Row

may-you-be-small-crop-jpegSometimes the way forward is akin to rowing a boat: facing backward is the only way to get proper leverage. Today, to stir my pot, to get some leverage and new energy, I revisited three books that I wrote but never published (or limply offered to a tiny audience). It was a revelation. It’s as if the man who wrote those books in the past meant for me to read them today. The man who wrote them was not ready or clear enough to birth them. The man who read them today knows just what to do (including rewrite some odd bits). Here is the introduction to the first of the three books:

I’ve generally stepped in every pothole, tripped over every opportunity, broken the family dishes, and made every mistake a person can make. I feel fortunate to be alive. I used to try and hide the mess behind a veneer of “knowing.” Eventually I realized that in order to find what I was seeking I had to stop pretending that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I now recognize that the more I learn, the less I know. Life is not about knowing stuff. Life is vibrant when engaging with the un-known. Seeking is messy business. Being human is messy business. To pretend otherwise is…well, to pretend.

One day, while exhausting myself pretending, I realized that I was telling myself a story of fear. I realized that I was the only person invested in my fear story. I realized that I’d cast all the other people in my story as dangerous characters. I believed that if they really knew me they’d shame me. I realized that I was the only person in my story feeling pain, frustration and exhaustion. So, why was I telling myself this story? This was not the story that I wanted my life to tell. That day I began changing my story.

At some point, each of us comes face-to-face with the story of our lives. When we do, we have the choice to retreat further into hiding or to take off the mask, turn around, and walk toward the thing we fear the most. This is to seek the bear.

Every human being who has walked the face of the earth has come to the same crossroad; those that faced their bear left behind clues about how to do it. They left us messages about how best to stop hiding, how to turn and walk toward fear, what to do when it is time to stand in front of the bear’s cave and how to welcome the encounter. The clues and messages are found in the stories they left for us. The stories are maps for navigating our inner geography.

Our ancestors understood that stories are a participation sport. Our lives are mirrored in the tale of adventure. We know what to do in our personal story because we identify with the heroine/hero in the story. Their journey of transformation is a guide to our journey of transformation. Their follies and foibles give coherence and direction to our messy passage. Their death and rebirth is a map for our death and rebirth. Their story is a call for us to step more fully into our adventure-story.

As is true in all life-lessons, it’s a perfect loop. I’m back where I started (apparently) only with new eyes and a few more years of experience. Order from chaos, chaos from order, I suspect we are all, one way or another, rowing in a perfect circle.circle-peace-earth-jpeg

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Live According To Your Necessity

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson's arrival on earth

a detail of a painting I did in honor of Dawson’s arrival on earth

“Depending upon the lens you look through, I have been a miserable failure at everything I’ve ever done,” I said. Arnie protested but we both knew it was, to a certain extent, true. And, since our conversation I have been gazing through that certain lens and feeling my failure acutely.

This lens is not new to me. I visit it each year as my birthday rolls around. It is a lens that most artists visit from time to time. To their peril. Recently, Chris, one of the most talented and hardworking actors I know, told me that now that he is far down the road of his career, no longer a beginner, he has surrendered the idea, imperative or illusion of economic success. “I work because I have to,” he said. It makes no sense and is impossible to explain to someone who does not have “that” impossible intrinsic driver. The incentives are internal. The rewards are internal. The achievements are mastery landmarks and not monetary rewards. It looks like insanity through the lens of a profit/loss, money=morality society.

When I look through the failure lens I’ve learned I need to visit Rainier Maria Rilke. I need to seek the advice of a master. “Nobody can counsel you or help you. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And, if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity;….”

...closer in

…closer in

My life is built upon this necessity. No amount of comparing it to others is useful. No other lens is healthy. Since moving to Kenosha from Seattle, I am fond of telling people that in my move I committed economic suicide. That is a statement made looking through the wrong lens. Here is the truth: Since my move I have published my book, The Seer. I produced and performed in what I thought was the greatest heart-project of my life, The Lost Boy. It played to sold out houses and fulfilled a decade long journey and commitment to Tom. Two months later I did what I now think was the the greatest heart-project of my life when I illustrated and Kerri and I published Beaky’s books, The Shayne Trilogy. Beaky had an author’s reading a mere two weeks before her passing. Last year I authored drew and submitted with Kerri over 25 cartoon proposals to syndicates. We are completing work on our next play, The Road Trip. And, in the middle of it all, I’ve done arguably the best paintings of my life. I am meeting my question with a simple and strong “I must.”

What is failure? What is success? They are lenses and they matter not.

I am living and building my life “according to this necessity.”

The whole painting.

The whole painting.

