Climb The Ladder [on Merely A Thought Monday]

Very few images are as potent as Tom Mck’s story of finding his 90 year old aunt Bunty on the roof of the farmhouse. There had been a storm. She’d hooked her cane on a rung and climbed the rickety ladder to make sure the shingles were intact, “Papa put a fine roof on this house,” she said, staring down at her alarmed nephew. Bunty was a farm woman. She saw no reason why she should not be on the roof. As the elder of the family, she was the keeper of the legacy. The house and ranch were the tangible creations of her ancestors and she was the steward.

Years later, when Bunty was gone and Tom was the ancestral steward, his task was untenable. The city was spreading like a fire, gobbling up farm land. He knew it was only a matter of time before the ranch was consumed. A Walmart was being built and he could almost see it from the porch. “What am I going to do?” he asked, knowing that he was the end of the line. His question was rhetorical. Sometimes the steward’s job is to close the door on an era. He knew what he had to do.

After Tom passed and the ranch was sold, I imagined him, like Bunty, standing on the roof of the farmhouse. He made sure that, as the land was lost, the legacy remained intact. He was strong, like Bunty. His ladder was rickety but he climbed it none-the-less. He made sure the shingles were intact. He met his task without self-pity.

I learned from him that life can forge you into strong metal or, if you choose, if you feel sorry for yourself, it can break you into tiny pieces. Jonathan told me that a tree must split its bark to grow and I understood that as a metaphor for aging. The bark splits because the spirit outgrows the body’s capacity to contain it. Beaky was like that. And, Dorothy. Mike. Grandma Sue. H. I admire them. Bodies break down. Aging hurts. Spirits, on the other hand, need not wither.

I’m told that, in her elderhood, Margaret stopped what she was doing each day to go out back and watch the sun set over the desert. She was made hardy by a hard life. She was made kind by how she chose to live within her hard life. Drying her hands, stepping out on the back porch, the sky electric with peach and pink, she met each sunset with gratitude. Intentional thankfulness for the day.

Gratitude is not a soft thing. It is an attribute of the strong. Hard won from a long life of choices. Bitterness is easy, a lazy thing. Climbing the ladder, standing on the roof, feeling the aches and the loses, facing the running sands with a smile and admiring the day’s end, celebrating the shingles that held fast through the storm and those who placed them, that takes grit. Courage. And, an understanding of the connected power and responsibility of standing in the long line of ancestry.

read Kerri’s blog post about STRONG WINGS

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

Celebrate The Metal [on KS Friday]

Quinn used to say that Dodo, his mother-in-law, was a warrior. This slight gentle woman was a quiet post of stability. Her daughter, Ann, inherited her mother’s metal. Both women held their worlds together even when it seemed irreparably fractured. Gentle, graceful, kind. Both avoided the limelight and required no accolades. They were strong and made stronger in hot water.

Marcia was the sturdy foundation that Tom McK and Demarcus built their artistic careers upon. Neither would have succeeded were she not stabilizing and elevating their work. Her life has been a study of adversity and she’s met every new tsunami with deep-river-courage-and-clarity.

My first impression of Melissa was of a quiet mouse. What I didn’t know, what I was grateful to witness, was the utter audacity that roared to the surface in her struggle to bring real learning opportunities into her classroom when the system was hell-bent on strangling education. She was a lion-of-possibility and, to this day, inspires me.

My grandmother was a tiny joyful woman. She might have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet with bricks in her pockets. And, she was a force to be reckoned with. Our metaphor for her mischief, our defining story of her, was the day the neighbor sold his horse to the glue factory. She knew the truck was coming for the horse. She ran to it, led it from its pasture (i.e., she stole the horse). She hid the horse in her kitchen. Once, I attempted to grab the check for lunch and she pinned my hand to the table with her fork. And then she laughed.

Laughter. Joy. It’s what binds all of these stories, these remarkably strong women, who reveal the depth of their strength only when circumstance demands it of them. The hotter the water, the more potent their response. The hotter the water, the greater their laughter. Compliment them on their brass and they’ll wave it off, deny they are doing anything special. Honestly humble and humbly honest.

