart, adhering in a completely natural and intuitive way to the art and science of story.  I am so mad/sad that I won't get the chance to read more from Riley.  

And then there was Suzanne, his excellent mother, doing the worst work a mother could ever have to do.  She arrived for him, for us, full of life and wonder.  In a gorgeous green lace dress that hugged every curve and could not have been a better celebration of the word green.  Her blonde hair tumbled long around her face and her face was worn and tired and she was so beautiful I can't even tell you.  I blew her a kiss between crowds of people.  

We all walked a lap around the track together as part of a child-friendly way to honor a lost friend.  Suzanne walked surrounded by a protective klatch of women.  She was in front and the women fanned around and behind her.  The sun shown, and they walked together.

During the service we sang the song Brave, a kind of pop, upbeat song.  It felt good to sing and have the music move through us.  I turned to watch the community bobbing together, and there, in the front row of the people standing was Suzanne.  She had her eyes closed and her palms open to heaven, and she wasn't just bobbing, but she was dancing, really dancing, and then I closed my eyes and swayed with Eloise on my lap and let the tears slide down my face.

Riley's grandad told a story of teaching Riley to keep his eye on the ball in baseball.  And that phrase has stuck with me.  Keep your eye on the ball--it means remember what's important.


I woke up early and practiced my speaking parts twice.  That was what I had written on my to do list the night before and that's what I went ahead and did. It was good too, because when I was up there onstage in front of everyone I lost my cue cards and had to go from memory.  

I felt nervous for most of the day until I had been in the event space setting up for an hour and then I wasn't nervous any more.  It felt like I was a part of the room and everything was normal, like it was just another day.  

My favorite memory is of hearing everyone chat with one another, the gentle roar of a room full of women talking, the rumble of something coming so alive.  I could have stood there all day listening to that.  It was like a waterfall of goodness into my heart.  There were moments when I stayed still so that the sound could fill me completely.  

And when it was all over I especially enjoyed watching Tara take in the banner that we all created together.  And I tried to imagine what it must be like for her these days, unlocking so many people's inner doors and watching what happens when she does.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the event.  It was wonderful to be together.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Learn to Play and Play to Learn

Here's a photo I've taken, not once or twice, but maybe ten or twenty times.  Who knows, possibly more.   I just can't seem get it right with my iPhone.  I know if I used a more sophisticated camera, I might have a better chance.  But I want to capture the image with my iPhone, and my inability to do it really annoys me.  First I get a little peckish, then I convince myself I don't really care anyway.  I become aloof like a house cat and walk away, a little bit above it all.  

I'm going to go ahead and claim this as a "serious" talent--an ability to take something as light hearted as a photo of a dandelion and turn it into a project about getting it right and getting it wrong, about anticipation and disappointment, about whether I can or whether I can't.

Can you say buzzkill?

I've noticed this "talent" pop up a lot these days, as I try my hand at many new things to get ready for the first Impact Guild event on Sunday.  I watch the clamp of seriousness grip onto anything from planning my remarks to whether or not cake pops are just right for the tables.  And I don't know if you noticed, but the invitation Kirsten and I have put out in the world is to come play with us.

If nothing else, my personal experience with seriousness this month has convinced me more than ever that cultivating an attitude of playfulness in creative endeavors is helpful.  Playful is a lot more spacious than serious, playful gives plenty of room for mistakes, for first tries, for second tries, for a lifetime of tries actually.  It reminds our ego that the work is not really about us anyway--it's always for someone else, in service of someone else.  So if they laugh, all the better.  Playfulness invites our zany self, our silly self, our dark and stormy self--our whole range of intelligence into a project.  And most important it keeps learning fun.

The biggest risk of seriousness, for me at least, is that it can coyly convince me to shy away from learning. It gets me cozied up in my comfort zone, which feels safe for my ego, but in reality is dull and boring, a place where my soul can start to whither.

And who wants that?  My wish for myself this week, and for anyone whose working on a new endeavor, is to find a way to be playful, to wag more and bark less, to spin, to cartwheel, to swing or to fly, to find your way of getting from here to there that wakes you up to the wonder, to the possibilities right here, where the water is clean and runs from a spigot, where the leaves change color, where Madison Bumgarner can pitch like a god, and where ghosts and goblins and princesses and spooks will be knocking on your door tonight.  Have fun with it.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday October 24, 2014

On days like this

Carter napped.
Riley parked matchbox cars
on a cardboard parking lot.
Suzanne made me 
a soy latte
with her fancy machine.

The memory of these days
like impossible jewels.

Saturday October 25th.
I didn't get that quite right yesterday.
It's more like this.

On a day like this

Carter napped.
Riley parked matchbox cars
on a cardboard parking lot.
Suzanne made me
a soy latte
with her fancy machine.

I hold the memory
in my hand
like a brilliant jewel
so real
I can touch it.

What is impossible
is something else

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message

About three years ago, my friend Laurel shared a blog post with me about finding your calling.  It was a short video clip with a down to earth, approachable woman named Tara Mohr.  She had taken the question I had heard many times before, “What’s your calling?” and added a short, but important phrase.  Her version of that big question was “What is your calling right now?” I can't find that particular post, but another of Tara's that is similar is this one.

