Sunday, December 6, 2015

This Morning I Woke Up


Peace, Joyce Wycoff
This morning I woke up in a place
I’ve dreamed about 
for as long as I can remember.
It’s a place that has called to me for decades
but stubbornly remained obscured 
in the geography of my mind.

I’m not sure how I got here.
I didn’t get in a car, board a plane 
or even walk down the block.
I just woke up and found myself here,
listening to the rain fall,
feeling the cells of my body realign themselves.

I woke up in the middle of a thought
when the world suddenly went quiet
and want and need dropped away.

No one brought me here.
No thing brought me here.
Here was always here;
it was me who was somewhere else,
thinking I had things to do.

Now that I’m here,
I realize that no thing matters.
 
Now that I’m here,
I think I’ll stay.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I Wonder Why?


I wonder why?
I wonder why I, who believes in no dogma,
Who can no longer wear the badge of Christianity
Keep asking myself, “What would Jesus do?"
And receiving an answer so different
from many I see around me?

I wonder why?
I wonder why we who live in the shelter
of freedom and abundance, allow mega-corps
a free ride while our wounded wander homeless,
our children go to bed hungry, and those who
have never known freedom or abundance
are turned away from our door?

I wonder why?
I wonder why we lock our doors at night and then
turn our backs on the creeping devastation coming our way?
I wonder why we still pour our money into weapons of mass
destruction as we climb into our cars and drink manufactured
water out of invincible bottles that will inherit our earth?

I wonder why?
I wonder why the heroes of our grandchildren are vampires,
zombies, and dead souls weaving their way through a dystopian
world without hope or reason, and if they inflict pain 
on their tender bodies in a search for art and meaning?

I wonder why?
I wonder why we lost our way?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Teaspoon and the Ocean


www.saranasgift.com
Metaphor #1: This week I poured my teaspoon of creativity into the ocean of the world of commerce and judgment.

Metaphor #2: It’s the first morning without training wheels, and my beautiful child is wobbling down the road headed for skyscrapers and calculators.

Can I … should I … go for three? No. Enough already. I sent my first work of fiction off to be judged by an impartial panel. It was time, but now I want to call it back, enfold it in my arms and protect it from the harsh glare of day. (damn metaphors anyway … they just won’t stay away … actually, that one fell into the cliche abyss.)

The story of Sarana’s Gift is a new one for me. Two years ago, while trying to write something rational, a different something else, unknown and completely irrational, took over. I tried to put it away but it kept tapping me on the shoulder so I decided to play.

It started with someone … a young girl … riding a silver-white horse through the forest and then running … running … running … trying to get into a house she found … a house with no doors. Why was she running? I had no idea.

Then she found herself in a long, dark tunnel with no way to get out. It was impossible. The next morning, the story demanded its due again and offered me a way out of the tunnel. So, on I wrote until she wound up in another pickle with no way out. It was another impossible situation.

Next morning, another solution and another impossible task. This went on for awhile until it wound up being about 20,000 words of adventures in a fantasy world. Then, she woke up from a dream, looked around and apologized to her mom for being a jerk. What?

I didn’t know what to do with this strange bit of story so I thought maybe it was a fairy tale that I was writing for my granddaughters. Since they were going to spend a few days with me, I polished it up a bit and caught the girls in a quiet moment and started reading it to them. The silver-white horse fascinated the younger one for a few moments before her eyes glazed over. Then, they were both off to other things.

“Well, that was a nice try that didn’t work,” I thought to myself as I packed it away. Life had changed and I was packing everything away, moving on to a new life in a new place.

About a year later I was definitely in a new life in a new place … just not the one I had planned. During the unpacking, I found the story. In the midst of a tower of boxes, I sat down and read it thinking I deserved a break and I could just read it once more before packing it away forever.

Somehow, the story clung to me, calling me to give it time and space to grow. I had time so I sat down and began once more to write, again following more than leading. I never knew where it was going … or why.

Eventually, a structure formed and I started reading bits and pieces in a writer’s group. A trusted colleague read it and seemed to understand what was trying to be said. During the major rewrite that followed, I started to finally understand what was developing.

So, now, here it is out in the world. I can call it my child but it feels more like life struggling up through the concrete, reaching for sunlight, on its own path. It sounds almost too woo-woo but I feel more like the channel than the creator. I just hope my pipes weren’t too rusty, that they were clean enough to let the story be what it wanted to be.

***
Free advanced reading copies are available until 1/29/2016. Go to www.saranasgift.com to request yours.

Monday, November 9, 2015

"Sunflowers" by Judy Garrison Spahn

Sharing a beautiful piece of work from one of my favorite artists today.

