Look To 3 [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

My long-ago-business-partner used to tell groups that every human being wears an umbrella hat called “normal.” That is, we try to maintain and make sense of the world according to our personal (and cultural) criteria. We carry the criteria around with us – it does not exist beyond us. We are comfortable when wearing our umbrella hats. We get really uncomfortable when something comes along that knocks our hats off of our heads.

When we lose our hats, we’ll do anything to regain our comfortable “normal.” The fear of losing our hats is what makes change – personal and cultural – so difficult. Despite what they say, no one wants to lose their hat. Organizations have a nifty phrase, change-management, to shield against the reality that change – real change- requires discomfort. How to prevent discomfort? Manage it! No worries! Everything is under control!

The other strategy – also not very effective in the long run – is to pretend that the hat is still on your head. No worries! It’s all made-up! Everything is normal!

The pandemic blew our collective hats off of our heads. We’ve had a front row seat to the realities and responses of a disrupted normal. The recent photos from Miami Beach, the aggressive non-mask-wearers, the absurd and deadly politicization of a pandemic…all in the name of hat retention and recovery.

In our circle of life, we’ve had the ubiquitous conversation about the return of normal. “When can we get together again?” Prior to the pandemic, our week was patterned on, our lives were grounded in, our Sunday and Thursday night dinners with 20. In a fluid artistic life, dinner with 20 was the shape-giver to our otherwise formless weeks. One day last March, we tossed our hats to the wind. It wasn’t safe to gather.

Over the year we left groceries at his door. He dropped goodies at our door. We waved from the car. We had regular phone calls. A few times, when the weather was nice, we sat in the back yard at great distance and discussed how weird life had become.

We looked for our new-normal-hats but they were nowhere to be found. It’s what happens when change cannot be denied: the management of discomfort is the best that you can do. Keep stepping. Chop wood/carry water. One day at a time. A new normal will surface sometime. A new pattern will be established. Pattern making is what we homo sapiens do.

In the past few months we three were vaccinated. We waited for a few weeks. We diligently read our CDC guidelines. And then, as if a year had not passed in the interim, we gathered to share a meal and drink a bottle of wine. Nothing had changed and everything had changed.

2 at the table is once again 3. We are slowly reestablishing what we once knew as normal. Our laughter is easy as it has always been. But the nation we inhabit, the community we see and experience, is transformed. There are stores we will never again support. There are relationships that will always be superficial. There is a bald ugliness exposed as never before in the nation. Ruthlessness. So many dead amidst such fatuous games of denial. The hot wind that blew our normal-hats away exposed the geography – the actual geography – beneath our nation that espouses equality but has deep division and favoritism woven into its DNA. Control by division. It is a mechanism: black gain is seen as white loss. White gain is built upon black loss. It is a seesaw, an angel/devil game. It’s a system doing – brutally – what it was designed to do.

Disruption is an opportunity for change. With so many lost hats, with so much ugliness exposed, a good look in the national mirror is possible. As we struggle to find our new normal hats, it occurs to me that angel/devil games, deep divisions, are never “solved” in twos. Movement is created by two points. Insight is a three-legged stool. Complexity is addressed through triangles, through a focus on relationship. Opposition-in-twos will keep us forever on the systemic seesaw.

Laughter is restored, possibility uncovered, through the lens of three.

read Kerri’s blog post about 3

See The Verb [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Random fact of the day: my waking thought this morning was about The Geography of Thought. No kidding. It’s a terrific book by Richard Nisbett. The subtitle is “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why.” Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I must have been pondering the bumper sticker we recently saw: I’m With Earth.*

One of the points made in the book, the one that permeated my dream state, is that different languages place different emphasis on different parts of speech. For instance, many Asian languages place emphasis on the verb. English speakers place the emphasis on the noun. In listening to mothers talk to their infant children, an English speaker will say, “Look at the red truck! Do you see the red truck?” An Asian mother will say, “Look at the red truck go!” Do you see the red truck go?”

Why does it matter where the emphasis lands in a language structure? Noun or verb?

The language we use shapes our thinking and seeing. It shapes basic worldviews. Earth as a noun or earth as a verb. Earth as a stand-alone-thing or earth as a moving interrelationship. These are vastly different worldviews.

This was my thought/image coming out of sleep: earth and sky. In a noun world, earth and sky are two distinctly different things. In a verb world, earth and sky are not separate things, they are verbs, actions, interplay of a dynamic relationship. In a noun world, I am also a distinctly different thing. In a verb world, earth, sky and I are not separate things, we are a dynamic inseparable relationship. We.

