Power. Money. Success.

Morning walk. Sunrise. Moonset. A chat with the universe. Considering the new year and my lack of interest in resolutions. And contemplating the little internet game I did yesterday — one of those word search thingys where the first three words you see are your words for the year.

Mine were: Power. Money. Success.

For real, that’s what I saw.

Mind you, right after that I saw beauty, health, and humor. But still, there was no denying it.

Now, you could rightfully say that kind of thing is silly and meaningless, and maybe it is.

And what I noticed was that I immediately thought, oh no. Power, money, success. Those are bad. That’s not what I should see or choose or want.

Then another thought immediately after that one: Why the hell not?

Staci Jordan Shelton writes and teaches a lot about binaries, and how they keep us small in our thinking and our actions. My internal response to those three words made me think of her wisdom.

Power, money, success — these are not “bad.” In fact, they are neutral. They are not the opposite of things that are culturally more agreeable, such as compassion, kindness, and gratitude. But that’s what we do — we pit things against each other and create false and arbitrary judgments rather than moving into curiosity.

So, I got curious. What could and would it feel like to quietly claim these words? What if power, money, and success were valuable and worthy goals? What if having goals did not have to equal striving and keeping up? What if inner and outer could work in concert with each other, smashing binaries and taking up more room in the world — for good?

That last bit is important. Power, money, success — these are not good or bad, but how we inhabit them, how we can lose ourselves to them, how we demonize or worship them, now that’s where the problems start.

But look at people doing amazing things with their power, with their money — and the whole idea that we are as afraid, perhaps more, of success as we are of failure comes to mind.

I have no definitive thing to say about this, only that I’m intrigued. I’ve spent so long shying away from words like these. Maybe it’s time to move closer to them, to ask them questions, to see what they have to teach me. Maybe not. We’ll see.

By the time I got home from my walk, I was thinking about quiet power. And how we equate noise with power, when really, you can be quietly powerful. You can show up powerfully in your days, away from the glare of social media, and have so many kinds of experiences.

We live in a bizarre culture of “influencers” and megalomaniacs. It’s so much more interesting out here in the world, with its morning light and its bus drivers and its handwritten notes and its conversations, the ones where you hash things out and don’t come closer to closure but maybe touch on something even better — connection.

I’m going to hang out here in the quiet some more, paying attention to what wants to be written, to shoulders that need squeezing, to snoring dogs and what happens we look beyond blame and defensive posturing.

I don’t know how healing happens, but I think there’s something to this, this power, money, success thing, this surprising yourself thing, this experimenting with different ways of being in the world.

* *

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Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

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“They Are Not That Smart”

The other day, Pearl seemed proud and a bit surprised after he said, “There is no try, Mama…” and I completed the sentence, “…there is only do.” Yes, even moms know about Yoda.

The sun is shining and even though it’s quite cold, the cold isn’t bothering me today. In fact, I just pulled up all of our bedroom shades, something I used to always do first thing in the morning but now we rarely do in our room, since we don’t really spend any time in there during the day, plus there is not a lot of privacy with the shades open from neighbors on both sides of the house. But I love the light and I love that sound of the shade springing up.

On any given day and at any given hour in our household, a load of laundry is going. Today, it’s the dog’s beds and our sheets are up next. I’m excited to make the bed later with clean sheets and blankets. This is one of my very favorite things in life, one of the small things that makes all the difference. Earlier, I swept the kitchen and while the house is far from spotless, that felt good, too. I have plenty of work to do but sometimes a little bit of housework is a good way in, a good way to get the energy moving.

There are just two weeks of this fall’s Jewels on the Path session, which began 14 weeks ago in September. The weeks and months fly by, cliche as it may seem. Life is not infinite. I had one of those moments, call it morbid, in the car earlier. I had just dropped Aviva off at school, and I put on “La Vie Boheme” from the “Rent” soundtrack. What a great fucking song that is. The whole soundtrack is brilliant, actually. (If you don’t know “Musical Apology,” go listen. It will make you laugh.)

Driving on 91 south back towards Amherst from Greenfield, I thought, what if I got into a grizzly accident right now? Would they be able to see what the last song I’d been listening to was?

Why do we have thoughts like this? I think it’s natural to imagine one’s own death. And I wonder if the more interesting question is: Can one imagine one’s own life, while living it? Isn’t that what we are here for? To not only imagine ourselves into being, but to be? How many days, weeks, months, years, and entire lives pass without imagination, without really being here? What does that even mean?

