Sing To The Sun

Image by N. Charneco

I am sitting in Leigh’s townhouse. From here I can see downtown Oakland, the Bay Bridge and now I can see downtown San Francisco; the city is just emerging from the morning fog, a cold grey silhouette. I knew it was there. For the past hour I’ve been sitting at the window, sipping coffee, waiting for the city to reappear. I wanted to see the moment. I wanted to be present when the city returned like Avalon from the mists of time.

Lora tells me that her mother used to stop what she was doing and go outside to watch the sun disappear beneath the horizon. Every evening of her adult life, for a few moments, she would step outside, feel the last rays of the days’ sun on her face and watch until the last hint of light dipped beneath the horizon. In my imagination she stepped out of her “to-do list” and for a few moments stood as a silent witness, present in the world.

These rituals of appearance and disappearance are much on my mind. There are cultures that face east in the dark predawn hours and sing so that the sun will rise. It took me years to understand that their song was not so much about invoking the sun to rise (a result) as much as it was about reaffirming their connection to the cycles of life (a relationship). While going through college I drove a bread truck to support myself. My route took me east so I saw the sun rise every morning. After several weeks of watching the sunrise something changed in me. I no longer watched sunrise as an event or a marker of time. The sun rising had little to do with time. It had everything to do with renewal and affirmation. The sun invoked a song in me and I sang with a kind of abandon I have not known since. It was an imperative. I had to participate in the reappearance of the sun.

My friends surprise me sometimes because they see my time in the bread truck as a hardship or as something beneath me. They say, “I don’t know how you did that.”  They do not understand; at that point in my life I had disappeared like San Francisco into the fog. I was in a liminal space, no longer what I was and not yet what I would become. I was like the body of the caterpillar gone to mush, unrecognizable with no hint of the butterfly yet apparent. I was lost and afraid. The bread truck was my cocoon. In the stillness of the predawn hours I regained the quiet of my mind. I lived simply. I delivered bread, I drank coffee, I ate hot baguettes, and each morning the sun raised from within me a song of renewal. In my bread truck I began to understand that my life would no longer be understood through results, lists, achievements, or outcomes. The meaning of my life would be defined by the quality of my relationships – and by that I mean my capacity to be present. Slowly, I appeared out of the fog.

Most of the people I coach are somewhere in the cycle of reappearing or disappearing. They are usually uncomfortable because they are still living under the expectation that their song must raise the sun (their focus is on the result). The things on their to-do list have overtaken the reason why they are doing them. We live in a society that has little awareness or appreciation of the cycles of life and sometimes I think my work is simply to give witness to the caterpillar as it reduces to mush. Disappearing is natural and necessary for the butterfly to emerge and the butterfly always emerges. The struggle is necessary. Resisting the change is like trying to keep the sun from going down.

Leigh is one of the world’s leading authorities on Rock Art (cave painting, petroglyphs, etc.) and his townhouse is a feast for someone like me. It is a treasure house of books and images from Rock Art sites – places where centuries ago humans scratched an image into rock or painted a picture on the wall of a cave. We don’t know why they made these images, we can only speculate about the figures and what they represent. I’m willing to bet that these people weren’t working for some effect or result. The images they created were less important than the relationships the image encouraged; the “doing” was in support of the “being” and happened in that space between disappearing and reappearing.

Be Human

photo by Wonderlane

Judy and I were approaching the crosswalk on the far side of the Town and Country Market. We had coffee in hand and were heading to the park across the small avenue en route to the harbor to sit and talk. Judy is one of my favorite people, full of laughter and learning, and my opportunities to see her are rare and precious; I want to hoard every minute with her. A blue station wagon with a forgotten six pack of beer riding on the roof of the car, turned right out of the lot and the six pack, lacking fingers or suction cups, could not make the turn, took flight and exploded in a foamy mess, littering the crosswalk with shards of glass.

Like the many pedestrians and park-goers present for the explosion, I was thinking only of myself (after all, I was in hoard-my-time-with-Judy mode) so I pretended not to see the mess or the distressed station wagon driver that had pulled over after realizing that her beer never made it into her car. Judy was also thinking of herself but unlike the rest of us, her definition of herself includes being an active, responsible member of a community. “Can I help you?” Judy asked, handing me her coffee as she walked toward the station wagon. I was already across the street heading toward the harbor completely unaware that I now had two cups of coffee in my hands. The woman’s response to Judy stopped me in my tracks. She said, “Thank you for being so human.”

I turned around, set the coffee on the curb, and helped Judy and the woman pick up glass. Judy flagged down a city truck (she wanted a broom and, of course, the next vehicle to come along was a city parks truck with every tool known to human kind). Within a few minutes, the glass was swept up, the crosswalk was safe for crossing, and the woman, the park workers and I went our separate ways each feeling better about our selves and the world. More importantly, a playground full of children watched and I assume they, too, on some level, felt better about the world. All that was required for this bit of feel-good magic was for one person, Judy, to be human.

Her very small gesture comes with an enormous impact. Her ability to “be human” opens others to be human. Her capacity to engage generates engagement. This is why I love Judy: I become more myself when I am with her because I open to the relationships around me, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable, scary potential that comes from saying things to strangers like, “Can I help you?” Life becomes simple when engagement rather than denial or resistance is the rule. Time becomes less important than relationship (which guarantees that “time” will be meaningful).

Because her definition of herself includes being responsible to her community, Judy is incapable of pretending that the naked Emperor is wearing a new suit of clothes.   She knows that her quality of life is directly related to the quality of life of all the members of her community. If there is something to be done, rather than ignoring it or expending copious amounts of energy blaming others or complaining about it, Judy acts on it. She lives in choice. She knows that community is not a fixed thing but a relationship and requires all the commitment, tolerance and dedication that powerful relationships deserve – it is messy and it’s hers to do.

We met at Antioch University many years ago. In those years I used to play a game with myself that went something like this: how long will I be on campus before I cross a pod of students raging about the lack of community in Seattle and the United States in general. Once, I went a full 18 minutes before I found the pod. They always made me sad, these students who were so lonely living in a metropolitan area of over a million people. Each pod looking for someone to blame or someone to fix their loneliness, ranting against the evils of the modern world. My friendship with Judy has helped me understand – helped me believe – that no major intervention is required, no legislation or new law is necessary for we, the occupants of red states and blue states to experience ourselves as a community. Ultimately it has very little to do with anything other than cultivating the capacity to step toward someone and ask, “can I help you?” And, like Judy, over time this practice of engagement might eventually lead to a definition of self that includes the health and well-being of the community; or, at the very least, more experiences of being human.

See Like Celeste

“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story and writes another, and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.” James Barrie

Celeste died last week. Megan gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Stephen graduated from high school. Sally had a life changing epiphany. Dado brought the mail as he does each weekday; you can set your clock to Dado yet he always seems to have plenty of time to talk. Bruce came to visit after a seven-year absence. Tess had her teeth pulled and then had a birthday. Lora sold her first photograph in a gallery. And then her second and her third. Amy shared her poems and also shared a dream. Pete made a collage and had it printed; he’s making a portfolio, his first. Harald and I each drank a Stone and later split an Arrogant Bastard. And that was before dinner. Lisa took a vacation, a trip with her son. She will marry Harry in July. Don walked to the bank on the first sunny day of the season. Arnie returned from travels abroad and left a message on the machine. Dane had a conversation with his friend Brian, a mechanic. They have rules about what they can talk about: no politics, no religion, no talking about wives. Tania and Chan bought their first house. Kate sent a hilarious limerick. Lorilee shared photos of her green wall. Gwyn wept. Rosemary and Lona sent poems for the tribute Judy was assembling. Carol resurfaced. Scott asked for advice. Mark prepared his ship for Alaska (seriously) after he went to drawing class. Makaela wore a dress to the opening of the museum she helped create. Patti wrote an obituary, prepared a eulogy, and helped Nina live more comfortably – all in a single day. Joe walked by the tide pools and laughed with delight. Stephen (another Stephen) rolled his paintings out for us to see; he had fire in his eyes. Nicole brought chocolate and shared it! Ana went home and faced her demons. They were not as big as she remembered. Theresa knew what coffee to make before I even ordered it. Made brought popsicles and comfort. Class met and embodied a purpose. Sue offered her thoughts. Kendy asked for prayers for Max. Max had surgery on his heart. We bumped into Diane in the hospital, to our great delight as we’d lost touch with her. Kathleen is off-loading the stuff of her life. Her sister came to help. Liz has a new garden. Duncan drank really good coffee and watched his first episode of LOST. Joyce interviewed Alan and is looking for others to interview. John is designing and building furniture for a restaurant because he’s never done it before. Beau catered a meal for 300. Margaret got lost in her thoughts. Ken sent his congratulations.

I could go on and on and on. This list barely touches the marvels of this week.

Celeste died quite suddenly. She was 82. Because she was so alive her death at age 82 came as a shock. She taught me that James Barrie had it all wrong. I think she would have rewritten his quote this way:

“The life of every person is a diary in which we mean to write one story and write another. Our humblest hour is when we realize the story we meant to write is not nearly as interesting as the story we actually lived, if only we had the eyes to see it.”

Celeste had the eyes to see it; she savored it – each and every moment. If you had met her, you’d have found yourself savoring a bit of life, too. Her enthusiasm and present-focus was infectious. Like me you’d be making a list of all the little moments and the big that happen each week in your life, a practice to remind yourself that the value of your life is not in the Academy Award that you may never win, it is in the relationships that that you probably discount; it is in the present moment that you miss because you are flailing yourself for not being something or somewhere else.

In response to my question, “What do you bring?” this is how Celeste replied:

“I bring a willingness to be open to whatever excitement is waiting!  I look into the eyes of each person I see, and have my arms ready if a hug is appropriate.”

Yes. That’s it.

The Polar Bear King (Part 4)

Polar Bear Paw by ucumari

Stories come to a conclusion when balance is restored to the main character. Sometimes that means a return from a journey, sometimes it means that a significant choice is made, sometimes it is a reclamation of something lost; always it means the character learns something and will never be the same because of the new knowledge. And hopefully, it also means we, the listener of the story, will know what to do in our lives when we are off balance and staring Doubt in the face.

Here’s the final chapter of the Polar Bear King:

IV. THE RETURN

One day passed. Then two. The great bear paced back and forth, looking south, awaiting the return of his great coat. How could he defend his crown without it? He paced and he paced and the third day came. The hundred gulls still had not returned with his skin.

All of the polar bears gathered outside the king’s cave. The time for the match was at hand. Woof was with them. He stamped around and boasted, saying “The bird-bear’s feathers will fly fast enough when I get my claws on them! Come out of your cave, bird-bear!”  All the other bears laughed and jeered. “Perhaps he is really a chicken-bear!” Woof shouted. The bears roared with laughter and snorted their delight.

Inside the cave the great king sat listening to their laughter, the gull queen perched by his side. “I don’t know what to do,” The king confessed.

The queen sighed and said, “It’s too bad that it is your skin that makes you a king. If your skin were here, we could ask it what to do!  As for me, I am only a bird. Covered in feathers, like you.

The Polar bear king looked deeply into her black eyes.

“Well, what would the King of the Polar Bears do?” the gull queen grinned.  The bear smiled, stood tall and ruffled his feathers, just like a bird would do, so that he appeared twice his normal size. “How do I look?” he asked the gull queen. “Like a king.” She smiled.

“Come out bird-bear!” Woof snorted. “Come out so I may pluck your plumes!”

The king of the polar bears walked slowly out of his cave, he was magnificent and proud, his white feathers glistened in the sun. Woof gulped. The king of the polar bears was enormous; he looked twice his normal size. Perhaps fighting this king was not going to be so easy after all. Perhaps fighting this king was silly! In fact, fighting this king was probably stupid! All the bears saw Woof shaking in fear – and then they started quaking because when he was done with Woof, he’d crush them all for sure!

The Polar Bear king gave an enormous growl and Woof’s little heart, for a moment, stopped beating. “Come, pluck my feathers if you dare!” the king snarled! Woof gulped. The king strode forward and raised his mighty paw, ready to strike Woof a deadly blow. Woof yelped and covered his eyes; he knew this breath would be his last. In his fear, poor Woof wet himself. Shivering, Woof cowered helpless in a bank of yellow snow.

The great king lowered his paw. He’d won without striking a single blow. And all the other bears, wanting to be back in the good graces of this most powerful king, laughed at poor Woof; they pointed and called him names like “Baby bear,” and “Pee-bear.” Woof hung his head low.

The great king roared and stopped them from laughing. He looked at them with piercing black eyes. Finally, shaking his head he said, “You shame yourselves by heaping shame on this bear. A moment ago this Woof was your champion. He was your friend.  Why do you choose now to hurt him when he most needs your support?”

Just then, the sky grew dark as hundred gulls flew down from above carrying the king’s great fur skin. They laid it at his feet and formed a perfect circle around him. The gull queen smiled and circled from above.

And all the polar bears saw that they’d made a grave mistake; a bear’s courage is not in its fur. They bowed low to their great polar bear king as he gathered his great coat. He looked to the queen of the gulls, winked a “thank you” and smiled. And then, she saw him, ever so slightly, go (clap, clap, shimmy-shimmy shake) and as he went back into his cave, he said, “Oh, yeah!”

Meet Beneath The Boardroom Table

“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sam is an extraordinarily gifted facilitator and coach. His specialty is helping corporations have hard conversations. Let’s face it, people in organizations are no better than people in other forms of relationship at having difficult conversations. Like the rest of us they don’t want to feel uncomfortable so, when discomfort looms, they chatter, that is to say, they avoid, deny, pretend and ignore their distress. When their dis-ease swells to the point of silence, they call Sam.

One day Sam was working with an executive team at a multi-national corporation: people in power suits seated in high-back genuine leather chairs around a larger-than-life, acres-long, mahogany and oak boardroom table. And, although the coffee was served in china cups, the fruit plate was fresh and aesthetic, his clients paid no attention, employing every avoidance strategy in their arsenal: blackberries were clacking and cell phones were binging, assistants were beckoning; status toys are fantastic tools for avoidance. Sam tried everything in his arsenal to crack their citadel of “professionalism.” “Professionalism” is a favorite ruse of businesses to avoid meaningful contact:  under the guise of “professionalism” business folk posture and pretend that they are not comprised of people in relationship; they will, if pushed, cop to being ‘people’ as long as the definition of ‘people’ includes 1) compartmentalizing themselves so that their feelings do not interfere with their powers of reason (thereby rendering themselves less than human), and 2) pretending that they believe #1 is actually plausible; you know, “business is business,” “nothing personal,” and so on. With relationship comes responsibility and responsibility is the last thing most businesses want (the legal department has cautioned against it). To have a meaningful conversation, especially a difficult one, even “professionals” must first entertain the possibility of entering into a relationship. Do you see Sam’s dilemma?

After a morning of extreme executive evasion, in exasperation, Sam did the unthinkable. While the team yammered on about anything other than what they needed to discuss, Sam ever so slowly slid out of his leather power chair until he disappeared from view beneath the table. In the shocked silence that followed, Sam watched all the executive legs fidget until finally one curious face peaked beneath the table. Sam waved and motioned for that person to join him. Then another face, looked. Sam and his new ally waved and motioned and that person slid under the table, too. One by one, all of the power suits slid under the table and joined Sam, leaving their status toys behind. When they were all “under the table,” Sam whispered, “Now that we’re under the table, can we finally begin talking about what’s really going on in this organization?” They laughed together and began a very difficult and honest conversation that addressed the real issues impeding their growth, a conversation that included their feelings.  They left behind their individual stories of blame and victimization and began the process of creating a new narrative together, a narrative that included the possibility of feeling discomfort.

When Sam slid under the table, he cracked their masks of professionalism, neutralized all the roles being played, and removed for a while the status games being waged so that his clients, a group of people in relationship, could reach beyond their compartmentalization and grasp what was personal and relevant about their challenges and their lives. He made them aware of the destructive story they were playing and helped them imagine themselves playing a different story, one that included support and collaboration along with competition and success. I imagine the old story was lonely to play so the new story must have come as somewhat of a relief.

