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When someone believes in you

Have you ever had a mentor? You know, that near-mythical creature: wise, experienced, generous, encouraging, inspiring. She takes you under her wing. Or his. She points you in the right direction. She, you know, makes a few calls.

I haven’t.

What I’ve had, at various points in my life, are people who believed in me. They didn’t mentor me. Rather, they 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.

Of course you have to believe in yourself, but when you’re 8 going on 9, you may need help. That’s when Mrs. Fox, my teacher, gave me a list of books she thought I’d like to read. A special list. Just for me. Because she saw my early passion for reading. Because she believed I could become the voracious reader I would become.

Some years later, it was Mr. Hawkey, ramrod straight, starched collar (equally starched personality) Mr. Hawkey, Mr. Discipline, Mr. Hard-ass – my 11th grade English teacher – who 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.

I knew a lot about her. I had spent hours researching her to write the introduction. She knew nothing about me. But after the speech, when I ran over, beating the crowd, to grasp her hand, she looked at me, really looked at me, studied me, and said: “Lauren, you’re up next.”

And that’s what I needed.

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

January 11, 2017   4 Comments

Be it resolved

Are you one of the 60 percent of Americans who made New Year’s resolutions this year?

Are you one of the 92 percent who will ultimately fail to keep those resolutions?

That’s right, research suggests that only 8 percent of people successfully keep any of the resolutions they make. Thirteen percent, after “resolving,” don’t even make an attempt to carry through; 12 percent cave in one day; 27 percent keep the resolution for less than week; 26 percent have forgotten their promises to themselves in less than a month. And here’s something funny: 95 percent of those who make resolutions (remember 92 percent don’t keep them), plan on doing the same thing again next year.

What do people resolve? Pretty much what you think, according to a recent survey of 2000 respondents. Women make health-focused resolutions. Men pledge to find a new job and cut down on drinking. Saving money is one of the top 5 New Year’s resolutions — and also in the top 5 for most commonly failed. Sad to report that 5 ½ times as many people resolve to go on a diet as resolve to spend more time with their families. However, I did take heart that 13 percent resolved to read more books. So there’s that. Now if they’d only resolve to read more of MY books.

Why don’t most of us keep our resolutions? Wisdom gleaned from various self-help/ empowerment websites (which is to say, people telling us what we already know but delivered in bumperstickerese) suggests that it’s because our resolutions are too vague (“lose weight” “spend less money”), and as a function of their vagueness, do not call for an actual plan with measurable goals. You know, as they say in the corporate word: deliverables. Also, some resolutions appear to be the result of being pressured by a partner, boss, or someone else who thinks they know what’s good for you and not a change the person truly wants to make.

Making a change is hard, resolution time or not. Change requires a compelling, deeply felt reason to change.

The Why has to be big enough.

It has to be big enough, important enough, meaningful enough to motivate you when it gets dark at 4:30 and you’re cranky and you hate everyone at work and your agent just sent you a half dozen no-thanks letters from publishers who’ve looked at your latest proposal and in a few weeks a person who stands for everything you stand against will be your president. The why has to sustain you through the tough times and for the long haul.

Resolving to change requires a thoughtful plan. It requires energy, not just that spark of energy that ignites an idea but that banked energy that you can draw on, day after day, month after month.

Have you made promises to yourself for 2017? Is there a big Why behind them?

January 4, 2017   3 Comments

Iceamageddon

ice on treeWhat I learned during a seven-day power outage, the unhappy result of an extraordinarily destructive ice storm, a home nestled among the tall timber and an understaffed rural utility company.

**People really are nicer during a disaster. It’s a cliché, and I have nothing new to add. Just glad it’s true. And I wish people could be this kind all the time.

**Dogs are perfectly fine in commercial establishments. This past week I’ve been spending more time than I’d like to admit at my local Starbucks (warmth, internet, nice bathrooms). And guess who else is here? Dogs. Six or seven or even eight dogs, sitting quietly (and warmly) while their outage-ravaged human companions do what I am doing. The staff has turned a blind eye. We have all kinds of ordinances and policies against this. In Europe dogs accompany their people into coffeehouses, restaurants, clothing – and Europeans seem to be doing just fine.

**Speaking of animals: Cats rule. Our cat, Simon Baker (yes, sorry) disappeared during the worst of the ice storm and stayed out for 48 frigid hours. Huge limbs of oaks and firs were crashing down. We thought he was a goner. But the cat came back.

