noticing what is right

i’ve been stopped several times for things having to do with my appearance. once, while living in southern california, i stopped at a shop to look for an outfit in which i could defend my dissertation. i was hoping for something to make me look smart and feel confident. between my car and the door, a brilliantly handsome man stopped me and introduced himself as a talent scout. “you really need to do something about those eyebrows,” he said. “if you did them right you could be beautiful!”
as a blonde by genetics my eyebrows are light. crazily so. having never considered this as an unsightly problem, i immediately felt ridiculous. “of course my eyebrows make me hideous!” i thought and added light eyebrows to the list of things that made me unattractive. the other stories are similar: the scar on my nose left from constant sunburns attained while on swim team as a fair skinned finn in outdoor pools in central california, the large jagged scar on my shoulder left from the removal of precancerous cells, my posture...all have been commented upon in less than glorious manners. usually loudly and in public. the eyebrow incident, however, stuck unlike others. 
and so, at times, i find myself overly aware of eyebrows. mine. and those of others. understandably so. of the myriad of things that the world would see as “wrong” with me, it’s one of the only things i can actually affect. i can’t make myself inherently smarter. my height isn’t alterable. it’s near impossible to adjust my sense of humor. my general “shape” is unlikely to change. my eyebrows, however, are within my control and so i walk around wondering how everyone else has such seemingly perfect ones and what i might try to alter my own.
it seems that i am not alone.
research published this week found that we compare ourselves to others when we view the photos and status updates of our friends on facebook. in fact, just over half of the study’s 600 participants reported that looking at facebook photos increased their body consciousness. while these findings aren’t exactly shocking it’s helpful to have science formally acknowledge a trend i’ve been speculating about (out loud and in public) for the past several years. it may just be scientifically sound to say that time spent observing one dimensional, self selected clips from the lives of others might contribute to our own sense of discontentment.
in the same week that this research hit the main stream press, the american society of plastic surgeons reported that chin implant procedures are up 71% in the last 12 months. surveys of physicians and patients suggest that seeing onesself from the perspective of a webcam frequently spurs the recognition of a “weak” jawline, motivating surgical means of enhancement. in reading the research i can’t help but wonder if another factor might be the simple fact that we are all flooded with images of ourselves in ways we never have been in the past. cameras are everywhere and photos are posted instantly. there is no shortage of opportunity to notice our flaws. as well as those of others.
which brings me to my point. we are so adept at noticing that which is wrong. once noticed, we seem driven to respond. with our own flaws, we work to fix, change, resolve, or distract attention away from. with others, too often, we work to expose, capitalize upon, exploit, or use them to feel better about ourselves. in so doing, what are we missing?
i wonder what life might be like if we gave up this immediate awareness of what is wrong in deference to a commitment to noticing that which is right. what might change? how might our self talk become grace filled and our interactions with others reflect that change? if i rocked my light eyebrows i could simply thank the talent scout for his input and then genuinely wish him well rather than giving him power to name me unattractive and giving my own day over to resentment, embarrassment, and the establishment of a whole new way of seeing myself as ugly/unworthy.
and so i ask you, what is right?
about your insides and your outsides?
how can you gently begin to shift your attention from that which is wrong to that which is truly good and beautiful?
how about with those you encounter and those to whom you are connected? what about them is deeply right?
it just might be, that in shifting our focus’ to the inside and away from the outside, to our souls and away from our facebook timelines, to the meaningful and real and genuine and beautiful flawedness of ourselves and others, that we get it most fully right.


