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Lean into the YES

I have been thinking so very much these days about the power of yes. What started me thinking about this, paradoxically, was encountering “no.”  A while back, and for the first time I can remember, someone in a position of power (over me) said no. I don’t mean “no, I am not giving my permission/ blessing/ support.” I’ve heard that many times. You pitch ideas, and sometimes they go nowhere. You keep pitching. I mean “no, I do not believe you are capable of doing this. No, I do not believe in you.” Gobsmacked I was. Blindsided. It is a testament to the power of that “no” that I am still processing it more than a year later. What it made me realize was the extraordinary power of yes. We lean into the yes, wherever we find it, like a plant leans into the sun.

I’ve never had a mentor, but at various points in my life, I’ve had people who said yes, people who believed in me, people who expressed, in small — and unexpected — ways, that they thought I was capable of great things. What an extraordinary difference this can make. What an extraordinary difference this has made.

Mr. Hawkey, ramrod straight, starched collar (equally starched personality), Mr. Discipline, Mr. Hard-ass – my 11th grade English teacher – said to me, as I exited his classroom on the last day, “Don’t waste your talent.” Wow. Mr. Hawkey thought I had talent.

Otis Pease, the best and most brilliant professor I’ve ever had or could hope to have, treated me with quiet respect. To be respected by a man like that was almost overwhelming. It made me want to be worthy. It inspired me.

A few years later, I had a brief encounter with Robin Morgan, a name that might not be familiar to you. Robin Morgan was a pillar of the second-wave feminist movement, the co-founder of Ms., an author, a poet, a national voice. A big deal. She was delivering a speech on campus, and I got to introduce her. The speech was amazing. She was amazing. I had never been that close to someone who burned so brightly, who radiated such energy, whose energy filled a space so completely. After the speech, when I ran over, beating the crowd, to grasp her hand, she looked at me, really looked at me, and said: “Lauren, you’re up next.” The power of that ignited me.

More recently, and ever so miraculously — I still do not believe it — Eugene Ballet Company artistic director Toni Pimble said yes, you can join the company, yes, you can dance with us. Yes, I believe in you. And because she believed, I believed even more. And I danced.

And now I somehow lucked into Steven Finster, Yes-man (and I mean that in the best sense) extraordinaire, who makes my work at Oregon State Penitentiary possible, who believes in opportunity and challenge, change and redemption — and in the good in all of us.

That’s what we all need: People who see our potential. People who believe in us. People who say yes.

July 26, 2017   1 Comment

The stories we tell

 

I think about stories all the time. Or, more accurately, I “think story” all the time. I think about the story the experience I am having will make, often in real time and especially if the experience is less than wonderful. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) as an 18-wheeler spewed a tsunami of gritty road water in my face on the afternoon of the first day of a three-day bike trek. And, yes, I did write about it. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) when, one morning not long ago, I stepped out the back door into a cool, lovely Oregon morning and skidded halfway across the porch when my bare foot encountered the splayed (still warm) guts of a vole the cat had proudly caught and eviscerated. And see, I just wrote about it.

But I also think more deeply, more seriously about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. I don’t mean made-up stories. I mean the narratives we construct to help give shape to our lives and make sense of our experience. I mean the stories others tell about us – again, not fabricated but constructed from their perceptions and the memories they retained – that tell us not so much about ourselves but about the people telling the stories.

I think about the men I work with at Oregon State Penitentiary, Lifers all, convicted murderers all, and the way they are learning to create narratives that are about something other than the worst thing they ever did, the lowest, most shameful moment in their lives. I think about the power of telling that story to yourself. And I think about a parole hearing I sat in on recently and the competing narratives I heard: One was the story of transformation, the 30 hard years of making sense of the senseless, of learning how to take responsibility, of figuring out how to live with the guilt, the anguish you caused so many people, of struggling to remake yourself into person who could never do what that person you were 30 years ago did. And then there was the other story, the one steeped in pain as raw today as it was three decades ago, a story of violence vividly remembered, of families shattered and lives forever altered, a story so often told, so often relived and remembered as to be truly indelible.

Both stories are true. But the story of pain, of the past, proved more compelling to the parole board.

And so the man who told the transformation story, a man who’s been in my writers’ group for almost two years, is now faced with another story to tell, a narrative that helps make sense of the parole board experience, a story that can help him process, understand and move forward from that experience. He’s working on it. I’m there to help.

That’s my story.

