what i learned at summer camp (part 3)


I believe that we have much to learn by serving on teams and in communities, especially if those teams/communities are comprised of people who are different from us, who we have been placed alongside by (beautiful) chance rather than by (hand-picked) choice, and who come together to work toward a shared intention. Over the years I have gotten to serve on these kinds of teams as a staff member at summer camp. Each time I have offered a summation of the things that I have learned because I believe that we all have much to gain from sharing our experiences. 

This summer I was honored to have the opportunity to travel to Northern Ireland to experience camp with a community of beautiful, unique, creative, authentic, engaged, and deeply loved young adult Quakers. These individuals welcomed me authentically and taught me much. They included me, encouraged me, and allowed me to speak love/Love/LOVE into their midst. While I could write for days about the inexplicably deep relationships created during those days, I will simply highlight some major learnings that I feel could benefit the world. May some of these inspire you to find your own team in which to invest and then to share your learning with those of us who need it to grow.

1 There exists a community of youth and young adults who can be still and silent (for significant lengths of time), create meaningful community, and live side by side free of the distractions of digital devices even when they have access to them. Campers at Moyallon spend a portion of their first evening coming up with a set of community guidelines to affirm. Very early in the process (right after Jonny suggested “No Malarkey” which was my personal favorite of them all) someone suggested limiting the use of digital devices in order to be present to each other. There was clear community support. Over and over throughout the week I noticed a marked absence of cell phones even though campers and staff had full access to them. Beyond this I found an ease in the stillness and quietness that this group shared. The hour long time of silence on Sunday morning was free of fidgeting and nodding off. Each evening, before bed, the assembled group sat in spacious silence together. In the community gathering around the fire on the final evening, a full 30 minutes of rich, deep silence commenced before anyone felt led to speak. During these times people looked both up and around, comfortable with eye contact even during intense silence. No one giggled or interrupted the quiet out of discomfort. They simply let it be and from it came insights and connection that could be found no other way. Communal silence is important and can be achieved. Even with/especially with youth and young adults. We are all benefitted by facilitating and creating these kinds of spaces and experiences.

2 Bigger is not always better (and less is sometimes more). After a year of speaking in large banquet halls and auditoriums I felt real anxiety when I learned that the campers and staff at Moyallon together numbered under 40 and ranged in age from 14 to 50. It’s a very different thing to garner and hold the attention of 1,000 demographically alike individuals than to do so with 40. With a big room and a large audience, charisma can fill in the cracks. With a  small room and intimate participant group, authenticity and genuine care for both your subject and the people you’re sharing it with are required for any kind of effectiveness. Smoke and mirrors, glitter and concealer won’t work. The only way to hope to create a compelling space for learning with a small group with whom you will be living for a week is to enter in authentic, humble, and human ways. 

I can’t help but think that this applies to much of the way that we interact with others in all of life these days. A status update intended for hundreds is different than a conversation between myself and a trusted other. So much of our lives online (and, many times, off line as well) are weighed and measured by the size of our “audience.” This often leaves us relying on a carefully curated public persona to keep our followers interested and coming back for more. I wonder how it might change our way of being in the world to focus more on authenticity, on being known for who we genuinely are rather than as who we present ourselves to be and on seeking to know others for who they really are rather than for who they feel they must present themselves as being. To tackle the unconscious message that more is better by concentrating in deliberate ways on the smaller groups to whom we belong and matter than to the larger groups we amass may be vulnerable but may be important for keeping our relational needs truly addressed. 

3 The desires to know one’s self honestly, to understand one’s unique gift to the world, and to feel grounded are universal. Regardless of age, station in life, community, gender, or any other personal identifier, all of us long to feel centered, to be able to live from a place of balance, to have the courage and opportunity to know both our strengths and weaknesses, and to feel capable of working with both. Every day we are given the opportunity to live from what I refer to as an internal locus of control, functioning in accordance with our deepest values and calls. We can be true to who we are meant to be and what we are meant to do in this world or we can allow our feelings and beliefs about ourselves to be driven by others. The truth is, however, that living from a place of informed self knowing awareness is hard work and requires space, teaching, and the presence of a community who will accept and value who we genuinely are. Places like Moyallon provide these components, offering spaciousness for personal exploration and re-setting and for the point that follows.

4 Seeing others for who they genuinely are, looking them in the eye, and telling them that they are recognized and valued has the potential to change both the see-er and the seen. It blows my mind how meaningful it is to have someone look me in the eye and recognize something truly honest about me. Further, I am struck by how few natural opportunities the world provides us with to do this. At Moyallon I sought intentional ways of creating this kind of encounter and noticed the ways that others did the same. The “cuppa,” Northern Irish for sitting down with a cup of tea for a chat and rest, was one such recurring time. Using the time to affirm those I sat with blessed me more than them I am sure. It gave me the opportunity to find things in each of them that inspired me to be a better person. I could go on and on about what each of them inspired in me (and will in another place).  In an attempt to offer an American version of the cuppa for the campers and staff, I offered to apply temporary tattoos that fit the theme I spoke on to anyone who wanted one. It became an opportunity to sit, face to face with each person while the water worked its magic, adhering the tattoo to the skin. I decided to use this time to name unique traits and gifts that I saw in each person and I cannot tell you how deeply meaningful this was for me. It felt as though I was getting to be part of sacred moments of intimate connection and grace. If I could repeat a single time at camp, it would be this one where I got to thank each person for gifting the world with them self. I tell you, this is worth doing in whatever way you can as often as you can. If you can’t think of a way of doing it face to face then do it in whatever way you can: writing, singing, texting. Just do it. It is humbling, uncomfortable-in-every-good-and-stretching-way, connecting, squirm-inducing, and simply the best thing ever.