In the past two years, the water that Kerri and I have found ourselves in has been steaming hot. Kerri is, like Dodo and Ann, Marcia and Melissa, my grandma Sue, a warrior. She inherited her mother’s metal. The hotter our water, the greater her capacity to stand still, to find light, to laugh at our (my) spinning foibles. She melts down, to be sure, but push her to her boundary and you’ll find that your horse has gone missing. And, while you stand perplexed in your pasture, you’ll hear a certain hearty laughter coming from the kitchen in the house next door.

Boundaries on the album Right Now – and all of Kerri’s albums are available on iTunes and streaming on Pandora

read Kerri’s blog post on WOMEN LIKE TEA BAGS

boundaries/right now ©️ 2010 kerri sherwood

Sing [on KS Friday]

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The story is famous in these parts. It goes like this: when I met Kerri I told her that she needed to know two things about me: 1) I don’t sing. 2) I don’t pray. She gave me a sideways knowing look and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

I had some very-traumatic-early-in-my-life-singing-experiences. Lots of shame and humiliation led me to an adamant preemptive proclamation with my musician-soon-to-be wife: I do not sing. No way. Don’t even ask. I’ll watch from the sidelines.

Of course, within a few months, she had me in a ukulele band, a choir, and a band. It turns out I like to sing. The problem, she taught me, was not in my capacity to sing, it was in how I hear sound. I hear an octave up. She taught me how to hear. I am now a confident parasitic singer (i.e. I sing just fine with others, just don’t ask me to sing alone).

I’ve spent my life teaching people to see. How beautifully ironic (or perfect) that I needed to learn to hear.

Early in the saga of Beowulf, he is caught in a swarm and blinded by bees. Because he was blinded, he had to develop other senses; his heightened senses were critical in combating and defeating the monster Grendel. Late in his life, he retired as a beekeeper. He not only made peace with bees, they become his allies. At the very end, his bees are his greatest strength. They defeat a dragon plaguing his kingdom.

The great stories are with us for a reason. They can help us navigate and craft our own life stories. For instance, the greatest wounds can be limits or they can lead to new and vital gifts. I’ve learned from Beowulf that the path you take – limit or liberation –  depends on the story you argue for, the focus you choose. When I met Kerri I was arguing for my limitation. I do not sing. Period.

Another recurring theme in the great stories goes like this: when you are ready, the right teacher appears.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about SING

 

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shaman ©️ 1993 david robinson

Gather Around The Fire [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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An unseasonably cool June evening. We sat around the fire. At social distance and wearing masks. Friends. “It’s so odd,” we said more than once. Eyes and assumed smiles. Muffled laughter. “I’ll never again take for granted a hug or being able to sit close together around the table,” she said. “It’s the little things that I miss.”

Fire is elemental. Water. Air. Earth. And, sometimes, Spirit though I think the 5th is always implicit. Friendship is elemental and spirit-full. Especially when the world is off center. It is a forge for strength and determination. Our friends, so generous, feed air into the fire. Support. Encouragement.

As we talked through face coverings about our newest daily obstacles, I wondered how hard it must have been to communicate across distance with smoke signals. Measured fire. Kerri said, “My mask is slipping again! There must be something wrong with my face.” We laughed and made up problems with her nose.

So much fire on the streets across the land! Transformation is afoot! Creative fire is out of the barn and teasing the status quo. This hot fire illuminates. It smacks of a ritual fire and, if properly honored and tended, can set us on a new path. Dark corners revealed and more than simply acknowledged, truly addressed.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods to spark life into his new creatures.  To ignite breath. Humans, made from earth and water. Four elements, come together. He was punished for his transgression. The spark lit an entire forest fire of humanity and creative potential. Beings capable of looking at the elements within themselves, at asking each other in magical moments, “How can we be better?”

All of this wonder and wandering on an unseasonably cool summer evening. Meeting with friends across a fire. A sip of wine. In earnest, we ask the question of each other, through our masks and across our distance, “How can we be better?”