July 19, 2017   No Comments

We’re #1…in something

What’s with this latest hoopla about the U.S. being in danger of forfeiting its position as The World Leader, the Head Honcho, The Big Kahuna. I don’t get it. “Trump’s G20 performance indicates U.S. decline as world power” was the headline coming out of last week’s meeting in Europe.

I don’t get it.

Decline? From what lofty heights? Let’s take a moment to look at who actually leads the world in what:

#1 in Gross Domestic product (purchasing power parity): China
#1 Most innovative: Switzerland
#1 Most technologically advanced: Japan
#1 in use of renewable energy: Sweden
#1 Cleanest environment: Finland
#1 Highest worker productivity: Germany
#1 Highest median family income: Norway
#1 Healthiest: Italy
#1 Safest: Singapore
#1 Lowest Infant mortality: Luxembourg
#1 Best healthcare system: Luxembourg
#1 Longest life expectancy: Monaco
#1 Most educated: Singapore
#1 Highest literacy rate (100%) Andorra, Luxembourg, Greenland, Norway
#1 Narrowest gender gap: Iceland
#1 Most LGBGTQ-friendly: The Netherlands
#1 Happiest: Norway

What exactly does America lead the world in??

#1 Most men and women behind bars
#1 Biggest military budget

I know this sounds like unadulterated lefty criticism. Sure it is that. (And I’ll take that as a compliment.) But it is also a simple reality check. Regardless of the breast-beating and the flag-waving and the rhetoric, America is not the leader in much of anything.

And it is not unpatriotic to say so. In fact, it is the act of a patriot to be realistic about the shortcomings and flaws of her country, to believe in her country (and it citizens) in the face of these flaws, to nurture hopes for the future, and to work with energy and commitment toward that future. To me this means we should shut up, quit boasting, consider adopting that most un-American of character traits – humility — and start learning from those who have managed to create safer, cleaner, healthier, more functional, more equitable societies for their citizens.

America: If you love it (and I do), see the country for what it is, admit the flaws.

And fix it.

July 12, 2017   2 Comments

All hail the LIBRARY

For those of us who were looking for points of pride yesterday as our country commemorated its birth, for those of us who were concerned that we had little to celebrate about our country during these dark, dark days, may I just say:

The free public library.

Yes, we can claim that. We did that. We can wave our flag about that.

As with most wonderful ideas that happened a long time ago in this country, Benjamin Franklin figures into the narrative. He founded a lending library in Philadelphia in 1703. But the country’s first free (which is to say, tax supported) public library opened in the spring of 1833 in Petersborough, New Hampshire. The more famous (and erroneously claimed as “first’) Boston Public Library opened it doors in 1852. In the 1890s, Butte, Montana city boosters opened that city’s public library “as an antidote to the miners’ proclivity for drinking, whoring and gambling.” (I’ve never been to Butte so I don’t know how that worked out for them.)

A few years later, millionaire (when that meant something), bibliophile (when that meant something)and New York governor Samuel Tilden bequeathed a fortune to establish the extraordinary New York Public Library. (Imagine, for a moment, the current Governor of neighboring New Jersey doing anything for the public good.) And then there was Andrew Carnegie, industrialist-philanthropist, who funded the establishment of more than 2,500 libraries worldwide, 1,689 of which were in the U.S. Today, in case you’re interested, we have more than 16,000 public libraries.

Libraries open the world of books to us. Books open the world to us. It’s that simple. It’s that powerful.

We support public libraries with our tax dollars (our personal donations, our endless bake sales). We support libraries for the good of all, for the enrichment and betterment of all. We don’t say: I’m rich enough to buy my own books. Why should my tax dollars support libraries? If we hear that rhetoric, or a corollary: I’m rich enough to send my kids to private schools, or I don’t have children, why should I support other people’s children’s public education? we must label it for what it is: Deeply un-American. Not the attitude, not the policies, not the fundamental beliefs that reflect what true patriots celebrate. What I celebrated yesterday.

This Saturday, I am so very proud to help the Manzanita Public Library, part of the Tillamook County Public Library system, commemorate its 30th anniversary, 30 years of opening the world of books, which is to say, the world, to the lovely folks in this town that is my second home.

July 5, 2017   No Comments

In it for the L-o-n-g Haul

Rectangularization of Morbidity. It trips lightly off the tongue, does it not?

It does not.

It is the anthem of my life. My motto. My hope for the future. The goal I work toward every day. The bumpersticker I would put on my car if I had a really really long bumper.

What is it?

Simply put: Do all you can to create, nourish and maintain high-level wellness and maximum vitality. Sustain that state for as long as possible. Then die. Or, as I’ve expressed it to audiences when I talk about this:

Healthy, healthy, healthy, healthy, dead.