I have written, in the past, about my graduate school professor who wisely told me to begin all interactions by finding something to agree on with the person I was encountering. How might our interchanges with others be transformed if we began each one by agreeing about each of our basic need to be fully ourselves? If I said to you, “I come to this encounter feeling called to bring all of who I am and I am guessing that you feel called to do the same. We may feel called to different ideologies and conflicting opinions or beliefs but I will do all I can to respect your need to be true to you and hope that you will do the same for me.” This shifts encounters radically from being focused on bringing you over to my side toward being about me doing my best to hear what matters to you and treating you with respect. Hearing you shouldn’t threaten me. In fact, hearing you might just be my best way of seeing you. Seeing you is respecting you. From there it’s hard for me not to just love you (and I really really love those folks at Moyallon and so many people in so many other places).

5 Play along (even especially when doing so is a stretch).  Getting out of my comfort zone is growth inducing. No. Matter. What. To become be a part of a community, I will be asked, at times, to do things that I would prefer not to do. For me that often involves playing games. Doing so, however, allows me to connect with the feelings associated with risk taking and makes me more empathic to how it feels for others when I ask them to take risks to connect in ways meaningful to me. If I don’t participate in team building games because I am uncomfortable, I have less “right” to ask others to participate in ways I find meaningful. So, at Moyallon, I played ping pong, ran through the camp during wide games, and donned a frozen t-shirt for a game of football (yes, soccer to you Americans). Taking this lesson even further, the camp auntie, Pleasaunce fished for grapes in a bowl of flour with her teeth, made her way back and forth on a slip and slide covered in soap, made an amazing save in the football game, and more. Her willingness to enter in with her community was nothing short of gorgeous.

At Moyallon I spoke about how blacksmiths learn to monitor the fire required to re-shape metal. Using a color scale that ranges from Red to Orange to Yellow to White, they know that the Orange/Yellow heat is optimal for making metal malleable. Red heat isn’t hot enough and White heat melts the metal entirely. If we only expose ourselves to experiences that are comfortable to and for us we miss opportunities to be shaped in important ways. Especially when wanting to be a healthier person who can exist flexibly in vibrant communities, we must be willing to get wet, dirty, and uncomfortable literally and figuratively.

(An accompanying truth for me, that is related to this point, is that hierarchy has a price. Being doreen instead of Dr. Dodgen-Magee is an intentional choice for me in my life. If you are a person who clings to knowing your place and staying in it, I encourage you to wonder about that a bit and to experiment in healthy ways with allowing others to move from their prescribed places as you do the same. I have never had this fail to teach me.)

6 Cultural/Personal Bias is real. It is easy to unconsciously assume that those who share a skin color, language, and faith community share my worldview, values, and beliefs. This is a dangerous and limiting assumption. I learned this lesson time and time again while at Moyallon. In encountering these precious souls who looked so much like me it was easy to assume that their lives were much like mine had been half a world away. What I kept being reminded of, however, in ways large and small, was that I limit other’s ability to be truly known and encountered when I assume that their experience in the world is the same as mine. When I approach others hoping to know them authentically, allowing for space and committing myself to listening well, however, I get to find out how truly unique every person’s experience really is. I usually also learn how much I don’t know, how much my bias impacts my experience in the world, and how self centered I am in both conscious and unconscious ways. To be honest, this is not always comfortable. It stretches me to be a witness to another’s truth. It requires open handed hospitality and open hearted graciousness, invites differences of opinion, and demands respect amidst those differences. It will also change the world.

7 Bullying is real and leaves lasting wounds. People who are mistreated suffer not only from the actions of others but also from the sense of shame that accompanies interpersonal mistreatment. Neither the inflicted wounds nor the internalized response of shame just disappear. They need tending to. Often, as we grow into adulthood, we lose track of how much bullying the children, adolescents, and young adults among us are experiencing. Untreated demeaning, de-humanizing, or directly abusive experiences live in most of us and cause us to be fearful, defensive, or reactive in triggering situations. In my time at Moyallon I was struck time and again by hearing of terrible treatment toward people who I saw as intensely smart, beautiful, unique, and valuable. Stories of relational aggression of all kinds came from the mouths of the most unlikely individuals and my heart ached for how alone bullying can cause a person to feel. If each of us were to ask a few of the people in our lives about the mistreatment that they have faced, simply bearing witness to their pain and being with them in it, perhaps healing could begin. Conversely, finding safe people with whom to share our own stories of mistreatment can help us begin to overcome the unconscious hold they may have over us and invite recovery.

8 It’s important to remember, every now and again, that I am not central to the functioning of the world. A sad and untimely loss the week before I was scheduled to leave, a shocking death that occurred while I was in transit to Ireland, as well as excruciatingly complex realities being dealt to several friends and clients made me wonder if I should back out of this speaking commitment and stay home to serve my community. In discerning that I was to go and be present to this new community I learned some very valuable lessons. First, others, who may not have had the opportunity to step up at home had I been there, got to do so and thrived. They got to have new and powerful experiences and forge connections previously un-deepened. Second (and likely more importantly) I got to learn that, while important, I am not the only person who can help others. This keeps me humble and open and that benefits everyone. Third, I faced the truth that I need to back away sometimes in order to re-calibrate and practice what I preach about self care. Whenever we hear ourselves saying “I can’t take a break. It’s impossible. I’m mandatory to the functioning of the world.” we likely need that break and the world likely needs us to take it. 

