On asking for what I want

Do I believe in Magic Lists? Yeah, maybe.

I buy her idea that we have layers: the Shallows, the Ring of Fire, and the Core of Peace…That the wishes we make from the Shallows hold no power. And that once you’ve experienced Fire and loss and shed some ego, you can hear your Core. And that when you ask for what you want from your Core, the Universe will find a way to deliver. Maybe not on your timeline, but at least you’re heard.

Do I have proof that this works? Maybe!

Here’s a letter I wrote to myself on my first ever hike-in backcountry camping trip in Yosemite with Balanced Rock. We wrote during some solo time on the last day of our time together. By then, I had walked through some Fire and received some clarity on my Shallows. I knew the letter would be mailed back to me at some unspecified later date.

I hope you let your enthusiasm and gut and happy excitement guide your decision making. You deserve to have things that make you glow and light up with excitement when you think and talk about them.

I hope you love your job.

I hope you’ve nurtured a community of friends and support in the Bay Area.

I hope you’re taking risks.

I hope you’re taking care of yourself.

Let each day take care of itself. And seek out others to share and emote with. Love freely — of yourself and others. Give more than you get. Be happy.

Either the me from August 2013 (who was in a pretty low place) was prescient about my life in May 2014 (who is grooving on some of life’s highs). Or maybe, just maybe, writing each word was like planting a prayer seed. And all those seeds are now blooming.

Want more proof?

I was experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance in my life earlier this year—about my job, my apartment, my city, my relationship status. On a Women’s Retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains in March, I was fighting the urge to hibernate and winter and turn inward—even though slow, solo time was what I needed most. It was springtime, after all! I missed the extroverted, adventurous, social, go-go-go me, but she was in hiding, and I was trying to force her out.

On a solo hike during the retreat, I was barreling forward seeking a sweeping vista to spend my afternoon with, and then the path just…ended. Trees blocked the way. Branches swept down toward their roots creating a little fairytale nook, a lovely place to sit and stay a spell. Nature telling me to stop, it’s okay to stop, just stop.

On that same retreat, I wrote this:

Home is a standing invitation to Sunday night dinners.
Home is Sunday night dinners as the rule, not the exception.
Home is Sunday night dinners, week after week.
Home is Sunday night dinners, with a rotating cast of core players.
Home is Sunday night dinners, even when you tire of them.

Home is a large dining table and a potluck effort,
cooking together before we eat together
family style dishes meant to be shared
enough to feed an army with leftovers to spare.

I want to create a Table
Source the wood
Sand it down
Cut the planes
Join ’em together
Bevel the edges
Stain it red
Find it a home
and watch it glow

Put it in a sunlit dining room
with an open-plan kitchen and an open-door policy
comfy seats
loving roommates
happy guests
laughter and tears
and hugs and stories

Fill it with nourishing foods
culinary adventures
warm teas
fancy cocktails
comfort food and junk food
potluck food and solo food

My Table will be witness to laughter and heartache
new love and old, careful thoughtlessness and thoughtful carelessness. It will hold work and play, reading and meals, coffee breaks and nightlong conversations, heated debate and even steamier footsie. By day sunlight dances across its surface. By night candles melt toward darkness even as all refuse to believe their plates are empty and their eyelids drooping.

I knew I wanted to create a Table in all senses of the word. Didn’t know if it would be literal, metaphorical, or allegorical—but I knew that’s what I wanted to feel in my home and my life and my city. From the Core of my Core, that’s what I wanted.

And then I went home and battled inner demons and hibernated some more and continued grousing about my living situation without doing anything to change it.

But I accepted the fact that I needed to lay low for awhile, and I accepted the fact that I didn’t have the energy to do any hunting of any kind for the moment. I settled in and hunkered down for a continued stretch of grey inner weather.

Of course, right when I accepted it, the fog started to clear. And my life hit a groove, seeds blooming in all aforementioned spheres.

But I was still only half-heartedly looking for a new apartment, until a week ago when my roommate gave me a real deadline. So I fired up good ol’ Craigslist and immediately saw something I really really liked. I sent an email, not expecting a reply (ready for the long game). They wrote back, I went to see the place, I vibed with the space, I vibed with the roommates, I vibed with the neighborhood. And they said yes. And I said yes.

And now I’m moving! Just like that, easy-peasy. Miracles of miracles in the notoriously-gnarly housing market that is San Francisco. I’m convinced it’s because I wasn’t looking at the search from my head, from the Shallows, with a checklist of amenities in mind. It’s because the Universe knew my Core was looking for a Table.