The bumper sticker is a declaration: I am with earth. It makes perfect sense in a noun world because it is also possible, in a perceptual world of separate things, to be against earth. Nature needs to be conquered, tamed. In a noun world, earth, once tamed, is a resource and resources are meant to be used. In a noun world, we are capable of believing that our actions have no impact on our environment. Action and environment are nouns, separate things.

In a verb world, what you do to the earth is what you do to yourself. No separation. In a perceptual world of relationship, of verbs, it is understood that your actions not only have impacts, your actions are impacts.

We woke to the news of yet another mass shooting. This one in Colorado. As usual, we know that our community and leadership will offer thoughts and prayers but nothing really – not really- will be done to address it. In a noun world, we protect the rights of the individual, the separate thing. In a verb world, there are no mass shootings. None. Violence done to one is violence done to all. In fact, more people are gunned down in the United States in a day than are killed by gun violence in Japan in a decade. The differing linguistic emphasis extends to differing understanding of rights and responsibilities.

Language matters. Where we focus matters. What we emphasize matters. The story we tell is determined by the language we use to tell it. I am with earth. Or, I am earth. I go to worship. I am worship. I seek purpose. I am purpose. Separation. Relationship. A whole philosophy of living reduced to a simple bumper sticker.

So, when we ask complex questions like, “Why can’t we do anything about gun violence?” or, “How is it possible that people in a pandemic refuse to wear masks to protect each other,” our answer is really very simple: our language makes it so.

Perhaps in a world of nouns a declaration is the best we can do. It is a step toward the middle way, a declaration of responsibility to the commons. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Stop Asian Hate. I’m With Earth.

*The “I’m with Earth” sticker is from the very cool company Gurus

read Kerri’s blog post about I’M WITH EARTH

Understand That Little Is More Than Enough [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I think that maybe\ I will be surer\ of being a little nearer.\ That’s all. Eternity\ is in the understanding\ that that little is more than enough.” ~ R.S. Thomas [via Anam Cara by John O’Donohue]

And so our dear H is gone. I have written about him before, about how I learned from him how to age well. To “have a wonderful urgency to live life to the full” [John O’Donohue]. H was a study in wonderful urgency. He did not grow cranky as he grew old. He did not darken his sight with what he could no longer do. He gently pushed the edges of what he could do. He was a master of focus-placement.

I have known many people who proclaim a spiritual life. They are quick to advertise their illumination. They live to stand on the mountain top and call attention to their heights. H was not one of those. He simply lived his faith as he lived his life – without need for acknowledgment or recognition. No trumpet necessary. I suspect that his why I was drawn to him. He was simon-pure. Genuine.

“We’re afraid you’re going to take her from us,” H said to me, more warning than salutation, when I sat next to him in choir. It was my first rehearsal in my first choir and, as an avowed non-singer, I was intimidated. Kerri was the director. She’d recently asked H, at 87 years old, to rap Via Dolorosa. He’d jumped at the challenge and, as I heard the story, performed brilliantly, complete with costume and bling. He and Kerri were thick as thieves.

He guided me through that first rehearsal, laughed when I honked a bad note – which was often, and, by sweet example over time, steered me through my confusion until I found more joy than fear in singing. At the end, as he was moving into his 94th year, just before the pandemic made rehearsals impossible, it was my joy to help him find his place in the music. A perfect circle.

This morning, just before we received the news of his passing, I spent some time in the final pages of Anam Cara. The last words are a Blessing for Death and this phrase struck me: May you live compassionately and creatively and transfigure\ everything that is negative within you and about you. When the news came of his passing, I was certain it was H who’d tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Pay attention to this phrase.” It describes him perfectly. It encapsulates what I believe, H, without words, was trying to teach me. Through compassion and creativity, transfigure everything that is negative within you and about you. That is how to live well and age with wonderful urgency. No trumpet necessary.

read Kerri’s blog post about H

Do It For Yourself [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I have been writing long enough to know that there are sedimentary layers to my themes. The top layer, the most superficial, is the political layer, current events. I am not above shouting into the storm. When I run to the keyboard and ring the alarm or presume that my point of view is relevant enough to roundly criticize others, I know that, above all, I’m breaking the first rule of happiness: I can never determine what another person thinks or does or feels. On my superficial days, in my ranting, I write for myself.

When I was at my saddest, I set about looking for goodness. I walked the streets of Seattle with the single intention of counting acts of kindness. As you might suspect there were more than I could count. In this world where we story ourselves as aggressive, unthinking and unkind, we are remarkably compassionate. Good will is simply more difficult to see. It is not the focus. The deeper layers of my writing-archaeology emerge when I direct my attention, when I exercise the artist in me and attempt to see beyond what I think. Since these are the layers where I desire to live and work, I suppose it is also true that on those days I also write for myself.

