Sunday, May 24, 2015

Salt of the Earth

Sebastião and Leila Salgado
Nevada Theatre in Nevada City hosts a film series and last night’s offering was The Salt of the Earth a Wim Wenders film about Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado. I expected an evening of beautiful photos and an interesting story about the man behind the camera. The reality of the film included that expectation plus a shotgun blast to the heart and an adrenaline sip of hope.

The film opens on a huge open pit where there are thousands of grime covered men who look like ants climbing up huge ladders, each with black bags of dirt on their shoulders. The scene is out of a slavery horror film but these are not slaves; these workers are here because they want to be, and there is only one reason they want to be here … gold. Anytime a group discovers gold, they get to take a bag of dirt for themselves … sometimes they find gold in their bag, often they find nothing … but they are addicted to the search and willing to do the grueling work for the chance for riches.

Salgado is one of those rare combinations of talents. Schooled in economics, he uses his understanding of the underlying cause-and-effects of world systems to capture the essence of the madness and beauty of the world with his camera. The madness is soul crushing and almost unwatchable as endless minutes of murder, genocide, brutality and bodies piling up like unwanted timber remind us of the horrors of places like Rwanda and Bosnia and also remind us of our dark legacy that stretches far into the past through the Holocaust, Syria, the decimation of the American Indians, Armenia, Stalin’s Russia and on and on.

It is hard to think that, but for the luck of fate, this madness could have put any one of us on one side or the other of this violent legacy. The question becomes: what might possibly save us from the continuation of this blood soaked madness?

At some point Salgado could not continue to face the atrocities that he spent years chronicling, and decided to focus on the earth as it might have been in its beginning. This eight-year project, called an "homage to our planet in its natural state” resulted in the important and beautiful book GENESIS. Salgado and his wife and creative partner Leila also founded Instituto Terra, an ongoing project to restore a part of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Learning to Live Zygert

My friend Jerry McNellis is dying. Before, he leaves, however, he has started a new school. I thought when I first learned that he had brain cancer that he would teach us more about dying, however, it turns out that what he’s teaching is how to live, live until the moment when life is no longer an option.

Jerry has always been a teacher … his subjects were creativity and collaboration and his students were business teams. In all of his workshops, though, the real lesson was Jerry and his indomitable approach to life. When there were two ways of doing something, he automatically had a third and fourth way; out of black and white, he could summon a rainbow.

Jerry probably came by much of his unique approach naturally; however, the Universe gave him an additional push when he contracted polio as a toddler. When he came home after months in the hospital, his incredible mother told everyone “Don’t pick him up.” She wanted him to be strong and learn to do things for himself. He did. In spite of his distressed body, he played football, climbed trees (and fell out), and made a device that allowed him to ice skate.

He developed a team creativity process known as Compression Planning and taught thousands of people how to work together more effectively. I shouldn’t have been surprised when we talked today … but I was ... to learn that he had invented a new word: zygert, which he defined as "focusing on something I love with someone I love.” His goal is to live zygert until his last breath and I signed up as his always-willing student.

Jerry is having the incredible experience of knowing he’s dying but being without pain. He is planning his family and friends reunion (funeral), complete with comic relief, and having deep conversations with people he cares about. As we were talking he explained that he is only interested in zygert conversations and, that if I wanted to talk about California politics, he would have to hang up. Of course, that’s the last thing I wanted to talk about, so we continued.

He described this time as being like standing under Niagra Falls being showered with blessings as he hears from friends from as far back as grade school and gets the chance to tell them how much they have meant to him as well as hearing what he has meant to them. When he asked a noted researcher and pathologist what he would do if he had brain cancer, he said the “expert” said, “I would read all the alternatives, study the journals, talk to the experts … and then I would forget it all and focus on the two or three projects I most cared about and spend time with the people I love being with.” 

"Every morning," Jerry said, “I wake up in gratitude just to be alive one more day to experience all the attention I’m getting. It’s been a time of love to the extreme and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have cancer. I am actually thankful for this big chunk of cancer in my brain.”

When someone asked Jerry for advice, he said there was just one thing. “There is one thing I wish I had done more of," he said, “I wish I had picked up the phone more often and told people that I really appreciated them. Told them 'I really love you’ … just for the sake of it not because of any holiday or event. I wish I had done a lot more of that."

One of his biggest lessons and challenges, he said, was accepting this outpouring of love and accepting being cared for by family and friends. “At first,” he said, “I had a hard time accepting help … I called it babysitting until I realized it was hurting my children’s feelings when I said that. Now I realize that they are taking care of me because they love me."

