setting the stage

while driving my daughter to work today we came upon an emergency. a police officer was directing cars in a single lane, fire trucks filled a parking lot that had been doused with water. an ambulance was pulled, half in and half out, of the lot and black smoke was billowing. i did what i always do when i see such a scene...i started praying. for anyone who might be hurt. for the helpers who had responded. and even for the small groups on onlookers (this time replete with cell phones, video recording the incident).
as we inched closer to the actual action everything changed. first we noticed boom mics, then improvised dressing room tents, then the catering truck. what looked so much like an emergency was really a set for the taping of a television series. i felt so silly. and so manipulated.
i recently experienced a similar set of feelings while in long beach california where a csi miami show’s taping was evidenced only by the wardrobe and property trucks parked in a corner of the lot. without those markers everything seemed so real. the police uniforms and cars, the scurrying about, the victims.
come to find out, in the csi television series, long beach plays the role of miami. not long ago the set dressers converted a portion of the beach on my brother and sister-in-law’s street to look as though a hurricane had been through. replete with overturned cars, debris strewn about the beach, and a trailer on it’s side, it all looked quite real. one of their neighbors, who is from thailand, posted photos of the set on facebook with captions that read “my neighborhood,” failing to mention that the hurricane was staged. she was flooded with worried responses requesting status updates on the safety of her family.
these incidents strike me as eerily similar to how relating in social networking spaces feels these days. we follow tweets that share everything from the mundane to the important in real time and we, ourselves, tweet that which we want to be associated with. we watch eachother’s facebook pages, noticing how we all look in posted photos, who has rsvp’ed to events, and whose names are (and are not) on invite lists. we read quippy status updates that paint pictures about how friends’ days or weeks are going and fill in the blanks in between by noticing eachother on the pages of friends in shared circles. we get drawn in by the drama and feel alternatingly fantastic and terrible based on how our “production values” measure up or not. we tend our own pages with care, posting what we hope others might notice and setting spotlights on particular occurrences. we tweet and post as though we are setting a stage.
i’m guessing we’ve all done it. used people, events, stories, or things as props to highlight our significance or fill in gaps for a sense of lacking. if we haven’t, i’m guessing we’ve been tempted.
a few weeks ago someone told me they thought i was christina applegate. after i stopped laughing all i could think was, “this would make an unbelievable tweet or remarkable status update!” in the sake of full disclosure, i did not consider this because it was goofy interaction but because i thought such “announcements” might make me seem younger and more hip than i really am...as if by my suggesting this i might be able to get people to think it. never mind that it was dark and very late at night. never mind that i was recently “gifted” a subscription to the aarp magazine or that i was asked, a year ago, if i wanted the senior citizen discount. i never felt tempted to tweet these incidents.
here’s what strikes me about this. it is so easy, these days, to create a false self. just as long beach can be made to be miami, so can we make ourselves over online to be different from who we truly are. when these false selves are recognized and rewarded (by garnering friends and followers) it can become internally confusing. the false self has hundreds of “friends” and followers. what about the true self. could it garner this kind of relational bank?
what if people knew that i only “liked” harvard university so i could look intellectual? what if people knew that i listened to bon iver once just so i could say i was a fan? what if it was disclosed that i only stepped in to the hot new restaurant in town so that i could check in (location apps) and never ate there? how would people feel if they knew that i find ways of manipulating celebrities to friend me from their personal accounts just so they show up in my friend list? who would be shocked if they learned that i have several twitter accounts so that i can build interest in my primary one by having lots of responses, all generated by me, under different alias’? what if people knew i took roughly 500 photos of myself and then doctored the best with photoshop before using it as my profile picture? 
these are all real questions i’ve gathered over time from real people who are just trying to make their way through the complex maze of relationships in cyberspace. it’s so easy to fudge the facts and, if not fudge, highlight those we like and omit those we don’t.
above my bathroom mirror a phrase is painted on the wall. the phrase is this: “be.” that’s all. just be. who you are. really.  i had that word-phrase placed there because i need it. i need reminders that who i am is enough. i need antidotes to the cultural pressure to “do, do, do!” with disregard for personal integrity, depth, and rootedness. i need to remember that it is the fact that i am doreen that matters and not the fact that i look like christina applegate to a stranger. 
the phrase that could affix to a facebook wall could be “PRESENT!” as in, “present yourself.” make the set look good. create a realistic environment with whatever props you have on hand. train spotlights on the places you want people to notice. exaggerated colors and size look better from the audience. they’ll make your set “pop.” the better the set looks, the larger or more devoted the audience. heck, if the set is really good, even folks uninvolved will be pulled in just as onlookers are at a television taping.
when the taping concludes, however, the set is deconstructed. the illusion shattered. the fake blood and smoke machine residue cleaned up. the fire trucks and costumed police officers go home and all that’s left is the empty parking lot. the same is true of our online selves if we’ve constructed false selves to whom our “friends” are connected.
and so, it might behoove us to ask ourselves, behind the well and carefully constructed “walls,” who are we and who are our friends and followers in this non-illusory, real-life-touchable space. why not drop the set decoration and offer ourselves as we really are? as BEings whose flaws serve only to make us all the more compelling, interesting, and real.


