Be Difficult [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I confess that I’ve been struggling to form my thoughts around this prompt. It is a remarkably different task for me to write about women being seen as difficult than it is for Kerri.

I have, my entire life, been surrounded by powerful women. My first sweat lodge experience was with 11 women; I was the only male. It is not uncommon for me, when I take classes or join cohorts or enter groups, to be the single male in a gathering of women. I have been privy more than once to the conversation of veiled power. The necessity of eggshell-walking in a world of male expectations. Deep into the truth-telling, the women remember that I am present and invariably turn to me and say, “No offense.” I usually make light of it, “Don’t worry,” I say, “I know I’m an a**hole.”

What I want to say is, “You’re doing it again. Why should you apologize to me for being honest?”

Kerri just read me her post. It is honest. After she read to me she said, “Do you think it’s too much? Do you think I need to tone it down?”

“You’re doing it,” I replied. “The very thing this prompt is about: questioning yourself because the prospect of speaking your truth will probably make you appear difficult.”

I considered asking her to do an experiment: swap posts. What might we discover if I publish her words as mine? If her words come from a male voice will they be considered offensive? Too emotional? Un-reasonable? Would I be applauded where she would be vilified? Probably. Luckily, I didn’t speak my wacky idea. I realized that we’d be, once again, finding a way to veil her words.

Over the weekend we watched a short film of elder women speaking about the need to return this earth to some semblance of balance. Women’s voices meeting men’s voices as equals. Yang AND Yin.

There’s a hysterical scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The strong women of the family want something done but, in order to make it happen, they must convince the patriarch, Gus, that it’s his idea. Making it appear to be his idea is the only way. Actually, it’s a theme and happens more than once in the story. “The man may be the head of the household.” Maria tells her daughter, “But the woman is the neck and can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”

It’s funny and poignant in the film because it rings so true in life. Powerful women cloaking their power to make the man think the idea is his. Sometimes it is the only way to get things done. It is the path of least resistance.

Perhaps a little resistance is what is called for. Powerful women refusing to veil their strength, willing to be vilified and branded as difficult. From my seat in the corner, listening to the conversation of these incredible women, they understand something that the boy’s club has never understood but clearly fears: power and control are often conflated but they are not the same thing. Power is something created together. Control is something one does to another.

read Kerri’s blog post about DIFFICULT WOMEN

Find A Horizon [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be only afraid of standing still.” ~ Chinese Proverb

Each morning, Kerri wanders outside to check her tomatoes. It is one of my favorite new rituals. I watch from the window as she steps out beyond the deck to the potting table, hands on hips, and scrutinizes the plants for newcomers. After a careful count she hurries back into the house to tell me the results of her count. Each day yields a new arrival. “There are ten!” she proclaimed this morning. Then, she took out her phone to show me the photos she’d taken. A family portrait of tomatoes. Miracles in the making.

Seasoned gardeners might not experience the same level of enthusiasm, but we newbies are wide-eyed at the little green orbs that show up overnight, at the basil plants spilling out of their pots.

It has already inspired new recipes. I blubbered on Sunday evening when I tasted the basil-and-tomato-saute over pasta. Food-that-makes-you-close-your-eyes-and-slow-down-so-that-you-can-savor-every-last-bit-of-it is high on my list of pleasures-to-be-cultivated.

We are learning. We are trying new things. We are setting up new spaces, rearranging furniture. At the same time, we are cleaning out, pulling bins from the basement. Sorting. Making space. The energy is moving.

In the past few years, our growth and learning has looked and felt like loss. Job losses, dear ones passing, broken wrists. Armor falling to the ground. Layers peeled. There’s nothing like time spent in the wilderness to put a fire beneath curiosity. When the questions are basic, “What do we do now?,” the available options are at the same time infinite and absent. There’s only one thing to be done and that is to keep moving. Find a horizon and walk toward it.

The tomatoes are harbingers. The season of losing layers may, at last, be done. There is now plenty of space for curiosity, for growing things. “What do we do now?” is still a question floating in the air. But, from our point of view, with the wasteland just behind us, we see the yellow buds and tiny green orbs as signaling a harvest to come. Hope. The energy is moving. A daily visit to the potting bench, rubbing basil leaves to enjoy the scent, seems like just the right amount of forward movement.

read Kerri’s blog post about TOMATOES

Look With Honest Eyes [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

We were sharing pandemic survival stories, the worlds that we explored in our isolation that we otherwise might never have entered. We told Keith of Joey Coconato and how his back country backpacking trips were a nightly fascination. I’m particularly drawn to his hikes through the canyon lands. Keith became animated, saying, “You have to check out the Millennial Farmer!”

