Get Lost

540. 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 am riding in the passenger seat and Judy (she-who-I-revere but promised that I would no longer write it because it drives her crazy when I do) was driving. We were on Bainbridge Island headed to a beautiful spot for a picnic. Judy told me that she “kind of knew” where she was going and sighed, saying, “I have a rotten sense of direction. I could get lost in a box.” I howled at the image.

I love Judy. There are a thousand and one reasons I love her. She followed her “lost in a box” admission with a great life lesson. She said, “I love getting lost because I just go with it. I discover some really interesting routes that way. And, who says I have to name my route before I take it! Why can’t I say how I’m going to go after I actually get there?”
Judy does not know when she hits me in the face with the thing I most need to hear. She does not intend to hit me in the face with the thing I most need to hear. Yet, she has this uncanny capacity to help me find my way while we are talking about getting lost. I told her that I am lately paying attention to paradox – the presence of paradox is becoming my test for truth. I think Judy lives comfortably in paradox, she finds riches in emptiness, knows that when you are falling it is best to dive, and understands that to serve others you first need to serve yourself. She knows that there is no such thing as getting lost unless you decide that is where you want to be.

Raise Your Eyebrows

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

Over a decade ago I did an interview for entrance into a graduate program. I wanted to study art beyond self-expression, intellectual statement or forms of commodity; I knew art was at the center of identity and transformation. I knew intuitively myth and communal narrative were key. Harold, the man conducting the interview, raised his eyebrows when I told him what I wanted. He said, “You understand this is an organizational systems degree don’t you? You recognize this is a Whole Systems Design degree?” I did. I understood completely. “What greater organizational system is there than a culture?” I responded. “What could be more whole than a culture operating from a cohesive narrative?” Harold raised his brows again and nodded, saying, “This should be interesting.” It was.

That day Harold offered me two tidbits to ponder. He told me these two notions were things that all people studying organizational systems came to realize. The first was this: I already knew everything anyone at the university could teach me; what I sought was a way of seeing and I just didn’t yet recognize that I already saw systemically (insert the word “artistically” – they are largely the same thing). The degree program would open my eyes to what I already knew. Second, he said, “ You will set out thinking you know where you are going; you believe you know what you seek. Yet, what you find will be far greater than anything you ever imagined.” He was right on both counts.

I’ve thought often of Harold’s two tidbits of advice and I think they apply as much to life as to the university. First, there is nothing I can teach anyone that they don’t as some level already know. I can help them with their courage or shake up their assumptions, but at the end to the day self-knowledge is what the game is all about and it is a game of recognition. Second, as Joseph Campbell said, “No one lives the life that they intend…” and usually, the life we live is far more rewarding, far richer than anything we initially imagined. The obstacles and intrusions and unforeseen challenges are what give life its dynamic, the relationships are what give life its potency. What if you approached each day raising your eyebrows like Harold, saying, “This should be interesting.”

Continue Yourself

538. 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 his TED talk, film director Shekhar Kaper said, “Without a story you do not exist.” It is such a simple phrase and yet flip it over and you glimpse the enormity of his implication: To exist is to story (my apologies to Horatio, I am using the word “story” as a verb). Some folks laugh when I suggest that if they would change their story they would change their world. “Pie in the sky!” they exclaim. They are still under the illusion that their thoughts are facts or truth or somehow happening to them. What I appreciate about Shekhar Kaper’s sentiment, what is implicit in it, is that the story you tell largely determines how you exist because the story you tell defines how you relate. Many years ago I worked with a woman who storied herself as a fraud and that made her peers and co-workers dangerous to her. Hiding was her major action. She fired people that got a peak behind the curtain. Hell is not some place you go after death when you’ve been particularly rotten, hell is what you live when you story yourself a fraud, or deficient, or needing to be perfect. The Greeks personified the monkey mind: when your thoughts were particularly tortuous they believed the Furies possessed you.

Organizations are particularly blind to their story. They are keen to have a vision statement but reticent to compare the vision to their day-to-day choices. A vision statement is a story of aspiration. Actions are a lived form of story (we act according to our story); to compare the story we intend with the story we live is usually bracing. It is also revealing and that is why the comparison is so often ignored. Organizations, like people, become healthy when they close the gap between what they intend and how they act. To thrive is requires a fundamentally different narrative than to survive. The language of thriving is very different than the language of survival.

Another phrase, I believe this one came from cartoonist Scott McCloud (don’t hold me to that – it could be from Joseph Campbell. I took too many notes on the page and they ran together): “We tell story to continue ourselves.” It is a variation on the first quote with this important addition: it acknowledges that our stories outlive us. We live into the future through the stories we inspire. I have been especially aware this week of this aspect of story as we prepare for Margaret’s memorial. We are telling and hearing many stories about her and how she lived. She lives on in our narrative; she is a vital part of our story and through our telling we weave her story into the ancestral quilt.