"Sunflowers" by Judy Garrison Spahn
Here's what Judy says about her art, "Quilting is satisfying, an escape of sorts, meditative, creative, social, ego boosting. I just do it.  I am a "touchy/feel-y person and fabric is very tactile. I also like making stuff look pretty, whether it's a jumble of scraps or a pile of rocks, or planting my yard in a pleasing and functional way. 

"I love that quilts are both art and function.....which may explain why I stay fairly traditional. I enjoy looking at more avante garde pieces, but my personality is all about "usefulness" and "beauty" combined.  Practical, logical, and producing a useful end result....these are my guiding traits."

"Sunflowers" by Judy Garrison Spahn, 48" x 61",  made in 2001.
Judy has been quilting since the early 1970's, making original design quilts.  Her work has remained rooted in tradition, with hand piecing and quilting becoming a huge part of her everyday life.  Scrap quilts are the norm, as she drafts designs, sews pieced units and uses the trial and error method for deciding what direction the piece will take. 

After making all of the sunflowers, deciding on how to connect them was the next step.  Judy wanted the circles to be set into a background that created the look of a complete quilt top with, perhaps, a checkerboard effect, rather than having the circles turned into traditional square blocks.  Alternating the bold red stripe, the white shirting stripe, and the "tone on tone" red print created the desired effect.   The black, red, and cream rectangles combine to create a bold pattern forming a border that contains the central design area of the quilt.

This quilt has been published in "500 Traditional Quilts," by Karey Bresenhan and currently is on loan for a traveling exhibit.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Tenacious Adventure


Tenacity
As the gentle rain falls, I wonder how many of the world’s great thoughts (as well as the crazy, subversive and slip-shod ones) were born on such days. This morning as I negotiated the territory between what I was supposed to do and what I wanted to do, I blamed the rain when "want" triumphed over "should."  In that space, the following poetic rendition of the recent past was born.

The Missing Piece

I chose to love a pie-shaped man with one piece missing.
His missing piece isn’t so big, I thought.
And the rest of him is sweet.
Together we can blend a new treat.

But my pie-shaped-man-with-one-piece-missing
Saw my own missing piece and thought it two.
Not sweet enough, I heard him say,
Just not enough, as he walked away.

The moral of this tale: Each of us has one piece missing,
Some even more. All of us, alone, alone-ly, incomplete.
To love is an every day choice to make,
Not a one-time, blue-ribbon pie to bake.
***

Shortly after that outpouring, I found solace in one of my favorite places … BrainPickings, a joyful exploration of all things creative. It started with a piece from Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving and then progressed to French philosopher, Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love. It was in Badiou’s piece that I found a profound insight.

He says:
Love… is a quest for truth… truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? That is what I believe love to be.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations. The encounter between two differences is an event, is contingent and disconcerting… On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point. This surprise unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world. Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.

Love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction. The enigma in thinking about love is the duration of time necessary for it to flourish. In fact, it isn’t the ecstasy of those beginnings that is remarkable. The latter are clearly ecstatic, but love is above all a construction that lasts. We could say that love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity. To give up at the first hurdle, the first serious disagreement, the first quarrel, is only to distort love. Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.
 I am, perhaps, wont to oversimplify, but, I read this as: it’s only when things get “bad,” that there is the opportunity for real “good." When we can face our differences and come to know and appreciate the person beneath the differences, we develop a new perspective and come into the fullness of Love.

Sounds simple, huh?

Stone Soup for Syrian Refugees


Life jackets abandoned by refugees arriving in Greece
Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty Images)
As I snuggle warm in my bed while a gentle rain falls outside, the words I read take me to a place torn between the storms of chaos and insanity. It is a place I only read about while real people, young and old, strong and weak, educated and not, experience the free fall of life with no safety net.

Hardship, exhaustion, illness and death surround their journey away from the crumbling reality of a government gone mad, as millions of people leave their homes with what little they can carry, risking everything to find safety. Set adrift in overcrowded captain-less rubber boats, equipped with rattletrap motors fighting a treacherous sea, wearing cheaply made life vests held together by spit, desperation drives them into the generosity, as well as the cruelty, of strangers.

All of this began after Syria experienced a devastating drought that dragged on for four years, killing 85% of the country’s livestock and forcing almost half the population to leave their homes. The government devolved into anarchy where warring factions have killed over 250,000 people while the official leadership is promoting "Summer in Syria," billing it as a destination resort.