**Oh. And fish. They hibernate when their fishbowl water dips below 40 degrees. What a great plan.

**When someone asks you how things are going and you tell them your house is 38 degrees and you have no running water and you can’t flush the toilet and you had to throw out everything in the refrigerator, including a tureen of home-made soup, you do NOT want them to tell you about a much worse thing that happened to them. You want them to pat your arm and offer to do your laundry.

**I think it’s okay to feel a little sorry for yourself even though you are a privileged first-world person who is just temporarily experiencing what is actually a minor hardship. I know how fortunate I am, really I do. But I think, as day 7 without power slides into day 8 and the thermometer dips and the tips of my fingers start going numb, that I’ve earned the right to whimper.

ice on oak leavesice on wisteria

December 21, 2016   No Comments

Defying Gravity

Idina_Wicked_1It’s easy to be upbeat when things are going your way.

You’re healthy. Your children are all talking to you. The house gutters are clean. And you didn’t have climb on the roof to do it.

It’s easy to feel empowered and invigorated when things are going your way.

Your dentist doesn’t find any new work to do. You can now zip up your jeans. The writing is going well. Most of the time. Okay, some of the time.

The true test of resilience is what you do and how you feel – and what you say to yourself — when things are not all bowl-of-cherries.

So let’s just say, hypothetically, you’ve been working really hard on a project you believe in, a good project that is making a positive contribution, a project that has two years of success behind it. And then a person who doesn’t know you or the project, but now holds the power, pulls the plug. For instance. Hypothetically.

Or you get a DEXA-scan to see just how awesome your bone density is because you are a life-long exerciser, a runner, a yogurt-eater, a calcium-supplement swallower, and all-around brimming-with-vitality human, and you find out you have borderline osteopenia. For instance. Hypothetically.

Or a dangerous, hateful, intolerant, thoughtless, megalomaniacal, narcissist is suddenly your president. For instance.

When faced with these hypothetical situations, or any other rotten news or shitty life circumstance, I have three strategies, which I will now generously share with you.

#1 I listen to my negative self-talk. Yep, that’s right: I listen. Believe me, I have tried to stop the negative self-talk. We all know we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. And we all beat ourselves up. So, rather than struggling to quiet the voice, I tune in carefully. I listen to my internal monolog as if I were saying it to someone other than myself. Would I ever say to someone else: You are a failure. You are not valued. You’ve got one step in the grave. You better dig a hole and stay in it for the next four (eight years). Of course not. When I externalize the voice, I see how awful it is. Actually, I see how overblown and silly it is. I laugh at it. Ha!

#2 I get excited about Plan B. I always have a Plan B. Or I devise one as soon as possible. Planning and list-making keep me buoyant. Action is almost always the antidote. There is always a way through, a way around, a new way. And: no making lemonade from the lemons life gives you. I will decide what kind of juice I want, thank you very much.

#3 Defying Gravity. Blasted at top volume in the car. Forget the cheese factor, folks. This fucking works.

To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity
I’m flying high
Defying gravity

December 14, 2016   1 Comment

This is what democracy looks like

stand-up-speak-out What can we do? That’s the big question. We can gasp at what he says, shake our heads in disbelief at the people he chooses for government posts, get angry, get depressed, mock him, proclaim that “he’s not my president.” But, I repeat: What can we do?

We can take a stand in our communities. We can come together in our communities, in our cities and towns and state loudly and publicly what we believe in and what we will do. The President-elect lost big in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco – and many other smaller cities across the nation. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, by unanimous vote, passed a heart-stirring resolution that serves as a template for communities across the country. Each of us, all of us, need to assess our own communities and see if we can follow San Francisco’s lead.

I begin here with how the resolution ends:

…although the United States will soon have a President who has demonstrated a lack of respect for the values we hold in the highest regard in San Francisco, it cannot change who we are, and it will never change our values. We argue, we campaign, we debate vigorously within San Francisco, but on these points we are 100 percent united. We will fight discrimination and recklessness in all its forms. We are one City. And we will move forward together.

And here is a sampling of the resolutions:

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City. We will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That we will never back down on women’s rights, whether in healthcare, the workplace, or any other area threatened by a man who treats women as obstacles to be demeaned or objects to be assaulted;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That there will be no conversion therapy, no withdrawal of rights in San Francisco. We began hosting gay weddings twelve years ago, and we are not stopping now. And to all the LGBTQ people all over the country who feel scared, bullied, or alone: You matter. You are seen; you are loved; and San Francisco will never stop fighting for you;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That Black Lives Matter in San Francisco, even if they may not in the White House. And guided by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, we will continue reforming our police department and rebuilding trust between police and communities of color so all citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That climate change is not a hoax, or a plot by the Chinese. In this city, surrounded by water on three sides, science matters. And we will continue our work on CleanPower, Zero Waste, and everything else we are doing to protect future generations;

Grassroots, folks. Let’s proclaim our values. Let’s stand by – and back up – our beliefs. What can we accomplish in our communities?