I know nothing about farming. Once, sitting on the back porch of a farmhouse Air-B-N-B in Iowa with my dad, I listened intently to his stories from childhood working on the various farms in the community. Had he been able to script his life differently, I think he might have written a farmer’s story. He loved the outdoors. He loved growing things. He always kept a garden and tended flowers. He knew what he was doing! Somehow, I gleaned nothing from his green-thumb-knowledge. I am a plant killer.

In the first short installment of The Millennial Farmer, Zach Johnson tells his audience that he’s making his videos because people know so little about farming and what farmers actually do. He’s a fifth generation farmer in Minnesota. I was, as he predicted, completely gobsmacked watching The First Day Of Planting 2016. I pushed play expecting dirt clods and the rumpled pages of the Farmer’s Almanac and, instead, entered the space age. His tractor was akin to the deck of the Starship Enterprise. His nuanced explanation of the monitors in his cab was enlightening. He’s driving a computer (actually, it mostly drives itself).

My stereotype was completely shattered. I had no idea. And, isn’t that the point of taking a peek into the lives of others? Recognizing that we have no idea about the realities of others lives? Isn’t that the opportunity?

This morning I pondered aloud about how we’ve changed in the months since COVID began. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t changed.” One of the most profoundly sad awakenings for me during this time of division and dedicated ignorance is how resistant we are – and I believe always have been – of taking a peek into the lives of others in our nation. We simply don’t want to know, so great is the fear of what we will find there.

John Lewis famously said, “We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. And we must keep this house together.” By “keep” he meant to tend. We might become one family when we are willing and able to look with honest eyes into the lives of those who share this house. Our stereotypes, our almanac ideas, keep us fragmented.

Joey and Zach. Both live lives immersed in nature but from diametrically opposed intentions. Both have popped open my eyes to new experiences and bodies of wisdom that I might otherwise never have encountered. Both are following their personal star and sharing what they find on their paths.

As part of our summer planting and backyard oasis, we bought two tomato plants and some basil. Our Boomer farm is not extensive but it is well loved. “Do you think, if we tagged The Millennial Farmer, our tomatoes would stand a better chance?” I asked.

Kerri considered it for a moment, her hands busily potting the basil plants. “It couldn’t hurt.”

read Kerri’s blog post about BOOMER FARMERS

Sing It Into Existence [on Two Artists Tuesday]

Lately I am awake for the sunrise. I know it is coming because, very slowly, the birds begin to sing. At first there is one voice, then a few more and then more. By the time the light through the window glows soft purple and gray, the full bird chorus is in session. They sing the sun into rising.

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, these lawn-art-birds would come to represent to me threshold guardians. Harbingers of the test that my move to Wisconsin would bring. In story terms, threshold guardians are not friendly; they serve as the test of readiness: are you willing and able to greet the challenges that come with change. Or will you run away? Sometimes they are monsters. Sometimes they require the answer to a riddle or solving a puzzle. The new world will open after the obstacle is met. In facing and overcoming the challenge, the guardians often become allies. In truth, they are allies all along. They help you find your self by testing every idea that you have of your self.

Driving the Budget truck on my move from Seattle, filled with the artifacts of my life, Kerri and I stopped in a little village, Stockholm, just as we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. We wandered down the street and into a gallery. We were drawn to these simple bird-sculptures. They are the first thing we bought together. They represented our step into relationship. Us. They would stand together in our yard.

My first few years in Kenosha were akin to being lost in the woods. My livelihood disappeared. My networks disappeared. Art opportunities vanished. Many of my friendships faded. Every project I tried to pitch or create stalled, every path I attempted to plow broke the plow. I felt stripped. Of little or no value. Even in arenas where I was once appreciated, I was invisible. I’ve done extraordinary consulting work in organizations but learned in my new life that my experience and observations were not welcome. So, silent as well as invisible.

More than once I went out back and sat with the sculptures. They remained silent when I asked of them my questions. Who am I now that I have no useful purpose? What do I do now? In the absence of an answer, the sculptures and I listened to the birdsong.

Often the test brought by the threshold guardians is one of letting go. You cannot become a butterfly if you insist on remaining a caterpillar. The armor must fall. The known shape must go to mush. The what-the-hell-is-happening-to-me necessarily falls unanswered into the void. What’s happening is not complex: you are changing. The old stuff isn’t working because it is too small for the new shape. Let go.

It is not complex but it is uncomfortable. Dark night is cold when you’ve shed your skin. The sun will rise. The birds will sing it into existence. Warmth will return in the moments beyond the soft purples and greys.

We recently moved the bird sculptures from their spot by the pond to a new home by the fence. I hadn’t realized how invisible they were when standing over the pond. By they fence, they are glorious! They are also a metaphor, standing tall, made more vibrant and dynamic by their incorporated shadows. They are transformed. They are present, standing together in the yard. They are signaling the path to the new world, singing into existence the new day.

read Kerri’s blog post about THE BIRDS

Choose Your Way [on DR Thursday]

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Viktor Frankel

I always feel a bit disappointed in myself after writing a post like the post I wrote yesterday. It was a near-rant, an ugly system becoming more ugly as it fights to protect its ugliness.

It’s been a battle all of my life, wrestling with what to do or say when my desire to focus on the life-giving runs headlong into the harsh realities of the life-denying. To shine a light on the life-denying is sometimes the most life affirming thing to do, it just doesn’t feel very good. “Look at the ugly. No, really look.” Last night, I listened to a conversation – in all seriousness – about the collapse of our democracy. It’s been a minor fascination of mine to witness how self-destructive people and organizations – and nations – will become before they admit that they need to change. Before they turn and say, “I’ve been lying to myself and to you.” Sometimes they destroy themselves rather than turn and face their truth. That was the crux of the conversation. It seems more and more likely that we’ll set ourselves on fire before we embrace the truth of our dysfunction.

One of Kerri and my greatest losses during the time of pandemic was our weekly ritual dinners with 20. Thursday night we’d cook at his condo. Sunday night we’d cook at our house. We’d cook for each other. Sometimes we’d cook with each other. Always we’d drink wine, laugh, and reaffirm what is most important about life. Each other.

Post-vaccination, after a long year of isolation, we recently, gratefully, returned to our ritual. We cook. We talk about our days. We laugh. 20 and I tease Kerri. She feigns indignance and loves every moment. We talk about art. We share the curiosities that have crossed our paths and screens. Sometimes we talk about the nation’s self-immolation but only briefly as we very quickly realize that it pulls us from what is really important. Each other.

Tonight is dinner with 20. We can’t wait and are making our menu, designing our day around what will be the most important thing to happen all day. Time with each other.

As a nation, “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” ~Thomas Jefferson, in a letter discussing slavery.

How a question is framed determines the answers/paths-forward one sees or does not see. It could be said of our national trauma that we’ve framed our dilemma with justice pitted squarely against self-preservation, or, to be clear, self-preservation will be at the cost of justice-for-all. It’s too bad. As the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-preservation will always negate a reach toward justice. You’d think that we’d someday recognize that the wolf we have by the ears is of our own creation and that justice-for-all is the only path to self-preservation, national self-actualization. You’d think that it might occur to us, rather than do the same old thing in the same old way, to ask a different question.

If I had a magic wand I’d ding the noggin of this nation with the one strength we share, the one thing that 20 and Kerri and I know without doubt, the only real path to laughter and support and all the other good things we can offer: time with each other. A good meal made with heaps of love. A ritual born of a simple desire to each week make the world a bit better for each other.

read kerri’s blog post about DINNER WITH 20

Practice It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

“…our brains are prime to notice and remember negativity – things we don’t like or abhor doing – while barely registering the positive. Because of this negativity bias, we have to make a special effort to get our brains to notice, register, and savor the good.” ~ Kristine Klussman, Connection

It is not some special gift nor is it reserved for the select few. Seeing the positive is a practice. It takes practice. It requires cultivation.

I am fortunate. I am surrounded by people who point their cameras at beautiful sights, special moments, a lovely meal…the point is not capturing the photograph. The point is to practice seeing the positive, the gorgeous, the moments of gratitude and appreciation. A camera is a great support in practicing seeing the positive. “This blossom is elegant!” Kerri whispered. Master Miller regularly sends me photos of finger painting discoveries or sunsets over the river. Judy paints the most exquisite flowers; she is a master of seeing the sunshine.

I am fortunate. I am surrounded by people who, in the middle of difficult circumstances, point their minds and hearts at the positive. Mike’s Changing Faces Theater Company is a master-class of making lemonade from a pile of lemons.

Read any poem by Mary Oliver. Each verse a suggestion to see the magic in this mystical world, to place focus on what is too easily missed. The grasses in the breeze. The kind gesture. The geese in formation. “I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by this adventure – your life – what would do for you?” Evidence

It is very easy to focus on the negative, too easy, to latch onto the one critical comment in the midst of an avalanche of praise. To dwell on the single moment of wound in a lifetime of helping hands. It’s too easy to sit in the dark alone and complain about being lonely. It’s too easy to miss the precious moments of this life [they are everywhere] mired in a dedicated misery. It’s a hard step to rise out of the misery-chair and decide to place your focus on what is bright, what is right in the world, to offer a helping hand, to accept one. To practice savoring. It is hard to step from a darkened mind into a gathering of strangers, a new world, by bringing unguarded kindness with intent to see the best in others.

It’s hard, no doubt, at first, to refocus the eye. But it is much harder not to make the effort. It is so much harder to live a life bound by a practice of seeing only the negative.

There’s a simple truth, a secret, to seeing the positive, found in The Beatles lyric, The End, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Bring it and you will receive it. Practice the positive and you will evoke the positive. No one walks this path alone unless they choose to. The positive, just like the negative, is created in your mind, by where you decide to place your focus, by what you decide to bring to your life.

read Kerri’s blog post about UNPRESCRIBED SINGING

Walk With Dorothy [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I am fond of falling into rabbit holes. For instance, I just wrote the phrase, “racking my brain” and then doubted my spelling and wrote, “wracking my brain.” Was I wracking my brain or racking my brain as I tried to figure out who Lily Tomlin reminded me of? We’ve been binge watching episodes of Grace & Frankie.

This is what the oracle in the temple of google revealed to me: To rack one’s brain is to torture it or to stretch it by thinking very hard. To wrack one’s brain would be to wreck it. This might sort of make sense in some figurative uses, but rack is the standard spelling where the phrase means to think very hard.

After sufficiently stretching my brain on the rack, somewhere in the early episodes of season 2, I realized that Lily Tomlin’s character reminded me of my great aunt Dorothy. Not so much in specific action – but in orientation to life and in appearance. I admired her greatly.

Dorothy lived on the side of a mountain in a small house that may or may not have ever been level. It was a down hill stroll when walking from the kitchen to the living area. She cooked on a cast iron wood burning stove. Her tiny yard, also clinging to the side of the mountain, was a miracle of blue bottles glittering in the sun and brilliant red hummingbird feeders. Poncho, a dog older than god herself, sat in the yard and watched the day go by. My great uncle Del rolled cigarettes and kept his world war 2 army jeep in usable shape.

Dorothy and Del were more interested in living life simply rather than gathering possessions or stacking achievements. The promise of a week with them was a promise of adventure. Catching pollywogs in old coffee cans, building rafts so we could Huck Finn our way across high mountain lakes, bumping in the jeep over ancient gold mining trails, discovering cabins and shelters slowly being reclaimed by the land. There were old graveyards and the hillside that the mountain town considered its dump. Dorothy was famous (to me) for finding treasure there. She had the eyes to see possibilities and potential in the community’s discards.

I often wonder if my love of walking was a gift from Dorothy. I adored walking with her. She was, at the same time, a free spirit and completely grounded. She was dedicated to the appreciation of the moment. No frills. No illusions. The sun on her face was cause for celebration. She never traded simple present joy for some imagined future gain.

When I think of her, I smile. When I think of the many people who have influenced me, Quinn and Tom, Doug, MM, Mark, Judy…they all have a bit of Dorothy in their characters. Outliers. See-ers. Lots of laughter and ideas. The ability to find treasure – or make treasure – in the people and the possessions that society routinely throws away. Appreciators of the moment. Sharers of the riches they find there. Walkers-through-life that pay attention. Each and every one evokes a smile when they wander through my thoughts.

Ask me what makes a good life, what it is I hope to emulate, and leave behind, I will not need to rack or wrack my brain. I will point you to the long river of inspiration and smiles whose headwaters come from a tiny scrappy woman who lived in a tippy house on the side of a mountain surrounded by hummingbirds, colored glass, bacon and wood smoke.

read Kerri’s blog post about SMILE

Add Another Layer [on DR Thursday]

Were you to meet my easel in a dark alley it would, no doubt, frighten you. It’s big. Substantial. Rough. Weathered from hard life. Knobby, bent and encrusted.

