Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Letters from Wise Women: Pat Conwell

Pat Conwell is one of the wisest women I know and has helped guide me though many life changes and inner conflicts in the past several years..  She is also funny, irreverent and immensely kind. 

She works with families in the midst of divorce to help them create a peaceful zone for their children.  Many of her clients come to her from the courts so she has heard and seen parents at their worst as they deal with the pain, anger and frustration of ending a marriage and yet being forced into a life-long partnership of parenting their children.  She is currently completing a book, Parenting after Divorce:  7 simple steps to raising happy kids during and after the custody battle, to help these parents and the innocent children who too often are pawns in a brutal struggle.  Pat lives in San Diego with her husband Walt and her canine companion Audrey.  More info at her website.

I asked Pat to help me launch a new series about lessons learned and wisdom gained through personal letters that share those lessons and wisdom with others.  I hope you enjoy this periodic series.

Pat's letter to all of you ...

“It’s my way or the highway” is a dead end road for relationships.

I was the product of a Norwegian and Kentuckian.  They were raised on farms and there was no room for give and take.  They had to get up at four to milk cows and stay up until 11 to drive the truck during harvest.  They had to gather the eggs, feed the rabbits, kill the chickens.  From their youngest age, they learned there was no choice.  They always had chores.  It was instilled in them that obedience to their parents was the first rule of law.

Then they had a family and passed on what they learned.  I learned that black and white were the colors of the day.  No grey.  I eventually learned my parents were not right about everything, but I also internalized the attitude they projected.  There was a right way and a wrong way to do things.  My judgment was correct, any different  judgment was wrong.

And then I got married. 

It was the ‘70’s.  Being married was going to be easy, because we just loved each other so much.  And so, for 14 years, we struggled to make it work.  I was intractable.  I didn’t just let things go.  I thought I should have an opinion on everything, and if my husband didn’t agree, he was wrong. When he decided the marriage was at an end, it came as a shock.  I knew we were not on the same page about having a second child.  I never knew he would leave the marriage.  It broke my heart.

But I had a beautiful toddler who needed me so I had to pull myself together, with the help of a few very good friends, and therapists,  and find my way as a single parent.  It took a couple of years, but I eventually came to the conclusion that the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.  In having to find my way alone, I also found the grey zone.  I found I didn’t have to have an opinion on everything.  I found other people’s way of rinsing dishes or folding towels or washing clothes worked just fine.  It didn’t work for me, but it worked for them, and so what?  

This was not an overnight epiphany.  I was challenged at every turn.  While I never said “you’re doing it wrong,”  I freely gave advice couched in terms that I thought were agreeable, helpful, instructive.  After all, it was for the person’s own good.  “You should rinse the dishes this way because..., you should fold the towels this way because, you should … “and the list goes on.

Gradually, slowly I found new language.  I eliminated “you should,” “you need to,” “you have to,” and substituted “you might want to think about.”  Why did I need to tell other people how they should run their lives?  And to my utter relief, the loved ones in my life did just fine without my opinion.  They did things their way, and things turned out just fine.  If only someone had told me when I was 15 (or younger) that people can live full, productive, happy lives WITHOUT me telling them how to do things the “correct” way.  If only someone had told me eliminate “you should,” “you need to,” “you have to” from my vocabulary. If only I had known that no one needs to do ANYTHING my way.  No one needs me to “should” on them.  

Why didn’t someone teach me to ASK permission before I started giving advice?  When my daughter was in her early twenties and had found the man she would eventually marry, there were times when she would tell me about their relationship, and I would ask “can I give you some advice?”  And she would blithely tell me “no, I just wanted to get it off my chest.”  It gave me apoplexy to stop there.  To not go ahead and say “well, this is REALLY good advice.”  I had to respect her right NOT to hear my thoughts.  Some times she would, after a couple of minutes, laugh and tell me, “sure, what do you think.”  She just wanted to see my face turn blue from the effort to hold in whatever golden bits of knowledge I had to offer.

So, in our house we called them UA’s … unsolicited advice … and they were a no-no.  As much, or even more, than the courtesy ban on using foul language, UA’s were at the top of the taboo list.  We always had to respect the fact that a person would “solicit” our advice if he/she wanted it.