be kind to everyone for...

about a year ago many of us were glued to silent television screens while 33 chilean miners were extricated from deep within the earth. as they were pulled, one at a time, from underground, family, friends, and many around the world vowed their support and undying attention. 365 days later many of them are struggling to deal with the difficulties they faced and some are confused by the brief celebrity they felt the fleeting warmth of. 
there is a christian mystic who wisely said, “be kind to everyone, for theirs’ is a difficult journey.” this hits me as far truer than i’d like it to be.
for a few moments, right now, think about your own life and the community of people who surround you. who among you have faced loss or tragedy this year? who has experienced difficulties at home or work? is there a child who struggles at school or a parent who struggles in their vocation? are there individuals who are lonely or people who are in need of solitude?
life moves quickly and we are pulled in a multitude of directions. for this one moment or this one day might you take the opportunity to recognize the difficulty of someone’s journey for the sake of comfort and connection? our journey’s are difficult...kindness matters.

to read my original post on the miners please see: mining for simplicity


supermodel essentials

i received, today, an offer for a great deal on “supermodel essentials.” “wow!,” i thought. “i’ve always wanted long, lean legs, a personal air brush artist to cover flaws, a team of lighting professionals, and an entourage of doting wardrobe folks who whip out the perfect outfit and tailor it to accentuate the positives and camouflage the negatives. i’m so in!!!” come to find out, however, that none of these essentials were included in the offer. instead, i was offered “sexy t’s, cute yet comfortable pants, and lots and lots of lip gloss.” i decided not to click “buy.”
and yet, along with countless others, i buy in every day.
every day.
i am prone to notice the “essentials” that seem just out of my own reach...just as many of us are. the straight teeth. the flawless, wrinkle free skin. the full head of hair. the title that we somehow never earned. the couch that has one less stain and several years less wear. the winning smile and entertaining ways of the pta president who volunteers in the classroom, brings goodies to the faculty, and has a thriving law practice. the car we dreamed we’d own but now know we’ll never afford. the kids who get straight a’s, hit home runs, and are humble to boot. the white picket fence or the house with just one more bedroom. the six pack abs. the sharp wit and brilliant vocabulary.
we are masters, it seems, at believing that all kinds of things are essential. and yet, do we really, truly, in the depths of our beings, believe this? are titles and appearances and and possessions and the like really essential to who we are and how we measure and consider our level of contentment?
i will tell you this. no manner of sexy t shirt, cute yet comfortable pants, or lip gloss will turn me into what our world calls a super model. regardless of all the claims advertisers make, all the dollars they put into trying to make me believe them, all the dim lights and bold promises in the world will never, ever alter me enough.
the same is true of so many of the things we imagine are essential to our happiness, our beauty, our health, and our acceptability. i talk with people every day (and oh how i can relate to their thinking) who are certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that if they were just smarter, better looking, more conversational, less conversational, better dressed, richer, younger, older, more networked, stronger, hipper,  and drove a better car they’d be more loved. by others and even by themselves. just as if what a person puts on could have the power to make them a supermodel.
and so, i ask myself (and encourage you to ask yourself as well), “what do i deem truly essential in my life?” my own response starts like this:
an open and respectful heart and mind toward others...even toward those who believe that sexy t’s and lip gloss are essential.
a deep faith in a God who is, above all else, loving.
enough structure to help me grow and enough freedom to help me live.
a willingness to be shaped by and be engaged in the shaping of others..even when it’s uncomfortable.
and i’m working from there.
the goal is to be honest with ourselves about the essentials rather than believe one list and behave, largely unconsciously, out of an entirely different one...to live as though the “perfection” of our outsides (our bodies, our homes, our careers, our families, and so on) is more important than those qualities and pursuits that essentially shape us at the core where t shirts and comfy pants and lip gloss have no power.


