Some say politics – conservatism, liberalism, ism’s of all kinds – is the problem.
Others say its religion – too much, or not having enough – is the problem.
Most agree that those who disagree, who are different (not just in terms of race, culture, creed, but also ideology) – with me, with you, with us – are the problem.
Identification – in all its forms. What of that? Are we not, each and every one of us, caught by, or rather imprisoned by this very human characteristic one time or another and in all likelihood, most of the time?
Might that be at the root of these other, more obvious problems? But because its at the root, might it also be a tremendous opportunity?
What would it be like to see the shape and form identification takes in oneself? To be so close to its essence you can taste it, but not so close you get swallowed by it.
What would that look like?
Here is one interpretation through dance of the struggle for that rare kind of freedom.
Slumped over the steering wheel I wondered “What am I afraid of?”. Not being enough, probably. My year had already been filled with so much loss. Now, having to face my dear friend’s decline due to advanced Parkinson’s seemed more than I could bare.
“What do I want to give my friend?” I thought next. Getting out of the car, I resolved to give her my full attention. I simply wanted to be there for her. Nothing else mattered.
Marguerite’s home nurse greeted me at the door, warning me that she was having a particularly bad day. Approaching her room, my anxiety returned. I ignored it.
She lay on her side, eyes closed, even though she was awake. She seemed uncomfortable. Her nurse shared that she was feeling less pain than earlier that day. Her arms, tucked neatly under her pillow, contrasted with her legs. They moved forward and out in random movements from beneath the bedsheets.
Sitting beside her, I placed my hand on the metal bed rail and stayed there for some time. Her eyes remained closed while the nurse let her know I was at her bedside. Reaching to move a strand of her chestnut gray hair from her forehead, Marguerite opened her eyes and managed a smile.
Taking my hand into hers, she asked me how I was. She then gestured to her CD player, asking me to play something from Cuba. I put on Celia Cruz, one of her favorite singers.
She asked me to dance for her. So I did.
I danced the dance of Oshun, the goddess and archetype of love and the river according to the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. Ochun’s movements brought joy in the room. I made large and small movements trying to fill the space with Ochun’s energy, being mindful to not get carried away by the music. Marguerite’s love of dance was so pure, it was as if she were dancing we me.
Half way through the song, Marguerite asked her nurse to help her sit up. As she did, her toes touched the floor. I pulled up a chair and brought Oshun’s dance between us. Random leg movements became deliberate and under her control as she tapped out the song’s rhythm in perfect time. I joined her foot tapping with my own. The nurse joined too, and tapped the rhythm on her lap. We danced together.
Marguerite returned to bed for some much needed rest. Her eyes – full of life. We hugged goodbye and I promised not to wait so long before I returning.
As I drove away, I realized that it’s not whether I believe I’m enough or not enough. It’s in trusting that in focusing on love, the world opens and with it, more courage, more patience, more love. Even in years full of loss.
(Update: So incredibly happy to share that as of the writing of this post, Marguerite’s strength has returned. Miracles really do happen.)
The following post is from something I wrote in 2012. Though dated, it’s still apropo for reflection today.
Eighteen years ago this month, the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis began in Rwanda. In just 3 months nearly 1 million elders, adults, children and infants were brutally slaughtered.
Earlier this month leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City to commemorate the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated “…the only way to prevent such atrocities from occurring again is to learn from history.” http://allafrica.com/stories/201204130120.html (the post associated with this link has since been rewritten.)
While somewhat reassuring to hear a statement like this from an individual in power, I’m skeptical as to whether it can influence positive change in the future. Here is why. Of course we should learn from history so as not to repeat it. I’m sure if I surveyed 100 people outside my door on the street, most would claim they believe that. But if we want to be really honest with ourselves then the more clarifying question is: If it were 1994 again would we have done anything differently than what we did, as citizens, as a country? Would this have changed with the benefit of hindsight? And if we believe that knowing ahead of time the tragic events that were about to unfold would be enough to move us from bystander to actor, then the next question is: How do we know for certain?