Sense The Season

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

A few days ago on my morning walk I sensed a hint of autumn in the air. There was the slightest breeze, cooler than the day before, and the subtle smell of leaves turning. I savored the moment as I do every year. I look forward with great relish to the day each year that I catch on the breeze the first hint of fall.

My grandfather lived his entire life in the same small area in Iowa. One day, as a boy, I was visiting, and we went to the park on a beautiful hot sunny day. He was looking for treasure with his metal detector and I followed with an old coffee can to hold the bounty and a screwdriver to poke into the dirt when treasure was detected. Suddenly he stopped, looked into the sky, closed his eyes – and “sensed” a change in the air. After a moment he said, “We better go home, it’s going to storm soon.” I was baffled. I could not sense anything. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky yet an hour later an intense storm blew through dumping buckets of rain. He had senses available to him that I did not; he had a specific relationship with a place and felt the rhythms and changes in his body. He was connected.

Brian McDonald opens his book, Invisible Ink, with this story: “An anthropologist was living among tribal people with little to no contact with the modern world. Wanting to share the marvels of technology with these isolated folks, the anthropologist took a photo of the chief and his wives. When the picture was processed and shown to the chief he was unable to recognize the blotches of black, white, and gray as an image of himself. He had never learned to translate two-dimensional images into recognizable three-dimensional shapes. That same chief, however, could look at a patch of grass and say what kind of animal had traversed it and how long ago with no more difficulty than you or I would have recognized ourselves in a photographic image.”

I look forward to that first hint of fall because I know it is a remnant of connection; it calls forward something in me, something deep and ancient. It is satisfying and evokes a kind of quiet affirmation that is rare in my urban indoor life. Catherine once told me that, “Nature yearns for us,” and I know that it is true. Often, when I am coaching or working with people and their creative blocks, deeply invested in their abstractions, I know that all they need do is go outside, recognize and reclaim their natural rhythm, and their capacity to sense the changes in the air. Just as nature yearns for us I know, like a long lost love, when we feel lost or blocked or void of meaning, we need only walk to shore, step into the woods, climb the ridge, close our eyes and receive the quiet touch that says, “Welcome home.”

Read To The End

536. 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 kid I was baffled when the characters in children’s fables and stories opened their doors to the wolf. The little pig would peep through the spy hole and the wolf, not cleverly disguised as an old lady, would ask for a cup of sugar. I’d think, “Even I know a wolf when I see it. Don’t open the door!” And the little pig would always open the door. So did Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. “Oh! Another little pig goes down the hatch!” I’d say, closing the book. The pictures were always my favorite part even if the story seemed implausible.

9 months ago I received a letter from the IRS congratulating me on my random selection for an audit. The nice letter told me the audit was for instructional purposes only. “How nice.” I thought until my accountant screamed, “Don’t be like the little pig in the story. This is the wolf at your door.” Oh, how I wish I’d paid attention to the story! What did the pig do when it was eaten? How did the pig emerge whole and happy from the belly of the wolf? I closed the book too soon! I enjoyed the pictures but ignored the lesson. Is there a nice woodsman in my future that will recognize that the large bump in the antagonistic wolf’s belly is me – and cut me out of this dark chamber?

As I sit here in the belly of the wolf I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the national debt and also learn the patterns and practices of my wolf host. I’ve added together the hours my wolf has spent on this audit and have realized the poor thing is truly starving to death: not only has he not found in my meager account any delicious hidden food morsels but the amount of money he may or may not recoup from me will never come close to meeting his enormous energy output. My wolf is losing money, our money. Additionally, every time there is some communication I receive no less than 9 letters, each letter comprised of 3-5 sheets of paper with legalese (single spaced) – each telling me that we’ve communicated – something I already knew; I actually read the first wave and although my inner lawyer was thrilled with so much language used to say almost nothing, I was left wondering how brevity and sense-making escaped the tax collection arm of the government. And, best of all, I now have some concrete suggestions for how to solve our budgetary woes and still maintain social security, medicare, and host of other worthy social programs.

I told my story of woe to my pal Patricia the photographer and she rolled her eyes; she has been engaged in a prolonged battle with her IRS wolf who insists her daughter is not her daughter; she has a birth certificate and dna to back her claim – not to mention a daughter who looks just like her – and yet her audit also continues into perpetuity. Like me she, too, receives 9 letters of of 3-5 single spaced communication affirming that communication has occurred with each communication. How many people-hours does it take to manufacture so many duplicate letters? Artaud could not have written a play this absurd.