 

read Kerri’s blog post about KEEP THE FIRE BURNING

 

 

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Find The First Principle [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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I don’t know about you but the moments in my life that I am the least proud are the moments that I was steeped in anger. In anger, I have said things that I didn’t mean and done things that I now regret. There is no real strength to be found in anger. There is only blindness and weakness.

We live in the great age of the misnomer. In anger we slap a label of virtue on the mad face of vice.

Step outside and you’re likely to be trampled by a stampeding herd of verbal misdirection. If your brain is not pulped by rage and you are curious enough to question, you just might survive the stampede. But do not think you are safe! That roaring that you hear is nothing less than an avalanche of obfuscation.

Occam would have a field day using his razor on phrases like “alternative truth.” What are the odds that a lie is a lie and not an alternative at all? He would roll his eyes at us. “What entices you, ” he would ask, after slicing the alternative from the truth, “to willingly swallow so much word-gumbo?”

The answer is easy and readily apparent: anger. We are an angry nation getting angrier. Angry people rarely ask questions. Anger and Reason are never seen sitting at the same table. Angry people are especially gullible, easily whipped into an frenzy, and led by the nose into concocted fights. People are made angry in order to focus their blood shot eyes on made-up-divides. There is nothing that bonds an Us like the perception of an invading Them.

If you survive the avalanche of obfuscation, duck, cover, and roll as the squadron of conspiracy theories are certainly swooping in to drop their fantastic story-bombs. Misdirection. Obfuscation. Cries of “Hoax!” and “Witch hunt!”

Anger, so we’re told, is a secondary emotion. It is a cover-up emotion, a protection against feeling the primary thing, like fear or loss. Anger is what happens when the metaphoric dog is backed into the corner. It’s better to bark and snap than to feel shame or sadness or otherwise vulnerable, especially in public. It’s easier to punch, to blame, to rage than it is to deal with the first principle.

What we-the-people have in common, our first principle, is suffocating under all of this anger.

Sharpening his razor, Occam might ask, “What would happen if you dealt with what you were really feeling instead of covering it up with so much fury? What’s beneath the anger? Deal with that.”

History teaches that when a leader fans anger into a red hot flame, the purpose is to forge the gullible into a thoughtless mob. These are the necessary bellows: obfuscation, misdirection, conspiracy theories a-go-go. Blame. Blame. Blame.

Mobs are not really strong. They are flashes in a vapid leader’s pan. They return to their strength when the fire burns itself out, when their eyes clear, and they once again become capable of asking, “What’s going on?”

Anger and strength – despite what the stampeding herd would like you to believe – are not the same thing. One requires the presence of mind and clear sight – and the other is defined by blindness and the absence of thought.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about ANGER AS PROXY

 

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Slow Down And See [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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There is a theme emerging in my posts this week. Substance vs. the appearance of substance. The flattening of importance.

During an exceptionally stressful and contentious period this summer, we streamed the entire run of Parenthood. Six seasons of escapism!  “Let’s go to  California,” we’d say, all too ready for a leap out of reality. And then, in a moment of horror, the episodes of Parenthood ran out. Our escape hatch closed with a bang. In desperation we surfed and landed in Schitt’s Creek. It was a series a bit too relevant to our circumstance and we howled when one of the characters, in the face of kindness, said that she’d been raised to see that “kindness is a sign of weakness.”

“That’s our problem,” Kerri said, “we see kindness as a virtue.” She was raised to be kind.

That night we had a long discussion about kindness and its general absence in public discourse.

I’ve been thinking much about our conversation since we found ourselves meditating on kindness in Schitt’s Creek. This is my observation: mean is easy. It is fast. Like all forms of reactivity and thoughtlessness, meanness and contention are elementary.

We are surrounded by friends who are kind.  They are kind because they cultivate kindness, thoughts of others, as essential to their character. That’s why we are attracted to them. We are the recipients of unbearable gifts of kindness through our friends. They break us open. They make us bigger.