This is the opposite of how most of us age. We are, most of us, living much longer lives these days. The dramatic increase in life expectancy is heralded as one of 20th century society’s greatest achievements. Life expectancy for someone born in 1900 was 50. Today, in the US, it is 79. (In Japan, it is 84.)

But our healthspan – our years of healthy living — has not increased. That means we are living out the last 5, 10, 20 or even more years of our lives with often debilitating chronic illness(es). The average elderly person in the US is taking five different prescription medications. (For those in nursing homes, the number is seven.)

The third third of our lives – a gift! – is spent without the strength, vigor and energy to live fully, to participate with physical, emotional and creative vigor in the lives of our families, our communities, our nation. There is so very much to do, these days more than ever. We, all of us, young, old and in between need to meet these challenges with enterprise and élan, with zest and zeal, with sustained in-it-for-the-long-haul optimism. How to do that?

Rectangularization of Morbidity.

June 28, 2017   No Comments

Wanna hear me vent?

I just need to vent, you say (I say) right before launching into a litany of complaints: the stupidity and gross incompetence of others, liars and hypocrites in government, how GBBS is shit without Mary Berry, the discovery of another varicose vein, the unfairness of the universe, et cetera et cetera and so forth.

Your friend listens. Then she vents.

And then you both feel better, yes?

And then you both feel better, no.

For those who still believe in science (uh oh, that was kind of a backhanded vent), let me explain. According to psychologists who have studied venting, not only does expressing negativity tend to make us feel worse, not better, it also makes listeners feel worse. Kind of like second-hand smoke.

So your mood worsens; your friend’s mood worsens – and, according to neuroscientists, your brain begins to wire itself for negativity.

You know how this works: Throughout your brain are little gaps between nerve cells (synapses). Chemical and electrical bridges are built between these synapses as you think, learn – and, yes, as you complain…that is, as you have recurring negative thoughts. The more often you think (and express) these thoughts, the stronger the electro-chemical bridge becomes. The brain is rewiring itself to make it easier and quicker to think these thoughts. It’s just being efficient. This means that not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it more likely that negative thoughts will occur to you in other situations. A kind of default.

Also, the act of venting about something you’re upset about can, itself, make you upset. Reliving and narrating the anger (disappointment, frustration, whatever) you have felt can trigger the stress hormone cortisol. You know the demon, right? Not only does it inflict temporary harm (for example, raising blood pressure), excess cortisol over time leads to chronic inflammation. That’s the inside kind you can’t see or feel, the kind that medical researchers are beginning to believe underlies just about every chronic disease.

Venting makes you sick!

I am NOT suggesting suppressing anger. We all know that doesn’t work. I am suggesting going zero-to-sixty from pissed off to possible solution, from “this sucks” to “this is what I’m going to do about it,” from anger to action.

Now would be a really great time to get crackin on this.

June 21, 2017   5 Comments

Bunk, balderdash, malarkey

Lest you think this post is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (which he didn’t, by the way: The fiddle wasn’t invented yet.), I will say pro-actively and in my own defense that I DO, in fact, think and care about MUCH MORE IMPORTANT things than the subject of this post. But, frankly, I am all Comey-ed, Trump-ed and Session-ed out. Oh, that’s yesterday. Today there’s a horrific fire, yet another crazed shooter. These neural pathways need a momentary rest. And so I am allowing myself to feel righteous indignation about something else. Something small. Like these stupid sayings. I am calling bullshit on these sayings.

“That’s like comparing apples to oranges” – meaning you can’t compare the two because they are so different. What? They are both fruit. They both grow on trees. They are spherical. They are both in the top five most-consumed fruits in America. Why the hell can’t you compare them? Apples are better than oranges. See. I just compared them.

“Everything in moderation.” Seriously? Like love your children in moderation? Like be moderately creative? Moderately empathetic? Moderately generous? I. Don’t. Think. So. Be excessively loving. Burn with creativity. Open all the gates to empathy. Be generous to a fault. Because it’s not a fault.

“One picture is worth a thousand words.” Speaking as both a writer and a photographer, let me say: Bullshit. Still images can have enormous power and emotional resonance. It is possible to read subtext into an image. But not 1000 words of subtext. Or text. Words also have power and resonance. Aside from communicating emotion, which images do quite well, words can communicate what happens or happened outside the frame: backstory, context, inner and outer motivation, relationships, nuance. In fact, my friends, one word might be worth a thousand pictures. Love. Trust. Respect.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” First of all, in the scope of things in this world, in the universe, in the ether of time, it’s all small stuff: your divorce, your kid’s shitty report card, the 45th president. Small stuff. Second, of course sweat the small stuff. From a writer’s point of view, it’s all about sweating the small stuff: laboring to find the single right word, cogitating over the use of a comma, spending an hour crafting a single sentence that sings. It is the culmination of sweating all the small stuff that leads to the good, big stuff. Now if I could only find the single right word for stuff.