I was traveling to South East Asia at the time of the Genocide. For April and June, I don’t think that I watched television or the news even once. I’m certain that I didn’t read a paper or listen to the news on the radio during this time. I was completely wrapped up in my own world. I was leaving my boyfriend of 8 years and our shared apartment. The first afternoon in my new flat in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I got an invitation to be part of an international venture. I leapt at the chance and after a week of frenetic shopping, packing of luggage and unpacking of moving boxes, I found myself in a first class cabin bound for Singapore.
The plane took off, I reclined in the cushy first-class seat and pressed the “on” button of the mini-screen t.v. to see the news for the first time in months. That’s when I learned about what was happening in Rwanda. There were scenes of masses of people walking down dirt roads, refugees fleeing for the border. There were other scenes of streets strewn with corpses. There were headlines with quotes from government officials and there was a number, an estimated death toll.
I sat, stone silent while watching. My mind raced with what to do. I had no idea. Nor did anyone around me who had just become aware of the news as I had. I dived into my overseas assignment moving my impression and shock from the news to the back of my mind but not forgetting. In three months I was back home in San Francisco. And that’s when I let fade the news of what I’d heard in early April. Life got busy, I had more responsibilities – shock morphed into memory and nothing changed. And there was nothing to remind me of what was happening in Rwanda in my beautiful neighborhood.
I’ve felt woefully complicit ever since. Not just personally but as an American. There is no question that our country, amoung many others demonstrated a clear and intended lack of leadership and humanity. I’ve asked myself what would I have done differently, had I known? Would I have written my Congressman, and Government Representatives? Would I have started a petition and gathered signatures to try and urge action? Is there anything else I could have done? None of this is enough, of course, but is it better than nothing?
Now, every year in April I make it a point to remember, not just what happened, but also what did not, namely, any form of action by me, as well as any form of intervention on behalf of the Rwandan victims, by one of the worlds most powerful countries, the United States.
Perhaps the most humane act any of us can do is to admit that we, in fact, do not know how we would behave. What we can have is an intention and a commitment to staying awake in front of that commitment. Maybe someday more of the worlds leaders will follow suit, and in so doing, start to build a plan to respond to future threats based on co-responsibility instead of co-denial.
My story starts a bit over two years ago when I reinserted/forced myself (with the support of a dear friend) into my dad’s life. After several decades of failed attempts and disappointing encounters, I had almost given up.
This time would be different. After showing up at his doorstep, he let me in. We visited for a short while and then I left. I began calling him once monthly. After a few months, a connection developed. Not great, but much better than past decades. Most importantly, I let go of all expectations of what a father should be. …which allowed him to be. (Funny how that works). And, new for me, I didn’t trample myself in the process. In other words, it was an empowered surrender.
We shared a few nice visits together in the next year and a half, in part thanks to my brother, John who insisted we bring Thanksgiving dinner to him in 2014. It’s quite amazing the healing that can happen in the sharing of a single meal. Having that time together was good, but actually wanting to have that time together was the real fulfillment for me…maybe for dad too. I don’t know.
And then one day, I got a call from the sheriff’s office in Northern California. Dad’s body was found in front of his house, shot in the head. He was in critical condition and was being airlifted to the hospital. An hour later, I got a call from the Coroner who told me he had died on the way and that it appeared to be suicide.
It was early afternoon on April the 28th, 2015. I live alone and the fact that it was mid-workday meant that nearby friends and neighbors were not around. But I needed human contact immediately. I went to the corner laundry mat where Lottie the laundry lady, who after numerous chats while doing my laundry over the years, has become a friend. I barely told her what happened when she stopped what she was doing and just hugged me. I went from not breathing to sobbing and gasping for air to a settled calmness while in her arms. She saved me in that moment.
I went back to my apartment and called my brother to tell him. Obviously, extremely difficult for both of us. And though difficult, I also felt a moment of relief that I’d said all I wanted to say to him from the place in my heart I wanted to say it. That is to say, from a place of love.
But the miracle of repercussions from healing a painful relationship doesn’t end here. It WIDENS.
A couple of hours after getting the terrible news of my dad, I received a call from a tissue procurement specialist….aka an individual who makes the first call to family members of individuals who’ve just died, with the goal of determining whether the recently deceased loved one qualifies to be a tissue donor. I’ll spare you the details, but will say that the roughly two hour process, spread over the course of three separate phone conversations with four different individuals was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. But I hung in there and remained on the phone, responding to questions as well as I could while at the same time, trying to be present to my own experiencing of acute grief.