In Closing: We all have much to learn and contribute. We also live in a time when we are flooded with opportunities for serving and giving. Sometimes we allow this to stop us, waiting for the “just right” opportunity to present itself. I feel called, more than ever, to challenge us to look less for the perfect opportunity and more for the simple and grand experiences before us that will allow us to affirm others and to be affirmed. Your simple, authentic, unique presence, when offered graciously, healthily, and in accordance with your gifts and talents, is rich with potential. May you find those places to invest and in so doing be rewarded with learning that is rich and deeper than you ever imagined. And for those of you at Twin Rocks (who are too many to name) and Moyallon*, whom have taught me so well, thank you f(F)riends.

* So much love and LOVE and more goes to Oliver, Michael, Harry, Peter, Daniel, Anna, Liam, Nadia, Karl, Finn, Alex, Sarah, Heather, Myron, Hannah, Victoria, Claire, Sarah, Jonny, Stephen, Mark, Judith, Kathi, Lydia, Hanna, Pleasaunce, Carolyn, Christine, Janet, Aoife, Orla, Leanne, and George for welcoming me into their hearts and community. More than I can say….


daylight (invest mindfully) time


and now, for today's blog:

This weekend holds a special event for those of us living in the Unites States. Regardless of one’s feelings about Daylight Savings Time, beginning Sunday the light part of American’s days will be longer. Yes, we’ll “loose” an hour of sleep Sunday night but we’ll gain some daylight every evening thereafter until we fall back next Fall.  As dwellers within a culture that rewards productivity, empowers a 24 hour news cycle, and enables (via largely available internet access) vocational and recreational investment on the same 24/7 model, we live with a constant pressure to perform and conform. With an extra hour of daylight it is my guess that we’ll feel an increased pressure to pack our lives even fuller than they already are. 

Fed a never ending stream of information, we fear missing out on the one (or one hundred) piece(s) of data we think we really need to perform and achieve. Faced with a constant stream of our friend’s whereabouts, status updates, and responses to our own posts, we scroll our social networks to ensure we haven’t missed anything of import and to feel a part of something larger than ourselves. We rarely put time parameters on such activities or consciously assess how we feel after immersing ourselves in these spaces. Information simply presents itself so it is consumed, updates automatically come flooding in so we keep up with them, our work/school email is forwarded to our phone and we can respond so we do, and on and on and on.

A culture that prizes productivity, espouses multitasking as a positive trait, and encourages self promotion over self knowing awareness and communal health drives us to use the hours in our days rather than to experience them. Anymore, our best way of squeezing the most out of every minute is to harness our digital super powers to make us super performers. This means that passing a new level of Candy Crush while waiting in line feels more “productive” than simply waiting. It also means that having instant messaging, social media, and our favorite news sources up and available on our screens while we work makes us feel less anxious than we do with a single work window open. It means we binge on podcasts in formerly quiet moments and watch entire seasons of shows in one sitting because it makes us feel as though we’ve accomplished something. It means we count every step and rely upon our personal fitness trackers to tell us whether we’ve moved enough in a day. It means that our digital meditation guides and apps reward us for the minutes we spend meditating with badges, stickers, and stars. All of this filling and measuring of our time and output, this prizing of “production” over “boredom,” this indulgence in data consumption due to the fear of missing out or coming up short cannot be considered simply benign pursuits.

A primary result of this immersion in our digital spaces in order to feel and measure our productivity is a decreased engagement between our embodied selves and the fully physical world around us. Don’t get me wrong. The worlds of ideas and information can be compelling and beautiful, digital measurement and reporting can be helpful, and relational, vocational, and recreational pursuits deepened by digital contact can be intensely rewarding. There are, however, costs to investing only (or even primarily) in these spaces. These costs include a diminished comfort in one’s own skin accompanied by a lack of familiarity with the message indicators of one’s own body and mind. Decreased ability to tolerate stillness, silence, and boredom, and agitation or anxiety are also frequent costs. Finally, a diminished capacity for focus and a lack of experience with meaningful self soothing are also potential outcomes. 

Generally speaking, the more we employ technology to make us productive and to measure our accomplishments, the less experience we have with our embodied abilities to do the same. The more we rely on our fitness trackers to tell us if we’ve moved enough, the more removed we are from our own mindfulness and physical indicators of health and wellness. The more we engage our devices in times of stillness or silence, the less comfort we are likely to build with both. The more we rely on our devices for stimulation and soothing the less capable we are at providing either in and of ourselves. *

With a new and expanding length of daylight, we have the opportunity to decide how we might engage it. We can use the hour as a motivator to lengthen the productive part of our day, filling it chock a block full of getting more done, or we can re-think our ideas about productivity and our relationship with our devices and our selves. Might this extra hour of daylight provide us opportunities to day dream once in a while, to look at clouds, to practice tolerating boredom, to ask ourselves if we’ve moved or meditated or engaged other humans enough in this day and then respond appropriately? 

Any time we are presented with opportunities to consider the habits by which we live and convert them into norms with the power to lead us to be more whole, healthy, and content people, why not grab hold of them? Why not use this re-set of our clocks as an impetus to re-set our relationships with time itself and the way in which we use it? Why not leap forward into spaces of discomfort for the sake of growth and depth, spaces of newness in relation to our selves and others, and space for spaciousness itself? 

