Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A humble offering

Dear friends,
We find ourselves reeling again, here in Palo Alto.  We've lost another child to suicide.  And we don't know what to do.

In hard times like these, when I don't know what to do, I take a Cliffs Notes approach.  By that I mean, I look for a wise source I trust and I do what the notes say to do.  In the face of loss, grief, or despair, I look for something to hold onto that makes sense, that is part of a tradition that's been recommended for generations and I just try it.  Some might call it faith to even have tried some of the things I've tried, but more often going with the notes has amounted to experiments in survival.  My faith in a lot of ways is a reverse engineered byproduct born of necessity.  

And the notes I'm relying on today are from Karen Maezen Miller who posted a Dogen quote recently:  "When an object can no longer offend, it ceases to exist in the old way."  When Maezen posted this quote someone right away asked her about racism, how could we not be offended by racism.   Her response was:

"see it in yourself and change"   

This is the note I'm holding onto today.

What it means to me is that I am part of the cause and I am part of the solution.  As painful as it is to think that some of the seeds of a suicide are mine, I stay with it, because the promise this note holds is that if I can change myself, I can change the future.  Proceeding Cliffs Notes style in the face of Palo Alto's recent tragedy, for me means that I am going to live as if changing myself could actually change the world, even if I'm not totally sure it will work.  It means I'm going to try it for myself and see what happens.  It also means I'm asking you to consider doing the same, because each of us are a part, but together we are the whole.  And rather than fall into overwhelm or paralysis we might as well start with ourselves.

What I have noticed in myself lately is that stress creeps up on me.  Even with a strong desire to live a peaceful life, even with a true intent to be reasonable, my life gets crowded.  Meetings pile up.  Kids have activities in different directions.  I forget to pay a bill or call back my friend or buy a gift for a Birthday party.  Water floods from the ceiling in the kitchen and the dog needs to go to the vet.  Sometimes I lay awake at night stressed that I am stressed, because I know my life is easier than most, and I'm still stressed.

Stress, it appears, is something I do.  It's a habit I fall into, even when I don't mean to.

There was a time in my life I was not stressed in the usual way.  I had quit my job and had enough money and wanted to write.  My days were vast and I was not busy.  No one in my day to day life needed me in any real way.  I had very few responsibilities.  You would think I was relaxed, but I wasn't.  I was terrified.  I was curled up in the fetal position crying, half hoping I would accidentally drive off the road into a tree.  Not to end it all exactly, but to know for sure that I didn't want to, to wake up in a hospital bed with faces around me.  The white walls like light and the concerned soft eyes of my mother, my father, my brother and my new husband spreading love like a blanket.  In the fantasy I was sure that I wanted to be alive, that those people mattered to me and I mattered to them.  In my thoughts I knew this was true, but I had the fantasy, because part of me couldn't feel it or believe it.  My life's work at that time was to breathe my vitality into that vacuum and feel my way back to the love that existed for me.

I share this today as a way of owning my piece of the whole, and of remembering that stress is a strong tendency of mine with roots that trace back a long way.  Historically, I filled my life with tasks I could succeed at because that made me feel like I mattered.  I think it takes some amount of courage in a place like Palo Alto (or who knows, maybe anywhere) to dare to believe that you matter for who you are, not for what you do.  

This story also reminds me that at one point or another some of us will lose track of our hope.  We fall into despair and need tools and teachers and loved ones to help pull us out.  Bright, imaginative young people can have vivid fantasies that lure them in a dangerous direction.

 I was a little bit like that.  Knowing that I was like that, I chose to tell my own kids at the dinner table that suicide was not allowed in our family.  That suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  And that their father and I love them too much to let them do that, ever.  It was crazy and I don't offer it as advice.  I did it for myself, because I would have wanted that recording in my brain when I was having those disturbing driving off the road into a tree fantasies.

Other things I've done to reduce my stress the past couple of days:  I made chicken soup and drank it from my favorite mug.  When Gwendolyn looked over at me, and said, "Mom, that looks really, really good,"  I gave her the cup and savored watching her polish off a recipe I learned from my mother.  I surrendered to a sick day with my youngest and pushed off my self imposed writing deadline.  I bought a baseball glove and a new bat for Chloe so that we can practice together, and I know when that will be.  I did the dishes by hand and read a book and took a walk with a friend.  I wrote what I felt like writing, not what I felt I needed to be writing.  I sat and took deep breaths for a part of the day, and if you want to know the real truth, I pulled a tarot card too.  I curled up on the floor with the dog.  I played some legos and drew My Little Pony for Eloise.  I started the process of de-cluttering my calendar, because I need to feel the being part of myself--not just the doing part.  This bit about the calendar is a challenge for me, guilt masks vestiges of that old fear.