Here are some of the things I've learned, the hard way, about how to have happy, long-term relationship:
  • Learning to agree to disagree gives a lot of room for growth and longevity, and fun.
  • Ditching the need to be the judge and jury of another person shows respect and caring.
  • There is more than one way to skin a cat.
  • The need to be right makes for an unhappy relationship.
  • Be grateful for every day you have someone in your life with whom you share mutual respect.
  • Ask yourself, at every turn, “am I being kind.”
Practicing these tenets has made me happy.  I’m hoping you try them out, and you find that they help make you, and the ones you love, happy, too.

Pat Conwell

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stealing Second

“Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first base.”
- Frederick B. Wilcox

Yesterday, I took my foot off first base; now I'm in the danger zone between first and second, not knowing what will come next.  

It all started with fear.
A couple of days ago I made a silly decision to go see "A Dark Knight Rises" as a minuscule act of resistance against fear.  What I received for this act was 2 hours and 44 minutes of non-stop violence and a disturbing view of an apocalyptic world.  I can't recommend this movie … take that precious 2 hours and 44 minutes and make life with it.

However, this thinking about fear prompted my current leap into the void.  Last December I was thrilled to be accepted into the Gallery at Marina Square in Morro Bay.  It is a beautiful space filled with the art work of almost 70 artists run by an inspired and very patient leader, Jane Siragusa.  It has been a great experience … I've learned a lot, met inspiring artists and was stretched to a new level when I was given the privilege of being a featured artist and had to fill 22' of wall space with my art.  

Acceptance into the Gallery was a major factor in my decision to move to the Central Coast … a decision I'm grateful for every day.  However, yesterday I resigned as an artist in the Gallery … turned loose of my safe, accepting, friendly and supportive place and decided to steal second.  The Gallery sits in the primary tourist area in Morro Bay so it gets a lot of traffic but most of its sales are jewelry and small pieces of art, often related to Morro Bay and its signature rock.  

In the past several weeks, I've spent a lot of time trying to find a strategy for making my art fit this market so that it would be financially more viable.  The problem is that I want to do bigger pieces, not smaller, and I want to do the work that calls me rather than what I think might sell.  

I believe in art.  I think the act of creativity heals our Universe … any act of creativity whether it's art, poetry, gardening, raising a child, teaching or dancing.  Creativity is not about the end result, it's about the process of pulling a piece of ourselves into the "real" world.  Focusing on the end result affects the creative process.  

The Gallery fits some artists perfectly … what they are called to create happens to be what the visitors to the gallery want to buy.  For me, it was a mis-match.  The safe route would have been to adapt to the market.  I'm choosing a more risky path leading to somewhere I can't see.  

Only tomorrow knows where we're headed.

About this image:  Into the Abyss

Harmony is a small art community here on the Central Coast, population 18, with a glass blowing and other art studios.  One day i was visiting there and, as I was walking toward the glass studio, something in the weed-filled area in back of it caught my eye.  It was just a wooden wall, burnt and weathered but it called to me and from it came this image.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Cobwebs of Fear

It's Tuesday … just another day … just another opportunity to live the life of our choice … just another occasion to focus on kindness, gentleness, peace.  Just another day to resist the web of fear building in the corners.

I spent the weekend with friends including a young couple at the start of their lives together.  Part of the conversation revolved around fear and it struck me that fear  may be the defining emotion in our society … of our time.  It's easy to see why this would be … innocent people murdered by a madman in a movie house, warlords around the world blindly battling for power, a climate that may be heading toward the edge of a cliff, a fragile economic environment dependent upon neighbors we don't know or understand, a health care system that leaves most of us at risk financially, and, perhaps most disheartening of all, a loss of faith in our leaders.  

I thought how hard it must be for a young couple contemplating their future to even think about committing to a life-time of raising children.  But, then my friend said, "Hasn't it always been this way?"  And, I had to chew on that.  Is the time we're living in truly more dangerous than the past?  Or do we just bombard ourselves with all the news of danger?  

I've dabbled in genealogy recently and seeing families with 8 or 10 children … or more … is a common finding, accompanied by an also familiar indication of how many of them died in infancy or childhood.  One of my friends who has gone deeply into her own history found stories of mothers who left the old world for the new and spent weeks on a ship trying to protect their babies and toddlers from starvation and disease … often losing. Our ancestors left safety and literally walked into the face of danger in order to find a better life.  In 1918 … after losing 16 million people in World War 1, a three-year long flu epidemic claimed another 50-100 million people world wide … the equivalent of 3 out of every 100 people.  The "Great Depression" followed and reduced the average income by 40% and left 25% of the workforce unemployed.  World War II broke the depression but killed another 60 million people and left cities and lives across Europe and Asia decimated.  