(close) encounters of the human kind

in the wake of storms threatening to cut off access to the internet on the east coast several months ago a friend posted the following quote from the borowitz report on his facebook page:
“As Hurricane Irene batters the East Coast, FEDERAL DISASTER OFFICIALS HAVE WARNED that Internet outages could force people to interact with each other for the first time in years. Residents are bracing themselves for the horror of awkward silences and unwanted eye contact. FEMA has advised: “Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports...the weather. Remember, a face-to-face conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates all strung together. Hang in there.”
while natural disasters and the people that they impact are not fodder for laughter, this author is so accurate about where we have found ourselves as a people. we have, so quickly, become adept at living in spaces that do not require contact with others in ways that awaken our senses. we are wimps, of sorts, in the arena of encountering. especially of encountering in person.
how often do we hear the statistics relating to the common occurrence of faked phone conversations in order to avoid real time conversations? i’ve used my phone to avoid petitioners on the street. i’ve prolonged calls in order to appear busy. i’ve texted to avoid the person next to me at the lunch counter.
and i ask myself, “why?” “do i trust myself so little?” “am i really such a poor communicator that i can’t decline a conversation directly?” “am i actually willing to disrespect myself and those i encounter by lying so easily?” “has it really come to this?”
literature reviews tell us that increased time in front of screens leads to less family talk time (whether that be family by blood, by choice, or by geography) and less social practice. further, research (and common sense) tells us that social practice and time spent conversing with others helps us to find our way and develop ourselves as relational people. the twin tasks of encountering others and encountering ourselves are deeply intertwined it seems.
when we speak of relationship we automatically infer that we are talking about alliances between self and an other. in reality, however, the primary relationship of self with self determines much of how relationships with self and other will begin and develop. once such self and other alliances are made, the connections therein serve to provide feedback loops of sorts regarding how we are doing in our relational pursuits. 
when a strong, honest, congruent, and insightful relationship exists between a person and his or her own internal world, that person often demonstrates the confidence and resilience to tolerate the risks associated with “fully present living” within the context of others. they can sense internal longings to know their own mind and heart as well as to encounter the minds and hearts of others. there is a freedom to be onesself as well as the knowledge that a deep respect for others will keep ones’ narcissism in check.
a difficulty, as i see it, is that our growing addiction to things on or in our ears and screens at our faces is keeping us not only from knowing others but also from knowing ourselves. this puts us at risk for feeling ill equipped for knowing how to encounter our own desires and wishes for solitude and connection let alone discerning how to blend those with the connection or retreating needs of those we encounter. we feel at a loss for knowing if we can risk a few minutes (or hours) of connection, for feeling confident about both beginning and ending conversations, and for trusting that we can navigate the world of the social and related.
when we avoid a present other by interacting with one confined to written words on a screen (or worse, an imaginary voice on the other end of the phone) we are really playing into the fact that we have no idea how to act with volition, how to assert ourselves appropriately with others. we fear hurting feelings or feel angry that someone feels entitled to our time all the while ignoring the fact that we can, if we chose to, handle encounters...even difficult ones. we lose out on opportunities to practice encountering others while staying rooted in the self.
for instance, it is o.k. to look someone in the eye and say, “your passion is inspiring and i’m really not able to stop and talk right now.” or, “i appreciate how difficult a task you have chosen and i’m needing to be on my way.” it’s also acceptable to decline small talk at the lunch counter in order to regroup silently for a busy afternoon (“it is so thoughtful of you to speak with me. i’m actually needing to ‘go silent,’ for a bit, however, to get myself geared up for the rest of a demanding day. thank you for your kindness”). conversely it’s o.k. to respectfully initiate conversations with those you encounter, paying attention to being neither narcissistically entitled to their time and attention nor insensitive to the cues they send about their openness or lack thereof. none of these may be familiar, or comfortable, or even within your imagined repertoire, but all of these things are options and they are far kinder and more respectable (to both yourself and the other) than out-of-hand avoidance.
so, the next time you encounter a lonely stranger on a park bench, consider your options. when a clip board clad youngster with propaganda inspired garments nearly tackles you, weigh your response. somewhere between avoidance and engagement lies encounter and encounters are rife with opportunities for growth and opportunity in your relationship with yourself and with others.