The net/net is that my dad’s tissues couldn’t be used because of a time delay with the coroner…so the intake process was for not.
This didn’t work for me. I’ve got a little dictator in my head that’s always saying -“dam it, rob, make something good out of this”. It’s a bugger of a demon, but sometimes its useful. This was one of those times.
I put on my Consultant hat and wrote down all my notes from my experience with the tissue procurement specialist over the phone based on what didn’t work, but also on what did work. It resulted in a three-page spreadsheet with some basic principles. I resolved to reach out (code for: cold call) to any organ/tissue donor organization who’d listen and with whom I could share my experience and feedback. Maybe in a small way, I could make a difference from this tragedy after all.
I called at least 25 different organizations around the country – 3 of which responded, and 1 of which actually made time for a one to one conversation. (These stats are not atypical. Despite the fact that we are supposedly in a “customer – centric” era, most folks don’t actually give their time…that’s what makes the rest of this story even more amazing.)
After an hour-long conversation with Lisa Stocks, the Executive Director of Lifesharing, the donor agency for San Diego, affiliated with UCSD, we both shed some tears. She assured me that my input would be considered in their training. This was my goal: to make a positive difference. What an amazing way to complete the loop of my connection, however troubled, with my dad. To give life through helping to improve communication.
I leapt with joy inside.
Several months later, I received an email from Lisa. She asked me to come speak to her group about my experience. A couple of months later, I did so. And though my speech was quite imperfect (eg., I exploded with emotion just walking into the room with face and eyes red and full of tears), I think I conveyed to those listening, the power (and importance) of being present and being human when you’re on the phone with another human being who is going through what might be the most difficult moment in their life.
That was a couple of months ago, and since then I’ve shifted my coaching/training business from Sales Communication to one focused more on difficult/important communication or situations.
Lisa has since provided me with a wonderful testimonial, which feels good of coarse, but it’s even more fulfilling to know that something useful and hopefully beneficial to others can be the outcome of a really tragic situation.
A most amazing thing happened at the post office the other day. I was standing in line to mail Christmas packages – a line that weaved through the main office, out the door and around the front of the building – when I heard a young couple arguing about a conversation the man was having on his cell phone. The conversation went something like this:
The woman telling the man: “Ask her if she can do x,y,z in time for …”
The man’s response to the woman: “Don’t nag at me bitch, I got …” at which point he continued talking on the phone, while turning away from her.
The conversation went on like this for some time, punctuated with harsh remarks between both of them. As they continued the woman seemed to retreat inside herself while the man grew louder and more harsh in his remarks.
Lines at the post office are typically slow, but having to witness this kind of conversation made each minute a drudgery to endure. I was only 3 people away from the front of the line so decided to hang in there, otherwise I would have left. It was that tense.
I glanced at others nearby more out of curiosity than to commiserate in silent agreement, but of coarse, most people were peering into their cell phones.
And then one of the two postal agents on duty, I’ll refer to her as Barbara, said loud enough for all to hear but directed toward the young man, “No need for disrespect son, we’re all wanting to get on with our day.” With this, she went straight back to completing the transaction with her customer, as uneventfully as picking up a glass of water to take a sip, then putting it down.
It was one of the most direct, compassionate, un-sensational and extraordinary interventions I’ve ever seen. There seemed to be no personality or opinion or technique, just clarity and presence. The right words at the right moment to reach past the noise inside and out, in him, in me, in everyone.
Instantly, (and I do mean instantly), the young man spoke less loudly and was less harsh. People in line, including myself seemed to drop their shoulders just a bit. A few folks even looked up from their cell phones. It was as if the entire room exhaled after holding its breath for an unnatural period of time.
What a difference we each can make in either direction, adding to the noise or being beyond it.
When I was 7 years old I made a trip to England to meet my grandparents on my fathers side for the first time. It was a special trip for many reasons, including meeting my friend Tom Spriggs.
Tom was a trusted neighbor and friend of my grandparents. He and his wife were the first to welcome them to Sway when they relocated there to retire. Sway was and still is a quaint and lovely village in Hampshire England, large enough to have a grocery store (or maybe a few by now), but small enough to formerly qualify as a village according to English standards – larger than a hamlet, but smaller than a town.