We make the mistake of aligning this — living with imagination — with money. If you have money, in our culture, we are taught that anything is possible. And yet we hear about the poverty of the spirit constantly, how eroded our values are, how damaged our collective sense of connection and compassion, how hollow the communal psyche.

It’s important not to romanticize actual poverty here — money, a degree of economic stability, does make possible at least some opportunity to consider meaning. If we are not sure where our children’s next meal is coming from, or our own, if we are so bone tired from working low-wage jobs with no guarantee that they will still be there if we have to call in sick, if our home has some kind of infestation but the landlord will not take care of it — there are a million scenarios that make things like “imagining our lives” laughable.

But on the other hand, staying connected to one’s own inherent dignity and worth is critical to meeting a world that may tell you you’re dispensable, disposable, unimportant. We equate wealth with importance, education with intelligence, social standing with true contribution. Who gets overlooked? Who remains invisible?

I have a friend who has been in several of my writing groups. Even though we both grew up here, that’s actually how we met, though the Dive Into Poetry groups. She is a wonderful poet, as well as a single mom. Her kids are the same age as my kids. She has her own business cleaning houses. The other day, we went for a walk. She told me she’d recently raised her rate by $15, and one of her long-time clients read her the riot act. I was so glad when my friend told me she stood up to this this entitled woman, but I also felt disgusted by the woman’s need to make sure my friend “knew her place.”

You might not even realize you’re treating someone differently based on your perception of their station in life, but we all do it.

One thing Michelle Obama said in her recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie really struck me:

I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.

We do so much othering of ourselves, and often we end up with short end of some imaginary stick. This is not imaginative; this is internalized oppression. Let’s invest more time, money, energy, and risk in stepping forward and claiming ourselves to be smart enough, worthy, and deserving. Having class privilege is not a pass to feel superior to those who are struggling economically; it’s a responsibility that means you can afford to rock the boat without the stakes being as high.

We need to keep stepping up, challenging systems, and speaking as individuals to other individuals about justice and equity and human value.

And with that, I’ll wrap this up and go put those sheets in the washing machine.

* * * 

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Revealing the Magnificent Mural


In the shower this morning, I was noticing how the “shoulds” have a way of creeping and covering up my sense of clarity and purpose, like overgrown ivy on a beautiful mural.

Closely related to this is a habit of questioning myself, what I’m doing with my life, and whether I’m “on the right track.” This thinking is binary and constricting — right/wrong, clear/confused, all/nothing. It doesn’t leave much if any room for being, for process, and for just letting life and work unfold. For trusting myself.

Just when I think I’ve outgrown it, it comes tickling at my toes and threatening to climb up my bare legs. In an effort to cut it back before it can do this, I’m coming here to write. I’m interested in how things open up when we bring some breath and curiosity to what gets in our way.

How can some experimenting enable us to get clearer on our priorities, so that we spend less time pleasing others or repeating Sisyphean tasks and more time feeling purposeful and fulfilled by our actions?

Do questions like these occur to you too, while bathing or driving or writing or just going through your day? In the spirit of teaching what I have to learn, here’s an exercise for us to try.

You’ll need some paper and either markers or colored pencils. Two different color pens will do.

Make a fast and furious list of all the shoulds you’re carrying around, consciously or subconsciously. Don’t stop to evaluate, assess, analyze, or vote on any of them — just list.

What do you see?

Now, using a different color, circle the items on your list that are actually time-sensitive in some way or otherwise urgent. Pay attention to how you define “urgent.” (You might to read Seth Godin’s the why of urgent vs. important.)

Notice the different categories showing up in your list. For example, you might see things that relate to your physical health, others that have to do with relationships, and some that are vague and free-floating, with no real action attached.

On a different piece of paper, make three columns: At the top of one, write “need to.” The second is “want to.” Lastly, include a “not mine” category. This last one is where you can move all of the shoulds that don’t belong to you, i.e. the ones you’ve internalized that are in fact coming from outside sources.

When you’ve completed this step, how many items remain in the “need to” column? Are you seeing evidence of anything you WANT to do? How much of your life is shaped by other people’s expectations, how much by practical need, and how much by habitual striving and drivenness?

This can be a one-time thing or you could let it be a slower, longer-term exploration. Take your time playing with it. If you’re feeling pulled to take it in a different direction, by all means, do so. The intention here is to bring into focus what you can put down, as opposed to what you must and/or choose to carry.

Unlearning empty striving and returning to the power of who you already are isn’t a one-shot deal. Sometimes I forget this and think, wait, aren’t I supposed to be done with this already?

Then I remember, it’s like trimming back the ivy. You don’t just do it once. You come back, again and again, to revealing the magnificent mural of your life.

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?