I’ve been practicing listening to my Core more lately—or whatever you want to call it: gut, intuition, higher voice, inner wisdom. Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to hear when I’m in a groove than when I’m in a rut, so I’ve been trying to memorize the feeling of it. I want to be able to recognize it in the future when it’s happening, when I need it most…The impulses that bubble up which need to be voiced. The truths that have the comforting weight of inevitability. The lightness that comes from giving space for silence rather than miring decisions in the tangled maze my mind can so easily weave. The positive energy vibes that say (to borrow Jack Cheng’s words): “pay attention, there’s something here.”

Do you believe in Magic?

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Part of a whole

I’ve been thinking about systems a lot lately.* I keep having moments of realization that we’re all just tiny, tiny parts in a complex system which we can never fully see nor comprehend. This leads to two opposite emotional reactions in me. One is a rabbit hole of doubt because I’m still processing its implications for the social impact work that I do. The other is a shiny ray of hope that helps me to be a creative day to day.

First, the Rabbit Hole

In one of the short stories that comprise his book Sum, David Eagleman compels us to imagine each human being as a cellular piece of an immense, godlike creature — the same way a cell in your body has a role and operates independently without any idea why or how it contributes to the body’s larger ecosystem. This made me think of the immune system: A macrophage sent to the site of a bacterial infection doesn’t know how the infection got there, nor how effective the overall effort is going. It just does its job, trades notes with its colleagues, and tries to discern from the body’s signals whether it should keep fighting or retire for the night. Auto-immune diseases occur when immune cells turn on the body itself, unable to distinguish between self and non-self. Do these rogues understand the harm they may unintentionally be inflicting as they go about their (to-them) natural routines and noble causes?

Who is to say whether we ourselves are helping or hurting in the grand scheme of things? There’s no simple way to assess it because we are inside it. We’d have to seek the outside help of an external being who exists on a much grander scale.

In a lot of ways, this fuels dismay. How can we have collective impact when we can’t even clearly see the bigger picture? When we start to see danger signs, how do we mobilize the entire ecosystem to react when we are one mere cog within the system? Even if we get traction, how do we know that our solution is best? After all, if we imagine all our body’s reactions as neutral, the fastest spreading ones are viruses and cancers.

Now, the Small Yet Shiny Ray of Hope

Let’s shift angles and tackle this idea from a different perspective — from the perspective of an artist.

One of the pre-dominant messages of our culture and the day and age in which we live is that: You are special. You are unique. The contribution you have to give to this world can only be made by your hand, your voice, and the distinct circumstances that have led you here right now to today.

It’s easy to conflate this rhetoric with the idea that our messages also needs to be unique, original, distinct — never heard before and won’t exist if we don’t put it out into the world ourselves. On one level, this can be a great motivator for someone to get her work out in the world. I have a responsibility to tell my story, dammit.

But it’s dangerous, too. That feeling of reading an already-published article that contains the same sentiments of one that’s been hiding out in your drafts folder? That feeling of seeing a comic in your Tumblr feed that shows beautifully what you have been trying and failing to draw for months? That feeling can start to preempt any future attempts at creating and publishing. The pressure to find something unique to say can be paralyzing. And you start to think…maybe you are not a unique snowflake after all.

Well, you are a unique snowflake, my dear.

But you’re also a part of a much larger system, and that system requires redundancies.

If we think back to the immune system: there are many macrophages in the body all tasked with the same job. Some need to be sent up to the throat, and some need to be sent down to the gut. All are unique, all are important, all have jobs to do.

The same is true of an artist or a creative. Someone else is probably creating some version of the same blogpost you are writing, the same song you are composing, the same painting you are drawing, the same joke you are crafting, the same movement you are dancing. And maybe that’s because the prime core of your artwork needs to be seen, heard, and experienced…not just by a small group of people but by the whole ecosystem. To ensure that the message spreads, the system has built in some redundancies. Which is why I feel compelled to write about this topic at the same time that everyone else seems to be fascinated with the same. So that those people in my immediate circle and in my zone of influence can hear this particular message.

That redundancy is freeing. Being a cog in the system is freeing. I don’t have to worry about trying to orchestrate something I have no control over. Once I stop that energy drain of worry, I can focus on the task at hand. I just have to do my work and trust the resiliency of the systems in play that if I am doing something that’s causing more harm than good, then the body will course-correct in time.

We all have our own small roles to play in the grand scheme of things.