These are the things I did for myself the past couple of days to deal with my stress.  To own it, and to try to change myself.  A work in progress, to be sure.  A very humble offering in the face of all that has happened--but I hold on to the hope of the note--see it in yourself and change--that starting with ourselves is fundamentally how we change it all.  And here's the gift of it--you don't have to believe it to try it.  Reduce your own stress and see what happens.  Certainly no harm could come of it, and maybe a world of good will.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Recommendation: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Recently I finished reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.  It is the story of a brilliant young African American man from Newark, NJ, who graduated from Yale, and then returned home.  It tracks his experience living between very different American cultures.  

In a couple of ways, Robert Peace inspired my word for the year, ask.  Though on the outside, he and I seem like we couldn't be more different, two aspects of Robert Peace's story strike home for me.

One is that his elite education had drawbacks for him.  As much as Yale opened doors for Peace, it also built a rigid model of expectations that structured Robert Peace's exterior and interior experience.  Expectations about who he should be and what kind of work he should do constrained the potential vast range of his life.  The world of ideas that he lived in for four years in New Haven was a stark contrast to Newark, irrelevant, even sometimes dangerous, in the context of his real life.  And what was worse, though the cultural gap between Yale and Newark was real, there was shame and confusion for him in not being able to bridge it effectively.  

Palo Alto is no Newark, that is for sure.  But, with regard to some of the mundane challenges of my own life--say caring for a colicky baby or encountering grief, my own education has sometimes felt extravagant and useless, like a Tesla abandoned in a redwood forest--no charger for miles.  And this experience has often been accompanied by a wild shame--that I should have been more prepared, or I should have seen that I was unprepared, or I somehow should have known something that I didn't.  I often look back in wonder and sadness that I spent most of my education mastering new information, very little time experimenting, taking risks, or visiting the emotional terrain of not knowing.

The second way that Peace's story strikes home, and this is one, oddly, I think a lot of moms might relate to, is that Robert Peace was a giver.  He tutored other families' children, he gave money to family and friends, he supported his mother, organized the legal defense of his incarcerated father, and in a lot of ways, spread himself thin on behalf of his community.  By doing all of this, he created a social world that perceived him as competent, resourceful, and empowered.  The reality was, his energy drained from his life.  He failed to be honest with himself and with others about how low his own reserves were, and eventually this had a fatal cost.

In these few ways, Robert Peace inspired me to take up the word "ask" this year.  He showed me that giving can sometimes be a cover up for where we feel small and scared, where we need to reveal to the world that we are under resourced, need help, or simply don't know what to do next.  And he reminded me that I am still learning about learning, that I still struggle with taking risks and not knowing.

I am deeply grateful to the writer, Jeff Hobbs, for creating this work of non-fiction.    This was a personal story for him:  Hobbs was Robert Peace's white Yale roommate.  He narrates a complicated story of race, class, education and poverty with clear sight and a big heart. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Wild Night

Brette, Kirsten and I (aka Impact Guild) hosted a casual girlfriends' night out to see and discuss the movie Wild.  The movie, based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir by the same name, presents many opportunities to reflect on the nature of transformation and the paradoxes inherent in a wild life.  To deepen our group experience of the movie, we prepared a set of juicy discussion questions to talk about afterward.  We hoped our inquiries might stretch the group to engage in a different kind of conversation than they normally would, something maybe more intimate or varied.  But there was some awkwardness there.  We really didn't know if the group would engage with our questions or not.

After the movie was over, all twenty of us walked across the street to a cafe.   Our breathy conversation filled the air with gray mist and the magical sound of women chattering.  As one woman after another arrived into the warm cocoon of the cafe, Kirsten, Brette and I handed out two different sets of questions.  We invited each guest to pick a question they wanted to answer and discuss it with someone nearby.  

And similar to our first Impact Guild event, it was the sound of women's voices, the torrent of spirit and friendship, that lingers in my mind.  A cooing lullaby mixed with a rally cry that conjures deep in the bones comfort and a sharp, maybe dangerous strength--loosening me up and sparking magic in my veins--calling me home and challenging me to step out all at once.  One woman dreamed of competing in an amazing race, another recalled skinny dipping in Mexico, and a third learned that there might be hope yet that she'd survive her morning sickness.  Healing and play and adventure, it was the sound of all that.  

Before saying goodnight, we handed out a third set of questions.  Some were more personal, a few were darker, and all of them, we thought, were a siren call to go inward and explore--in a journal, in meditation, or on a long walk.  One sheet of questions at a time was taken, tucked into a purses and nestled in between notebooks, until there were only a few left for me to take home.

It was a rare and amazing satisfaction to feel these questions land in the hands of other women.  And so I thought I'd share them again here on the blog.  If you've seen Wild or plan to see Wild, please feel free to print these out, give them away, or even better, use them as an excuse to open a bottle of wine with friends and wonder aloud what wild means to you.


Group questions:

Set 1

If you were going to take a 90 day expedition, where would you go?

If you could only take what you could carry on a long journey, would you take books?  Which ones?