*This is not to say that we should not employ technologies that help us get started in producing outcomes we desire to achieve. Personal fitness devices can help us tailor an effective exercise regimen by giving us important data. Apps which track our food or meditation or study time can also provide effective motivation. Online communication gives us an opportunity to practice when face to face communication is a challenge. The goal is always to make sure that we have a balance of motivators and measurement tools...some online and digital and some within ourselves alone.


name calling (in honor of martin luther king, jr. day)

I caution everyone who reads this to be careful what you wish for. This, of course, is not original to me. People say it all the time with varying levels of sincerity and differing intonations. I say it, today, from my own experience of having wished, for the last year, for something that has brought me to a place of tenderness that is surprising even to me. Let me explain. For the last year I have dedicated myself to deepening my contemplative experience in order to feed a hoped-for growth in my ability to greet the world with non judgmental awareness and radical acceptance. There are many motivators of this quest for me. Some are deeply personal and others professional. Some are related to my faith and spirituality and others simply to my humanity. I fail often in my efforts. In fact, for every inch of forward movement toward these goals I face ways in which I am entirely failing. Sometimes it can be discouraging. 

There are a few outward markers of mu journey. I try to write, now, with capital letters because I have come to know that it makes reading easier for people who are dyslexic. My language has (mostly) changed to (hopefully) reflect my attempts to listen better and not let my bias’ render me deaf. Mostly, however, the reality of what I’ve wished for has changed me deeply inside. This is not without cost. I’ve had to ask for a lot of forgiveness for things I’ve said or done in the past. I’ve also had to ask for a lot of grace as I try to learn and catch up and listen. I’ve developed a keen ability to bite my tongue and excuse myself to catch a breath before responding and, possibly more than anything else, I’ve become incredibly sensitive to name calling and stereotyping. Everywhere I look I see these behaviors in spades. In mass media, on Facebook, in tweets, from pulpits and street corners and stages. Certainly in presidential debates. Name calling and stereotyping are some of our best skills as Americans, it seems. 

Recently, a friend recounted an encounter he had with a person who launched a conversation with “I don’t know why poor people don’t...” My friend was perplexed and disappointed. Lumping a massive demographic into a title like “poor people” and then stereotyping their choices doesn’t leave much space for empathic connection. And yet we do it every. single. day. over. and. over. and. over. “How can those stupid liberals...?” “Why don’t those entitled millennials...” 

A billboard near my house says, “If you know the answer, ask bigger questions.” I had a gazillion questions I would have liked to have posed to the person my friend was talking with. Do you mean poor in relation to money? Are there other forms of poverty in your world view? Can you direct me to some sources that inform your claims about this group of humans? Do you know anyone personally who is part of this group you are speculating about? Can you help me understand where you’re coming from?

Whenever we refer to people in terms of their association with a named group we reduce them to whatever our own knowledge or stereotype of that group is. I know about this because I’ve lived from this space. Like so many of us, I emerged from my childhood with some deeply destructive and horribly divisive beliefs about several groups of people that weren’t like me. These beliefs lead to fear which caused me to stay away from meaningful interactions that would have the power to break through my lump them and judge them mentality. As I moved through life and pushed past my fear I began to find my way to the complicated reality that my own privilege and bias’ had prevented me from seeing the inaccuracies of my assumptions. In the more recent past I have come to see the many ways that I do this even today. I assume that my values are the most important ones and judge others accordingly. I am attached to my own world views and find it easy to write off those that disagree as ill-informed, poorly intentioned, or worse. These are the patterns I am wishing to change and this wish is deeply reforming me. While it is incredibly disruptive to consider people and their ideas in an open-hearted, respect- worthy, and love-read way, I believe that the disruption is worth it. Seeing others (especially those others that I most disagree with or who are least like me) for the beautiful and vulnerable souls that they are makes for a messy, deep, meaningful, rich existence. 

In the fall I had the distinct privilege of spending a day in Ferguson, Missouri with my friend Chris. Chris grew up in Ferguson and returned to nearby St Louis after college. He is a person whom I love and also one I admire. He works for justice and peace even when it is costly and uncomfortable. Chris has spent the last year investing a huge bulk of his time in his community, working to raise awareness of the injustices and oppression faced by the black community there. As we walked through the city I was deeply undone by the reality of the racial and economic divides I witnessed and by the utter care he communicated for everyone we encountered (and we met up with people from all sides of the issues). As a gay, white man raised in the Southern Baptist tradition he has every reason in the world to feel entitled to judge and rail. To lump and judge. To name call and react. He, himself, has been stereotyped. He has been called names and been judged and responded to as a member of a “group.” Instead, he simply pushes forward, committed to loving and to working for others to be freed from the oppression they experience at the hands of those who have conveniently compartmentalized them out of their awareness. The way he loves is by asking bigger questions and by pushing into uncomfortable spaces. 

Later, Chris encouraged me to visit Creative Reaction Lab's IMPTXDESIGN, an interactive exhibit in St. Louis where the themes of oppression, segregation, violence, stereotypes, and fear were explored. Creative Reaction Lab is a social impact design collaborative whose mission is cultivating creative leadership to improve the human experience. In one particularly powerful installation, cookie cutter people forms filled a blackboard. Instructions were given to use chalk to demarkate your own person, listing first “3 ways in which you are stereotyped” followed by “3 things that are true about you.” The stories told in those images and words were profound. While all kinds of assertions filled the fist set of lines the second set was filled with emotional realities. Fear, sadness, insecurity, confidence, wishes, dreams, and more. The stereotypes shut down awareness and the truths opened them up.