“Live every day as if it were your last.” Okay, I don’t know how YOU would live your final 24 hours on earth, but here’s what I’d do: Plan A: All-day hike among the early summer wildflowers in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, fueled by multiple generous handfuls of high-quality gorp. Plan B (should I be physically incapacitated on my last day): Binge watch every Thin Man movie while eating chocolate éclairs (maybe a cannoli or two thrown in) and having my feet rosemary-oil massaged. So, really, I can’t live every day as if it were my last, can I?

Your turn.

June 14, 2017   2 Comments

My so-called (Facebook) life

Here’s what a few of my friends were up to today (via Facebook): Taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon in southwestern Iceland; eating brunch at a café in an impossibly picturesque French village; signing advance copies of her brilliant new book at BEA in New York; celebrating 18 years of marriage so perfect that its participants still swoon over each other.

Here’s what I did: Climbed a 12-foor ladder with a broom and a dust rag to bat at spider webs and sweep up dead insect carcasses in the vaulted entryway of my unkempt home. Cleaned the cat litter box because apparently I am the only one with a sense of smell in this household. Drank 4 cups of tea and chain-chewed most of a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum while sweating my way through the writing of a chapter of my new book, the book that for six months it seemed that no publisher wanted.

All this might lead me to suffer from the now well established Facebook-fueled FoMO phenomenon (Fear of Missing Out), that feeling that all your peers are doing, in the know about or in possession of a something better than you. Disturbingly but not surprisingly, “FoMO” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. But, actually FoMO is not where this leads me. Or at least not all the time.

Where it leads me is to a deep sadness about our insistent (and it seems to me increasing) lack of authenticity. (I do NOT mean the  happy and successful FB friends I referenced above are inauthentic! I mean the FB world can be and can encourage us to be.)

Facebook is an easy target – too easy. It is, literally, the face we want to show to the world, and most of us want to show our best face. Most of us don’t leave the house without “putting on our face” (and I’m not talking foundation and blush here). Many of us have a “game face” we use when we believe it is warranted, or to our advantage. We all, at one time or another, employ a façade – that is, an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.

I think the more we do this, and the more circumstances during which we do it – Facebook being only one — the farther away we get from who we are. And over time, creating and perfecting that façade, training ourselves to conceal, walking that talk, we deepen and strengthen those particular neural pathways. And we forget who we are.

I mean we really forget.

June 7, 2017   2 Comments

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Ageism. Again.

It’s time to rant again about ageism.

This time, however, it’s not about those offensive intersection crossing signs that feature stooped over, cane-holding old ladies or those offensive birthday cards like the one for 50 — yes, 50“remember that ill-advised sleeve tattoo you got during your misspent youth? Think how it looks to your doctor while you sit in his office complaining of incontinence” or those offensive ads targeting clueless, brain-fogged old people who cannot seem to manage the intricacies of a normal cellphone.

Nope, this is about how older people are sometimes complicit in the creation and maintenance of these stereotypes. (In fact, as I wrote in Counterclockwise several years ago, unlike just about every other group on the receiving end of an –ism, a disturbing majority of older people actually believe the damaging stereotypes about older people.)

This was a video clip that came across my morning updates yesterday, a CNN story about “beating loneliness after retirement.” The story is about these old guys who don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement. Fair enough. So they go bowling. Now I love bowling. Nothing against bowling. But here is how one of the guys described his decision to join in: “It was either this or sit on the couch all day and watch TV.”

Seriously? That’s the choice?

If you have the energy and strength to go bowling (and yay for that), then you have the energy and strength to be a mentor to a kid who needs an adult in his life. You have the energy and strength to volunteer at your local food bank. To hammer a few nails for Habitat for Humanity. To go play with dogs in animal shelters. To tutor adults who can’t read.

To be visible and useful and show that you are a caring, contributing part of the community in which you live. Otherwise, you actively contribute to the stereotype of older people as useless. In the way. Just taking up space. And resources.

End of rant. For now.

Oh, P.S. Can I just say/ shout/ proclaim on high:

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

May 24, 2017   1 Comment