December 7, 2016   3 Comments

What we did wrong

ht10k8x4xoavdyhd6kfd_400x400It’s been three weeks. Three very long weeks. We’ve now had time to experience the first four of the famous five stages of grief and loss: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. I know that you, like me, are NOT interested in (nor are we ethically or morally capable of) moving to stage 5: Acceptance.

No. We will not accept. We will not go gentle into that [very dark] night. I don’t mean to propose that we hunker down in the “he’s not my president” bunker. Because, um, he is. Or soon will be. I mean we cannot, must not, blanket our grief with desperate acquiescence. We cannot say to ourselves or each other: “Gee, he can’t really fuck up everything, can he? Maybe we just wait it out.”

We don’t just wait it out.

We move. We act.

But what do we do that is not just a repeat of what we did that resulted in where we are now? I’d like to suggest that we good-hearted people, we card-carrying members of the (Social) Justice League helped create the climate and the culture that elected the person who is about to head our country. I would like to suggest that we accept some of the blame and learn from our mistakes.

Here’s what I think we did wrong, not in the months leading up to the election, but for years and years.

We failed to create an understanding that we are NOT in a zero-sum game here. My empowerment is not your disempowerment. My win is not your loss. My right to marry whomever I love is not your loss of marriage sanctity. The more people we empower, the more power we ALL have, the stronger we ALL are. Why wasn’t that our clear message?

We allowed basic respect for human beings and sensitivity to others to be branded “political correctness” and then turned into a joke. How did that happen? How did being civil and granting people dignity become political in the first place? What the hell does it have to do with politics?

And speaking of war of the words that we lost, may I just say: Pro-Life. What a genius (and largely unchallenged) move to re-brand those who sought to rob women of the power over their own bodies as pro anything. We who oppose them are, what, anti-life? When you allow others to craft the narrative, they can assign you a part. And they did.

We did not insist, a decade or more ago, that Media Literacy be a required course in middle and high school. Or part of adult education in our communities. So we have hundreds of thousands, we have millions and millions of people who don’t know the difference between fake news and vetted, verified information, who don’t know the difference between opinion and fact, who can be fooled by fabrications, who know the world through tweets. Shame on us.

My list is longer. But I’ll stop now. I want to hear from you. Where do you think we went wrong? Let’s get it out in the open and take some responsibility. And then let’s move forward with intelligence and heart, with energy and deep commitment.

November 30, 2016   4 Comments

Thanksgiving, giving thanks

imagesAmid the rancor and fear, the bitterness and contempt, the unleashed anger and ginned-up anxieties, the hate speech, the disrespect, the deplorable choices and dishonorable actions, the amorality, I want — I need — to remind you, to remind me, there is goodness and generosity in us. There is compassion and good will. There is understanding and empathy. There is kindness.

For the past year and a half, I have been facilitating a writing group in prison. The writers are all serving life sentences. They all did terrible things. In writing about their lives, their experiences, what they have learned, how they have changed, what they hope for, they tell me, almost with one voice: I do not want to be known only for the worst thing I ever did.

And that’s how I feel about my country right now. I do not want us to be known only for this hate-filled moment, for this resurgence of bigotry, for this mockery of values, for this worst thing.

I want us — you and me, our communities, the millions of our compatriots — to be known for our best instincts and our best intentions, for the everyday lives of inclusion and kindness we live, the rich, diverse, multicultural communities we foster and inhabit, for what we teach our children, for those actions that speak louder than words: the shelters and clinics and food banks we support, the legislation we fight for, the rights and reforms we dedicate ourselves to, the deep and enduring connections we forge with each other, with The Other.

I have much to say about what we have done wrong, what the most well meaning of us have done wrong. I have much to say about what we need to do now. But today, just for this moment, I just want to acknowledge the best within us, and give thanks for that.

May we all be fed.

May we all be healed.

May we all be loved.

November 23, 2016   2 Comments

I am the storm

stormI am not a go-gently-into-the-night kind of person. I am more a rage-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light kind of person.

You know me through my writing or because you, well, know me. So you know that I have very little patience for New Age aphorisms and bumpersticker sentiments that I believe substitute feeling good for doing good. For years I have scoffed at “Visualize World Peace” (the corrective bumpsticker reads “Visualize Whirled Peas”), thinking: If you want peace, buddy, you damn well better stop visualizing and start working.