Adding the phrase right now, to the big question shifted two things for me.  First, a concept that had been big and theoretical became more manageable in an instant--like I didn’t have to know the answer to the rest of my life, instead, what I needed to do was to pay attention to my life in the present moment, and the rest would follow.  The feeling that accompanied the shift was, “Phew, what a relief!” The second thing I noticed was that my energetic focus did a distinct pivot.  Instead of looking out down some imaginary path, into a better future where I might or might not ever arrive--I found myself looking inward, checking in with my own instinct about what was needed in my life, right now.  From that perspective next steps were more obvious and pragmatic.  The feeling that accompanied this second shift was a sense of being anchored to my own inner knowing--when I am tired, I sleep, when my children are hungry, I feed them, when it is time to write, I sit down and write.  Ten years of mothering and writing has shown me that this inner knowing, for myself and others, is a steady and reliable guide.

I thought to myself, “This Tara is onto something--her perspective is a little different,” and I started following her blog regularly.  She was talking about things that were buzzy and in the news, like confidence and doing work you love, and empowerment.  But her approach was a bit slower, had a lot more soul in it, and felt more, I don't know, familiar but in a way I had never seen before.  She was on on a mission to advocate for women’s voices from a place of healing and love.  And the way she worked her mission fascinated me.

More than any other writer or blogger I knew, Tara was willing to experiment.  She posted poetry, videos, letters to her readers.  She ran blogging contests, writers workshops, and an online class called Playing Big.  That class, became the basis for her book Playing Big:  Finding Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message.  In it's pages you will find teachings that address:

--managing your inner critic
--listening to your voice of inner wisdom
--relating to fear productively
--learning from feedback
--designing experiments that deepen learning and help you live your calling right now

This is a book that’s bound to be popular, but that’s not why I want you to read it.  I want you to read it because it is excellent--a smart, well thought out guide, from a wise woman who believes that what women, regular women, have to say, is a perspective deeply needed on the planet right now, that inside ourselves we carry a brilliance that the world has not yet had the chance to see.   I couldn’t agree more.

It is a real honor to have the opportunity to host Tara on November 2nd. I hope you'll be able to join us!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday October 17, 2014

Just this one thing.  
An unnecessary kindness.
A gift of plenty
dropped off by a neighbor.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Becoming more ourselves

On Friday a friend of mine sat in my living room and she started crying.  "I'm so embarrassed to admit this, but I am totally filled by being with my kids.  I don't think I want to work right now."

On Monday a friend, a physician, told me a story about taking a stand to spend more time with her kids, "It was so hard to say what I needed. I felt judged," is how she put it.

Yesterday, one friend whose entrepreneurial career has grown into a form of service that helps and inspires other entrepreneurs, she said, "I worry I should be volunteering more at school."

And then in a second conversation yesterday another friend said to me, "My boss just couldn't understand why I didn't want the next promotion.  It's like those power woman conferences that I've stopped going to.  They just don't get me."

I've felt it too--the doubt, the wondering if I'm fitting in or getting it right.  

I'm not exactly sure what it is that is plaguing us, but there is a lot of it going around.  Here's what it feels like to me.

It feels like we are tap dancing fast on the the head of a pin.
It feels like we are wondering if we are going to get an A or a B or a C in how we choose to spend our time.
It feels like something is shaming us, something inside and something outside too. 
And it feels like we are exhausted of the whole thing, tired of trying to get it right.

Did I capture that for you?  That's what it feels like to me, and I want us all to stop with this madness.  Indeed, I believe it would be a great service to the world if we could figure out how to stop spinning our wheels on all the ways we might be falling short.  A lot of good energy would become more available.

What I want to propose is that, when we are doing what is necessary, we don't feel all that confused.  We may be working hard, we may not even like it, but at least we know we are doing the right thing--the thing we have to do.  In those times we go to bed the good kind of tired and sleep all night long.  The trouble comes with choice.

The tap dancing feeling comes in when we are at choice, but we are no longer in charge of ourselves, when we are doing and doing because we feel pressure from the outside, but we can't figure out how to stop.  My sense of what I've heard out on the street is that we are in a position of having choice, but we don't ever feel confident that we are choosing the right thing.  This is causing a lot of suffering.

I think it is within our abilities to quiet a good bit of this turmoil.  And it has to do with a shift, a shift from outer to inner.  A shift from doing to listening.  A shift from comparing to curiosity.  A shift from accomplishing goals, to becoming more ourselves.  

Yes, that is it--becoming more ourselves.  This is what I really want for us.  That would feel like stepping off the head of a pin, and finally letting our bare feet touch the vast grassy field that is waiting for us.  I think if we decided to measure our choices by whether or not they helped us become more ourselves, and then we were actually brave enough to let ourselves live this way, a lot of the doubt would disintegrate in an instant.

My biggest hope in hosting Tara Mohr with Kirsten on November 2nd, is that you will feel a new sense of permission to listen to your inner voice and Play Big from there.  That you will find some words, or a new perspective, that might help you commit to becoming more yourself, knowing this is exactly what the world needs now.  We do not need bright women with choices and resources to be comparing themselves to other people, cloning each other's success.  We need this group of women to serve as pioneers who find new ways, or advocate for old ways that are about to be forgotten, or who go sideways to find a new way through.  We don't need to measure up, we need to create anew.

Love you guys.

What you need to know, is that this phrase, "becoming more ourselves" comes from my daughter's pre-school classroom, wisdom from her teacher, Paula.