Even though I have learned the error of closing the fable book too soon, I’ve gleaned enough to know that the wolf always gets his due in the end (the pictures made that abundantly clear). It is the wolf’s greed and hubris that brings its demise and I take comfort from my dark belly chamber knowing that we must be very close to the inevitable end of this insipid fable.

Pull Your Paddle From The Water

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

Megan-the-brilliant and I are engaged in game that I adore. We give each other daily assignments meant to wake us up to life, to challenge our assumptions, help us see our choices, drop our illusions, or simply stir the pot. Following Margaret’s death yesterday, this is my assignment today:

“…be present with this day. Set down the goals, the planning… leave aside anything that doesn’t directly touch today. As in a river canoe in the wind, allow yourself to be slowed enough to look around, to see where you are.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Each day is a step on this journey and yet we cannot have the whole journey; we only have one day at a time. Why don’t we put the journey into the day? What it is that, looking back on this long path, you want to have lived… created? How can you live that in this day? Perhaps a journey of many days is only truly one day long.

There is another gift hidden within this assignment, for presence is a paradox in itself. When we are present with ourselves and our surroundings we hear the subtle clues that, if noticed, can help us to create. For instance, we can learn a great deal from being present with pain, from not running from it or avoiding it. The pain teaches us how to let it pass through us… or to pass through it. For the point is not to capture pain, to get stuck in it, but rather to be present with it on it’s short life and watch it transform. To learn from it’s story. If we aren’t listening, we’re not truly present.”

Once I was with Megan in a canoe paddling into a very strong wind. Sometimes we paddled and went nowhere. Sometimes we paddled hard and made good headway but all I remember is the paddling; I missed the river entirely. Sometimes, we lifted our paddles from the water and rested and it was as if the river came into focus. The vibrant life beneath, around and above us seemed to materialize: an eagle robbing nests, the music of wind in leaves, the abundance of life swimming, crawling, waving, and dancing under water. I looked back at Megan and she was aware of it also, her eyes were blue fire with recognition.

Today she gave me the ultimate assignment (and gift): Pull your paddle from the water, stop moving through life and be in it, even if the wind blows you backward, recognize that the place you think you need to go is never where you really need to be.

Learn From Margaret

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

Margaret died today. She had an epic and courageous journey through Alzheimer’s and just before dinner she closed her eyes and passed. I met her 10 years ago, 5 years into her disease long after she was capable of living on her own. She was in the phase where she put magazines in the toaster and if left to her own devices might wander off into the Tucson desert. Even so, she still had a wicked sense of humor and was filled with mischief and this was true long after she was in the advanced stages. I loved her immediately because, even in her ravaged state, she had more life than most people have in their prime. When I met her she winked at me and with her eyes filled with mirth she told me to “leave the babe (her daughter).” She was a remarkable flirt.

I learned that everyday of her life, at sunset, she stopped what she was doing, went outside and watched the sun go down; a ritual of gratitude and appreciation of life.

Now that she has passed into memory I will keep her life burning in my remembering and these are just a few:

In the Arizona Wildlife museum she vigorously rubbed her breastbone trying to make herself purpose-burp. She’d done it earlier and I’d howled with laughter. She got such a rise out of me that she spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get me to laugh again (I am an easy mark and her endless attempts were more precious than the initial burp. I laughed louder and louder at her misses – we created a lovely feedback loop).

Near the time when we could no longer take her out we cruised the streets of Tucson, Lora and Margaret in the front seat of our rental car singing; Margaret no longer had the lyrics but her commitment to sound was prodigious. Every time she saw a red car she’d stop her song and say, “Now, there’s a red car!”

I will always carry those few luscious gem moments when, as we watched her slowly slip farther and farther away, she would, just for a moment, came back, her eyes sparkling, and exclaim, “Really!” as if her simple joy of life called her from the depths because she simply could not contain her awe.

Take Off Your Blindfold

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

We were talking about illegal immigration. He is very conservative and was adamant that “illegals are breaking the law!” He exclaimed, “The law is the law! They’re breaking the law and should feel the consequences of their actions.” He made his proclamation about the black and white nature of the law and its consequences as he was lighting a joint – and the hypocrisy of his actions did not occur to him, not even for a moment. And although I found the moment absurd I did not think it was remarkable. As a successful white male he has always had a different relationship with the law and power than, for instance, the person trying to sneak across the border to find a better life. Things look differently at the top of the pyramid than it does at the bottom. When you are at the top, claiming a moral authority is part of the gig even though it requires holding others to an absolute code that you have never held yourself. I suppose it is the nature and necessity of power-over-others to excuse your self from participation; the need to control is a specifically exclusive act.