My grandmother told me that Tom was a soft-spoken and private man made even more so after the loss of his beloved wife a few years earlier. She had taken it upon herself with characteristic British cheerful dutifulness to include Tom in her day-to-day life and social engagements. My grandfather, who I called Grandpop, built a doorway in the wood fence between their houses to make this easier and encourage visits for afternoon teas’.
I met Tom the second day of my trip while swinging on the fence in front of my grandparents’ house. I don’t recall our first conversation but remember that his gentle manner made me trust him immediately. For the afternoons that followed, he’d invite me for tea or show me his green room with rows of thriving tomato plants or we’d walk the two blocks to downtown Sway where there was a bed and breakfast and pub with pigs and chickens in the backyard.
It may seem odd that a 7 year old child and 60 year old man would have enough in common for a conversation, but we did, and we had many of them. We’d talk about all kinds of things. I told him about the dirt farm I made back home for lizards and slugs that despite its 3 inch mud-clay walls, failed to stop the creatures from escaping after an hour or so. I shared my love of sitting amongst the cornhusks in our garden, munching raw corn while dad hacked down the dead dry grass in the summer time. And that the reason I pressed wild flowers was so I could look at them when I felt sad to remember feeling happy.
Tom, a retired train conductor, told me about his travels throughout England and the interesting people he met along the way. He confided about his life before, when he was a soldier in WWI and how he endured trench warfare for an entire month without food. He was a teenager, one of 250,000 volunteers under the age of 19 to answer the call to fight. England had only 700,000 in the armed forces at the beginning of the war, compared to Germanys’ 3.7 million. He didn’t say much about his experience, just that it was hard to say anything at all.
The thing I remember most about our conversations, more so than what we talked about was how they felt. I was free because Tom was never in a rush. He always had time to chat, or at least, he seemed to. Not just for me, but anyone who crossed his path. Talking with him gave me the same feeling I had when watching the ocean or looking up at the sky through the branches of a cherry blossom tree.
I felt this calmness in nature all the time, but rarely in conversation and almost never in conversation with adults, with their agendas, and assumptions, and hopes and interpretations. With Tom it was different. I remember saying something, then waiting for his response and having the distinct impression of him reflecting on what he was going to say in a way that was both connected to our conversation and me and simultaneously connected to something within him that was also impersonal, infinite. The pauses between our interactions and even his tender and authentic delivery of his words gave me an entirely new experience of what conversation could be like.
Before leaving England, Tom and I agreed to continue our conversation through letters. Decades before the internet existed and at a time when long distance phone calls could get expensive, this was about the only option we had. Thank goodness…I doubt email would have been an equally satisfying replacement to the experience of reading a good letter.
We would write one another for many years to come until Tom’s death at 78. I was twenty-five.
Our correspondance of 18 years taught me about the power of consistency in love and friendship. In a word, patience.
The meaning of un-extraordinary might be a breakfast sandwich that fills a hole in your stomach and costs $5 at a place more commonly known for its customizable “coffee.” This breakfast sandwich looked delicious, with a thick slice of Canadian bacon, scrambled egg and a layer of graded cheddar cheese between two slices of fresh baked (so called) ciabatta bread.
It hooked me.
What a disappointment. Each ingredient blended into the next – not in a way that builds on individual flavors like a skillfully made curry or ratatouille that surprises and delights the taste buds with every bit – but in a way that makes your mouthful of bready egg substance into a bigger mass of bready egg substance with the added ingredient of saliva.
Many opportunities were lost on this egg-mc nightmare.
What could have been? How about scrambled eggs whipped with a splash of cream, fried with a smear of butter, then slipped off the pan drizzling the rest of the butter onto the crispy edges of the fried eggs, soaking into the hot toasted bread. Then, just before serving it, adding sprinkles of shredded cheese so it melts on contact with the hot eggs, melding into their heat, adding texture and richness.
But that would take time. And time is money. Or so they say.
But not to worry. There are many more egg-mc nightmare’s to be made in order to confirm that the works been done, to attract more hungry customers, so that a profit is made by the end of the day.