I am inspired by this. It’s the opposite of name calling. When we reduce someone to a simple name or assumption about them (often prescribed in impulsive or less-than-thought-through ways), it is frighteningly easy to turn and walk away from them. We call them a name, declare that status as “other” than ourselves, and run. “I’m not like them.” “People like that are all alike.” “Those (fill in the name of the group) are all (fill in the name calling).” When they are so easily dismissed, we are so profoundly let off the hook of doing the hard work of making the world a more connected and, therefore, peaceful place.

The easiest way to live is one wherein our assumptions rule our sense of truth. We assume that everyone is well treated. That everyone has the same opportunities and simply stewards them well or not. That all people have access to the same resources that we do financially, socially, emotionally, and more. It’s simple if we imagine that racial bias doesn’t exist, that privilege applies to all regardless of skin color, political or religious ideation, or sexual orientation, and that every person receives fair treatment in all circumstances, no matter what. The world seems equally simple when we imagine that all members of certain groups are exactly the same. It’s easier to relate to others based on who we stereotype them to be than to see them as the real and complex individuals that they are, facing all manner of difficulties that we have never even considered. From this perch we can decide whether they are all in or all out. ‘Nuf said.

The other day I happened upon a difficult and painful story from a major, trusted news outlet. It was an incredibly well presented assemblage of stories about how Muslim parents talk with their children about violence. It was deep and rich and thought provoking. It set off in me a deep (and inconvenient) sadness for all parents who have to find ways of talking about the many horrific complexities that exist in our world with children who deserve peaceful communities and spacious love. I found myself wishing that everyone on earth would read this piece and mull on it, letting it break through any stereotypes it could for the purpose of greater respect of the complexity of life. This article cut through the kinds of stereotypes which end up keeping us from having to think and stretch, from needing to work at respecting others for the full global siblings that they are to us. Name calling, and the compartmentalizing it leads to, keeps us from every having to think past our selves and stretch into healthier co-existence. Exposing ourselves to new truths about those we have compartmentalized does the opposite.

To grow into the mature people we wish to be we may need to risk the uncomfortable spaces of not being so sure. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s important that we face that not all blondes are dumb. Not all skiers hate snow boarders. Not all engineers are recluses. Not all gun owners are ill informed. Not all police officers use unneccessary force. Not all Christians are loving nor are all Muslims violent. There is no such thing as a “female” or “male” brain. All families whose stories include divorce are not “broken.” The person you consider overweight is likely not lazy. Some artists are not flighty. A person’s affiliation with a political party does not define their intellect, faith, or integrity. In reality, no person can be reduced to their identification with a group or the names we are tempted to assign to them. When we allow space for these truths, and all the others like them, we can no longer live from an “I am right/good” and “They are wrong/bad” mentality. Instead, we open the door to a wider consideration of our shared humanity with the very people we are tempted to reduce to names and/or stereotyped groups. It’s harder to dismiss someone out of hand when we actually stop and realize that, underneath our assumptions about them, lies a person with a beating heart, a complexity or spirit, and a mother. A person who, ultimately, needs love and connection and grace.

On a day where we, in America, honor the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., what might it be like for us to commit to moving past name calling?  To stop judging others and to, instead, start asking more questions? I came across a tweet once that stated “Would the day be different if I said, ‘Look, Here comes an Image Bearer’ about every person I meet?” Said another way: How might our day be different if we said, “Look, YOU are a person, worthy of respect! We are both humans in need of connection and grace” to every person that we meet? What if, instead of assuming we have the answers, we ask bigger questions. Big enough questions to grow us and our chances for getting past our judgments and moving toward peace-leaning openness with our local and global neighbors.

When you hear yourself saying “Such and such is an idiot!” “So and so is clueless!” “All ‘people that are part of X community’ are completely ridiculous!” or “There is no space for those people at my table!” take a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

What has this person said or done that stirred a response in me?

What leads to the intensity of this response in me? What is my history with this topic or person?

What are my stereotypes about this person and the categories or groups of people to which he or she belongs?

What have I done to ascertain whether my stereotypes or ideas about this person are accurate and/or inaccurate? Have these efforts to understand been undertaken with an openness or a pre existing certainty that I am right?

How might I respond to this person or speak about them in ways that resist name calling and stereotyping? If I feel a strong leading to engage this person, how can I do so in such a way that i maintain respectful treatment of both myself and them?


in a (wal)nut shell

i was part way through a long walk this evening when i passed a walnut shell. it was a perfect half, clean cut where the seam had been and hollowed out pristinely. i was instantly taken back to my childhood when my mom would take me to the hobby store and let me choose tiny trinkets to put in walnut shell halves. i’d build little worlds (hearts and cupids drowning in elmer’s glue for valentine’s day, deer and tiny trees amongst moss for winter, chicks and eggs in grass for spring...you get the idea) in the nut shells then attach ribbons to the outside and tie them above so we could hang them off hooks in the house. my favorite walnut shell world consisted of a blue satin fabric scrap, tucked tightly in the shell and holding a teeny tiny naked baby. i gave it to one of our family friends at her baby shower and felt proud every year when she hung it on her christmas tree.

the hardest part of making these creations was fastening the ribbon so the shell world would hang right side up. when i didn’t master this element, the tiny universes became utterly precarious. sometimes, if i hadn’t attached things well enough, we’d find deer and chicks and cupids lying on the floor below. when this happened, i’d find myself worrying about the baby.