I see it with different eyes. It is one of my most sacred possessions. It was given to me, a gift of celebration, following the opening of my very first solo show. Prior to its arrival in my life I propped my canvas on chairs or tables, I leaned them against walls, kneeling to paint. My easel allowed me to stand.

Caked in charcoal and layer upon layer of paint, artifacts of the hundreds of paintings that it has held for me, I find it beautiful. It has traveled with me through many states and life stages. Its main support is bent. It creaks when I adjust the angle or drop the arm. It occurred to me this morning, as I rebuild my studio following the great flood, that I also creak when my angles adjust, when my arms drop. We’ve aged together.

In a life with very few constants, my easel has served as my single steadfast companion through every move, every triumph, every tragedy. It has stood with me when I was artistically productive and a barren wasteland. It’s listened to me rant, ramble, and recite. It’s been witness to my laughter and my fears. It has been the silent sentinel during my mini-deaths and slow rebirths.

This morning, as I carried my easel back into the studio, I realized how out-of-order my world has felt. If my studio is in disarray, as it has been since the flood, I am also in disarray. Returning my easel to its proper spot in the studio I felt a flood of relief. All of my pieces are nearly put back together again. My trusty companion, my reliable easel and I will soon stand together, paint will spatter, charcoal and matte medium will crust another coating onto our already layered archaeology.

Art hollers. Possibility beckons.

read Kerri’s blog post about the EASEL

See The Moon [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

From Japan comes the story of the Crescent Moon Bear. It is a story of rage and patience. A young wife must pluck a single hair from the crescent moon shape at the throat of the ferocious bear. The single hair is a necessary ingredient for a medicine that will cure her husband. I told the story at a facilitation. After the telling, the vice president of the company said to the gathering, as an apology and a revelation, “I am the bear.”

Sometimes bears are necessary. Just like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, without the bear or the wolf there would not be a story. The purpose of a fear is to face it. It is a catalyst. The lesson is almost always concealed in the obstacle.

I once had a terrifying dream. I was being chased by monsters. I ran but could not get away. Finally, desperate, I saw a warehouse and ran for the door. I was certain there would be plenty of places to hide. Bursting through the door I was horrified to find the vast space empty. Swept clean. With no other exit available, I had to turn and face the monsters rushing toward me.

Do a little research on the symbol of the crescent moon and you’ll read that she represents cycles and instinct, mystery and immortality. Change. Fecundity. Many years ago I took a class on art and transformation. One of the projects, guided by an elder, was to make medicine shields. The face of the shield was decidedly male, sun. Bull. The back of the shield was feminine, moon. Lizard. Two aspects of power that dance. One is incomplete, superficial and out of balance, without the other.

In the Crescent Moon Bear story, after an arduous journey through the forest of her fear, the bear allows the young wife to pluck the hair. The magic ingredient is not taken, it is given. The obstacle, the monster, the locked door, opens and offers its potion. Insight ensues.

Insight, literally, the sight from within.

All of this, whispers from the psyche, bubbles of deeper wisdom, regeneration, emergence from the dark wood forever changed; could there be a better symbol for our times, a better symbol of promise as we stand with no place to hide, facing our raging pandemic, our ferocious bear of racial injustice, our masculine disequilibrium, than the promise of the crescent moon.

read Kerri’s blog post about the CRESCENT MOON

Try [on DR Thursday]

The operative word in this Chicken Nugget is “try.”

To try is a verb, an action. It’s also a noun but the synonyms used in either variation are mostly the same: attempt, endeavor, make an effort.

Try. It’s such a small word but its impact is unfathomable. It is the defining line between intolerance and empathy. Empathy begins with trying to see what others see. Intolerance begins with refusing to try to see what others see.

Try. It is the epicenter of advise that every parent offers to their children. Take a crack at it. Why not put it out there. Give it your best shot. You can’t win if you don’t run the race. You’ll never know unless you try.

A verb. An action. Try. A noun. A way of being.

Try is the foundation stone of curiosity. Wanting to know, wanting to experience what is “just over there.” To see not only what others see, but why they see it.

I sometimes try to see the unbridled enthusiasm that Dogga sees in each and every moment. I try to see the world of unlimited possibilities that Dawson sees every time he touches a crayon or paint brush. I do not delude myself. My eyes are not so pure. But I try.

Imagine what we might do in this world if we only gave it a try.

read Kerri’s blog post about TRY