It is a looping life-lesson for me: I have the capacity to choose where I place my focus. I will see in the dark ocean where I decide to shine my light. I will author myself according to what/where I decide to give my focus. It is, among other things, why the film ABOUT TIME is among my favorite movies.

Lately, as one of our get-through-the-pandemic-winter-strategies, we’ve taken to assembling jigsaw puzzles. Entire evenings disappear into our intense pursuit of pieces. Our puzzle sessions require absolute focus – all of the other nonsense and monsters that vie to plague our brains are banished. Our focus is so thorough that we rarely speak. We do, however, listen to the soundtrack of ABOUT TIME. Again and again. When it finishes, one of us walks to the CD player (yes…we play CDs) and play it again. Sometimes we don’t make it past the first track, Ben Fold’s THE LUCKIEST. “Do you mind?” one of us asks. It’s a rhetorical question. It warms us so a repeat is always welcome.

Sitting at the dining room table, hunting for bits of colored cardboard, with the soundtrack playing, all things come into focus. While the surface-layer is on fire with a circus of instability, a pandemic, a climate that is changing, all jobs gone, a broken wrist that is not mending,…the deeper layer beckons: DogDog sits under the table, BabyCat is asleep on the chair, 20 just called and made us laugh, a postcard from Jen made us cry, my phone dinged with a text from a dear friend. I look across the table at my wife, pursing her lips as she plucks a piece of the puzzle from the table and attempts to make it fit, and I know to my bones that I am the luckiest.

To see it or not to see it; it’s my choice.

read Kerri’s blog post about REPEAT

Lead And Follow [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

And now, a few days beyond the solstice, we baby step our way back into the light. Yesterday on the trail, for a few moments, the sun broke through an otherwise dreary day. I was immediately heartened. The warmth went all the way to my bones. And then, it was gone.

“This will define me or I will overcome it.” Sue’s quote is a re-statement of Viktor Frankl: this experience will give meaning to me or I will give meaning to it. This morning, while pondering this quote, it occurred to me that almost every coaching/consulting relationship I ever had could be boiled down to this meaning-seeking or meaning-making distinction. Will it define me or will I define it?

In some ways – well, in all ways – it is a false choice. It is not an either/or world. Our experiences inform us and we define our experiences. The sun emerges and my spirits lift. The sun disappears and I shove my hands back into my pockets, hunch my shoulders, look at the ground. It’s a dance.

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that no one has control over their circumstances. Pandemics rage. Wrists break. Jobs vanish. Stability collapses.

We do, however, have the capacity to choose how we engage with our circumstances. We have the capacity to choose who we are within our circumstances.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at some point stood under the stars, shook their fists at the sky and asked, “Why?” It’s also true that I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at some point in their journey stopped, turned and looked back on their life, and in festival of meaning-making, connected the dots. “It all makes sense,” they whisper.

Am I the captain of my ship or am I tossed about on the seas? It’s not a useful question to ask. A better question to ask: as the captain of my ship, how am I when the seas rise and throw my boat to-and-fro? Every captain is cocky in calm waters but the real story emerges when Poseidon pitches a fit, when the waves tower over your boat.

One of my mentors told me that the trick is not to eliminate your fear. That is a fool’s errand. The exercise is to to keep your focus on where you want to sail. Choose your focus. The fear will always be there, it’s a necessary part of the gig. In a storm, fear is sometimes useful when making choices. The exercise is to know that you are making choices, the best choices given your circumstances. Just don’t make fear your focus. Don’t make fear your choice.

It’s a dance. Sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. Sometimes you lose your way. Sometimes you simply stop walking and, for a few brief moments, turn your face to the sun.

read Kerri’s blog post on DEFINING

Look For It [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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“Consider yourself blessed. These stones that break your bones will build the altar of your love.” ~ Lynn Park

20 has a collection of images. Faces found in objects. A light socket that seems to be eyes and a nose and a mouth. A teapot face. A widget-face at the hardware store. He sees them everywhere because he looks for them.

Looking for it. It’s the key to a positive attitude: you see what you look for. Look for generosity and kindness and you’ll see it everywhere. It’s also true of a darker view on life: there’s plenty of horror story to be found if you spend your days looking for it.

As a rule, both kindness and cruelty are available in abundance. Both are on display at any given moment of the day.