 

Protect Our Diversity

Many years ago, sitting in a Starbucks, my brother told me that I should be careful because not everyone wanted the diversity I was promoting. His warning struck me as odd. At the time I was partners in a business that facilitated diversity training and change dynamics. I was traveling to many places in this nation, north, south, east, west, and places in the middle, to work with people in corporations and schools and communities who’d come up against the startling reality that all people do not share the same reality, that equality is an ideal not yet realized, that we are a nation defined by our other-ness.

When I was in school I was taught that the USA was a melting pot, a hot crucible into which people of many backgrounds, creeds, and colors were transformed into something stronger. I was taught that we were a nation of immigrants. It is printed on our currency: e pluribus unum. Out of the many, one. Why, then, would I need to be careful? Diversity was not something I was promoting, it was (and is) our circumstance. It was an identity I was helping people navigate in their workplaces and communities.

I read somewhere that the real challenge of the American Experiment is that we have to reinvent ourselves everyday. Because we are not (and never have been) able to share a common ethnic-religious-origin story, we must strive everyday to create a shared story. We create our story. We were, at our inception, an experiment in other-ness. To insist that we were meant to be singular – white and Christian – is a concoction. Our shared story begins with the single common thread that runs through most of our ancestral paths: we came from some other place seeking freedom in one form or another: religious freedom, freedom from persecution, the freedom to pursue opportunities. What binds us, the single story-blanket under which we can all crawl, is our diversity. Out of the many, one.

There is and always has been a tension in our story creation. Each new wave of others is resisted and often persecuted by the previous wave. When, in a nation of diverse backgrounds, in a country made strong by its multiplicity, does one actually become an American? And, what does an American look like? And, how far are we from living the ideal of all being created equally? With liberty and justice for all? It’s a moving target at best. It is a worthy ideal and worth the struggle.

The Experiment, like all experiments, has had some miserable failures. It has taken some giant strides forward. It is riddled with paradoxes and often runs into a hard wall of hypocrisy. We’ve torn ourselves in half and pasted ourselves back together. We’ve had our share of hate-mongers and xenophobes. We have one now. And, we always transcend them because we do not run on fear or anger but on promise and opportunity. The conservative impulse is always at odds with the progressive desire. It provides the heat for the crucible. It provides the tension for creativity and growth.

The greatest centers of innovation and entrepreneurship in the history of humankind have all been crossroads, places where many cultures cross paths and come together. Difference is a great opener of eyes and minds. We are an intentional crossroads, a meeting place by design. Our make-up of differences might be the single reason why we have grown as a nation of invention, advancement, and possibility.

In one aspect my brother was right: I should be careful, we should be careful to protect and keep the ideal in the center. It is worth marching for, it is worth challenging the fear-mongering and stepping in the way of a leader who plays on anger to create division. We should be careful to honor and steward The Experiment forward to the next generation of diverse Americans.

 

 

 

Escape The Freak Show

Very is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen. – Florence King

Tom used to say that watching television reminded him of going to the circus as a kid to see the freak show. He’d pay his nickel and step into a dark tent filled with oddities meant to repel and repulse. The attraction was the revulsion. I feel that way every day reading the news of the latest antics of the current occupant of the White House. We now open our news apps several times a day and routinely exclaim, “You aren’t going to believe this one!” It’s either a freak show or the latest installment of Game of Thrones. Though, the real horror of our current national predicament is that we can’t exit the tent.

I do not need the news to interpret for me what is actually taking place in our nation. I only need listen to what is said. Language matters. How we ask questions matters. How we frame our arguments matters. The labels we use to define our experiences matters. In today’s Washington Post op-ed piece, E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote: As George Orwell taught us, how people talk offers a clue about how they think and what they value. Our language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He added, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

A president whose language band width is limited to doubling his adverbs (for emphasis, I assume), i.e. very, very, or can find no other adjectives beyond the simple polarities of bad or great is not only troubling, it, as Orwell taught, reveals a lazy mind. Very, very lazy. We should not be surprised that his preferred mode of communication is Twitter and that he’s confused governance with signing executive orders. A bully knows no other way.

Today Michael Gerson, the conservative voice in Washington Post, wrote in his op-ed piece: “Stepping back, cooling off a bit, displaying some strategic patience, taking the long view: The first two weeks of the Trump administration have been the most abso-friggin-lutely frightening of the modern presidency.”

Abso-friggin-lutely! Now, there’s an adverb! And, frightening is an apt adjective.

Building a wall that is already a boondoggle, spending millions to investigate corruption where none exists, picking fights with allies, obsessing over crowd size, vote counts, and television ratings, issuing an ill-conceived travel ban directed at Muslims, abusing a judge for doing his job,…. Frightening. And, like any good freak show, it is drama for the sake of drama. It is governance by threat.