“My mom always said, ‘Don’t pick him up.’ Now, I realize it’s time accept help, to let people pick me up."

Jerry’s school of zygert is big enough for all of us … we just need to "focus on something we love with someone we love” and tell more people how much we care about them. It sounds so simple … Jerry reminds us not to forget.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Love Letter to Jerry

 
Today I said, “I love you,” to a man I’ve never said those words to, a man who has been one of the biggest influences on my life, a man I have loved for years without telling him that. I think he has always known. I think we both have always known that we had a special bond even though the years often passed with only infrequent phone calls. Life was always busy and our paths which once were parallel, now went in different directions.

Jerry McNellis appeared in my life as a seven-foot god towering over my future. He was a thought leader in the field of creative collaboration and I was writing my second book. I timidly approached him for an interview and, while he remained rather gruff during the interview, he generously gave me insight into his process of “Compression Planning” which became an important part of the book.

A couple of years later when I decided to create a conference on creativity and innovation for business people (this was in the early 1990s when there were no conferences like that), Jerry was the first person I wanted as part of the conference. I remember that first heart-pounding, stammering call … asking him if he’d like to be part of a new conference, produced by someone who had never done a conference before, travel all the way across the country … and, oh by the way, would he mind paying his own way?

No one was more surprised than I when he said, “Yes." It was like God had spoken, parted the clouds and said, “This is going to work!” I knew if Jerry McNellis was going to be part of the conference, it would be a success.  And, it was.

When Jerry and I finally met, I discovered that he wasn’t seven feet tall. He was actually rather short and his body was twisted by childhood polio … plus he was just recovering from a life-altering health crisis as well as the ending of his thirty-year marriage. I was humbled by the confidence he had shown in my fledgling undertaking … and I think for him, the conference was his coming back to life party.

After the conference, I wanted to send Jerry a present but nothing seemed right. Finally, I settled on a pillow I had needlepointed many years before with the words, “This, too, shall pass.” It was old and worn but I thought it might bring him some comfort. We’ve laughed often about his reaction to receiving an old, frayed pillow as a present, but I think it sealed our friendship.

Today, Jerry is facing another health crisis, presumably his last. I know that he will handle this part of his life with the same humor and zest that he has brought to every aspect of his life. HIs son, Pat, called me with the news and told me that one of the first things Jerry said was, “I guess I can drop my Weight Watchers membership now.” That’s Jerry. 

Several years ago Jerry wrote a book about his remarkable mother that helped me understand more about how he became the man he is. When Jerry was stricken with polio at age three and required four months of hospitalization, his mother told everyone, “Don’t pick him up!” Let him fall and find his own way to get up. Reading this book you become part of his early life, watching him learn how to pick himself up ... part of the 17 surgeries and dozens of body-casts ... part of the endless doctor visits, hospital stays, home exercise routines ... but, mostly you get to watch the development of a soaring spirit that never saw disability, just a need to do things in a different way.  Jerry played football, rigged a contraption that allowed him to ice-skate, climbed trees ... and fell out of them ... with a cast on ... danced, dreamed and lived life on his own terms.

I love you, Jerry McNellis … I should have told you sooner. You have been a gift to so many people and you have always been one of my heroes. May you be surrounded and loved by family and friends during this last stage of picking yourself up. You will be so missed.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sourgrass Song

Sun-yellow sourgrass 
Spices the fresh green roadside,
Singing, "Spring …spring at last!


Coming back from the Bay area yesterday was slow going ... too many photo stops along the way. There is just something about spring in the Sierra foothills.




Especially when you live in a place made magic by nature and the creative spirit.
 









Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kaleidoscopic Fodder

Stained glass ceiling in Mérida, MX
A friend recently had a series of health tests that have revealed dark spots on her brain. The diagnosis she expected yesterday didn’t arrive, but in our email this morning, she told me how much she was enjoying the sunrise.

It made me think … this is all just fodder … it’s the paint and metal and glass and canvas that we use to create the art we call life.

And, as life artists (all of us!), we have to be grateful for our materials, however they come to us … whether through travel to a foreign country or exploring our own back yard, through joyful reunions or broken relationships, engaging new projects or cleaning the same window one more time, wins or losses, births and deaths. It’s all we have ... this kaleidoscopic tumbling of life forces, giving and taking, swirling and changing, laughing and singing, weeping and wailing.