where we are planted

i grew up a california “city” kid in farm country. every morning i’d leave my small town and drive 10 miles up the freeway to an even smaller town for school where a majority of my classmates lived on almond ranches or dairies. they had gotten up even earlier than i had in order to milk the cows, move the cows, or tend to irrigation systems. they didn’t work retail because they worked at home, learning farming, feeding, and business skills primarily from their parents. 
i, too, worked for my parents. i, however, sat at a desk and reported for work immediately after school. typing, filing, answering phones, and interacting with clients felt so different from the work that most of my friends did. our whole lives seemed different. where i rose early to run before school, my farming friends simply did their chores and got a work out in to boot. while my dress code required professional attire, they wore jeans to work and got dirty. where my schedule was predictable and set, theirs was often dependent upon weather, seasons, daylight, and crop conditions. so much about how they lived seemed somehow wonderful and compelling. the task i romanticized most was irrigating.
i don’t remember exactly when i became so enthralled with the irrigation process but i do remember how fully it captured my imagination. in the central valley of california water was a precious resource. in the 1980’s lists of farms were kept within each community and dictated who would receive water and when it would arrive. each farmer got the flow for a certain number of hours in a rotating fashion. when it was your turn, you had to make the most of it. never being able to fully determine when each farm’s pipes would need to be set and ready, there were frequently mad dashes home to help with getting everything set to maximize the water to be gotten in the time frame it was available. often, this happened in the middle of the night.
sometime during the summer before heading off to college i received a gift when my friend keith invited me to help him with his irrigation duties. late into the evening we donned tall rubber boots and traipsed through acre after acre of almond trees making sure pipes were set. once the water was released to keith’s family’s property our follow up work began. as each area was well watered we’d prepare the next section of the orchard to greet the water as it was diverted to new pipes. it was exhausting and yet magical to be working so diligently and to be so wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. in the middle-of-the-night-so-late-it’s-morning-hours i walked straight into a tree limb, scratching my eye lid and drawing blood. even later i tripped and landed, spread eagle, in the freshly made mud. nothing in my life felt as fun as this was to me. to stay up all night. to do something worthy. to get dirty and scratched up and be sore from lifting and walking and walking and walking. to keith, however, this was old news. everything but magical. hard work.
as i reflect on this i think about the fact that there are many ways to water plants. one is to pipe water in to where the plants are, demanding an exacting and exhausting investment of time and resource up front. bringing water to places it doesn’t naturally live is expensive in many ways. a second is to plant next to a water source where the soil is more naturally ready and hydrated. this optimizes the chances of seeds taking root, of roots being nourished, and of plants growing well.
a disclaimer is necessary here. i am not so naive as to believe that all orchards, farms, gardens, and the like should/could be planted next to natural water sources. this is an impossibility on too many fronts to count. the opportunity for analogy, however, to the way in which we nourish our own lives is too rich to pass up.
the point is this: we are impacted by where we plant ourselves. 
today we plant ourselves in front of screens. in front of large ones that connect us to “clans” in our massive multiplayer online games and enable us to watch the latest movies without leaving our homes to rent them. in front of small ones that provide us with youtube videos to watch while we wait in line at the store. we plant ourselves in front of facebook for an average of 24 hours a month even though research tells us it lowers our grades, leads us to feel bad about ourselves, and is correlated with distortions in our images of our bodies. we plant ourselves near our phones that tell us the time, that control our thermostats and home stereos, and deliver texts and tweets to keep us hyper-connected. we are “followed” and we “follow.” we are “liked” and we “like.” we are “friended” and we “friend.” we plant ourselves in the soil of technology and we think we’ve watered our relational selves. 
but have we? 
when orchards are planted in dry, water-limited valleys, the farmer tending the trees must plan ahead for how she will water them. if she does not, they will either die or fail to produce. they may have all the sun and heat they need. they may be perfectly pruned and manicured. they might even get some water for the surface from the bit of rain that naturally occurs. in a drought, however, or in conditions where heat evaporates rain water, irrigation must be planned for and executed for the plants to thrive. water needs to seep down deep to feed an almond tree well.
and so it is with us. if our investment in the watering of our selves and of our relationships has happened via screens we are likely found lacking when conditions become less than ideal. when we face deep disappointment, loss, fantastic news, or need help do the number of friends we have really reflect the depth of the connection we hope for? we may have a multitude of onscreen connections that comment, but is commenting all we really need? pouring a bucket of water at the base of a tree makes things look watered. dig an inch or two down, however, and the dirt is dry. so a hearty comment string looks good but does it feel good...down deep?
social networks, be they facebook or linked in or mmog-based or okcupid, have their place. they allow for maintenance of relationships otherwise lost, provide fun and helpful outlets for casual connection and play, offer ways of intersecting with people unreachable or unknowable in any other way, and make communication easy. they are like sprinklers attached to hoses that can be placed and used to water certain places and certain times.
in complex farming situations as in life, however, sprinklers may not be enough. plans need to be in place and investments made to have what is required to water deeply, to anticipate needs over a lifetime. plans must be made ahead of time and kept to.
farmers learn to do hard work. even when it doesn’t seem like they need to. even when they don’t want to. and so must we. if we are to have what we long for relationally we must tend the soil of our interpersonal lives with intention and care. at times substituting texts with phone calls, facebook updates with in-person conversations, and the like. we must be willing to get dirty. to stay up all night if necessary. to do the work of irrigation when it is needed and to ask others to help and to know us in ways that reach deeper than the surface and down to the roots.
it may not be magical to do so. we will have less control of how others see us when we reach beyond facebook photo galleries into real life. we may experience awkward silences when we attempt in-person conversation since we’ve grown unaccustomed to waiting until the perfect comment comes to us to post. our in-person relational efforts may leave us feeling more exposed than in the past simply because we’ve become so adept at conducting our social selves on screens outside of ourselves. and yet it’s important to try. we may return bruised and sore but we will be watered and the landscape more prepared for the next time we need water.