* I haven’t dug into the science of systems yet. I’m looking forward to reading Sarah Brooks’s forthcoming book chapter about “designing for systems,” which sounds like a good introduction into that kind of thinking.

#YesAllWomen

The hashtag #YesAllWomen is trending on Twitter tonight in response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. (If you’re not on Twitter, here are two good recaps and starting points, though the live thread is worth spending some time with.)

#YesAllWomen is provoking and overwhelming. Powerful because it mirrors back my own experiences and thoughts in a way that makes us feel heard. Hopeful when I think about how many women (and men!) are finding the courage to share their own stories. Hopeful when I think about all the men (and women!) who are finally listening. Dismaying when I read the same defensive / dismissive / threatening replies that are par-for-the-course for feminism discourse on the internet. Heartening when I see the feed flood with 577 more new results every few minutes in the face of those naysayers. Heartbreaking that the stream mirrors back a world so deeply unjust and hurt and nonsensical and confused — and a world that doesn’t know what to do about the wrongness of it all.

Some of my truths that I’d add to the mix:

  • I modify my wardrobe based on whether I’m walking, busing, or driving to work — aka how much potential contact with strangers I might have along the way. #YesAllWomen
  • Getting home alone at night is always a struggle between “I want to be smart/safe” and “I’m afraid” and “I hate that I’m afraid” and “I’m strong enough, dammit” and “I wish I didn’t live in a world where I have to think about this” #YesAllWomen
  • Walking alone in the city — day or night — means constantly scanning, judging, re-routing based on who else is on the street around me. #YesAllWomen
  • Constant vigilance makes me shut down, armor up, seal in, hold breath. Which counters all the trust and openness and non-judgment and risktaking I fight so hard to cultivate in my life. #YesAllWomen
  • If I call someone out on their misogynistic joke, I’m a wet blanket. If I criticize media for perpetuating the status quo, I’m a hater. If I try to point out a double standard between men and women, I’m being too sensitive. #YesAllWomen
  • It gets tiring, so I start self-censoring my own voice, my own thoughts. #YesAllWomen

I want to honor the powerful emotions, but I also don’t want to get stuck there. As #YesAllWomen starts to open eyes, it’s an opportunity to channel guilt into empathy and insight into action. As Jessica Hagy says, “How do you go from tiny to massive? One bite at a time. How do you accomplish gigantic things? One action at a time.” Small (and hopefully fun) starting points below. All reminders to myself as well:

  • LISTEN. Really listen. Ask more questions, and then listen some more. These are women’s experiences. Try to listen without defensiveness, without doubt, without guilt. This conversation has been happening on the fringes, and #YesAllWomen is bringing a much-needed wider spotlight to it. Yes, we all (and I mean all genders) are complicit. That’s not okay, but it will be okay if we can start with listening and then move to empathy, open dialogue, and action.
  • SHARE. Spread the word, talk about #YesAllWomen, amplify the voices brave enough to speak up — especially with those of your friends who don’t normally think about this stuff, who feel uncomfortable talking about this stuff, who make natural allies, who will continue being defensive, who need to hear it from you.
  • LEARN.
  • BE A FEMINIST. Don’t be ashamed of the title. Proclaim your feminism proudly. Here are 50+ reasons to be a feminist. (Also, follow Laci Green and others like her across social media for examples of how to create change.)
  • QUESTION. Be aware. Be critical. Once you see the “Patriarchy Matrix,” you might not be able to look back. Women, geek girls, smart girls, female leaders have nothing to prove. Question your assumptions instead of questioning whether that person belongs.
  • SPEAK UP. Resist the Bystander Effect. Don’t let things slide just because someone is “joking.” Instead of distancing yourself from the issue by thinking “not all men,” say “don’t be that guy.” Practice empowering responses — for yourself and for others.
  • EDUCATE GIRLS. Empower female creators, female leaders, female politicians, female scientists, female entrepreneurs, female developers, female everythings.
  • RESPECT ALL PEOPLE AS PEOPLE. It really is that simple. And that complex.
    • How to talk to little girls. Ask them about what they’re reading instead of complimenting them on their dress. Even as grown-up’s: if I forget to compliment your new shirt or haircut or shoes, I still think you’re crazy-sexy-cool-beautiful, AND I’d rather hear your thoughts on politics, social justice, and what you’re reading because you’re intelligent-witty-amazing-thoughtful-kind-powerful.
    • Be a beacon of shining light, combatting the messages we hear from magazines-media-beauty-fashion-industry-marketing-machine. This letter from a father doctor to his young daughter is a wondrous example.