But above all, this: language matters. It is how together we define our reality. Debate (a complex use of language to clarify points of view, make law, challenge laws, express values,…) is the crux and crucible of our system. Our lazy-mind-in-chief routinely defines his own reality and then expects others to conform to his delusion. Bad. Refuse to conform or challenge the sentiment and risk a nasty tweet. Right now, all the other children on the playground are afraid of the sting of the tweet-stick but soon, as happens to all bullies, the kids, red coats and blue alike, will start talking and realize that together, they are more powerful than the angry boy with the simple solution.

It would be comical if only we could escape the freak show tent.

Substitute damn every time youre inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain

 

FIND ENDURING TRUTHS

a detail of an unnamed painting

a detail of an unnamed painting

Skip is in NYC and spent some time at MOMA and The Guggenheim. He sent a cascade of photographs of the great paintings he encountered. I thanked him for the uplift, the reminder of what is enduring and true in this time of post-truth-politics. He wrote, “Trying to fill my head with art and beauty and not full of fears and lies.”

My dear friend came to visit. We have generally stood on opposite sides of the political aisle though have always been able to discuss our differing points of view. We’ve always been capable, at least for a moment, to stand in each other’s shoes and identify common ground. During this latest visit, the other’s shoes were nowhere to be found. I told him that our conversations were like the particle-wave duality: he is looking at the political world and seeing a particle and I am looking at the same world but can only see a wave. Common ground was nowhere to be found. We learned that our friendship is much greater and more enduring than our politics. We went to a play, filled our heads with art that inspired intense conversation. It turns out that there was plenty of common ground available when peering at our world through a rich art-lens. Perhaps our leaders need a better grasp of the power and purpose of art.

I'm experimenting with my meditation drawings. A detail from a work-in-progress

I’m experimenting with my meditation drawings. A detail from a work-in-progress

Kerri asked me if I wanted to see something beautiful and I said, “YES!” She was standing in the kitchen looking out the window through binoculars. “It’s the fox,” she said, handing me the binoculars. About a hundred yards away, nestled into a pile of leaves, the fox was soaking in the sun. While this world seems so out of joint, teeming with discord, I found great solace on this cold winter day watching a fox curl up for a nap in a rare sliver of sun. It filled my heart with beauty and the comfort of an enduring cycle.

I’ve always appreciated the work of Neil Postman. His writing was a North Star for me when I was sailing the choppy waters of education and corporate dysfunction. Today I think he was a prophet. A few months ago I reread portions of his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, published in 1984. This morning, after reading the news, I shook my head and read again the Forward of his book:

“…Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

another detail

another detail

As I find myself drowning in a sea of irrelevance (post truth, alternative fact, crowd size infatuations), I am, like Skip, reaching into the one place where I have always found unshakable truth. When so many are working so hard to fill our minds with fear and fable, a walk through a museum can be salve for the soul. Time in the studio can be a re-grounding in truth, reorienting to the solid realities beyond those smoky deceptions fed to us as fact. It seems to me that intentionally filling our heads and hearts with beauty (not to escape but to feed on substance rather than ingesting so much sugar) is healthy and necessary in an effort not to become like the thing we resist.

Skip and I are not the only ones. George Orwell’s 1984 is selling like hot cakes. Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World deserves a serious look. When truth is hard to find amidst the ranting fiction, sometimes we must turn to fiction (art) to find the enduring truths.

art prints/bags/cards/pillows/cool stuff

Kerri told me that the orchestration in this piece, Bridge, is perfect for this post: Orwellian, a bridge between truth and untruth.

BRIDGE on ITunes: Kerri Sherwood track 15 on AS IT IS

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Choose Your Path

another detail of And Now

a detail of my painting And Now

Months ago Steve told me that he’d read my book. “I liked it,” he said, “But the only thing I don’t get is the first chapter. What do you mean when you say that we don’t have problems, we have patterns?” Since we were in the middle of a rehearsal we didn’t have the chance to discuss it. I forgot about that conversation until yesterday. I was digging through some old notes and found my original note, the first time I told a group that they didn’t have a problem, they had a pattern. I was facilitating a very dysfunctional group and having a great time untying their collective dedication to misery. Afterwards, I wrote extensive notes because the day’s conversation spun my dials. In rereading these notes I find them more relevant today than ever. Here’s what I recorded:

On the road to power the path splits: one path leads to power-with-others. The other road leads to power-over-others. The fork in the road is determined by where you seek your worth. It is, when all else is stripped away, a matter of focus placement. Where do you seek your worth?

            1) If you seek your worth from others, you will take the path to power-over others.

          2) If you seek your worth within yourself, you will take the fork that leads to power creation with others.

If you seek to glean your worth from others you are essentially trying to control the uncontrollable (what other people think, feel, see,…is out of your control). Control is a fear path and requires protection, shielding, etc..

When people stop trying to control what they cannot control, when they place their energy and focus not on what others think of them but on what they think of themselves, they open. They become safe in the world primarily because their safety is not located in what others think (it is located in themselves).