In the past few years, great attention has been paid to “being happy.” We now know which countries, states, and cities are the “happiest places on earth.” But happy is only one point on the spectrum of life … maybe the bigger story is the totality of feeling.  Feeling love, joy and happiness … feeling sorrow, despair and empathy. Feeling connected, abandoned, embraced and isolated. Feeling energized, depressed, anguish and joy.

Maybe life’s job is to bring us experiences that make us feel. 
 
Perhaps it’s our job to turn those feelings into art, beauty, compassion, service ... transforming those emotions that rush through our human form into a flow of color and art, love, words, music, dance, food, flowers, friendship and connection.

Perhaps it’s only by understanding this cycle of experiencing and expressing our feelings that we become whole and wholly grateful for everything that comes our way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Year of Paying Attention

Facebook header based on wall art in San Miguel de Allende
Focus on this bright, shiny new year called 2015 has been slow in coming. Today is the 19th day of the year and I’ve been distracted by endings and uncertainty. I feel like I’m already “late” since I haven’t taken time to contemplate the coming year, haven't begun my journal for the year or even chosen my word for this year.  However, this morning I was thinking about how we learn and came across this line about attention.

Often, the main reason we don't learn something or remember it well is because we weren't paying attention in the first place.

It struck me that maybe my “year of …” wasn’t about doing something but about being something … being more aware and attentive, truly noticing the world around me and my engagement with and within it.

What would paying more attention look like? Fortunately, the guru-at-my-fingertips (Google) has an answer … many answers … a plethora of take-your-choice answers. Slowly, I begin to feel the rightness of this choice, feel things start to fall into place. ATTENTION is the word I want to explore this year. Let's see what 365 days of focusing and paying attention will bring to life.

Here are a few gleanings from this new focus on attention ...

One writer began with the definition:
at·ten·tion (noun)
1.a. The act of close or careful observing or listening.
b. The ability or power to keep the mind on something; the ability to concentrate.
c. Notice or observation.

The Redhead Riter (who bills her blog as … “witty, intelligent & addictive”) gives us 15 reasons why we don’t pay attention … 
  • Too comfortable in our surroundings and take it for granted.
  • Overconfident in our abilities.
  • Thinking too much about the big picture.
  • Fear that we will not get it all done.
  • Filling our lives with too many activities.
  • Not living in the moment.
  • Having too much clutter around us.
  • Believing that true multitasking is a reality. (Can you eat a sandwich, whistle and chew gum at the same time? No, you can’t.)
  • Not having a place for everything to reside when not in use.
  • Not putting back things into their proper place after use.
  • Boredom.
  • There’s not a lot of emotion tied in with the experience.
  • Being too tired.
  • We are not at optimal health.
  • Believing that looking and seeing are the same thing.
to be continued, expanded, explored, savored, chewed on, observed and paid attention to ...







Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few days later than his actual birthday, but today we celebrate his life and also the life of Rosa Parks since their lives wove together in a way that changed us all. I post this poem every year in their honor and in the hopes that we live up to their courage and his words.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Twenty-six he was when destiny crooked its finger,
beckoning the still-green minister-scholar into the world.
Forty-two she was when she pounded on the door
Theoretically opened ninety-four years before.
It was the first of December, 1955, when history wove
Their fates together into a multi-colored tapestry of change.

“Tired,” she said, “Bone tired. Tired of giving up.
Tired of giving in,” she said and sat in the front of the bus.

Montgomery, Alabama, shivered as the temperature rose.
The old ways could be heard keening long into the night
As 42,000 people left the buses to stand by Rosa’s side.
381 days they walked: nannies, maids, carpenters, all.

Two hundred years of anger rose up to shatter the silence
And from this deafening roar came a molasses-rich voice
Spinning a song of hope with a melody of peace and love.
“I have a dream,” boomed and echoed across the land.

The young minister-leader painted a picture of a life
without color lines, a world without violence.
His voice lifted the dream: Richmond, Little Rock,
Dallas opened their buses, took down their signs.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter," he said, never silent again.
He took our hands and led us step-by-step onto a new path,
Brothers and sisters connected by heart rather than skin.

“Always avoid violence,” he said.
“If you succumb to the temptation …
unborn generations will be the recipients
of a long and desolate night of bitterness,
and your chief legacy to the future will be an
endless reign of meaningless chaos."

Thirty nine he was when one man with a gun silenced the voice,
But not the words …those four words branded into our brains:
“I have a dream …,” saffron-rich messengers left behind to
Carry forward the dream of a color-blind world of hope and peace.

Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929;
Assassinated April 4, 1968.
And Rosa Parks, civil rights activist, born February 4, 1913
Died October 24, 2005

-- Joyce Wycoff, copyright, 2011