People seem to be more attracted to cruelty – especially for pleasure. We build coliseums so we can watch gladiators do combat. We thrill when the car crashes on the track. The bloodier the video game the better the sales. We love to yammer on and on about our bad experiences but will tell far fewer people about the good moments. We’ve managed to turn something as benign as Facebook into yet another bloody coliseum for e-battle. People negating people. Dedicated division. “Shouting into the canyon,” as Rob called it.

And, as a rule, we will either go through life seeking meaning for our experiences or we will go through life giving meaning to our experiences. We focus on what we have or we focus on what we lack. Opportunity or obstacle. Us or Them. Either way, it’s a story and we are the storytellers.

People are patterned so they generally see what they expect to see. It’s the lesson that’s all the rage these days in the USA. Lesson #2: once patterned, people are resistant to seeing anything other than what they believe. We have the unique capacity, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to argue to the death to maintain our point of view. The anti-mask crowd are providing generations of psychologists with a heyday of research: people literally arguing to death to maintain their point of view despite a veritable mountain of evidence that contradicts their belief.

It seems impossible, yet there it is. There we are.

Like 20, I have decided to train my eyes to see. Only, instead of faces found in inanimate objects, I’ve decided to look for the little miracles. Intrepid life. The magnificent force that expresses in small affirmations. An unlikely plant growing from a crack in the wood. A snake stretched out on the path to catch the sun. The single-day proliferation of crabgrass taking over our yard! A meteor flying by.  People more invested in the sunset than the Facebook. The fox at midnight. The turkey on the roof. The friends who love each other enough to keep their distance.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about INTREPID LIFE

 

 

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Face The Sun [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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Walking the river trail I couldn’t help but whirl in the contradiction: everything has changed and nothing has changed. While the world of people is awash in pattern disruption, the rest of creation is following the script exactly.

Spring. The muddy season. The world pops green just as we knew it would. Just as it did last year and the year before and the year before. I believe our backyard ferns are growing 6 inches a day. Even the daily Dog-Dog assault cannot deter their reach for the sun. Life returns from darkness. Demeter sings at Persephone’s return.

If you seek an affirmation of life come sit in our backyard. The bird song will lift your spirits, these flying shocks of color will make you giggle with delight. Vibrant yellow, a cardinal more salmon than red. My eyebrows cartoon-pop in disbelief. We sit facing the sun in our broken Adirondack chairs and drink in the warmth.  “This doesn’t suck.” I say, eyes closed, basking in appreciation of the sun as it reaches to my bones. I’m certain I said the exact same thing last year and the year before that. Rituals of renewal need not always be solemn.

Sometimes I think this game of life is really an exercise in focus placement. I can choose to see the world as the work of Hieronymous Bosch– and sometimes I do. Beautifully horrific. Or, I can swivel my lens to Georgia O’Keefe and look at the wondrous small things, the miracle of nuance and the close-up. Sometimes, when I am at my best, I turn my eyes to see as Ellsworth Kelly did, when he imagined his chapel of light. “I think people need some kind of spiritual thing,” he said.

And so, with the vibrant greens popping, the screaming yellows flying, the blue-blue of a cloudless sky, tender lettuce leaves breaking through topsoil, I find myself surrounded by a Hieronymous Bosch narrative cycle but with just a little refocus, I am stunned by the grander cycle of marvel and mystery in this Ellsworth Kelly world.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about CLOVER

 

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Tickle Open The Closed [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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It used to be one of my favorite exercises to facilitate. Ask one person in a small group to tell a story of blame. Ask the rest of the group to invest in the story. In no time the small groups would be indignant, talking over each other in disgruntlement. A klatch of agitated victims, howling.  They’d laugh in their aggravated frenzy. They’d devise clever revenge or ways to torment the object of their blame story. They’d grow a monster.

Blame stories are like sugar. They are easy to eat and highly addictive. There’s rarely any real substance, so much gossip-cotton-candy, but there is an odd pleasure in playing the role of  “the injured party.” The groups would always reflect that the exercise was fun. So much so that they’d often forget it was an exercise. Commiseration and validation, after all, are the point of a blame story. That, and making someone else responsible for how we feel.

Ask the same groups to tell a story of choice or opportunity and most times, after only a minute or two, they’d sit in silence. Their, “Great. That’s really great,” support would dwindle. Feeding an idea is not nearly as easy as feeding a story of blame.

Quinn used to tell me that creativity is not for the faint of heart.

The groups were always shocked to discover how much of their lives were spent chewing the gristle of discontent, of feeding the notion that someone else was to blame for their choices or their circumstance. They’d generally comment on how easy it was to commiserate and how difficult it is to question, challenge or stop the blame-game. Mostly, they were shocked to discover how little of their time they dedicated to feeding ideas, theirs or another persons.