Kindness is a virtue. It is also a strength. And, it takes time. Kindness is like poetry. It takes development and some higher order thinking.

Lions eat zebras for food. People hurt people for a lesser reason.

In a world obsessed with speed, it is all too easy to run past substance in pursuit of the superficial. Slowing down, taking some time to see, exposes all manner of beauty.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about KINDNESS

 

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Release The Peace [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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Peace. Compassion. Strength. Wisdom. The idea is that prayers and mantras symbolized on the flags are blown by the wind, spreading their peace, compassion, strength and wisdom into the world. It’s not a bad idea. It’s not a bad reminder.

We pass beneath our prayer flags everyday. It is our version of the Balinese split gate. A symbol of bigger things. Coming or going we pass through a moment of meditation, a fluttering reminder of the path that threads through time’s center. The place of presence. It is the place where divisions fade – even for a moment. The place where the drama-of-the-day and turmoil – all expressions of separation – fall away.

The flags quiver and dance. We stop and listen to the quiet flapping, the release of peace into the wind. The basic elements of compassion, strength, and wisdom. Water, fire, earth and sky. A renewed focus.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about PRAYER FLAGS

 

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Unify

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Stay with me. I actually have a point.

If ever I teach actors again, or coach people in any endeavor, or communities/businesses seeking betterment, I will only have two things to teach: 1) Grounded-ness and 2) Focus placement on the unifiers. These two concepts are really  one looping concept but for ease and the sake of being understood, I will offer them independent of one another.

As focus placement goes, an actor on the stage has two options and depending on the focus placement they choose, they will either create the play or destroy it. A focus on how they look or sound or feel destroys the play. It is a self-focus in an art form of relationship (all art forms are made vital in relationship). A self-focus breaks the relationships and effectively locks the audience out of participating in the story. It makes the actor giddy with fear, easily distracted, alone. Conversely, the actor can focus outside of themselves, on the other actors on the stage, on the energy between, on their pursuit. An outer-focus creates relationships and serves as a magnet that pulls audiences into the story. It facilitates participation, creates relationship, and shared experiences. It unifies. Literally.

The actor who listens to him/herself pulls up their root. They unground themselves. The actor whose focus is outward, who is actively pursuing relationship, creates grounding. In fact, they must be grounded to create vital relationships. It is a first principle. Grounded-ness begets grounded-ness; it unifies. It strengthens. It invites. It clarifies truth.

The same principles apply off the stage or out of the studio. It is, however, more complex off the stage. It is much, much, more sticky.

And here’s the point: It has been said that nothing is better at uniting a community than having an enemy. It’s true. A common enemy provides an outer focus. It provides another team to defeat. It works so well that leaders across the ages, leaders who would otherwise look insipid, leaders who, like a bad actor, have a self-focus, a control need, have concocted all manner of enemies. It is a deflection. It works for a short while but what starts as false unity strips a community of its true binder. It separates and splits. It diminishes. It destroys.

Here’s the sticky part. One of the oldest tricks in the book for controlling a community is to split them, to locate the enemy within the community. And then, for good measure, magnify the split. In the early colonies – that ultimately became The United States of America – it was a strategy known as The Giddy Masses (see Ronald Takaki’s excellent book A Different Mirror). Make the people giddy with a false enemy. Uproot them. Deflect them so they cannot join in relationship and be strong as a community. Self-focused leaders cannot survive a unified, healthy populace. It is a strategy: separate the people so they cannot see the movement of power.

Today I started to read the news but stopped after only a minute. Building walls. Expelling Muslims. Enemy creation everywhere! Fox news and MSNBC are great giddy creators. It’s a bad story poorly told. It weakens all players. The primary actors do harm to their audience. Grounded-ness, a first principle, can only come to all when the actors choose to focus on the relationships, see the unifiers, to create rather than destroy. Groundedness comes when the audience engages, questions what they are being told and open (rather than close) their minds.

Grounded-ness. Focus placement on the unity. The principles that make great art also make great society. Fear, the province of the bad actor, the lot of a passive audience, although temporarily effective, can only destroy the play.

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