Of course, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, famine, volcanoes, fires and terrorism also added to the mix of danger that has always been a part of our life here on earth.  There is no such thing as "safety" in our external world.  No amount of gated communities, guns, guard dogs, fences, face masks, Humvees or kung fu training will guarantee the safety of our physical being.  

Maybe that's our lesson.  We need to find a different form of "safety" … an internal form that gives us the strength to walk forward into the world, doing what calls us, facing the uncertainties, knowing that each day is precious and that there is no guarantee of a tomorrow.  For the past several days, I've been living with the image above … Mother of Creation.  She makes me think that we are all held in the womb of the Great Mother … that at a fundamental level of spirit, we are all completely safe.  She reminds me to be diligent in clearing away the cobwebs of fear.

In a tiny act of resistance, tonight at 6:15, I will be in the movie house close to me watching The Dark Knight Rises.

Monday, July 16, 2012

If TED Can Talk About It, So Can We!

Here's a wake-up call:

(Since some of you are reporting you can't see this video ... here's a direct link to YouTube:

It's Official: Art Makes Us Happy!

Watch this short video ... then go make art ... buy art ... view art ... support art in our schools!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Gift of Solitude

Surf School
I awakened on the 4th with the wolf of solitude scratching at my door.  I know his sounds by now and by mid-afternoon, with friends and family miles away and the celebrations popping in the near and far distance, he was beginning to howl. 

Solitude is something I've chosen … moving to a new place where I know no one and choosing work that feeds on solitude.  However, I want solitude to be a wrap I put on and take off at my own whims … not a fierce and hungry wolf who sometimes glides silently through the moonlit woods, free to explore the world around him, and sometimes howls and twists to get free of what feels like the trap that binds him.

But, solitude is what it is and I'm beginning to know him and his ways well.  I know what soothes him and what follows a siege of trying to break free from that fearful, dark night. Dawn always comes, bringing with it new light, new grace.  I've learned a small portion of patience, so I wait … wait for the storm to pass, wait for the return of the tingle of anticipation.

This morning it rushed back in with the tide as I walked near the edge of the water.  Gentle waves whispered, "Something … something new … something new is coming … something new is forming …"  I know this to be true … something new is always coming … always coming to each of us.  As our ancient friend Heraclitus reminded us, we never step twice into the same river.  A year from now life will be new and different … maybe better, maybe worse, maybe just different. 

Right now the future coming toward me is the tiniest sprout, green and unidentifiable.  Will it be a sheltering oak or a red peony … or merely a weed to be plucked?  I do not know and it doesn't matter what I want it to be, because it will be what it is and my wishing it to be one or the other matters not.  All I'm called to do is nourish it … feeding it, watering it … tending it by savoring each moment of Now.  For regardless of what shape the coming takes, it will grow strong or falter based on the actions, feelings and beliefs of each tiny present moment.

So, walking in the soft, marine-layered morning, I drink in the gliding pelicans in their irregular formations, the generations of walkers, joggers and surfers, the bouncing white volley balls, the squealing inlanders touching the surprisingly chill waters of "sunny California" under a still sunless sky, the dogs sniffing the trace of their compatriots along paths of seaweed while a waggle-tailed puppy calls "Please come play with me!" to every passerby, the photographers with long lenses peering into rock crannies for scampering crabs, and beach combers sharing their gatherings.  

All of this ... the gift of solitude … a reminder that whatever is coming, the only thing I truly have is this precious and perfect moment.  Remembering that humbles me and makes me grateful.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moral Humility

Since it's the 4th of July, a time to stop and think about what it means to be an American, I wanted to pause from my normal writing about art, life and spirit and talk about the political environment of our country.

This started this morning with wanting to post the video, "Born Again American," which is a wonderfully uplifting and touching song with a strong message about the current state of our country.  I highly recommend the video. 

And, I'd also like to recommend a TED Talk with psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has done a lot of study about differences between liberals and conservatives.  It's interesting that the differences between the two groups on five basic value scales tend to be the same all around the world.  The five value scales are:
  • harm/care
  • fairness/reciprocity
  • ingroup loyalty
  • authority/respective
  • purity/sanctity

Haidt's basic point is that we need both views and that it requires moral humility to understand that neither view is "wrong" and together we make a smarter country, a smarter world.

May it be a day of joy and connection for all of us.