A new friend writes of self-reliance but as I read this I have to think that it’s easy to talk of self-reliance when the world around us is stable and sane (well, the Donald’s hair not withstanding), but what would we do if we were faced with the type of catastrophe that hit Syria? What if all of our systems collapsed? What would happen if suddenly 150 million of us were homeless, unemployed, desperate. Would we just say, “Buck up, Bub … take responsibility for yourself?"

As much as we would all like to be self-reliant, we’re not, and we haven’t been since we started hunting in groups to avoid starving. It reminds me of the “stone soup” story where everyone in a village was starving until a stranger came to town and offered to make soup with his magic stone. As he boiled his stone in a big pot on the town square, one by one villagers came and offered the poor man something for his soup since they knew that one rock would never a soup make. One dropped a potato in the pot, another an onion. One old woman actually had two turnips. Soon there was real soup and the whole town ate hot soup ... together.

Syrian refugees need help. Let’s make stone soup. Here’s one organization that helps: International Rescue Committee. http://www.rescue.org/donate-overview

More about the Syrian crisis:
Syria, the Story of the Conflict: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868
Syrian Refugees, a Snapshot of the Crisis http://syrianrefugees.eu/

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Imagine Florida


Photo from Calfire.ca.gov
Imagine Florida, population about 20 million … 
- a severe, extended drought kills over 85 percent of the livestock and sends two million farm families to the cities looking for work
- another million or two people from also drought-stricken Alabama & Georgia head to Florida cities looking for ways to feed their families
- more than six million people in Florida (30%) become displaced or homeless.
- unrest breaks out as unemployment goes above 15% (with some estimates being much higher) and people become increasingly desperate
- demonstrations and civil disobedience are met with government force; social systems begin to break down
- civil war breaks out as different factions vie for power. Immigrants from New York and New Jersey are specifically targeted and the death toll rises as lawlessness becomes the norm
- the economy goes into free fall and millions of people begin to flee the state, migrating to surrounding states, risking their lives to reach safety. Surrounding states panic at the influx
- violence spirals out of control and the death toll is estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

This may never happen in Florida but it has happened right before our eyes in Syria. Sparked by an historic climate change related drought, a country has been decimated in less than ten years.

And we’re still arguing about whether or not 
we should take action on climate change?

We’re still willing to bet our future, as well as the future of our children and grandchildren on the possibility that the climate change isn’t “human caused?” So what, it’s still climate change … and there are things we can do to change it for the positive.

It’s time to stop squabbling and put our brains together and find solutions for the future.

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.

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.

Posted each year in honor of two people who changed our world.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

If I only had a chair ...

I had a chair.
It was a bright, shiny chair.
I put it in the center of my room
where everyone could see it
even passersby in the street.

I cared for my chair,
dusted it, polished it,
told everyone who would listen
about its lines and curves,
how remarkable it was.

My chair had one short leg,
wobbled a bit,
My friends and I laughed
about our wobbly chairs
and the shims we used
to make them stable.

I painted my chair 
in bright colors,
shared pictures on Facebook,
dutifully liked pictures of theirs,
felt part of the tribe, 
felt part of the whole.

I seldom sat in my chair,
it was a bit rigid and stiff,
rubbed against my bones,
caused my back to ache,
set up an unease in my spirit.

A day came when I needed rest,
needed comfort and support.
Decided to sit in my well-polished chair, 
displayed and brightly lit
in the center of my room.

The legs wobbled, then buckled,
the pieces fell apart,
Leaving me sitting in a pile of dust,
in the center of my room
where everyone could see
there was no chair,
only a chairlessness and
an empty room,
alone,
yearning

If only I had a chair … 



Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sauntering

It is eleven days into the new year and I am still stuck between the old and the new. I have not made the transition; I have not glitter-doodled my journal for 2015; I have not collaged my intentions for the year; I have been stuck in old stuff that I carried with me into this bright, shiny new year.

Today a friend sent me a copy of Brain Pickings, a rather amazing collection of wisdom and thoughts, and it shook me out of my stupor and offered me a resolution … walking, or more accurately sauntering. Now, I have been an avid walker for as long as I can remember but suddenly I realized I have been only half-walking … walking in body and mind but not in spirit and connection with the world around me.

The realization that I have been missing much in my walking was sparked by Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on walking where he says (quoting from Brain Pickings) “(Thoreau) sets out to remind us of how that primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, that spring of spiritual vitality methodically dried up by our sedentary civilization."

"Thoreau argues that the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering. (In one of several wonderful asides, Thoreau offers what is perhaps the best definition of “genius”: “Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself — and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.”) An avid practitioner of hiking, Thoreau extols sauntering as a different thing altogether:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

So, my first resolution for the year is to practice sauntering, to treat walking as a holy act and to allow the world to unfold in front of me.
 