The most important thing that might emerge from #YesAllWomen are the small mindshifts that will start taking place. Awareness leads to reflection leads to attitude shifts leads to new habits leads to culture change. Pass it on.

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H/T to Robin who brought #YesAllWomen to my attention and who also blogged about it here.

New memories of a person you never got to know

An experiment! A short story inspired by Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlife by David Eagleman and by recent conversation at a Dinner Party table.

IN THIS LIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of the fragility of our physical lives. Talking about the sad stuff makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy stuff makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: cat videos, making fun of hipsters, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you’ve lost your mother, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details about how she passed. Sometimes they’ll ask about your grief, and you’ll tell them of your sabbatical. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to one of your mom’s old co-workers, who invites you over for tea.

This colleague’s retired now.
(Would mom still be working?)
She lives alone in a big house in Houston, with two guest rooms.
(Would mom have downsized to a condo?)
She shows you photos from a recent trip to Peru with a church group.
(Would mom have become more adventurous or more of a homebody over time?)
She tells you stories about Mattie, sweet Mattie, witty Mattie who always who had a great sense of humor.

No one else calls her Mattie. You drink it in and hold your breath for fear she’ll stop. Your fingers itch to press record or take notes. Your heart is a bittersweet jumble of emotion, mostly joy.

You reach backwards in time for new memories of this other person you barely knew.

+++

IN THE AFTERLIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of remaining tethered to our physical world. Talking about the sad memories makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy ones makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: philosophy, transit schedules, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you left behind a daughter just entering college, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details of your last days with her. Sometimes they’ll ask about your process of letting go, and you’ll tell them of your meditation practice. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog over this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to a newly-arrived soul—the grandmother of a young man your daughter used to date. She invites you over for tea.

This grandma is a retired teacher.
(Which career path did your daughter choose?)
She had a handful of grandchildren and even got to be a great-grandmother before she passed.
(How close is your daughter to being married and having babies?)
Once a year, her family would go to a cabin in the woods.
(Did she ever break out of her shell?)
She tells you stories about Christina, sweet Christina, creative Christina who was always taking pictures.

No one else has said her name to you in years, and you drink it in. You can tell this person loved your daughter, and your heart aches with jealousy before overflowing with gratitude and pride. Your fingers itch to take notes, and you hold your breath for fear she’ll stop.

You reach forwards in time for new memories of this person you never got the chance to know.

Mother’s Day Truths

Mother’s Day was never a big deal in our household — low-key when we were growing up, and merely a nuisance after mom passed. But this year, it’s been on my mind a lot more because of The Dinner Party in my feeds and dinner partiers in my life.

And I find myself collecting articles and quotes, and nodding my head.

…about how the expectations of Mother’s Day feels off

American culture reminds us to remember them on Mother’s Day, mostly through celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. But we don’t need the reminders, because we keep them with us, always.

…and how a cancer surgeon moved through his wife’s diagnosis and passing

The waves and spikes don’t arrive predictably in time or severity. It’s not an anniversary that brings the loss to mind, or someone else’s reminiscences, nor being in a restaurant where you once were together. It’s in the grocery aisle passing the romaine lettuce and recalling how your spouse learned to make Caesar salad, with garlic-soaked croutons, because it was the only salad you’d agree to eat…Or on the rise of a full moon, because your wife, from the day you met her, used to quote from The Sheltering Sky about how few you actually see in your entire life. It’s not sobbing, collapsing, moaning grief. It’s phantom-limb pain. It aches, it throbs, there’s nothing there, and yet you never want it to go away.

…and this article, this article (via Frank Chimero) that I would post whole-sale if I thought it would make you read it. So much of it hits close to home — from the writer’s delayed grief to her looking at others’ stories to help her define her own to her language of “unmothered” instead of motherless. We always had moms; we have them still.

When I returned to New York in late October, only two days after the Shiva, I threw myself right back into school as though nothing had happened…What I kept hearing from friends during that time was that I looked “good” and “strong.” That I seemed “fine.” I didn’t feel fine, but I also had no idea what to do except carry on. “I don’t know how you manage,” an old friend told me. “If it had been my mother, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.” She thought she was paying me a compliment, not realizing that that’s about the worst thing you can say to someone in mourning—as though by merely starting my days I was betraying my mother. Am I? I started to panic. But then I came across Roland Barthes’s “Mourning Diary,” which he kept immediately following the death of his mother. In it, he writes, “No sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.” I remember reading this and experiencing a physical spasm of recognition. He adds, “I seem to have a kind of ease of control that makes other people think I’m suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.”