for some reason, as i walked by that shell tonight, the thought hit me that we all feel as though life is precarious from time to time. no matter the size or toughness or gender or whatever other identifier of the human, everyone faces the fears and realities of falling at times. we don’t always feel securely attached, grounded, or certain of our standing. life is challenging and we are aware of the instability of our places upon the earth.

yes, there are soft surroundings and safe landings. yes, there is beauty in the actual precariousness that is life. yes, there are things we can do to make sure that we are growing in healthy, attached, secure ways. there are Higher Powers and Love that hold us tight no matter what. these things are not, however, what i want to point us to today.

what i want to direct us to is the fragility that we all face as humans. regardless of our awareness or expression of it, there are times when each of us feels afraid, untethered, and vulnerable. like that baby in the walnut shell hanging on my friend’s tree, we face times where we know that all it would take is one person to brush the branch in the wrong way and it’s game over. while it’s important not to treat our selves or others more gingerly than is called for, there are times when nothing relieving and grace giving than naming the precarious nature of the branches that we all sit upon.

i received a beautiful etsy order today. the artist threw in a gift to compensate for the double shipping i had unwittingly paid. “be courageous - be kind” is the message hand scripted on the card. receiving this felt like further reinforcement of the message the walnut shell reminded me of. it takes courage to be kind. to be bossy, certain, right-every-time, or indifferent in relation to others is easy. it takes bravery, however, to extend open interest to another, to own that we have absolutely no idea what kinds of difficulties others have faced, and that the burdens others bear may be completely invisible to us. kindness says, “because we are human i know that we are both ‘sitting in a walnut shell and hanging by a string,’ so to speak. due to this precarious reality, i will do my best to treat both my self and your self with care. we may not agree or sit together with ease, but we each have a place and that place is held best when we are all right side up and intact, with no one having fallen, left alone on the ground.”

as we live into a year of politics and self promotion, virtual landscapes offering real relationship and social networks that can harbor love or interpersonal violence may we keep close at heart the shared fragility of our neighbors and friends. may we relate to all out of mutual respect, remembering to be courageous and, mostly, kind.

* check out the prints i ordered herehere, and the card she included here. thanks, laura, from youdolldesigns!


sufferingcelebrating in december

blaring from my speakers right now: “it’s the holiday season, with the whoop de doo, and hickory dock...”  here’s what i want to know: what the heck is hickory dock and why in the world do we associate whoop de doo with this month of dark, short, waiting days and expectations that are, frequently, seriously out of touch with reality.

this is not an easy month for many. lots of thirty day periods of time are hard, but this one is difficult on steroids. everywhere we look we see depictions of boxes wrapped with perfect bows, families gathered around tables heaping with food, or trees anchored by piles of gifts. whether we celebrate hanukkah, christmas, kwanza, or no religious or cultural holidays at all, it’s impossible to escape the pictures of shiny happy people all around us. in addition, we face expectations. whether from our selves or our communities, there are matters that we are expected to attend to. year end giving, the “tipping” of those that serve us, hostess gifts to plan for, concerts to attend, holiday gift exchanges, ugly sweater contests, and the sending and receiving of cards that nearly takes us out emotionally every. single. year. on top of all this, the traffic is worse than ever and everyone’s nerves are shot. at times it barely feels worth it to leave the house.

at the same time, however, even in our most private of residences, we have our insides to attend to. december doesn’t pull us away from our sadnesses, stressors, or circumstances any more than a wedding ring assures that we’ll never be lonely. life is just not that simple. my buddhist friends have a mantra that i absolutely love. “may all beings be free from unnecessary suffering.” if only i (or the calendar) could make this happen.

while it is impossible for me to discern necessary from unnecessary suffering, it is easy for me to know that suffering of all kinds feels especially weighty to the person who feels heavy while the rest of the world appears to be feeling whoop de doo and hickory dockish. as this person it is easy to feel like the “debbie downer” (please accept my apology all of you debbie’s out there...the colloquialism is unfair but so effective. i’ll work on coming up with a new one soon). it’s easy to assume that you are alone and that everyone else feels exactly how they look: happy. i promise you that this is not true.

so, what are we to do? how can we honor the needs and wishes of all people this month? how can we make space for celebration and suffering at our communal tables? perhaps we can do this by examining our own expectations, making intentional choices about how to spend our selves (with our resources of time, energy, and tangible “things”), and to support and respect the same process in others. 

i have come to believe that our expectations of our selves and others have much to do with how content or discontent we feel in life. often these suppositions have come to be over time and live largely outside of our awareness. our family did things this way so we must keep that going. our calendar reflects many commitments so we must keep them. and on and on and on. even still, these expectations dictate our assessments and assumptions of how we (and others) are doing. we expect ourselves to be competent and successful by standards we may not even be consciously aware of or in full agreement with. we expect a month filled with gloom or overflowing joy. we expect public spaces to be miserable or transporting. we expect others to forget/overlook us or to honor us. we expect, we expect, we expect.