the war room that is me

a few months ago i saw the movie “the ides of march.” last night i watched “the war room.” the former is a fictionalized story of the inner workings of a presidential campaign. no one comes out smelling exactly clean. i felt sad when i saw it. the latter is a film documenting the story of bill clinton’s 1992 election. with live footage and seemingly deep access to the most central figures and offices of then governor clinton’s run for office, this movie demonstrates the inner workings of an actual presidential campaign. it also made me sad. for some similar, and many different, reasons.
things have changed drastically in 20 years.
in watching the movie of the 1992 election here is what i noticed:
teeth whitening strips had not yet gone mainstream.
there was a “news cycle” with a “going live” time. if something broke at an off-air time it didn’t break on air for several hours. 
news stations didn’t have constant running banners at the bottom or top of the screen.
campaign workers gathered around conference tables full of newspapers, notepads, and pens.
there was no emphasis (NONE) on caffeine or energy drinks to keep campaign workers awake. even in the final hours.
possibly because no one was busily keeping themselves “caffeinated,” there was real, honest, and heart felt emotion and exhaustion.
there was only one mention of email.
desks were remiss of computers (for the most part). those that existed were huge.
phones audibly rang. with a ringing sound. every time someone called.
people answered them. even without knowing ahead of time who was on the other end.
phones had cords.
phones were tethered. when bill clinton takes a phone call in the war room he can’t simply walk out of the room to hear the person calling. he has to “shush” everyone in the room so that he can hear. the concept of privacy was different.
those phones that did not have cords were huge. 
people spoke into their phones. only. no one typed on a phone.
people were dependent upon other people for information. (e.g: bill clinton had to call his communication lead to find out how he was doing in the polls rather than simply checking online.)
in 20 years the ways in which we interact with each other, our “staffs/teams/groups of influence,” current affairs, the media, our phones, and, therefore, with the world, have changed drastically. in reflecting on these changes i feel sadly certain that we look more at screens than at the eyes of real people. we type far more than we write or speak. we select who we will and will not talk to, when we want to, where we want to, how we want to, thus removing the flexibility that “messy,” outside-of-our-exclusive-control relatedness with others deepens within us. it feels as though we’re less about working as a team and more about having individual experiences within the proximity of a group.  we are constantly caffeinated (i know far too well about this myself) and rarely depend upon people in our own proximity to get information.
i want to make no judgements here. only observations. and internal commitments to determine which of these cultural changes i want to get on board with and which i, intentionally, want to resist. if i am truly wanting to maintain relational depth and flexibility as core values, the “war room” of my life must reflect movements and strategy that allow these to blossom and it just might be that caller i.d., voice mail, and constant internet access may not be strategies that help me win.