Blame stories are easy because they are reductive. They engender tight little balls of closed minds and closed circles. They close hearts. They take almost no energy at all to spark but, once burning, like a wildfire, they are capable of consuming entire forests.

Idea exploration is expansive. Seeing possibilities requires eyes that look up and out.  It takes much more energy to imagine, to question, to ponder. To try. To experiment. To ask. To challenge what you think you know. Opening minds, opening circles and hearts requires a deep sense of self-responsibility. It requires an even deeper sense of responsibility to others.

One of the purposes of the artist is to open closed circles, to tickle open closed minds. To help their community see anew and entertain never-before-imagined possibilities.

It takes more effort and courage to sail to the edges of the known world than it does to hang out around the water cooler and complain about others. Great minds do not have more capacity than any other mind, but they do require a very different focus.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about GREAT MINDS & IDEAS

 

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FaceTheRain

feel the rain, mixed media, 2019

Ride The Lion [on KS Friday]

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Let’s just say that 2020 is off to a rough start. If I was to get out my old-school label maker and slap a sticky tape descriptor on last year, on 2019, it would be the year of contention. 2020 is shaping up to be the watershed. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.

Broken contracts [literal and metaphoric]. Broken wrists. Broken dreams. All of our presses have stopped. We are moving very, very slowly through our days. We are having long conversations about where we’ve been, our successes and failures, dreams realized and those that went to ashes in our mouths, and where we want to go from here.

Unless you are being chased by a real lion, fear is mostly a function of imagination. In the real-lion scenario, fear is a life-saver that makes world-class sprinters of us all. In every other case, sans lion, it is a made-up monster that chases.  Running does no good. This chasing monster requires the opposite of the real lion: stopping, turning, and looking squarely into the eyes of your own dark imagination. The only relevant question is, “What’s wearing the mask of this monster?” Shame? Failure? What should have been? What will never be?

It is a turning point. Stopping. Breathing. Turning and staring back at your wild-eyed scare-fantasy and realizing that it’s merely a mechanism to prevent you from being where you are.  Standing in this exact moment is the only place from which you can enact change. It is the single location in which you can fully, unequivocally appreciate your life. Self-made monsters always dissipate when scrutinized.

Running away casts you as both runner and lion, chaser and chased. Fear the imagined-lion, be the runner. It splits you in half. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! And what if it is not falling? What if the lion-monster chases precisely to prevent you from standing still?

It’s a vicious circle, an energy eddy, this hyper-active dark imagination. It is true, if you think about it, that an imagination that is capable of so much doom is equally capable of fixating on the light side. Ride the lion. Better yet, give it wings so the ride is uncanny and wondrous. The ultimate human choice is where we decide to place our focus.

The story we decide to tell follows the focus-choice. Standing still, the only place from which we can see the array of choices and available stories, we are once again learning, seems to be the gift of the Watershed.

 

 

WATERSHED on the album AS IT IS is available on iTunes& CDBaby

 

read Kerri’s blog post about WATERSHED

 

 

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watershed/as it is ©️ 2004 kerri sherwood

Help Yourself See [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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In a particularly dismal period of time in my Seattle years, I decided I needed to focus on the good stuff. I made a game of writing on small bits of paper things in my life for which  I was grateful. And then I left my small gratitude notes around the city as I moved about my day. I left them at bus stops. I rolled some and tucked them in crosswalk signs. A few were tucked into menus or left on coffeehouse tables.

My gratitude notes had an interesting blow-back. They inspired me to seek things that I was grateful for so I might write a note about it. Not only that, but they made me pay attention to the infinite acts of kindness that I saw everyday. People were helping people everywhere! I was blind to it until I started paying attention; until I got out of my misery-head and opened my eyes.

I was struck by the vast difference between the story I was being told about humanity and the story I was witnessing on my daily walks across the city. I could count the acts of aggression. I lost track of the acts of kindness and generosity because there were too many to capture.

When you stop and think about it, isn’t it always the case that the the good stuff, the potential-pool-of-gratitude-possibilities is vast yet the gunk gets all the focus. What is it in us that hyper-focuses on the flaw, sorts to the wound, while the river of beauty roars by unnoticed?

Kerri designed these cards for another project and they made me remember my notes. Encouragement of gratitude. Give it a try. Download the blanks. Scribble a note or two of thanks-giving and leave them behind somewhere. Be prepared for some eye opening blow-back.

 

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read Kerri’s blog post about GRATITUDE

 

 

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