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Category — Life

Clearing the Decks

 

Ah the fine art of self-sabotage that some of us (cough, cough) are known to practice so diligently as to become masters. I myself am particularly adept at one excellent self-sabotaging strategy, the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach. (Explained, along with other excellent self-sabotaging behaviors, in The Write Path.)

Let’s say you have some important creative work to do. For example: A book. A book you care deeply about. A book that is the most challenging work you’ve ever done. It is hard. I mean: It is hard. The molding of it, the shaping of it, the finding a way through the experience, the writing into a place of knowing. It is so hard that one plots ways not to work as one simultaneously proclaims (to oneself) passion and commitment for the work. (And by “one” I mean me.)

Thus the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach.

I’ll get serious, I’ll buckle down, I’ll really start to work once I take care of all the little stuff that’s currently cluttering the “decks.” For example: Those 30 pounds of peaches we picked this weekend that need to be skinned, pitted, sliced and freezer-bagged. The peach-juicy counters that now need to be cleaned. Which makes the OTHER counters look bad by comparison, so, yeah, those. And the floor. Better put a load of laundry in. While I’m at it, I might as well strip the bed and change the bed linen. I need to make that appointment with the dental hygienist. And take a picture of those weird cucumbers I just went out into the garden to pick so I can post in instagram. And then look at what others have posted. And check my newsfeeds for the latest Trump catastrophe. Read the latest WaPo story. I’ll just scan the first few dozen comments. And now, gee, it’s 3 pm, and I can’t start in on serious work this late.

Thus concludes a successful day at self-sabotage.

(Sound of reveille) Good morning! Those decks I cleared yesterday so I could jump in and write today? Wouldn’t you know it, they’re cluttered again.

But right now, this very moment, as soon as I post this on my blog, I AM GOING TO WORK.

August 16, 2017   10 Comments

Humility

I am the least racist person you will ever meet.

This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.

I have assembled the best cabinet in the history of the world.

People have given me credit for having great chemistry with all of the leaders.

Never has there been a president….with few exceptions…who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than I have.

Ah, the fine art of humility as practiced by the Leader of the Free World.

Let us, please, not become numb to the vanity, the hubris, the narcissism, the self-aggrandizement, the heart-stopping lack of perspective – the amorality – of all this because we hear it everyday, because it has become part of the political canon, the cultural canon. Because egomaniacal statements like this are the stuff of funny memes and clever Facebook posts and witty Shouts & Murmurs columns. We laugh. Okay, laugh. But do not forget: This is not normal. This is not good. This, in fact, erodes the soul.

You know what feeds the soul? Humility.

Humility is not self-doubt or self-deprecation. It is not meekness. You do not give up “pride” in yourself when you are humble. You give up being prideful. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” (The quote is attributed to, among others, Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis and Islamic theologian Waleed Basyouni. Point taken.)

Humility is a recognition of who you are and your place is the world. (Carl Sagan famously said, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.”) Or, should you want to be even more humble, your place in the universe. (as in “tiny speck”). It’s worth considering that the term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as “humble” but also as “grounded” or “from the earth,” as in humus (earth).

And so, drowning in this sea of bloated, inflated, self-serving rhetoric, let us swim toward land. Let us plant our feet, stay grounded, from the earth, humble.

(Well, okay, Ali WAS the greatest.)

 

 

August 9, 2017   No Comments

On alert

 

I was walking west on Morrison in downtown Portland yesterday late afternoon when I heard a voice behind me. “Passing on your left,” the voice, male, said. I thought, gee, some guy is riding his bike on a busy sidewalk? What a jerk. But he wasn’t. Riding a bike. Or a jerk.

He was an ordinary looking 40ish white guy dressed in conservative jeans and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and he passed me on the left, walking. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Then I couldn’t help myself. “Hey,” I said. He was only a few steps ahead of me. “I’ve never had anyone say ‘passing on the left’ who wasn’t on a bike.”

He seemed slightly taken aback that I opened a conversation. I was also slightly taken aback. He slowed his pace so we were walking side by side. “I didn’t want to startle you,” he said. We then we had a spirited four-block conversation about how men don’t realize how threatening they can be when they walk closely behind a woman or pass by her when she isn’t expecting it.

He said all of that. I didn’t.

Of course, I have spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder if I find myself walking alone on a sketchy street or in an iffy neighborhood or, on the best streets in the loveliest of neighborhoods when it’s dark. I take note of the man walking behind me and pay attention to the sound of his footfalls. Is he getting closer? I check out the man on the other side of the street. Is he making a move to cross the street? I am not in a panic. This is just what I do. I stay alert to the potential threat. The threat a man on the street poses to me. The threat men pose to women.

If it’s a man – race isn’t the issue, gender is — I am on alert. If it’s a woman, I’m not. Yes, I know that most men don’t attack women, but in Chicago, on the street just a half a block from my apartment, one attacked me. He wanted my groceries and my money, that’s all. I was lucky. Yes, I know women can be attackers, but in Seattle, on a downtown street late at night, it was a man I had to run from.

The fact that this unassuming, sort of dorky (no PDX hipster was he) guy was sensitive to what his presence might mean to a woman alone – that was a revelation. I hope he has sons.

August 2, 2017   3 Comments

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   2 Comments

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

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

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

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments