Truly Powerful People (326)

326.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

When I was a little kid in the neighborhood where I grew up, there were no fences between houses. My parents looked after all the neighborhood kids and the other parents looked after me. Our backyards formed a wide-open field for play ringed by modest brick houses. For a time, the world I grew up in felt safe. And welcome.

Many of the moms at home during the day (the moms that worked at night) watched soap operas. I remember sitting in front of a black and white television set, the kind with a rabbit ear antennae, eating a Twinkie and watching the high drama. And it was high DRAMA with a capital “D!” Wicked betrayal and character assassination in every episode, lot’s of hospitals and people miraculously coming back from certain death. Doctors with a swagger, desperate socialites, pretty men and beautiful women each trying to survive in a cutthroat world spinning out of control. I knew even as a kid that this was humanity reduced to its lowest common denominator – and it was a religion to the neighborhood moms. To miss an episode was tragic. The gossip swirling around the characters had the same weight as the gossip swirling around the people living on the next block.

It occurred to me that I watch the news of the day much as the moms of my childhood watched the soaps. I don’t really believe in the reality of it yet I watch it none-the-less; it is heightened for me-the-viewer to create maximum effect. Last week I counted how many times in a half hour newscast that a story was introduced as “Breaking News!” – complete with graphics and whooshing sound effects: seven times in fifteen minutes (the time before the weather report). Breaking News! “This just in: A house almost burned down in Capitol Hill!” Almost. The image on the screen is a house on Capitol Hill, a very serious reporter standing in front of the house pointing to the spot where the fire did not happen. The organ music swells as the Doctor swaggers in just in time to stop The Lover from injecting a bubble into the heart of his sedated paramour. I take another bite of Twinkie, wipe the crumbs from my mouth and think, “I’m glad nothing happened.”

As I pay attention to the presidential election this time around I find myself yearning for the time when the characters where contained within the pretend world of the soaps and not attempting to be the most powerful person in the free world. If you wonder why our children bully each other on the playground, why there is diminishing respect for each other, take a gander at how we behave in our public forums – how we tell the story of ascension to power, the story of how adults are supposed to treat each other. Breaking News! We put up fences. The neighbors stopped talking. These are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Truly Powerful People (325)

325.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I came across this post today – from the archives of another blog. It belongs in the Truly Powerful People canon because Judy is among the most powerful people I know I delight in sharing her with you:

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 came with an enormous impact. Her ability to “be human” opened others to be human (that would be me). Her capacity to engage generated 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.

Judy 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. And, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Truly Powerful People (324)

324.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

One of my favorite images from a story comes from The Crescent Moon Bear. A young wife is on a quest to pluck a single hair from the throat of the ferocious bear. After weeks and weeks of slowly moving closer and closer to the bear, after weeks of trials and hardship and loss, she finally arrives at the moment when she must stand unprotected before the bear. She does not know whether she will be eaten or whether the bear has grown accustomed to her and will allow her to pluck a hair. There is no going back. There is only one way forward and it is to meet her monster. Here’s the image: The bear towers over her and she slowly reaches up to its throat and plucks the hair. Immediately the bear roars! It roars and roars and all of nature grows silent to listen. The young wife stands very still. She knows that the bear is telling her things that she has waited her whole life to hear. She understands without understanding. In the face of her fear she is present and receives the boon. The gift cannot be understood with the intellect and must be received intuitively; deep knowing, transformation, can only be understood through feelings.

That is the path of profound change. It is non-sense in the rational mind. The sense is made in the heart. She is changed. She receives something that makes no head-sense but makes perfect intuitive sense. And, she understands.

What do we do with great change? We can (and do) build stories around our experiences to make sense of them even though they are, in truth, beyond the grasp of our thinking. We must make sense of it. The word choice is specific: we make sense of it. Something is different. Something changed. We feel it. We behave differently but can’t really point to what shifted. We are the same person but different somehow, perhaps more confident, more present, less harried, less invested in being right, more capable of giving voice to our thoughts. It is inexplicable.

And, the difference within us makes us different in our relationships, which, in turn, makes a difference in the lives of those around us. The transformation in one person transforms all the relationships in the community. That’s the point. The transformation happens within one and ripples through all. It is as inexplicable.

Truly Powerful People (323)

323.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Lately I’ve been reconnecting with many people from my past. In some cases, two decades have passed since I last spoke to my lost friend. In each case, my long lost friend points me to the blog or website of other lost relationships – so I’ve been reading the blogs of people that I once knew. I’ve been reading the story that they want the world to see.

I’m no different. This blog is what I think about and it is unavoidable that it becomes a portrait of my life – a portrait that I paint. I emphasize certain parts, de-emphasize others, and you can be certain that there are some parts hidden from the light of day. I am crafting what you see just as the blogs and websites of my friends are crafted. We share our triumphs and awards. We withhold our bruises and nose dives.

I will probably never tell you about the plays that I’ve directed that laid eggs. I will celebrate my triumphs to the stars. Picasso is rumored to have burned many of his rough drafts so the world might him genius (as if he needed to help that notion along). In the old days we typed our resumes and this painful process was made more painful by trying to craft the language of our experiences: how can I make my meager life look more solid? How can I make my experience look more appealing? How can I make it look like I am a genius? This is how we story ourselves.

I love the stories my long lost friends are telling. They are storying themselves rich and artistic, curious and alive. In many ways it does not matter to me whether they actually believe that they are living the lives that they tell. What matters is that they want to tell that story and so are trying to live that life. It is what they imagine. It is what they aspire to tell. I am not inside their story so I don’t see the mess (and, thankfully, they are not inside my story – oh the clutter!). I only hope that beyond the mess they can see the beauty and poetry that I am seeing in their lives. It’s always there – just as they have always been there – and I’m delighted to once again step into their stories.

