Saturday, July 11, 2015

Embrace the Weeds!

Flower or weed?
Weeds are the chaos that grows in our carefully tended garden; dandelions in the lawn of life.

But who designates weedness and determines the criteria for judgment? Why are dandelions to be plucked out while daisies are to be cherished and placed in vases on the dining room table? Why is wild abundance abhorred and destroyed in favor of domesticated scarcity?

Farmers pour poison into the earth in order to insure the production of what is designated as food, yet my grandmother used to take me weed collecting in order to have a meal of dock and poke greens and lamb’s quarters and even dandelions. In her world these weeds were food.

It makes me wonder about the weeds within ourselves … those sprouting bits of chaos that we quickly eradicate because someone … our parents, our churches, our cultures … has deemed them unacceptable weeds. How do we know they are weeds? is the child’s fascination with mud a weed to be removed or the beginning of the journey toward sculpture … or engineering … or culinary genius? 

How many weeds have we pulled out of our own life garden? Weeds that might have flowered and become a vibrant addition to the world? 

Weeds have a headstrong insistence on life on their own terms, in their own way, in their own places. Weeds care not for rules and boundary lines. They are not influenced by the wants and desires of the world around them. By their very nature they are uncontrollable, growing through concrete, sprouting up in impossible cracks, obstinately growing in the tidiest gardens. 
Perhaps that’s why we fear them so and feel no remorse when we fill our garden sheds with weed killers and our Saturday mornings with digging and hoeing and making tall piles of green waste that will bring our lives back into order. Perhaps that’s why we wear 3-piece suits and panty hose. They are our anatomical weed killers, holding back the wildness that might break out if we weren’t constantly reminded to be on guard.

But … what if … just what if … we let a few weeds blossom and come to fruit? What might we discover about life and ourselves? What if pouring the gentle rain of attention onto some of our weeds revealed new talents, new possibilities, new ways of feeling our way into the world. What if those weeds were actually the better part of ourselves?

Thinking about the weeds within myself makes me want to be gentler with those new seedlings that show up unexpectedly, those bits that seem wild and perhaps even inappropriate but which are part of me. Perhaps they don’t look like the American Beauty Rose that I was hoping for but they are mine and deserve their day in the sun. They deserve the gentle rain of attention and I want to honor them and let them feel their way into the world. I am beginning to feel very protective toward them.

Thanks to Bob Branstrom who prompted this thinking and gave me the motto: Embrace the Weeds!
A few others who joined this virtual conversations at various points along the time continuum ...
"What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."  
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878
"Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them."
~A.A. Milne
"A weed is but an unloved flower."
~Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Two Lessons from My Spirit Guide of Moving

I hope I’m on my last move.  However, that’s a familiar hope that has lived with me for as long as I can remember. So, I’m limiting my expectations and focusing on the gifts that come with moving. 
Moving used to be a rather mechanical thing … pack everything up, unpack everything and put it away again, finding all the nooks and crannies of a new space. Do it on autopilot; do it as fast as possible in order to get back to “normal” and productive use of time.

Now, it’s somehow different; more a part of normal, more a living part of my life, almost an entity that I’m traveling with that seems to speak to me as I go through the motions of unwrapping the bits and pieces of my past to see how they fit within the new realm of my present and future.

Looking back, the past year was a graduate-level learning experience … why is it that we never recognize those while we’re in the midst of them, but only after they’ve blown through our lives, leaving us with that dazed, “what was that?” look on our faces? I met a guy. (So many stories begin in that same way.) Anyway, I met a guy; a nice guy: smart, creative, quirky. The online dating service said we were a 99% match; I thought it was fate; I thought it was “happily ever after." Beware of those one percents.

Gradually, the differences grew faster than the connections; however, it was fate, so I ignored them. I brushed aside the niggling doubts that rose when we had conversations about how we would merge our lives. I yielded when he needed things done his way and made excuses as time passed and he was too busy to be together. Finally, however, like a house of cards, it crumbled, leaving both of us bewildered as I walked away, "determined to do the only thing I could do; determined to save the only life I could save.” (Thank you, Mary Oliver.)

It wasn’t until I was in the midst of moving chaos: boxes stacked through the center of what might become my living room, boxes opened, boxes flattened, contents dispatched to drawers and closets, boxes and more boxes. Desperate to find small bits of beauty and comfort, I decided to hang my jewelry display box, which is actually a serving tray that I screwed cup hooks into so that I could see the colors and shapes of my jewelry. It’s a homely and iconic display; for some reason, it is far more significant to me than the actual jewelry that it holds. It’s always one of the last things I pack away before a move and one of the first things I hang in a new space.

As I was hanging the jewelry box in its perfect place, enjoying the flash and sparkle, turning it into a mini-altar to beauty, the Spirit of the Move spoke to me and said, “You would never have hung this if you had stayed with him.” I was surprised at the thought but realized instantly that it was true. Being with him had required giving up pieces of myself, some of which had taken me a lot of time and work to find in the first place. This common jewelry display would not have fit his aesthetic sensibilities and I would have folded under the pressure … not his … my own pressure to fit myself into his life. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t have to do that … I had my life back.

Lesson #1: being with someone should encourage my own authenticity and enlarge my life. Otherwise, being alone is just fine.

I’ve been downsizing through my last several moves and thought I was down to bare bones. Little did I know there were still some mastodon bones buried in the rubble. One of my oldest treasures is a pitcher that my first mother-in-law painted with a charming woodlands scene. It reminds me of her. She always introduced me as her daughter, even before I married her son. We were close, talking at length every week, sharing our lives, being family. She loved me, or at least she did until I divorced her son. After that, she never spoke to me again. Losing her was as hard as losing my marriage.

When I left her son, I took the pitcher and carried it with me for decades, move after move carefully packing and unpacking it. When her son and I reconciled and forgave each other thirty years later, I offered it back to him but he didn’t want it. Still, I carried it with me; it was a treasure. A few days ago, I unpacked it, rinsed it off and put it in a prominent place in my new kitchen.

Yesterday, the Spirit of the Move spoke to me again and asked me why I was continuing to display a memento of one of the most painful events of my life. I was shocked at the thought of letting go of this piece of the past but realized that it held a multitude of conflicting feelings … being loved, being unloved, disappointing people I loved, being unworthy of this gift of beauty.

This morning it sits beside a box I have packed to take to the thrift store. I haven’t quite been able to put it into the box. It’s just a water pitcher, an inanimate object, yet I feel tears forming at the thought of letting it go. Perhaps it’s the last step in letting her go, letting go of how treasured she made me feel … until she no longer felt that way. Perhaps it’s the last step in forgiving myself for not being able to hold my first marriage together.

And, as I write this, I realize that this is Lesson #2: Let go of anything that is not love.

I’m back. The pitcher is now officially in the box and in putting it there, I realized that this is also the last step in forgiving her. She loved her son and did not know how to love both of us. I have been wearing her rejection like a hair shirt for way too long. I can take it off now and forgive both of us.

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.