these expectations must be brought into our conscious awareness in order for us to live intentional lives. when they are not part of our consciousness, suppositions end up running the show and operate outside of coordination with reality in any way.  c.s. lewis addressed this well when he said, “it comes the very moment you wake up each morning. all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. and the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” 

to live well through this month of strugglecelebration we must let that other larger, stronger, quieter part of our life come flowing in. we must make space to get still and let our expectations surface. we must be willing and able to say to our selves, “i wish this and yet reality is this.” “i hoped for this and another thing is what i am really living with.” this provides a new opportunity to make conscious choices about whether we live toward expectations or put them aside. it also allows us to welcome our honest selves which live with complexity regarding the nature of both our suffering and our celebrating and to care for our selves with a keen eye to what is healthy over what is expected. suffering and celebration can both exist together. one does not negate the other. in fact, the two together make for a much more beautiful picture. when we accept this our suffering no longer presents a threat to our celebrating. when we follow our self examination with a curiosity about the expectations of others we no longer have to feel threatened by their suffering or celebration either. this is true grace and community where there is space for each person where ever they are emotionally. at this kind of table there is also space for movement and change and flex between states of being.

the phrase “comfort and joy” has become synonymous with the month of december in many parts of the world. my thinking is that the need for comfort implies that some sort of discomfort has been experienced. could it be that the deepest joy can only be experienced when one has known the loneliness of the lack of it in themselves or others? perhaps a gift of suffering is that it might eventually lead us to joy. for many this month it’s the “eventually” part that is so isolating and difficult.

mixed in with my holiday music this year i have included a song (click here to hear it) that was introduced to me on a particularly excruciating week this fall. it takes a well known stanza about joy and turns it on its side and resonated deeply with the pain that i was experiencing when i first heard it. i believe that this is the pain of many. i have the song in my play list because i want to remember that suffering is a part of this month of celebrating for all of us humans. i want this close to my mind and heart so that i can do all that i can to be aware of my own places of suffering, do what i need to seek comfort, and allow in whatever joy i can (if i can) and to offer space for this process to others. 

in closing i offer you my mantra for the next two weeks and invite you to join me in using it:
may we all make space for suffering as it is necessary and for joy as it is possible.
may we offer this same kind of space to those we encounter.
may we never give up searching for peace, love, joy, and goodness (which includes pains of many kinds and the intentional choosing of what to expect of ourselves). (click here to get the “peace, love, joy, and goodness” mantra stuck beautifully in your head)

the work of aaron strumpel has been deeply meaningful to me for quite some time. he recently released a holiday e.p. with a collaborating artist and, to my absolute glee, this artist (latifah phillips of page cxvi) is the musician who recorded the arrangement of “joy” that has been the soundtrack of my fall. i cannot recommend their work more excitedly. please check out their individual “presences” and their holiday e.p., titled “heck ya, the halls” here.

if you’re looking for a new christmas (and i know that some of you do not celebrate christmas so hope you’ll look beyond the references to the deeper meanings i’m suggesting above) recording i also want to recommend eclectic christmas (click here). i attended their show last night and was blown away by their sensitivity to the pain and suffering that exists for many this time of year. way to go nate, aaron, nolan, nathaniel, missy, and frank!


perspective (because we really really need it)

A few weeks back, several people were having a lively conversation in the entry way of my home. This space is flanked by a hallway on one side and the kitchen and family room on the other and is anchored by well loved hard wood floors. While we chatted, my daughter Kaija laid down on the floor to stretch. Any of you who know Kaija know that this is not unusual. Kaija is her own (wonderful) person and doesn’t conform to conventions. She’s a free spirit and can converse just as confidently sitting, standing (on her feet or hands or head), from the ground or the top of a tree, independent of others or (preferably) wrapped around them. This evening, she found the floor and stretched out upon it. It was not a warm evening and she was dressed in fur lined slipper boots and a warm puffy jacket. While engaged fully in the conversation occurring around her, she began to stretch out. At one point, her slippers and her stretch worked together to catapult her backward across the floor. Smiling, she continued the motion. Next we all knew, she was carrying on with us while “scootching” herself, on her back, down the hall, back through the entry way, into the kitchen, around the island, through the family room and back again. We all just kept talking. After a while she acknowledged, and we agreed, that this was a wildly bizarre and totally fun way to engage. 

I’ve thought a lot, since then, about the fact that what we see in this world is largely determined by the posture from which we view it. By moving through our home on her back, Kaija took in entirely new images of her familiar childhood home and gained an appreciation for our scuffed and well-worn floor. These new perspectives might be gifts to me if I simply took the time to pursue them. From the ground up, the view of home would be uncluttered, spacious, and new. The floors would feel sure and stable and “right.” It would be helpful to have access to these views when I feel mired by the clutter and crumb of daily life in an open and widely accessed home. If I felt overwhelmed by a mess I could simply look up to realize the space and calm that exists in my home just above the disarray.

There is plenty of research that shows a relationship between posture and mood (highlighted this week in this New York Times article). The way we hold our physical selves impacts our mood, behaviors, and, even, memory. When we fold our selves in around the small devices in our hands it appears that we are more prone to act in submissive ways and feel poorly about our selves. While these findings are of importance, my bigger concern is that we rarely take time to move out of our familiar postures to see how the world might look from a different perspective.

The issue, as I see it, is primarily twofold. First, humans have a propensity to assume that other people have and value the same things that they themselves have and value. This isn’t necessarily an evil tendency, it’s simply human nature. Since we are the center of our own experiences, most of us do not automatically consider the vast differences that exist between people. Even the most empathic person can find places where their own bias and/or assumptions have led them to have blind spots about how they treat others and interact in the world. Second, the more time we spend in digital spaces, the more we “teach” our devices our preferences, leading them to feed us a never ending supply of self-centric data. We have a certain political leaning, our “clicks” regarding that leaning are tracked and logged, which leads our devices to feed us more of that which we will agree with. The same can be said of our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and monetary preferences and leanings. Over time we begin to internalize this as evidence that our views and preferences really are those of everyone since it’s all we ever encounter. From this place it’s easy to see our own views, values, and preferences as “right” and “normal.” 