Truly Powerful People (322)

322.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

In a story cycle as in our life story, to grow we must leave the place that is our safety and refuge and walk toward the most dangerous thing we know. In metaphoric terms, this means to stop running away from our fears and to turn around and walk toward them. The capacity to turn and stride toward fear comes when we bumble into a purpose that is more potent than fear; purpose is that thing that we will give our lives for. This is something that every parent knows.

Serving a greater purpose changes our relationship with our trials and obstacles. I used to work with a man who said, “People don’t change until the pain is great. People will move when it is more painful to sit still than it is to get up and step into the unknown.” The trials live in the unknown places and when we walk into our trails we have a choice. We can resist our obstacles or we can embrace them; we can love them.

Loving your obstacle means to stop pushing against it. It means to look for the lesson, to study the movement of the giants, to move slowly and take your time looking for the signs, the mosses and direction of the sun that can orient you. Rushing through will defeat you every time.

Loving your obstacle does not mean to be passive or weak; it means to be clear about your purpose. It means to keep sight of your purpose even as you meet obstacles. It means to be present in your life in the midst of the conflict. Too often we engage the obstacle as an enemy and soon defeating the obstacle takes precedence over the purpose; the purpose gets lost in the battle.

Ask anyone on their deathbed if their lives where made rich from their achievements or from their relationships. The riches are in the process and rarely in the outcomes. It is a cliché but it is the journey that matters. There will always be another arrival. And another. And another. That is why story is such a potent teacher and effective road map. The obstacle serves the motion, it is the motor that moves the story forward. Without the obstacle, the story has no capacity to progress and the same is true in our lives. The journey stops when the obstacles disappear. As Robert Olen Butler wrote, “Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.” A newly transformed butterfly needs to struggle out of the cocoon – the struggle provides a necessary stage of development; removing the struggle will kill the butterfly. Remove the obstacle and the purpose disappears like so much dust.

Truly Powerful People (321)

321.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

My studio is in an old INS building (immigration and naturalization service). It is the place where people were detained before being admitted into the country or sent back to their home country. Before it was converted to artist’s studios, there was a cellblock, dorms for men and women, dorms for children. On the second floor there are two open-air courtyards, places where the detainees were allowed some time in the sun. On the brick walls of the courtyard, written in black tar, are the names and home countries of the generations of people who were detained here. They were not allowed to have pens or pencils so on warm days when the sealing tar got sticky in the hot sun, the people would dip sticks (or their fingers) into the tar and write their names. In this liminal space, a place that is neither here or there, in the hours and days of detention and boredom and uncertainty, these people left a record of their passage. There are hundreds of names. I was here.

Sometimes I sit in the courtyard and read the names. Some days it is hopeful, as if each name represents a dream in process. Some days I find it depressing, as if each name represents a dream dashed. Some days I don’t see the names at all but a Jackson Pollack wall, a painting that caught the movement of the artists that left their mark. Some days it is like a cave painting, a sacred space like the belly of the whale, a place where people met their monster and were transformed by the trial. Some days I am compelled to add my name to the wall; I was here, too.

Once, I watched a brilliant art teacher work with beginning students (they were teachers) and he had them on oversized paper write their names as big as possible. He asked them to do it again and again, to play with their signature, to write full body signatures until the motion was a dance, layering new signatures on top of old until they realized that to write their signature was the same as drawing. He said to them, “To write your name is to draw yourself into existence. It is to say, ‘This is who I am.’”

Sometimes I think this is what we do everyday, whether we are scratching our names in tar on the wall of detention or dancing our names again and again on oversized lives, we are drawing ourselves into existence. Through our choices and actions we say, “This is who I am and I was here, too.”

Truly Powerful People (320)

320.
Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

In life as in stories, sometimes you seek the adventure and sometimes the adventure finds you. Soldiers seek the adventure of war. Displaced civilians caught in the path of war would rather have stayed at home. Sometimes the adventure arrives when we get what we think we want and what we get is not what we expected: the world is full of lotto winners whose good fortune ruined them. Whether it comes in the form of good fortune, a yearning, or the arrival of your desire, the call to adventure (change) is supposed to arrive with enough force to knock you off balance. Divorce packs a wallop. A doctor can change your life in six words or less: “I think you’d better sit down.”

When the force of change roars down the road we ground ourselves in the known; we run to our comfortable patterns. Rarely do we seek discomfort as a first action. We plant our feet, bury our head in the sand and deny that the storm is coming. We clean our house, we cook a comfort meal, clean our cubicle – we reassure ourselves by moving through the routines we’ve established. That is one of the functions of ritual! To affirm who you are; to reinforce where you belong. Finish your breakfast. Sit in the sun and breath in the early morning air. It will not stop the hurricane but it will help you face it.

This is a necessary phase. It is akin to the homeowner, knowing that the sheriff is about to knock on the door to evict them, sweeping the rooms of their home, cleaning the kitchen – not because it needs cleaning – but because they know it will soon be gone. They must touch it to leave it. This is how we say goodbye to who we they are and prepare to step into the unknown. It is necessary for us, just as it is necessary for the characters in a story, to tell ourselves that everything will be fine even as we push the angst of the unknown into the back of our mind. It is necessary to touch base with safety and security one last time, to run our finger along the mantle of what we know, before we are pulled across the threshold and thrust into the adventure.

It is the visceral memory of what was that drives us through the trials and into the arms of the new.