I think of Sam slowly sliding beneath the boardroom table every time my courage fails me and I think I “should do” something “because that’s what is expected” or “it’s the way things are done.” I think of Sam every time I cast a group I am about to engage in the role of “enemy” or convince myself that “they” will meet me with resistance. Any time I stereotype a person or diminish another’s point of view (or my own), I imagine myself sliding down my high-backed red leather chair, surrendering my status, and slipping into the unknown beneath the power table because that’s where the shoes can come off, the collars unbuttoned, and the humans – uncompartmentalized, vulnerable, and responsible to each other – can see beyond their dramas and find each other again.

The Polar Bear King (part 3)

Forgotten by (SD)

There is always a point in a story when the known world collapses. It is the moment when all of your superficial attachments fall away, when everything you thought you knew or believed is called into question. In many stories you leave behind all that you know (home) and journey to the place from which no one returns (where the monsters live). When you are living your passage story this place is often experienced as doubt (where the monsters live).

Within a caterpillar’s body, once cocooned, there begins a war between the known and the imaginal cells  – so called because these cells hold the encoding for the new form: butterfly. The caterpillars body reads the imaginal as a cancer and kills it back which only serves to make the imaginal stronger. Eventually, the imaginal cells overwhelm what is known and the caterpillar’s body dissolves to mush. This “mush phase” is the place of doubt and is as necessary to our transformation as it is to the caterpillar if it is to become a butterfly

Form-less-ness is never comfortable but as the old adage says, “you must lose yourself to find yourself.” This is how the Polar Bear King loses himself:

III. THE NECESSITY OF DOUBT

The two young polar bears ran from the king’s cave, laughing so loud that the other bears gathered to hear what was so funny. “Our great and mighty king has become… a bird!” they guffawed, “Who ever heard of a polar bear covered in feathers!”  In disbelief all the bears ran to see their king. They thought it must be a trick or a game but then they saw him and, sure enough, he was covered all over in feathers. They laughed and pointed and slapped their thighs in delight. They made bird sounds and flapped their big bear arms, running in circles around him.

The polar bear king sat in silence, his head lowered so they could not see the sorrow in his eyes.

Later that day, all the polar bears decided to have a meeting to discuss the great change that had come over their king. “He is no longer a bear,” said one. “He’s not a bird, either,” cried another. “He is half-bird, half-bear,” cried a third! And then a bear in the crowd shouted, “If he isn’t a bear then he is no longer fit to be our king!”  They all cheered and then grew quiet.

“Who shall take his place?”

“He who can defeat the bird-bear in battle will be our king. It is our custom!” said an enormous bear named Woof. “Only the strongest is fit to rule and I am the strongest bear here!” Woof stomped about and flexed his muscles.

There was silence for a moment and then all the bears nodded their assent. “It is our custom. You will fight him for surely now that he is a bird-bear you are the strongest of our race. Woof will be our king!” they all cried. So they sent a messenger to the Polar Bear king, telling him of the challenge, he must master Woof or resign his sovereignty. The match was to be fought in three days time.

The Polar Bear King was very sad. “Perhaps they are right, perhaps a bear with feathers is not a bear at all.”

“Perhaps.” Said the Queen of the gulls. She was hovering above him when the messenger came. “Perhaps they are wrong.”

“Only a bear with hair can hope to command their obedience,” snarled the King.

The queen of the gulls chuckled. “Oh, I see. Is it your hair that makes you strong? Is it your hair that gives you courage?

“You don’t understand!” growled the bear.

The gull queen sighed, “My friend, did you also lose your wisdom with your hair?” And then she said, “ I met an eagle yesterday that had just returned from the lands in the south. The eagle, while flying over a city, saw a huge big polar bearskin in the back of a carriage that rolled along the street. It must have been your skin. If you wish, I will send a hundred gulls to retrieve it for you.”

The great king jumped to his feet. “Are you sure? Can it be? Oh, please, send them now! Send them for me!” the great king pleaded. “I must have my skin before the match in three days time. Without it I shall be defeated.”

With a flick of her wing a hundred of her best gulls shot to the sky, straight as an arrow they flew to the south. “They will not disappoint you,” she said. (to be continued)