I like walking on my feet so I experience the world from the perspective of a 5 foot 1 inch white female person. Without even thinking about it, it would be easy to unconsciously assume that everyone else experiences the world in this same way. If I did this I might assume that everyone can fit easily into an airplane seat, that strangers will usually be kind and open, that math is impossible and, therefore, “stupid,” and that relationships are the most valuable thing in the universe to everyone. I would also be horribly wrong. 

When Kaija scooted through the house on her back I was reminded of how inaccurate the unconscious assumption that others are just like us is. It is important that I remember this. I certainly caught sight of this when I spent a day in Ferguson, Missouri, and then, later, St. Louis, this fall. I believe to my core that the world not only LOOKS different based upon the socio economic class, ethnic and/or racial background, and many more traits of the eyes doing the looking, but also that it IS different based upon those things. Kaija’s reality was different as she roamed the house on her back than mine was as I walked upright. The truth is, however, that walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different. Might you read that again, more slowly this time? 

Walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different.

I’ve written, in the past, about the marginalized who serve in professions that benefit us all but whom are often treated as “less than” by the general public. The people who clean the bathrooms we use at Target, the individuals who harvest our produce, the folks who collect our garbage, and more. These are just some of the people who I imagine might benefit from our seeing the world from their perspective for a day (or more). The reality is, WE would benefit as well. Our worlds and perspectives would become wider and our thinking more complex. This is never, in my opinion, a bad thing.

It’s easy to know of our own stressors, automatic to know our own values. It’s effortless to identify our challenges and sometimes difficult to see our privilege. If we have plenty of community and family and warmth and cheer this month, it’s easy to assume others do as well. It’s uncomfortable to realize this may not be true. It takes work to be authentic as one’s self and still stretch to understand and empathize with who others truly are. This is, however, work worth doing.

This is a time of year (the hurried holiday season) and the point in an election cycle (in the U.S.) where assumptions, automatic thoughts, attributions, and feelings run high. If we are to live in harmony with our neighbors, in peace with our communities, or even just tolerate those who we perceive to be different, we must keep this tendency in check. Every once in a while it would do us good to stretch into new perspectives from which to view the world. To ask more questions and to listen better. To be willing to lay down our confident postures in deference to being warm and open and non judgemental. To be willing to tolerate the floor scootchers in a world of upright walkers or, if we’re brave enough, to join them on the ground for a glimpse of the world from their perspective...and a bit of the adventure of doing something new.


hard things (like violence) vs soft round objects

It was a work day for me which means that I get to sit with courageous people whose are journeying and growing. This is meaningful work and I do not take it lightly. It is also work that makes for days of depth and lots of boxes of Kleenex. Days like this don’t have much space for checking twitter for news of the goings on in the world nor do they offer many opportunities for chit chat with my office mates. 

Today, however, there were shootings. Again. Too many of them to think about. And I’m only referring to those that happened on the West Coast and made it into the news. So many people died today by bullets. I understand that there is room for guns in this world. I just hate when they are used to cause violent death.

Between sessions, three of us well-seasoned and hard-to-shock psychologists stood in our little shared area and stared into each other's wide eyes, shook our heads, and acknowledged the terror that was playing out in California. “In a place for people who should be protected,” said one of us. And, “I know.” said another. Then, as we all began to walk to our offices one said, “Next time around I want a different planet. Maybe one with only soft round objects.” 

As his words sunk into me, I wanted to cry. Not just for those people impacted by today’s violence in Southern California, but for all people hurt by the sharp pointy edges of hatred and violence.

When I was young my brother and I had a favorite picture book about a little Brute family. Mama and Papa Brute banged pots and pans and the little Brutes pulled each other’s hair and scowled at one another. One day the tiniest Brute found a little wandering lost good feeling in a field and brought it home. The little feeling floated from his hand and hovered over the table and everyone was caught off guard. Mama and Papa began to smile and the entire family found themselves saying “Please” and “Thank you” and, in my imagination, “I love you. I really really love you.” Suddenly their meals tasted better, the corners of their mouths turned upward, and they shared softness where harshness had previously lived.

What if we were able somehow, amidst all of the competition and fear and segregation and power struggles that exist in this world, to find (or create) little wandering lost good feelings to share? What if our world really was filled with soft round objects that padded our way and that for softer landings? Could our own words and actions (fed by good intentioned feelings) serve as soft objects of sorts? Might even our tiniest expressions of love and peace make a difference for those we share them with? I have to believe that they will. I have to. 

It is the silliest thing ever to do in the wake of such sadness and violence today but I am stopping by the store on the way to my meeting tonight to buy cotton balls. They are the roundest, softest objects I can think of to help me speak Love to hate. I will give each of my Wednesday night group members a cotton ball and tell them that it is my little wandering lost good feeling. I will look them in the eye and tell them that I care about them and ask them to pass a piece of that care on in the hopes that we can, in our own places and spaces, initiate waves of peace and comfort among the ocean of complexity that we humans swim in.

May we all seek and find every wandering lost good feeling, hold them close until they warm our hearts, and then send them, with intention to those who need it most and may we all know that we are Loved. Really, really Loved.