About the image: I think while I was in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I did spend a fair amount of time sauntering, wandering aimlessly through streets and neighborhoods, following sights or sounds as they appeared ... finding my way to the sea. This wall art was one of the things that captured my attention.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Confessions of a "Fast Learner"

From collection of 85 -eria words
I was always a fast learner. New information comes into my brain quickly and makes connections and linkages that give me insights … at least long enough to take the test, make the grade and then let all or most of it drain away. Over the years, I came to think of my mind as a sponge, soaking up information only to let it flow out almost as fast as it flowed in.

For most of my life, and especially in school, fast learning was enough; I seldom needed the information learned in one class to succeed in the next one, and, if I did, I could always quickly relearn it … and then reforget it.  However, over time I began to wonder why some of my friends and colleagues, who didn’t necessarily display that fast learning thing, seemed to remember more than I did, seemed to be able to recall information they needed to make decisions, understand the workings of things and systems, and even just talk about the movie they saw last month (or even last week, if I’m honest).
 
None of this caused me any great problems until I decided to study Spanish seriously. For twenty-five years I had been non-seriously attempting Spanish and failing. Adult-ed courses dropped by the wayside like summer flies on a window sill. Spanish books, tapes, CDs, and Internet programs provided me with my own technology timeline leading to nowhere.

I decided there was only one thing I hadn’t tried … language immersion in a Spanish-speaking country. So, I made my reservations and headed off to San Miguel de Allende only to have that illusion pop like a rainbow soap bubble in the sun. Being in a classroom taught by a native Spanish speaker and surrounded by the language in the streets and stores produced no magic. The classroom bored me and the forced efforts to speak without vocabulary to speak with only frustrated me. The streets enchanted me but dropped language into my brain drip by tiny drip without creating a coherence or understanding.

I switched to a tutor who handed me a workbook and led me through charming but largely uncomprehended conversations. I worked the boring workbook. I studied and when I could study no longer, I walked the streets, picking up more disjointed words. I started reading what I could, writing what I could, and endlessly wondering why so very little was sticking … what was wrong with me?

Then, I discovered Google Translate. A more flawed guide to a foreign language you may never find … but it was there 24/7 and it gave me instant feedback. At the time, I did not know how bad it was, I just knew that if I put something into it, it gave me something back, instantly. I started writing sentences in Spanish and putting them into GT. Instantly I could see mistakes … wrong words, wrong pronouns, wrong word order, wrong verb tense … wrong, wrong, wrong!

I fell in love with GT. It didn’t tell me I was stupid … it told me that I didn’t yet have it right and it was infinitely patient while I tried this or that or went off on a Google search to find someone who might have an answer for me. Somewhere in that process, I discovered 123teachme.com and fell into a conversation with the developer of that very helpful site. He told me something that changed everything. He said that most students fail to achieve their new language objectives.

OMG!  If most people fail at something … at anything … there is something wrong with the system not the individuals trying to use the system. Maybe it wasn’t me … maybe it was the way I was learning. Maybe school had been one long experience of learning the wrong way. Perhaps … just perhaps ... there might be a better way?

That’s my new quest … and, so far, I’m finding some incredible stuff … stuff I wished I had learned in kindergarten … or at least by grade 2 or 3 … however, at least now I have some new tools to apply to the project of learning Spanish and am developing some confidence that I can reach my objective in that lovely language.

I will be sharing techniques as I learn them and experience how well they work on my own learning project.  Below is the first one and más tarde (more later …. ;-)

FIT: Focused Interval Training* … this is definitely not new but in our over-stimulated, multi-tasking world, it is worth dusting off and applying to anything you want to learn. Plus it’s just about as simple as anything you can possibly do … Set aside a specific length of time for focused learning … 25 minutes, 30 minutes - turning off email, phone and all distractions. Take a 5 minute break afterward. (*also known as The Pomodoro Technique).

There is even an app that helps you do this … 30/30 … here’s a write-up about it ...
 
Do you ever get lost in a project and wonder where the time went? If so, you should consider downloading 30/30, an app that keeps you on task.
What does it do?
It lets you set up a list of various jobs, each with a designated amount of time to complete them. Start the clock, and when it runs out, it will tell you to move onto the next thing.

Why do we like it?
30/30 helps you focus in a clean, colorful interface that you can control with gestures. Say, hypothetically, you tend to get lost down a YouTube rabbit-hole (not that any of us knows anyone like that). You could say you want to spend 30 minutes looking at videos followed by an hour working on your taxes. It alerts you when its time to move on so you don't waste too much time.