To pay attention to the self brought from the group an assumption that they would become self-absorbed; they would ignore or disconnect from others. I asked them to imagine this: make the basic assumption that they were loved, that they were already worthy beyond measure. A healthy self-worth does not require self-absorption but its opposite. Respect for others is not possible in the absence of self-respect. Given the imagined assumption of self worth, what might be possible? It all depends upon where they place their focus (where they aimed their focus). Focus placement is a learned pattern.

I have always been interested in comparative religions and have often been confounded by the split that runs through the three primary western faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all people of the book sharing a common root). To stir my pot Linda and Bill loaned me a book that speaks to the split in the Christian tradition entitled If Grace Is True by Philip Gulley. The essence of its message: what you see (and therefore, what you believe) depends upon where you place your focus. You can focus on the god of righteousness and retribution or you can focus on the god of grace. If your focus is on righteousness and retribution, you will necessarily believe in a chosen people, an us-and-them paradigm, and fear will be your driver (power-over). This god will send hurricanes to punish. If, however, you focus on the god of grace, then there can be no divisions. Grace is for everyone. This god does not send disasters nor takes sides with who wins wars because division is made-up by humans seeking power. Grace creates power-with.

Our nation, at this moment, is in a heated debate about where to place its focus. Standing at the fork it is embroiled in a dispute about which path to take. The danger on the path of power-over is that it invariably and inevitably eats itself. Fear is a potent driver for a little while. Pushing others down to elevate your self might feel good for a time but will always blow back on itself. Diminishing others is a lousy path to (dare I say it?) true power.

For a short time in the 80’s I did work at a school in Los Angeles that served children in gangs. We played a lot. We laughed as a way of loosening the grips of fear-seeing. The epicenter of our work together always came down to this truth: any idiot with a trigger finger can take a life. It is easy to push others down. It takes a heart and a mind (and a community) to give life. The real work of courage is to lift others up; that is what using your gifts in service to the world is all about. And, in the end of the day, the only difference is which path you choose, where you decide to place your focus, and which pattern you decide to reinforce.

 

joywithframecool stuff/prints/mugs/notebooks

WATERSHED on iTunes:  Kerri Sherwood track 10 on AS IT IS

watershed: an event or period making a turning point in a course of action or state of affairs.

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Look The Other Way

notalone-jpeg

I am working on a project that requires me to read through a passel of old emails. I find myself cringing every time I read my former email address. It was the name of my business. It made sense to me at the time I used it. Now it seems like a little chunk of hubris. david@trulypowerful.com. Yikes.

I came to the name honestly enough. One day while facilitating a workshop with a group in Chicago, we bumbled into a conversation about power. I was surprised to learn that I had a lot to say about power, both personal and communal power. My contention was that people most often confuse control with power. They feel powerful when they feel in control and, in fact, true power is the opposite of controlling. The investment of someone who is truly powerful is to empower, not to control. Think about the best teachers, managers, leaders, or friends that you know. Their commitment to you is to help you grow and learn, to become the most powerful person you can be. Unless you are trying to control them, your commitment is the same: to empower them. The same ideal is at the epicenter of any good relationship, work or otherwise.

Discerning between control and power – not always an easy task – was the guide star of my budding business. The study of power over others (controlling) versus true power (power created with others) – that’s how I arrived at the moniker Truly Powerful. I believed that, with awareness, change usually soon followed.

There is a growing list of words that once had potency for me but these words have been so overused, over-applied, or misused that they are now fairly meaningless: paradigm, paradigm shift, story, transformation, purposeful, presence…power, personal power. A few years ago my move from Seattle to Kenosha prompted a life inventory, a deep gander at my motives and motivations. Being a lover of words and believer in the power of words, I paid careful attention to the words I used to define my self and my work. They seemed a façade, a skin that needed shedding. I have called myself life-coach, facilitator, teacher, director-of-plays, performer, artist, and, no matter the word I applied, I felt I had no business assuming I knew or understood any other person’s route to power, personal or otherwise.

In workshops I often used to say, “You are not broken, nothing needs to be fixed,” and I wondered who I would be – and what I would call myself – if I actually believed that about myself and others. Nothing is broken. Nothing needs fixing. A remarkable thing happens when we assume wholeness instead of brokenness. Like a time-lapse camera focused on a busy urban street, the coordination and synchronization of individual movement becomes apparent. We are much more connected than we realize. Look for wholeness and you will see wholeness. Look for connectedness instead of individualization and all the power, fulfillment, purpose and transformation you desire will become available to you.

I also used to say (and still do), “No one creates alone.” No one walks this path alone. No one is powerful by themselves. Power and fulfillment are group sports. Whether we experience it or not, whether we see it or not, truly powerful is a given.

The second in my Held In Grace series: Surrender Now

The second in my Held In Grace series: Surrender Now. The original is available at zatista.com

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