That said, this gray and rainy morning I heard something at Barre3 (where I go to forget the world for 60 joyful, mindless, sweaty minutes), something definitely New Age-y with the whiff of the bumpersticker — that was undeniably powerful. And I had to listen. At the end of the workout, the instructor, my friend and secret guru Summer Spinner (yes, her real name), said: “Breathe space into your heart.”

And, a split second before my judgmental brain had time to dismiss this as yoga-infused pabulum, my body took over and inhabited the thought. I felt that intake of breath, which is life, open up inside me and stretch my heart. Not, of course, the four-chambered, fist-sized circulation pump behind my ribs, but rather my metaphorical heart, the part of me that is located nowhere and everywhere, the part of me that loves and grieves, the part of me that, post-election, hurts like hell.

I breathed into that heart, breathed s p a c e into that heart, expanded it to make room for hope. Yes, hope.

Hope is the beginning. Hope is the foundation for the work in front of us. And so, I end (or rather, I begin) with this:

devil

November 16, 2016   1 Comment

Fear. Hope.

indexI am afraid.

I am afraid of what he will do, a man full of anger and ego, a man who lashes out, who mocks and bullies, a man who respects no one, a man who has never served our country in any capacity.

I am afraid that he deeply deeply misunderstands what being “great” means.

I am afraid of the damage he can easily inflict, and has promised for the last 18 months that he will: the obliteration of the Affordable Care Act; the nomination of a Supreme Court justice – undoubtedly two, maybe even three – that could make the overturning of Roe v Wade a reality; a retreat from any attempts to deal with climate change, which he has publicly declared is a Chinese scam to weaken us; the passage of xenophobic, Draconian immigration policies that destroy the heart and soul of what does, in fact, make American great. And I could go on.

He is a bombast, a loose cannon, a cheater who has gotten away with it, who has in fact become a billionaire doing it, and has now become the next President of the United States doing it.

But more than anything else, I am afraid of us, of my fellow Americans, the millions and millions of people who voted for this man, who listened to him make fun of the disabled and brag about his sexual exploits and call Mexicans rapists and crooks and promised to close our borders to all followers of Islam, a man who embodies the worst of us, the most fearful, selfish, angry worst of us.

And yet, at the same time, I trust my tribe, my millions-member, cross-continental, multi-generational, multi-cultural tribe of forward-looking, diversity-embracing, open-hearted women and men who will do what we do, what we know how to do, what we have been doing, what we must now do with greater commitment: Work with rekindled energy and overarching kindness to make our communities safe and welcoming, help those who need help, protect those who need protection, embrace and learn from those who want to be a part of us and add to the richness and texture of our culture. I trust my tribe who believe in and live the precepts of social justice. I trust that, after we have absorbed this shock, after we have cried and hugged each other and talked through our fears, we will carry on, with renewed vigor, with fierce love, with unshakeable commitment. Because this is what makes America great.

November 9, 2016   4 Comments

Lessons learned from a 3000-year-old olive tree

ancient olive treeIn Vouvres, a village in the mountains of western Crete, there stands an olive tree that is verifiably 3000 years old. When this tree was a sapling, the Iron Age had just begun. The tree is magnificently gnarled, a twisting, turning, ropey, veiny, sinewy work of art that manages to seem both fluid and solid at the same time. Its circumference measures 41 feet. Branches, so many branches, some old and thick, some young and slender, all healthy, all dusty green with leaves, all bearing olives, grow from its massive trunk.

I stood before this tree last week. I couldn’t get enough of it. I walked around and around it. I photographed it from all sides. I peered inside its dark, hollow core. I touched it. I (embarrassingly) spoke to it.

Not out loud.

Okay, sort of out loud.

I asked it to reveal its secrets. How do you survive for three millennia? How do you persevere through all that has come your way? How do you stay so strong, so healthy, so magnificent?

And this is what the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouvres (its official name) told me (not out loud):

**Situate yourself in a place that suits you and grow your roots deep.

**Bend when you have to.

**Be useful

**Give back not just to those who care for and tend you, but to all.

**Keep pushing out new branches. Always push out new branches. Never stop growing.

**And remember the true beauty of age, the complexity and richness, the layering of experience upon experience, the strength and power that comes from that.

“And lady,” the tree said to me, “it’s time to quit talking to trees. Take a hike in the hills. The sun is shining. The bougainvillea is blooming. The air smells like thyme and basil and lavender. Go.”

And so I did.

November 2, 2016   5 Comments