Of course he is not unusual. Tom taught for many years, long enough to see his students become adults – some with families, some even became teachers themselves. He used to laugh at the maniacal adults who wanted to impose strict rules on their children and students, rules that they would never have adhered to themselves. I’m fairly certain the proponents and makers of our current culture of testing never experienced nor would tolerate the madness they are now imposing on the nation’s children. Tom used to say, “Are their memories so short or is there another agenda entirely?” It was a rhetorical question.

One of my favorite Mad Magazine cartoons was of two hippies beating each other with signs, one read “Peace” and the other, “No More War.” What is it that allows us the peculiar blindness to afford ourselves consideration that we refuse to extend to others? When I am driving and inadvertently cut someone off I think, “Whoa! I didn’t see them.” When someone cuts me off, I am certain they are, “Trying to kill me!” Or making a statement or pulling status or…. I will never grant them the same specificity that I grant myself until I deem that they, too, have a story. Until then I do not see “them;” I see the story I project on their action.

The line becomes less black-and-white; the world becomes less absolute when I consider the human; when I factor in the circumstance, the necessity, the emotion, and the need; with personal story comes nuance and consideration. Lady Justice (both the inner version and the one standing before every courthouse) has never been as blind as she pretends.

Take A Radical Step

532. 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 had a revelation today as Alan Seale and I facilitated a Transformational Leadership Coaching forum discussion. Our topic was the power of taking a radical step. Here’s a quote from Alan’s newsletter:

“Many people equate radicalism with violent extremism. However, if violent acts of extremism are at one end of the “radical” spectrum, the constructive power of radicalism lies at the other end. Religious movements as well as great social and scientific advances started out because someone was willing to take a radical stance…. The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix meaning “root.” A radical thought, position, or act is born out of a powerful root belief or value. It is the outward expression of a conviction rooted in the core of one’s being. Conviction turns to action when it can no longer be held silent.”

A radical act is seen as doing something counter to the main stream, going against what is popular. The kid who said, “The Emperor has no clothes!” was most likely shushed by his parents. The neighbors probably glared and the kid learned that speaking truth was not tolerated in polite society. His comment was not a radical act; however, when, as an adult, he is once again in polite society and can no longer hold his tongue, when he speaks the truth and knows that he might be ostracized…, that is a radical act. Rosa Parks knew that sitting at the front of the bus might get her killed and she did it anyway. That is a radical act.

Here’s my revelation: radical acts often look small in the doing. I coach people and everyday hear stories of immense courage and the necessary action, from an outside observer, appears small but the impact is enormous. Speaking your truth, putting down a cigarette for the last time, saying “no” (or “yes”), changing the-story-you-tell-yourself-about-yourself, seeing opportunity in an obstacle, allowing yourself to be seen: Rosa Parks sat on a bus. Every avalanche begins with a single pebble.

Let Go Of “It”

531. 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’ve started drawing again. Each day, every day, I flip the elastic band off my moleskin sketchbook, open to a new page, and draw. Or scribble. I make marks and circles. I draw mostly from my imagination; sometimes I look at things and sketch what I see as a starting point and then rearrange the elements: I compose. I don’t see much difference between drawing from imagination and infusing my imagination into what I see. They are the same action; the direction is slightly different.

I am no longer interested in “capturing” reality – primarily because I don’t think there is a reality beyond what I perceive. In a sense there is nothing to capture. There is only interpretation. There is only imagination. To be clear: what I call reality is what I perceive; there is stuff out there (and you will waste a lot of breath trying to convince me that “it” is separate from me: I will giggle if you tell me that there is an objective reality) and I assign “it” meaning; simply by assigning a word to “it” I have abstracted “it.” If I describe “it” I have interpreted “it.” If I describe “it,” I no longer see “it;” I see the word that I’ve attached to “it.” So, when drawing “it” why not go with the flow – interpret, compose, imagine. Scribble, scribble, play. Sharpen the pencil and repeat.

The word “it” provides a perfect example: use these two little letters in the proper sequence and all the magnificent motion and moving beauty of the universe is frozen – “it” fixes flow in time: I can convince myself that a verb is a noun, a river is a thing, a person is knowable, all because I squeeze the miracle into two tiny symbols and think I know “it.”

Alan suggested that I do a self-portrait. It has been over a decade since my last serious attempt. He said, “Peer into those eyes for a while before starting and then ask yourself, ‘Who is this person?’” He asked me to draw with my heart and not my head. Alan is wily and that is why I love him so. He knows what I believe and why I draw. He caught me in a net of my own making. How can I now look in the mirror and possibly believe that I can “capture” what I see?