What is your relationship to wildness?  Where do you get your wild fix right now?  Where in your life do you need to invite a little more wild?

Set 2

Where do you go to refresh or refuel?

If you were hiking alone for 90 days what foods would you miss?  What would be your Snapple and Lays?

We all make comebacks in our lives, maybe a lot of comebacks.  What is your next comeback?  What kind of expedition or adventure could you take to kick it off?

Take home questions:

In Wild Cheryl is attempting to become the woman her mother imagined her to be.  Is there a person in your life who has a vision of you that empowers you?  What would that person want for you right now?

What is your relationship to time alone?  How much do you get?  How much do you need?  What length retreat would be the right length for you?

In Wild, Cheryl goes out to nature to “be in the way of beauty” pointing toward the idea that there is some kind of care or goodness or benevolence in beauty?  What is your relationship to beauty?  to nature?  Can exposure to beauty heal?

Cheryl goes to some very dark places in her life.  In some ways, it could be argued the depth of her darkness makes way for the brilliance of her redemption.  What relationship does our dark side have to our light?  What do we gain from embracing our darkside?

Amy is Cheryl’s friend.  She is there for her in the dark times, supporting and challenging her at the same time.  She sends boxes that arrive on the trail.  Who is your Amy?  Does she know this?  What do you need her to know about your friendship?  What kind of support could you ask her for this year?  What support might you offer?

Motherhood sometimes seems like a long hike, not too unlike Cheryl's walk along the PCT….maybe you packed the wrong stuff, bought shoes that were too small, ran into scary shit you didn’t expect, and encountered some beautiful things too….if you imagined your motherhood journey like a long hike--what have been the last few important stops or episodes, and where are you headed next?

Cheryl’s hike has a lot to do with her grief process.  Her experience of her mother’s grief first leads her to a very dark place and then she course corrects with the hike on the PCT.  If you have experienced grief, how was your journey different from Cheryl’s?  How is it the same?  What insights or thoughts came up for you about grief during the movie?

Friday, January 9, 2015

One Little Word 2015

For the fourth year in a row, I am participating, alongside my friend Laurel,  in the practice of choosing a word for the year.  We were introduced to this habit by blogger, Ali Edwards, who offers a great online class called One Little Word.  I enjoy the prompts and ideas in the class, and even though I'm not as into scrapbooking as Ali Edwards is, I've signed up for her class again.

Last year my word was practice, and I'm finding that I'm having resistance around heading into another year and a new word.  I think it has to do with the fact that practice was a resonant word for me.  With practice, I deepened my writing practice, I settled into my role as a student of zen meditation, and I started my coaching practice.  As I write this, what I'm realizing is that all of that stuff, it's for life.  Practice was not last year's word or this year's word or next year's word, it is a part of who I am. 

That feels big.  It is like waking up to the fact that I am an oak tree or a cedar tree or a redwood tree.  I am not going to switch types, or wake up as something else one day this year or next.  I will grow and develop--there will be change, but practice will always be a part of me.  So even though the calendar pages will flip one after another as they do, that word, practice will carry on.  

And yet, here we are, beginning our next turn around the sun.  It is the time of year to choose another word.  Having lived in a major word for myself last year, there is a new spin on thinking of a word for this year.  Will it be another lifer?  Or will it be one that comes and goes the way flexible was in 2013?  Or are there a hundred other ways to live with a word that I haven't experienced yet?  Only another year + another word will tell.

In a way, this year's word chose me.  When it popped into my head, I thought, "No, no, that is a selfish word.  You need a word that is more inspirational.  Something stronger.  Maybe something prettier."  And yet, even before 2014 ended, I felt the word coming to my aid, popping up when I felt myself wanting to shut down, turn away or take sharp action.  Whenever this new word shows up I feel a tiny frisson of insecurity or unsureness, and it was this feeling that made me think, "this is a word I need to experiment with."

The word is ask.

As in:  ask for help
As in:  ask for insight
As in:  ask what's possible
As in:  ask what's needed
As in:  ask if there is another way
As in:  ask and you shall receive
As in:  ask what's important about this right now

Asking for me feels very humbling.  It means that I have to admit that I don't know, that I can't do all that needs to be done alone, it means that I don't have all the resources I need, and it means that sometimes I may be told no.  I may find that what I want is not possible.  What gets that little frisson going, that feeling of insecurity vibrating, is that ask is a word that could break my heart, which may be why I sometimes avoid asking.

But ask is also a very curious word, an open word, a word that has a lot of possibility.  It is a word that is important to coaching, to writing, and maybe even to meditation.  Ask sometimes feels 

like a bud that hasn't opened yet

or like looking up into the sky and asking "what's possible?"

For me, ask feels like an interesting challenge to take on in 2015.  

How about you?  Will you pick a word?  What will it be?  Would you consider posting it here or on Facebook?

Wishing you a Happy Healthy Peaceful New Year.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Another trip around the sun

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments, oh dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?

--Rent, the musical