Yes, I remember thinking. Yes, yes, yes. This wasn’t delayed grief, after all. It was simply this: grief keeps odd hours, the most painful moment at the most abstract moment.

And I wonder whether it’s good or bad that these articles keep crossing my path, dropping hard emotions into my daily life when everything else is going along pretty rosily. Do I protect the joy in my life, or do I honor the loss? Should I avoid the feeds, or should I embrace them? Can I do both at the same time? After all, there’s no selective numbing of emotions; numb one, numb ’em all.

Something I’ve learned this past year is that grief means holding multiple emotional truths at the same time within the same body. Here are some of the truths I’m holding right now, oxymorons all:

  • I am already 10 years into my loss (by the calendar). I am only 3 years into experiencing my grief (starting with my sabbatical).
  • I’ve already survived the hardest parts. I’m still (literally) holding my breath in anticipation of worse to come.
  • I am deeply grateful that the loss has taught me how to feel and love more deeply. I am overwhelmed by and afraid of the power of that kind of love.
  • There is a version of my (higher) self that exists without any titles or narratives. Our stories define who we are, and the story of my parents is foundational to who I am today.
  • I want to move on and not have it define me. Moving on means it will always define me.

For me, when the little mines happen throughout the year, my default reaction will always be to pull in, draw back, go inward, hold my breath, and wait it out. But that is how emotions get stuck, stop moving, and grow to become more challenging. Better to breathe deeply, reach out, stay open, take care of self, take care of others, develop rituals, and let it move.

Each “little mine” becomes an opportunity to practice the joy part (harder because it leaves us more vulnerable) as much as it is to honor the loss.

I thought I was done with the surprises. I will never be done trying to stay open in the face of them.

I hate that. And I love it.

Brainpicker: “I write for me.”

I wrote this Thursday, April 10th…and then never posted it! Ironic, considering its contents. Here it is.

My biggest personal takeaway from the conversation with Maria Popova, AKA the force behind Brainpickings (at the Hattery) was her insistence that she writes for herself, and that her blog is for her and not for us. It is a catalogue of her becoming and the process of her learning. She posts what she finds interesting, what makes her feel alive and the things that make her feel like life is worth living. She posts the things that make her feel smarter and dumber at the same time—the things that make her realize how tiny a part of the universe she is, and yet that much bigger for having understood and digested something wonderful. That gasp of understanding.

It makes pitching your project to her useless, since changing the framing of the thing doesn’t change the substance, and she’ll only post the substance that she finds interesting.

It means she was super broke the first 4-5 years of Brainpickings, eating oatmeal and tuna every meal. She didn’t make Brainpickings to make a living; it was a by-product and not the objective. It felt important to her life at the time, and that’s why she was doing it.

“I write for me,” she said more than once over the course of the evening.

She also mentioned that one of her favorite books is Alice in Wonderland (her other favorite is The Little Prince), and one of the last questions of the evening was why Alice? She recounts the part where the Mock Turtle says “The master was an old Turtle…We called him Tortoise because he taught us.” Maria’s takeaway from this was that we tend to hear what we need to hear based on what we are seeking.

And tonight I needed to re-affirm for myself the belief that artists need to create for themselves and no one else. Worrying about audience or monetization or the medium before the message are all paths to paralysis.

I’ve been fighting “shame gremlins” for the past few months (to use Brené Brown’s language) about my own creative output. I’ve been stifling my own creative energies — haven’t been writing, haven’t been making comics, haven’t been taking photos. And Brené Brown’s research has shown that unused creativity is not neutral—it metastatizes and turns into negativity, resentment, shame.

What has been stopping me from creating? I’ve been paralyzed: worried about audience and caring too much about whether other people care about what I have to write and say. Questioning the worthiness of my own voice in an age inundated with everyone’s voices.

Social media can seem overwhelming these days because everyone may seem like they’re on their soapboxes. My theory is that it’s because a lot of people are posting with ulterior motives instead of from a place of sharing something they’ve created as part of living the life of meaning that they are meant to be living.

Now, that doesn’t mean we always have to be “pure” in our artistic intentions either. That’s unrealistic. Living a life of meaning and making a living are not mutually exclusive. I just think we can tell the difference. We connect more when people are putting work out there that genuinely comes from the space of, “I do this for me.” (Example: Humans of New York creator, who stuck with it through the lonely phases because he “was obsessed.”)

I know I feel it when I’m jiving, when I’m in the zone, when I’m following my gut, when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, when my actions are aligned with the universe’s path for me. Just gotta practice following that more.